Archive for July 2013

Justice is Just Us

July 29, 2013

Amos 5:21-24

Matthew 5:43-49

 

            If we start off by looking at this Amos text, we see a pretty angry God. “21 I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.” God, through the prophet of Amos, is telling the people of Israel that everything they do to worship God means nothing. The solemn assemblies, offerings, and music are how the Israelites worship God. That’s basically God telling us here and now that every time we sit in church and offer our tithes and sing our hymns and take part in a prayer of confession that it is all for nothing. But why is God saying this to Israel? Why are the Israelites’ worship services all for nothing?

God is angry at the Israelites because of the way that they act ouside of worship. Look at Amos 5, verses 11-13: “11 Truly because you crush the weak, and because you tax their grain, you have built houses of carved stone, but you won’t live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you won’t drink their wine. 12 I know how many are your crimes, and how numerous are your sins – afflicting the righteous, taking money on the side, turning away the poor who seek help. 13 Therefore, the one who is wise will keep silent in that time; it is an evil time.” God hates their worship because that’s all the Israelites are doing when it comes to honoring God.

The Israelites are going to their temples and offering their sacrifices and singing theirs songs and they are assuming that if they do just that, then everything will be perfectly fine between them and God. But then, leaving the temple, the Israelites would go out and waste their resources, take bribes, tax such basic things as food, and turn away the poor when they were seeking help. And at the end of this list is perhaps the worst thing of all: when a person saw someone else doing this, they would stay silent, even though they knew better. Amos 5:21-24 is God telling the people of Israel, “I hate the fact that you think you can just ignore all the problems in the world and that they’ll go away. Just because you bring me a sacrifice or say you’re sorry, the poor don’t go away. Just because you sing songs to Me and tell the priests about the bad things you’ve done, doesn’t fix the fact that you are wasting resources while people are starving. I hate that you won’t listen to me. I hate that you do not enact My word. I am yelling at you right now because I love you so much and you’re just doing it so, so wrong!”

And Amos wasn’t the only one to tell this message in the Old Testament. All in all, there were 48 prophets that said basically the same thing. That means that no matter how much the people of Israel were messing things up, God kept sending prophets over and over again to tell them what was wrong. God loved the world so much, that despite the warning of the coming of the Kingdom, God just sent more prophets. Instead of destroying humanity, God sent prophet after prophet to try and change the people of Israel with words and divine messages instead of destruction and carnage. Many prophets delivered a message of tough love, but that was only an effort from God to set the world straight. God never fully intended to destroy the world and all of creation. But humanity was messing up so badly that something had to be done!

So where are we now? It has been thousands of years since the last of the Jewish prophets came to deliver the Word of God. What has become of our society? Is our society without corruption? Do we have a civilization that never ignores the poor? Do we have an economy that does not systematically keep certain populations at a certain level so the top-earners can make more money? Do we go out of our way to help the poor?

You know what I’m going to say here, right? I’m going to say we’re failing. Hard. Everything the prophets saw was wrong with the society that they were living in is still systemic and widespread in our society. If you were to picture the idea of progress as a ruler, and put our society on that ruler, then I would say we’ve progressed maybe an inch since the prophets delivered their messages. And that’s probably being generous. If you scan the whole world, it’s easy to see what I’m talking about. Look at the Middle East. The conflicts between Palestinians and Israelis are countless. There’s violent civil war in Syria. Protests in Egypt are getting ugly. If we move over to Russia, we see LGBT activists being mercilessly beaten by police and protestors because it is against the law to be homosexual or spread the “homosexual agenda.” The world is an ugly, ugly place. And things here aren’t that much better when we really look at things.

Just the other week, the verdict of the George Zimmerman trial was handed down. In this case, George Zimmerman was acquitted of all second-degree murder and manslaughter charges after he admitted to following and killing the teenager Trayvon Martin, who was armed with Skittles and an iced tea, because he thought the African American teenager seemed threatening in his neighborhood. He called the police, as any good neighborhood watchman should do, and even after the police said they were on the way and for him to stay in his car, he continued following the teen. It’s a little suspect, who started the altercation, but an altercation started and George Zimmerman, who had a legal conceal and carry license, shot Trayvon and killed him. And, under the letter of the law, the now famous “Stand Your Ground Law,” George Zimmerman did nothing wrong. By the letter of the law, he was totally within his legal rights.

