Sunday, 29 March 2015

Palm Sunday

Today’s service opens with the welcome of a king among us. It is a parade. You might remember these kinds of scenes on TV, or maybe you have been a part of them. The queen is visiting and there are people lining both sides of the road. They are smiling and yelling and waving flags and holding up banners.
But, this is a little bit different. The people are expecting not just any royalty, they are expecting the Messiah- The long awaited king that would bring about a golden age for Israel. He is a king that is backed by God Himself. For an oppressed people under the boot of the occupying Roman forces and guided by corrupt leadership, this is beyond exciting. This is salvation. The people are so excited they take off their cloaks and spread them along the ground as a sign of loyalty and dedication (2 Kings 9:13). They also waved palm branches and placed them on the ground to welcome him into the city with the equivalent of a red carpet (1 Mac 13:51; 2 Mac 10:7).  They shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”. The word “Hosanna” comes from the Hebrew of Psalm 118:25- “Save us, we pray…”. In Jesus’ day it had become a shout of joy and adoration.  
This parade is also a bit different because instead of riding in a bullet-proof limousine, this king is riding a Vespa. You would expect a king to ride a war horse, but this king rides a donkey. It is a sign that this is a humble king. But this is also how Solomon, the son of David, rode to where he would be anointed king (1 Kings 1:32-40). Jesus riding the donkey was also a way of referring to Zechariah 9:9, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey…”. Jesus is welcomed into Jerusalem and the Temple as the long awaited messianic king- the son of David- the Saviour.
We begin today with celebration. We sing joyful songs. Like the crowds we read about in our Gospel, we wave palm branches as we welcome our King.  … But then suddenly we get to the Gospel reading and we feel like we have been tricked. We come for a party and we suddenly find ourselves at a funeral. The crowds that welcomed Jesus as their king suddenly turn on him. Their shouts of “Hosanna” turn into shouts of “crucify”. ...  We find ourselves in the lamp lit room as Jesus’ feet are anointed with perfume. We peak around the corner watching Judas make a backroom deal to betray Jesus into the hands of his enemies. We sit around the table as they celebrate the Passover meal where he declares the bread to be his body and the wine to be his blood. We watch Peter deny him as the rooster crows. We hear Jesus pray his unanswered prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane before he is arrested. We peer in the window as Jesus stands before the council as they manufacture a case against him worthy of death. And we watch him handed over to Pilate and the Roman Empire.  Our shouts of “Hosanna” suddenly imply shouts of “Crucify”, for we are the crowd.  He is killed on a brutal cross, and we see ourselves as the crowd shouting for his death, or as disciples that have abandoned him. Today is all of holy week summed up in one day. During the services of Holy Week we follow Jesus as he inches closer and closer to the cross, but today we see it all at once.     
It seems possible that the crowds turned on Jesus because he didn’t meet their expectations of the messiah. They wanted a king and a conqueror, but they wanted a human king like David. They wanted him to lead an army and take their land back from the Roman Empire. The social elite were threatened by Jesus and started a smear campaign against him.  It’s possible that Judas turned on him because he wasn’t who he thought he was either. Jesus wouldn’t fit into their expectations.
We often try to fit Jesus into a box we are comfortable with.  I had a friend who was pretty critical of the church and Christians, but he seemed to like Jesus so I asked him once what he thought Jesus was like. He replied that he thought he was a good guy, not judgmental, pretty down to earth, humble, normal, decent, polite, nice, appalled at religion, and easy to talk to. My friend, for the most part, was describing himself.  We all have a natural tendency to want to emphasize the parts of Jesus we like and de-emphasize the parts we don’t like.  When we do this what we are doing is re-creating Jesus in our own image, and that is a false Jesus. If he truly is going to be “Lord” of our life, then we will be matching our lives to him and his standards, not making him match our lives and our standards.  We have a particularly strong tendency to do this because we live in an individualistic and consumerist society so we are used to having things our way.  If Jesus doesn’t fit our expectations, we will be tempted to reject him, or raise up a false Jesus more to our liking, but one without life- a straw Jesus.              
            C.S. Lewis once said that when he was a child he would have a toothache. But, he wouldn’t want to tell his mother. All he really wanted was a Tylenol to alleviate the pain, but he knew that if he told his mother he had a toothache, she would bring him to the dentist. He just wanted the pain to go away, but the dentist would drill into his tooth to fix it. Not only that, but he would poke around in his mouth to look at teeth that weren’t even bothering him yet. 
            For Lewis, God is like the dentist. We want parts of God, but not other parts. We might turn to God because we want Him to deal with our loneliness, or sadness, cowardice, bad temper, or addiction. He will likely cure it, but he won’t stop there. He will start poking around and start fixing other bits, even if you don’t think it’s broken and don’t really want it fixed. You can resist him, of course, but if you don’t he is going to complete the job he started. He wants to make you into something new. There is a cost to becoming Christian- It has to change you. The Messiah is coming to fix the world, but he will fix you along with it. Jesus presents himself to us. He may not be exactly what we think we want or expect, but Jesus gives us what we actually need.   

