Saturday, June 22, 2013

Hog Futures Washed Out! Pork Belly Market Sinks!

Luke 8:26-39
Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
When Jesus stepped off the boat it wasn’t after a nice weekend cruise.  The boat he stepped off of had just been in a terrible storm.  The storm had rocked the boat and scared the disciples out of their minds all while Jesus slept.  The storm was on the verge of sinking the boat and the disciples finally woke Jesus up and then Jesus commanded the water and the wind to stop and they did.  

That was the boat Jesus stepped off of into that Gentile land.  That is what the disciples had just seen and now they were seeing yet another amazing thing.  A man possessed by demons; lots of demons it turns out.  They called themselves “Legion” and a Roman legion was 6000 men so that’s gotta be a lot of demons!  The man didn’t wear cloths, he lived in the tombs among the dead bodies, he was a gentile, and... on top of that, oh yeah, he had demons…lots of demons.  From the Jewish point of view this was way more than three strikes; any one of those things; no cloths, dead bodies, being a gentile... not to mention the 6000 demons was enough to make him unclean.  Unable to have a relationship with God. 

Jesus changed all that.  Simply with his presence, Jesus intimidated 6000 demons to beg for a transfer to the pigs on the hillside and then Jesus let them go.  (As a side note: This of course was the first time anyone ever made deviled ham.)  The pigs then proceeded to run down the hill and like lemmings they ran off the cliff and into the sea and drown.  Everyone was amazed.  The disciples had just seen Jesus quiet a storm and now they saw him have power over a legion of demons.  Where did this man’s power end?  Could it end?  If that is what Jesus could do to the wind and the sea and to demons, what could Jesus do to me?

That last question, “what could Jesus do to me” is the question that seized all those pig farmers and people of Gerascene with a great fear.  Jesus’ presence had already affected the people in a way they could not have liked too much.  While Jesus’ presence had cured the town demoniac and made the cemetery safe again, his presence had also just washed out Hog futures for the town.  The pork belly market sank in an instant.  The people of that town had seen their hard earned bacon drown and Jesus was the one who made it all happen.  

The bottom line fact of the matter is that the presence of Jesus came with a price.  The presence of Jesus transformed the world in which these people lived.  People’s lives were different now that Jesus was here and in the end the people made a decision and they decided that they just didn’t want their lives to be that different.  They didn’t want Jesus and his presence transforming things. Today it was a demoniac cured and that was nice, but look at the cost; look what they had to give up.  Tomorrow who would be transformed by Jesus, and what would be the cost then?  It could be someone in my family, it could even be me, but then what would that cost me?  How would Jesus transform me?

In the end, the fear of being transformed by Jesus and the fear of what that would mean and how much that would cost scared the people so much that they asked Jesus to leave.  They didn’t want Jesus’ transforming presence around anymore.  I don’t believe Jesus loved them any less after they made that choice.  He certainly didn’t give up on them.  He sent the healed man back to be with them and to keep working with them after all.  It’s just that for that moment, the cost of being changed by Jesus was higher than the people were willing to pay. 

That ends up being the hard question this lesson asks of us today; Is the cost of being transformed by Jesus higher than we are willing to pay?  We may believe that Jesus is around.  We may even see God at work in this amazing world.  But are we as individuals and us together as a church ready and willing to let him work in us?  Are we willing to allow Jesus to heal those who are broken in this world even if that means loosing everything we have?  Are you willing to have everything you have worked for, everything that you have been given, all the privilege, all the wealth, all the trappings of your life, all that you believe will secure your future run down the hill and jump into the lake so that just one other human being can be clothed and given his right mind?  We have so, so much and because we have so very, very much it makes it so very, very hard to let it go, to let Jesus transform our lives.

It’s no wonder those people were afraid.  It’s no wonder the people didn’t want Jesus around anymore.  There is, as Deitrich Bonhoeffer said, a cost to discipleship; a cost to having Jesus around.  That cost is more than just giving an hour on Sunday morning.  It is more than throwing a few dollars in the plate.  It is more than volunteering for a couple of things at church.  Those things are good... just not the whole cost.

