Sunday, September 20, 2009

B: Proper 20 (9/20/09)

Mark 9:30-37
Wisdom 1:16 - 2:1, 12-22
James 3:16 -4:6

Refrigerator door and bumper sticker slogans are usually good for a chuckle, and are often profound. One of my favorites is also ironic and insightful: “I’ve given up my search for truth, and am now looking for a good fantasy.”

Anyone who would make a remark like this is probably expressing sarcastic frustration with real life, and does not intend to be taken literally. It is, in the cold light of self-evident logic, ludicrous to prefer any fantasy, no matter how appealing, to what is actually true. Truth is, ultimately, inescapable. It is what we are, in the end, accountable to. But what is ludicrous to our minds is still often the choice of our passions. Human beings do sometimes prefer an appealing fiction over an unpleasant truth.

The evil men in that we hear about today in the Book of Wisdom did not want to face their own wickedness, and they shamelessly plotted the murder of the righteous man, whose goodness was a constant reminder to them of their lack of it. By doing away with him, they could continue to indulge their fantasy, and not come to terms with the truth.

The disciples of Jesus also fit into this category. As St Mark’s gospel relates it to us, Jesus point-blank tells his disciples that he will be arrested and tried and put to death, and rise from the dead three days later. One would think that a prediction so startling would freeze them in their tracks, and that after recovering their composure they would bombard him with questions about when and how and where and why this would all take place. But Mark tells us that they decided instead to just keep quiet about it. They were more comfortable with a fiction of their own making—“He can’t really be serious; we didn’t really hear what we think we heard”—they were more comfortable with such denials than with the horrifying truth of what Jesus had told them.

But Jesus, who is the incarnation of the God of truth, and who is himself the truth, insisted to his followers in Mark’s gospel that they know him as no Christ but a crucified Christ. This is what lies behind all the instances in the gospel of Mark where Jesus commands people who come to faith in him as the son of God to keep quiet about it. Mark does not allow anyone in his gospel to publicly proclaim Jesus as the son of God until the Roman Centurion does so at the foot of the cross, on which Jesus has just died! So critical was the cross to Mark’s understanding of who Jesus is.

Some time ago I saw a news story about a very special summer camping program for children and youth. The setting—the buildings, the activities—were all standard summer camp fare. But the campers themselves were quite special. They were all young people who had been critically burned, and were substantially disfigured as a result. The aim of the camp was to help these kids along in the process of accepting themselves as they are, disfigured in ways that would make most of us want to avert our eyes. What fire has done to their appearance is an unpleasant truth, but it is the truth, and anyone whose life is touched by one of these kids can know them in no other way than as someone whose appearance has been radically altered by fire. You and I can know Christ only as one who has suffered and died on the cross. It is disturbing, but true, and to evade this truth is to indulge in fantasy, not reality.

It is, no doubt, easy for us, with our 20/20 hindsight, to be critical of those first-century followers of our Lord who were scandalized by the prospect of his being crucified, who did not want to recognize the utter centrality of the cross. But I’m afraid that they have company, and that company is us. Yes, twenty-first century Americans—even twenty-first century American Christians—want a Christ who is untainted by the shame and scandal of the cross. The cross stands as a horrifying sign of human sin and suffering, because all human sin and suffering was fastened on to it when Jesus died there. It is a manifestly unpleasant truth, a truth we would just as soon avoid if we could, a truth we would gladly trade for any number of more appealing fictions. We would trade it for the fiction of a religion that makes no demands: no demands on our time, no demands on our money, no demands on our affections, no demands on our minds. We would, in the proverbial “New York minute”, trade it for the fiction of a religion that does not presume to exercise any judgment on our behavior, or hold us accountable to anything other than our own whims and desires. We would enthusiastically trade it for the fiction of a religion that is really more magic and glitz than faith and holiness, a religion that promises to cure us from every disease and deliver us from every adversity simply upon demand. We want a God we can be proud of, not one who empties himself of his glory, takes the form of a servant, and dies the shameful death of a criminal.