Our Messiah is humble enough to allow us to accept him or deny him. He won’t force himself on us. He will present himself to us, and we are free to accept him or deny him. We can welcome him as king, or crucify him as a fraud. God was willing to gently ride a donkey and ask for our acceptance, not command it. Jesus teaches us the depth of God’s love for us by allowing us to kill him on a cross. He was so gentle that he even allowed us to reject him, and crucify him. And even after all that, he wouldn’t let it stop him. He will not give up on us. He used even our rejection of him, his own crucifixion, to show the unbelievable depth of his love for us.  We would love to forget about Good Friday- it’s not a part of the story that feels nice, but if we are going to accept Jesus we need to walk into Good Friday with him as well.  

Sunday, 22 March 2015

King David, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, and Psalm 51

If you feel the weight of crushing sin, the kind that turns your whole life upside down, the prayer that Christians have turned to throughout the centuries has been Psalm 51. In the lines just before the Psalm begins the Bible connects this Psalm to David when he is confronted by the Prophet Nathan. David is like a mirror. He reflects us. He shows us a very human life. And like us sometimes David falls flat on his face. The story between David and Bathsheba is a powerful story about how sin works.

David’s armies have gone off to fight. But, David stays behind. From the roof of his palace David sees a beautiful woman bathing. He asks about her and finds out that she is a married woman. She is the wife of Uriah, who is one of David’s soldiers. He sent for her and he slept with her.

David doesn’t seem to feel like a sinner at this point. No one ever really feels like a sinner when they are sinning. That’s the sneaky thing about sin. When we are sinning we feel powerful. When David sent for Bathsheba he didn’t feel like a sinner. He felt like a lover. Sin is sneaky. We think it will make our lives better, or more exciting, but really it leads to destruction and chaos in the end, if not sooner.

Sooner or later we have to deal with the consequences of our decisions. David soon learns that Bathsheba is pregnant. David’s first instinct, like ours, is to cover up the sin so no one finds out. It is hard to face our sin. It’s hard to look people in the face when they know you’ve done something horrible. It’s just easier to cover it up so no one finds out.

David suddenly has to scramble to cover up his sin, so he comes up with a plan. He calls Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, back home to give a report from the front lines. When Uriah has given his report David tells him to go home and enjoy the company of his wife. David hopes that if he goes home and sleeps with Bathsheba then Uriah will think the child is his and the sin will never be discovered.

Uriah leaves the palace, but rather than go home to sleep with his wife, he sleeps at the entrance to David’s palace. Uriah is a model of honour and faithfulness. He will not go home and sleep with his wife when he knows the army is out in the field. Out of solidarity with his fellow soldiers Uriah decides to not go home.

Instead of David being moved by Uriah’s honour, he becomes frustrated. David asks him to stay another day and this time he gets Uriah drunk. David is hoping that a little liquor will loosen Uriah’s libido- so he’ll go home to his wife. Again, even when drunk, Uriah has more honour and self-control than King David.

David is frustrated. Now he has to go to extremes to hide his sin. Often hiding a sin requires another sin. David sends a command to Joab, Uriah’s commander. He tells Joab to put Uriah in the front lines where it is most dangerous and then have everyone pull back from the front line leaving Uriah alone with the enemy.

David plays god. He feels like a king and a general here, not a sinner. David isn’t plunging a knife into Uriah’s chest- someone else is. It’s not technically wrong to command such a thing. A king can command troops to go where they want and sometimes they die. That is part of the job description for a soldier. David doesn’t feel like a sinner here. We don’t feel like sinners when we’re sinning.