The whole cost of discipleship, the cost of having Jesus’ transforming presence in our lives is our willingness to loose it all.  All of it; to have everything you have, everything simply run down the hill and jump into the sea.  This is not just giving up the optional stuff or the extravagance.  The cost of discipleship means giving up everything…giving up your life.  When Christ calls us to discipleship, says Bonhoeffer, he calls us to come and die.  Die to ourselves, die to our stuff, die to our greed, die to our need for control, die to insisting on things being done my way, die to our desire for more and more and more… we are called to die to all of our demons for only then can we be clothed in Christ, put in our right minds and receive the gracious gift of true and real and everlasting life that God wants for us all.  Bonhoeffer reminds us that discipleship is costly because it demands everything and at the same time discipleship is filled with grace because it leads us to the only kind of life that is a real life; one filled with meaning, purpose and worth... a life that makes a difference in the world.

I don’t really know you or your town so all I can do is leave you with some hard questions to wonder about.  They are the same questions I struggle with myself so you are far from being alone.  What is the thing in your town that causes a legion of trouble for the weakest and most vulnerable of your neighbors?  Are you ready to invite Jesus to stay for a while here in your town?  Are you ready to have him use your hands and minds and resources to send that legion of trouble off the nearest cliff?  Are you willing and ready to pay the price of having Jesus around?  Are you ready for discipleship?  Amen.  

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Will we?

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and took his place at the table.  And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment.  She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.  Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him--that she is a sinner."  Jesus spoke up and said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." "Teacher," he replied, "Speak."  "A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.  When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?"  Simon answered, "I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt." And Jesus said to him, "You have judged rightly."  Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.  You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet.  You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.  Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little."  Then he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven."  But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?"  And he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."

Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him,  as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

We all love those kinds of movies where the good guy is obviously good and the bad guy is obviously bad.  We enjoy being able to pick out the evil guy by nothing more than his black top hat, cape and handlebar mustache.  We don’t even need to see him tying the heroine to the railroad tracks to know where he stands.  We love to be able to pick out the good guy too.  He’s the one wearing a white outfit and his light saber is calming green, not angry red.  These stories make things simple and in our complicated lives we like simple.  Everyone is easily identified as either 100% good or 100% bad.  

The temptation when we read this gospel story from Luke is to read it like one of those clear cut Hollywood scripts and at first, the actors in Luke’s story seem to do a good job playing their parts. The Pharisee starts out by being rude, arrogant, inhospitable and kind of a jerk, so he seems to be well on the way to being a perfect 100% bad guy.  

The woman too seems at first to be playing her part well.  She enters the room with proper humility having realized God’s love and forgiveness in her life.  She gives Jesus proper thanks for those gifts.  She gives him the respect, honor and treatment due the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  So she too seems to be well on the way to playing the perfect, 100% good guy in this drama.  

They play their roles well at first but people just aren’t that simple.  The truth is that the Pharisee who is arrogant, rude and a kind of a jerk also, like all Pharisees, has committed the whole of his life and being to growing closer to God.  We might argue with his methods and theology but deep in his heart, the thing that drives him every minute of the day in every aspect of his life is a desire to grow closer to God.  The truth is, it’s just really, really hard to be 100% evil when your heart’s deepest desire is to grow closer to God.  

The woman too, it turns out, isn’t exactly 100% good.  Even if we do our best to make excuses for her past, imagining a horrible childhood or a series of seemingly unavoidable and tragic decisions, the truth of her life is that she became a prostitute and in doing that she hurt herself, her family, others and her community.  The reality of this story is that neither the Pharisee nor the woman is 100% anything other than 100% human.  

At the synod assembly this past weekend, instead of a guest speaker, the Bishop gathered a group of people who, when surveyed about their religious affiliation, check the box labeled “none” on the survey.  In current religious lingo, these folks are called “nones”... not the nuns with the habits, but “nones” as in people with no religious affiliation.  In New England, 75% of people choose to fill out that survey question in that way.  