I’m not going to get into the racial undertones here. Instead, I’m going to get into what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. If we look at the whole thing, before we get to the part that we read today, we see Jesus redefining the Jewish Law, “38 You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” Jesus is outlining the message of what the Law of the Old Testament is actually supposed to do. It sets up the basic rules so that we, as people, can go further, so that we have a jumping off point to get to an actual point of justice. It used to be said to make sure whatever transgression is put upon you to return it equally, but really, we should be forgiving completely. If someone needs something from you, give more than the most basic thing you can: help completely. Go the extra mile every time. Do not refuse to be good to anyone. Ever.

And in the part of the Sermon on the Mount that was read today, He says, “43 You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be the children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors have the same? 47 And if you greet your brothers or sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” These are tall orders. Love your enemy. I’m not sure that we always grasp what this means. Love those that you hate and that hate you. It’s easy to love those you love, but Jesus isn’t saying to do the easy thing. Jesus is calling us to be as perfect as God in our love. That is a tall order indeed.

Now go back to the Zimmerman/Martin case. Did you get some pretty high emotions when that verdict came down? Did you get upset that justice was not upheld? Were you relieved that justice was upheld? There was a wide-range of emotions about this case from all across the spectrum. But we should never have seen this case, if we actually are trying to follow the words and actions of Jesus. This case, concerning a man carrying a weapon and being afraid that someone in his neighborhood was up to no good, never should have been in the world, if the world had actually listened to Christ.

If the world had genuinely listened to Christ’s words from the Sermon on the Mount, then there wouldn’t be a need to carry a weapon. If the world had listened to Christ fully and wholly, we wouldn’t have laws or legal systems dealing with weapons and murder. If the world had taken the words of Jesus to heart, we wouldn’t even have standing military forces. There would be no division of nations. There would be no upper and middle class. There would be no racist tendencies buried in the best of us. We would love our neighbors as we love ourselves – our neighbors being everyone in the world. When we look at ourselves in the context of Jesus’ words, then we have to face the undeniable truth that we have failed. We do not love each other with the perfect love of God. We do not go that extra mile every time. We do not give our cloak when we give our jacket. We do not do as Jesus did or as Jesus wanted us to do. We do not.

My preaching professor always tells her classes that every sermon should have hope or grace in it. I had a hard time finding that hope or grace with this message, but I saw that hope when I saw something my friend wrote on Facebook the other night. I don’t know if this friend is Christian or not, because I don’t think we’ve ever had that conversation. But I do know that the Spirit was moving in what he posted as his status. He wrote, “We know everything. And we are miserable. And we still get up and think that it will change. And one day… it will.” The only thing I would change would be to add, “It will change, if we keep working.” In Chapter 6 of Matthew, again still in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough today.”

Jesus is calling us into action with hope. If we use the Sermon on the Mount as an example of how to act in the world, and we truly follow the message here, then we have God with us. Jesus is telling us to worry about today so that we can focus on the kingdom of God. Being righteous is what’s important, not the other things we put at the forefront of our lives. If we love our neighbors, turn the other cheek, give our cloaks with our coats, continue to go that extra mile, and take it day by day, we’re going to find ourselves in a much better place in the future. The hope is that our small actions, the ones that show true understanding of Christ’s words, are the ones that will bring God’s kingdom into the world. Justice is just us, living Christ’s Word into the world. Focus on those small things that make the tiny differences and get up and think things will change… Because with that hope, they will. Things will change.

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Ευαγγελιον (The World Changing Good News)

July 23, 2013

Mark 16:1-8

            In the movie version of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, the three main characters are the children Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire. In the beginning of the story, we learn that the Baudelaire’s parents were killed in a mysterious fire, which also burned down their mansion. The children are bequeathed to a “close” cousin, Count Olaf. Now this Count Olaf is a bad dude. His only real interest in the children is the massive fortune that Violet is supposed to inherit when she turns 18. However, Olaf learns he won’t inherit the money and starts treating the children horribly and begins to devise a plan to kill them. Fair warning: this is a really dark movie. For a “family” movie, it has a lot of bad things happen

And now that I’ve laid out the beginning of the movie for you, I think it’s only fair that I tell you that I am going to be giving away most of the major plot lines of this movie. However, I won’t be telling you everything that happens, so please do see this amazing movie if you haven’t already.