And this is one instance where our theology has immediate practical implications for us. Because of our reluctance to accept the scandal of the cross, because we prefer the fiction of a savior who protects us from suffering over the truth of a savior who makes us whole through suffering, we follow in the steps of Jesus’ disciples who got to wrangling with one another over who occupied what spot in the pecking order. And as St James tells us in his epistle, “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.” When we as a church, the Christian community, lose sight of the centrality of the cross—the cross of Christ, and the cross that he invites us to take up and follow him with—when we lose sight of the centrality of the cross, we descend into intellectual and moral and spiritual disorder. We find ourselves cultivating relationships with other people, not in joyful recognition of the image of God in that person, but in view of the ways he or she might benefit us. We find ourselves attaching strings to our generosity: I’ll give you this...or do that … if … We find ourselves attempting to control and manipulate members of our families, friends, co-workers, and, yes, even the church to which we belong!

The cross of Christ is a scandal, because it’s just . . . there. It’s true. We can ignore the truth, but we cannot for long evade it. It isn’t going anywhere. We can only go through it. And when, in faith, we do follow Jesus through the way of the cross, our experience is that of the peace that passes all understanding. We come into contact with what James calls “the wisdom from above”, which he describes as “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity.” It is the ability to sleep at night with a clean heart and clear conscience, a sense of purpose and ultimate security, because we are grounded, not in any ephemerally appealing fantasy, but in the truth of the saving and redeeming cross of Jesus Christ. To him be all glory throughout all ages. Amen.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

B: Proper 19 (9/13/09)

Mark 8:27-38

Isaiah 50:4-9a

Last January, as you may know, I was privileged to make a visit—my first—to the Holy Land. On a glorious sunlit day, our group of sixteen pilgrims left our hotel on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, got into our bus, and drove northward and eastward across the Jordan River—and upward—into the Golan Heights, territory that was once part of Syria but was annexed by Israel following the 1967 war. In a mountainous and heavily forested area, in the shadow of Mount Hermon and close to the borders with Syria and Lebanon, lie the ruins of the ancient Roman settlement of Caesarea Philippi. The jewel of this site was and remains a glorious temple to Pan, built into the side of a mountain. Pan was a Greco-Roman god, and for first century Jews, a symbol of the “evil empire” of Rome, a symbol of everything they resented about foreign domination.

It is against this backdrop—and if I could show you pictures of the place you could see how dramatic it would have been—it is against this backdrop that Jesus puts his questions to the disciples: “Who do people say that I am … who do you say that I am?” It’s Simon Peter, of course—never one to keep his thoughts to himself—who at first gets it right, spectacularly right, in fact: “You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One of God.” Peter’s “confession” is honored with a feast day in our calendar; in fact, I was on that spot just a day or two after that feast this year. But then he turns around and undoes his good deed: Jesus goes on to talk about his own impending suffering and death way down in Jerusalem. Peter objects, “Don’t be ridiculous, Lord. Quit talking that way. You’re bringin’ us down.” To which Jesus responds with startling sharpness: “Get behind me, Satan.”

Get behind me, Satan.

What was Jesus really saying here? What he was probably really saying is, “You don’t know me. You don’t get it.” You see, Peter—and, for that matter, the other disciples—would have wanted Jesus to fit the mold of their expectations about what a Messiah should be and what a Messiah should do. There was a long tradition within Judaism about the Messiah, so they had very specific expectations. The Messiah would effectively be a reincarnation of David, the prototypical “ideal king” of Israel—if you will, the “father of his country.” Back in my youth, American school children were taught to think of George Washington as the “father of his country,” and were pretty much given a narrative that covered over any flaws in Washington’s character and behavior. He was the “ideal President” who set the standard for all of his successors. For first century Jews, King David, despite his flaws, held a similar place in their imagination, and the Messiah would certainly be someone who, like David, would rid Israel of foreign interlopers and invaders, and secure the national borders. He would be a great military and political hero. So, when Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, he wasn’t “confessing” the real Jesus, he was trying to squeeze Jesus into a pre-set mold.