One temptation when church folk think about the “nones” is to see them in a similar, simplistic, good guy - bad guy way.  The gathered group of pastors and lay delegates to the assembly being 100% “good” and those that claim “none” on their religious affiliation survey as maybe not “bad” but at least as people lacking something very important... something we church folks have got and they are missing. 

The truth about the Pharisee and the prostitute is that neither was 100% bad or 100% good... they were both 100%  human with all the good, bad, nice, mean, shine, muck and mire that humanity entails.  The other truth about the Pharisee and the prostitute is that both had something the other needed... and both needed something the other had.

The Pharisee needed to learn about the depth and breath of God’s forgiving grace and love.  He needed to learn that no one is ever, EVER beyond God’s infinite and unconditional love and he needed to learn how to be hospitable, compassionate, humble and caring.  She had all of that!  She KNEW God’s love!  She KNEW God’s forgiveness!  She KNEW how to respond to God’s love and grace and she KNEW how to be hospitable, thankful and caring of her neighbor.  Whether he recognized it or not he needed her and what she knew and understood.  Would he set aside his pride and be honest with the ways he was broken?  If he could see her as an equal and as a gift in his life, she had something special that could help him grow in faith, she could help him in his desire to grow closer to God.  

But it wasn’t just him that needed her... she needed him just as much!  His gifts were passion and an understanding of discipline.  He knew the Law could be a gift and by dedicating yourself to the law it could help you live within healthy boundaries and living that way made for a less anxious life.  He knew the peace of having God in your heart and knew rituals and the practices that could bring peace into her life too.  

Would she could dare to risk being hurt by a religious institution that had treated her badly?  If she could set aside the way of life she had fallen into and if she could see in herself that she was just as worthy of God’s love and grace and just as worthy of being in God’s presence as he was, then she too could shed the guilt, shame, fear and loneliness that plagued her; learn from him, grow in faith, and more fully become the beloved child of God she was created to be.  

At the synod assembly it became very clear from the conversation the bishop had with the “nones” and from the questions that followed that the lesson Jesus was trying to teach at dinner is a lesson the Church desperately needs in our time.  We too must realize that those outside of the Church have something that we inside the church desperately need... and I’m not talking about a check book either!  The folks that check the “none” box often have a way of understanding God’s love and grace and a perspective on faith that we need to hear and learn from and if we can do that, then eventually we may someday get the opportunity to share the wonderful perspectives on faith that could help make their lives more beautiful as well.  

But an attitude of superiority... an attitude that we in the Church are better and those outside the church can’t live without us just won’t fly.  It won’t fly because it simply isn’t true!  Those of us in the Church are NOT superior, we are no different than the Pharisee... no different from the woman... we are all just 100% human like everyone else in this world. 

And just like the Pharisee and the woman, the truth is that we NEED each other for the same reasons the Pharisee needed that woman and that woman needed the Pharisee:  To expand our understanding of breath and depth of God’s love and grace in our lives in ways we just can’t see from our perspective inside the Church!  From their unique perspectives they could help us grow in faith in ways no one inside the Church ever could!  Inside or outside of the Church we are all broken.  Inside or outside none of us have all the answers.  Inside or outside all of us need a caring community to help us make it through this life.  Inside or outside, God is working in amazing ways in everyone’s life.   

There are lessons for us that we can learn.  Lessons to be taught to us by people with experiences and thoughts and perspectives we know nothing about.  Our teachers though won’t be coming here to teach us what we need... if we want to learn the lessons God has to teach us through them we will have to go to them.  In the story from Luke we don't know if the Pharisee learned the lesson the woman had to teach him.  We don't hear if the woman learned what she could learn from the Pharisee and the story of whether we in the Church will learn what the "nones" have to teach us has yet to be written.  Will we set aside our pride, decide to take a risk, go outside our walls and seek the lessons God has to teach us through the "nones"?  That is the question for us today... will we?

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Prophecy and Judgment Needed Fast and Furry-ous!

There is a need in our time to reclaim the proper understanding of Biblical prophecy and divine judgment.  To do this, the work of mid-twentieth century Biblical scholar, Wile E. Coyote S.G. can be instructive.  His unique approach helps students understand how biblical prophecy really works by arranging a humorous story in such a way that the audience is quickly shifted from a passive, observational role into the prophetic role within a few moments of the opening scene.  