After the first attempt to off the children, in which Olaf leaves the siblings in a locked car on the train tracks, the state deems that Count Olaf is not fit to take care of the children anymore – while ignoring the blatant evidence of attempted murder and the whole thing is chalked up to bad parenting instead – the Baudelaire children are sent to an uncle who is a herpetologist, a snake scientist. And while this uncle is eccentric and wild, he’s extremely kind and just overjoyed to be the new charge of the children. He tells them how much he loved their parents and how excited he is to have the children live with him. But despite this promising beginning, Olaf tracks the Baudelaire siblings down and kills off that uncle, blaming it on a snake. The children reveal Olaf’s plan, but he’s in a disguise, so the police and child welfare officer believe it’s someone else, not Count Olaf.

Next, the children go to an eccentric aunt who has several irrational fears. I mean, this woman is afraid of everything under the sun! She lives in a house that contains just about everything she’s afraid of, but she’s also terrified of realtors, so she won’t move away from her dangerous house! Count Olaf also finds the children here, again in disguise, and gains the trust of the aunt; only to leave her in the middle of a lake to be dispatched by a large swarm of bloodthirsty leeches – I told you, this movie is DARK! After this, the children are sent back to Count Olaf’s care, only to discover he’s developed another devious plan to gain access to the inheritance.

This time, Olaf, who believes he’s a good actor, develops a play in which the main characters will get married. He forces Violet into the role opposite of him, as the bride, and hires a real judge to play the fake judge and obtains a real marriage certificate for the marriage scene. Long story short, through much effort, the three children again spoil Olaf’s plans, and in doing so, find out that Olaf killed their parents!

But despite the success of ruining Olaf’s plans and not being killed or married off, there’s one looming plot line that continues to make itself present – the Baudelaire’s parents are dead. And time and time again, whenever there’s a glimpse of happiness for the children, or a reason to not be so glum, the depressing and staggering reality of what has happened is brought forth. Their parents are dead. Even in times when their hopes are lifted with their herpetologist uncle or paranoid aunt, they remember that their parents are no longer with them. Time and time again, the children are stuck in a world of seemingly hopeless despair. At the end of the movie, they are standing in their burnt out mansion and they are just broken. Here’s where that hopelessness hits the hardest, when they are left in the shell of a house that they called home with their parents. There is nothing left for them in this world. It is all gone.

Now the text that I chose for today is an Easter text. And in case you haven’t noticed, it’s July. I’m using a text that’s a little bit out of place in our liturgical calendar. But that’s OK. We need reminders throughout the year of what Easter really means.

To really get into where we are in this account in the Gospel of Mark, we need to understand that the hopelessness of the Baudelaire children is the same hopelessness in the real life of the disciples. Jesus has just been crucified. He was beaten, tortured, and nailed to a cross, left to die. The disciples saw their worlds shattered. The man they had been following for three years is dead and, as far as they know, everything they came to believe was all for nothing. Peter has denied three times. Judas is on the fast track to suicide. The women of this story see Jesus cry out to God, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” and take his last breath.

Jesus told them all what was going to happen. He said he had to die for the Scriptures to be fulfilled. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that the person the disciples and women believed to be the Son of God, the Messiah of the Jewish tradition had been murdered by the very people He came to earth to try and save. Everything that they hoped and believed in has been dashed against the rocks. They are in a darkness and despair with which we cannot even begin to relate.

This is where we find the three women as they are headed to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body with oils. Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, and Salome are heading to the tomb to do what is customary with a loved one’s body. There’s no joy in the long walk to the place where Jesus is buried. The worry about the stone in front of the tomb is most likely that awful small talk where you still have no idea how to deal with grief in a group setting. That is the modern-day equivalent of standing around in a funeral home and talking about the weather or how the Razorbacks will fare this coming Saturday. This is depressing because it indicates how the women still don’t know what’s going on or how they should be acting. It indicates how near and dear this grief is to them.