Here, in the northernmost extent of his travels—everything that follows is a long journey to the cross—Jesus has to deal with everyone’s false expectations, and he does so through Peter. His prediction of his own suffering and death, coming on the heels, as it does, of Peter’s confession, begins to set the record straight.

Being the post-Easter people that we are—that is, people who have the advantage of 2000 years of hindsight looking back at Jesus’ resurrection and its effects—it’s pretty easy for us to judge Peter, to say, “Yeah, get behind him, Satan! What are you thinking, anyway?” But we are hypocrites if and when we do that. We are hypocrites because we also have false expectations about what Messiah Jesus (aka Jesus Christ) is about. We have remade Jesus into any number of false images, images of our own design.

One of the false images we might call Fire Insurance Agent Jesus, the Jesus that…you know…saves us from going to Hell. Now don’t get me wrong here: I’m not denying that Jesus is our Savior and that his saving work includes delivering us from what we might call our “default fate” of eternal separation from the presence of God. But if we limit Jesus to just being our Savior, and confine him to that compartment of our lives that we label “Religion”, then we are creating a false Christ. If we don’t allow Jesus to be our Lord, the central organizing principle of our lives, then we are, in effect, preventing him from being our Savior.

Another false image that we have created is Personal Assistant Jesus. Jesus is the name we call on to make all the lights turn green so we’re not late for work, to help us do well on a test because…well…we didn’t actually study for it all that much, or to blind the eyes of the IRS to the “creative” entries we make on our tax forms because, after all, we “really” need the money. Am I denying that Jesus wants to help us? No way! But he wants to be the one to tell us where we need help. He wants to be a mentor and guide, not a member of our household staff, and if we insist on treating him like one, we’ve created a false Christ who will be of no help at all.

Or, some of us may be devoted to the false image of Community Organizer Jesus. This is the Jesus who’s all about making the world a better place, and he needs us to be his hands and feet and voice. So we get involved in the social causes that stir our hearts—and these causes can cover the political spectrum from one end to the other—we get involved in social causes, feeling very holy because we are making God’s work truly our own. But all too often we end up erasing any distinction between the Kingdom of Heaven and our political causes, and we lose both. Does Jesus want the world to be a better place? Of course he does. But God is in charge of ushering in his own Kingdom, and the moment we consider ourselves indispensible to that process, we have created a false Christ.

Here’s the thing: Our calling as Christian disciples is to be conformed to Jesus, not to conform Jesus to our expectations. This includes, of course, conforming ourselves to his cross (or, as he puts it, taking up our cross—it amounts to the same thing), and when you strip away all the other symbolic baggage that we have loaded onto the cross—good and bad, helpful and unhelpful, appropriate and inappropriate—when you strip away all the baggage, the cross is an instrument of suffering. Christian faith doesn’t save us from suffering, it enables us to find meaning in suffering, and to make that suffering productive—productive for the perfection of our own holiness and for the redemption of the world. This is what Jesus’ cross is about, and it’s what our cross is about.

This is an important message for contemporary Christians to hear, because there are voices out there that give the impression that if you’re sick or in chronic pain or are addicted or your marriage has failed or you’re going down the tubes financially, then you must be at odds with God, and it’s your fault; you’re not doing something right. Now, sometimes we are our own worst enemies; there’s no denying that. But suffering is not a sign of failure for a Christian; it is, in fact, a mark of identification with the cross of Christ. Suffering is normal. Suffering is to be expected.

And … suffering is Good News. Here’s what the Prophet Isaiah has to say today about suffering:

For the Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been confounded; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who is my adversary? Let him come near to me. Behold, the Lord GOD helps me; who will declare me guilty?

Isaiah, the prototypical “suffering servant,” a prefigurement of the crucified Jesus, knows in whom his confidence lies, and that he will be vindicated in the end. You see, suffering may be universal, but it is not permanent! Jesus’ prediction of his suffering and death also included a prediction of his resurrection. Jesus was “vindicated” by the Father. We who throw in our lot with Jesus, we who take up our cross and follow him, can look forward to the same. We who are conformed to Christ in his death will be conformed to him in his resurrection.

Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.