In his seminal work, “Fast and Furry-ous,” Coyote immediately establishes the overarching context with a fruitless foot chase of the Roadrunner carried out with knife and fork in hand.  Seeing a direct pursuit to be ineffective, Coyote then begins a series of efforts intended to trap or trick the Roadrunner into becoming his next meal.  The first effort is to lie in wait and at the last moment hold up a metal trash can lid into which the Roadrunner is meant to collide at full speed.  The Roadrunner stops short and turns in a cloud of dust to run off in the other direction.  When Coyote then attempts to take up the chase, the Roadrunner returns at the precise moment needed and holds up the same metal lid and Coyote is the one who collides with it.  

In the very next scene the pattern of the Roadrunner actively using Coyote’s methods against him is continued as Coyote attempts to capture the Roadrunner with a boomerang.  Once thrown, the boomerang returns to ring the neck of Coyote and to further the lesson, we see that the Roadrunner has also thrown another boomerang and after he runs off, that boomerang also returns to assault Coyote.  Coyote uses this scene to both reinforce the pattern whereby his malicious efforts are used against him but also to help students understand that Roadrunner’s active participation is not necessarily needed for the pattern to continue.  Coyote then uses several scenes to demonstrate this new aspect of the lesson when he attempts to ride a rocket which ends up launching him into an overhanging rock formation and pulling a keystone from under a boulder only to have the boulder fall in the wrong direction crushing Coyote.  

At this point Coyote has first established that the proper understanding of Divine judgment is not that God guides natural disasters such as hurricanes or tornados to harm or kill one population in an effort to change the behavior of a completely unrelated population.  Divine judgment is rather the natural and often painful consequences that are returned to one group of people who have not lived in a loving, generous or compassionate way toward another group of people who are in a less powerful political or economic position.  The lack of care, cruelty and malice that one group throws at another less powerful group will, as Divine judgment is delivered, literally boomerang on the first group and at least figuratively if not literally ring their necks.  

As the lesson continues it becomes increasingly easier for the audience to not only see the natural and consequential nature of Divine judgment but also to personally take on the prophetic role.  After Coyote runs into the tunnel painting that he just created on the side of a cliff and the plunger explodes in his face when he tries to detonate the dynamite hidden in a mound of bird seed, the audience may not know the exact details of what will happen when he straps an ice making refrigerator to his back, fits it with a meat grinder and straps on snow skis but the audience is now prophetic enough to know that it will end poorly for Coyote.
At this point the audience has not simply heard about biblical prophecy but they have been drawn in by the story and BECOME prophetic in a similar way in which many biblical prophets, such as Jeremiah, were prophetic.  The audience was able to see the historical pattern of malice and cruelty that Coyote intended for the less powerful and knew from that history that as the Coyote continued on the same path, there would follow further reversals and misfortune for him.  

In our time, as in every time, there are historical patterns of cruelty and malice being directed at the poor, weak and marginalized by those with greater wealth and power.  As safety nets are removed and opportunities for fair wages are undermined, history reminds us that these actions eventually always lead to Divine judgment which play out in the lives of the oppressors as dramatic and often horrific reversals.  The goal of biblical prophecy is not to predict an inevitable future but instead to remind those in power of what will happen if they continue to walk the path of cruelty and malice that they are currently walking.  Prophecy is meant to wake up those in power to their Biblical calling of care for those who are weaker, unfortunate or oppressed before the judgment falls.  

We need to reclaim prophecy from those who have attempted to make it a sick joke linking hate and weather and stand up and warn those in power to change their oppressive and manipulative ways.  God does not delight in judgment and is happy to see the repentance of those who have been walking down a malicious path, but if the people, governments, corporations and organizations of this world played so brilliantly by Coyote continue to insist  on living the real world version of jumping out from behind a billboard with an ax to attack the weak and powerless, God’s divine reversal will just as certainly insure that the “beep-beep” they jump out to assault will turn out to be the horn of an oncoming bus rather than their intended victim.