When they get to the tomb, the shock is not that the stone is already rolled away – that’s probably just confusing and weird, but maybe someone else had come to anoint Jesus. After all, Jesus was beloved by others besides them. The shocking part is walking into the tomb and seeing the young man sitting there, dressed in a white robe, and he seemed like he was expecting them! The way he talked to them was so frank and matter-of-fact, he was clearly waiting on someone to show up and discover him sitting in the tomb to tell of Jesus’ resurrection. “Do not be afraid; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified,” he says to them. “He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place that they laid him.”

This message, from this young man, this messenger from God, tells the women a few things. First, it says, “Hey there! Didn’t mean to scare you! Listen up! I have something to say! Something that’s really, really, really important!” Then, the young man confirms that they are in the right spot and this really hadn’t been a bad dream. “Jesus died,” he tells them, “but he is no longer here. You can see where they laid his body, but he is no longer here. He has been resurrected. Ladies, this is big news.”

Now, this doesn’t seem like a big deal if you just look at the surface language. The way it’s written in the Gospel of Mark has a “matter of fact” tone to it. But really think about what’s happening here. Jesus died. Jesus had been dead for three days! Then, this strange young man is sitting in the tomb and tells these three women that Jesus isn’t dead any more. He uses language that is explicit in its indication that Jesus had actually died and had actually been brought back from the dead. The combination of the man sitting in the tomb and delivering this message is so utterly mind-blowing that the women bolted from the tomb in terror and amazement! This is so extraordinary that these women were scared beyond words! It says right there in verse 8 that, “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (It’s here that I should mention that verse 8 is the point where most Biblical scholars believe the original transcripts of Mark ended; that the additions you see in our Bibles today are added from later discoveries and probably weren’t written by the original author of Mark). For argument and brevity’s sake, we’ll just assume here that the terror was momentary and they did come to their senses and tell folks, probably including Peter, what happened after some time had passed.

But what does this message mean? Even if we take the added on verses of Mark, this resurrection story is the shortest of all of them. So what does the resurrection, as told to the three women by the young man, mean? In the language used by the young man, as I stated earlier, there was a clear indication that Jesus was brought back from death. This wasn’t something that was a simple healing; this was something that was divine. This news, this good news is world changing.

The three Baudelaire children are standing in their burnt out mansion, and as I mentioned before, they’re really feeling the despair here. This is where it is hitting the hardest of the whole movie. Their house is gone. Their parents are gone. Their lives are gone. But then… something amazing happens. Something shocking. Something great. Something confusing. Something world changing. The bell that indicates the mail has arrived rings and a letter, addressed to all of them, arrives in the mail. Klaus notes how it has postmarks from all over the world. It has stamps from England, Rome, Kenya, Iceland, and many more. This is the letter that was mentioned earlier in the movie that their parents had sent their children when they were off on an adventure in Europe. It was “The Letter that Never Came.”

The children open the letter and Violet reads it aloud:

“Dearest Children,

Since we’ve been abroad we’ve missed you all so much. Certain events have compelled us to extend our travels. One day, when you are older, you will learn all about the people we’ve befriended and the dangers we have faced. At times the world can seem like an unfriendly and sinister place, but believe us when we say that there is much more good in it than bad; all you have to do is look hard enough. And what might seem to be a series of unfortunate events may, in fact, be the first steps of a journey. We hope to have you back in our arms soon, darlings, but in case this letter arrives before our return, know that we love you. It fills us with pride to know no matter what happens in this life that you three will take care of each other with kindness and bravery and selflessness as you always have. And remember one thing my darlings and never forget it: that no matter where we are, as long as you have each other, you have your family and you are home.

Your Loving Parents.”

This letter to the children is the world changing good news. Just like the resurrection in Mark, it fills them with some hope, albeit very confusing hope. The women, just like the children, had no idea what to do when they found out about the resurrection, but they knew Jesus was no longer dead. The Baudelaire children have to figure out what to do now, because they are still essentially on their own. When the women leave the tomb, they are frightened and confused. They likewise have no idea where to go or what to do with the news they’ve received. But despite the confusion of the messages, there is hope. Despite the fact that all the characters just suffered a debilitating and devastating loss of loved ones, they are left with a message that death has not won. The violence and cruelty of the world does not reign supreme. Earthly horrors did not silence Jesus’ message and the message of the Baudelaire parents. Instead, they were messages that continue to live on in the characters of the story. They are messages that continue to live on through us.

That’s the world changing, good news. Hope lives on. The violence of this world does not win. Thanks be to God for that Good News.