For anyone looking from the outside they can see the adultery, the lies, and the murder. David can dress it up, but it was murder. David’s action with Bathsheba was adultery as best- Rape at worst. It wasn’t a romantic love affair.

Sin often leads to more sin. Sin is like a disease. It spreads and infects others- even if it only causes people to be suspicious of each other and their leaders. And the more we try to hide it the more it digs in. 

{The following video may be disturbing to some}

A few of you might have watched Breaking Bad. It is all about the slippery slope we are talking about. The main character makes little decisions that dig him deeper and deeper into a life that is dramatically out of control. It begin when he discovers he has cancer and want to find a way to make money for his family so his treatments don’t lead them to bankruptcy. Also, in case he doesn’t survive he wants to make sure his family is taken care of. He is a high school chemistry teacher and decides that a quick way to make money is to use his skills to make Crystal Meth. At first the decision makes sense. But that decision leads to another and another. It eventually leads to murder and he has to try to cover up his actions with lies. Soon he loses his family and his life is spinning out of control and he has become a very different person and has become capable of things he wasn’t when he began walking down this road. Like David, and like us, one sin leads to another.

David is confronted by the prophet Nathan, who has become aware of David’s sins. David’s conspiracy falls apart. That is the moment we are invited to hear Psalm 51 on David’s lips, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.”

There is a lot of talk about sin and evil in Christianity. Right from the moment of Baptism we start talking about sin. As a part of the baptism liturgy we reject spiritual evil, we reject the systemic sin of the world, and we reject our own personal sin. We learn the Lord’s Prayer and we pray over and over, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”. When we meet on Sunday mornings we have a time to confess our sin. If we do Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, or Compline we reflect and confess our sin at least once per day. Then when we get into the season of Lent it seems like we are talking about it a lot. We don’t like thinking about ourselves as “sinners”. But we can’t get away from it. The Bible reminds us of sin. Our prayers and liturgies remind us of sin. We can’t really get away from it without cutting big holes in our Bibles.

St. Augustine spoke about “Original Sin”. The idea is that when the first couple defied God’s direction and ate the forbidden fruit it then became impossible for human beings to live a sinless life. All areas of human life was infected. It is like having a jug of water and you add one drop of sewage water into the jug. Not all of the water is sewage, but you probably don’t want to take a drink. All areas of human life became polluted.

Human beings have become infected with a disease, and we live in a world that has been broken. This isn’t to deny that there is good in the world. We are still created in the image of God, but that image is cracked. Like a broken mirror, we reflect God’s image in a broken way.

The strength of our will is not enough to overcome sin because our will is broken. Our will has become twisted so we want things that lead to our own suffering or the suffering of others.

It’s not just that we feel the consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin, but if we were in their place we would do the same thing. He sort of accurately represents us in the scenario. There is a story about a man who comes to a monastery in the evening and asks if he can have a room for the night. The monks are very hospitable and a monk shows him to a room. Before the monk leaves he says, “There is one condition to staying in this room. There is a high window over your bed. You must not look through that window”. The man agreed and the monk left. Suddenly the man found that he couldn’t think about anything but the window above his bed. He resisted the urge to look out, but eventually he cautiously stood on his bed to peer through the little window. On the other side he saw a room full of monks staring back at him, who started laughing. The monk that showed him to his room came to the window and said, “We always do that”. Adam and Eve faithfully represented humanity before God. They did what we would do.

I don’t know if any of you have watched the TV Show “House of Cards”. It is about American politics in Washington, D.C.. After watching the show you see that the whole thing is a mess of egos trying to scramble their way into power. They use environmental causes as a way to garner public support, but then will just as quickly support those who exploit natural resources and damage the environment. It was hard to imagine someone with integrity walking into that kind of mess and getting anything done. To work for your cause you need to operate on the principle that the ends justify the means and be willing to make dirty deals to get the changes you wanted. It was very hard to imagine someone going into that situation without becoming seriously corrupted, or they just wouldn’t survive in it at all. If they refused to become corrupt they would get steamrolled and would have no effect. I’m not sure if the world of politics is really like this, but when I watch the news it sure seems like the world can be like this.

Psalm 51 is about when we realize that are not just victims of the world being a mess, but actually, we contribute to the mess. We bear some responsibility for the mess. But, Psalm 51 is not a hopeless Psalm. Like an alcoholic admitting their disease, so our recovery includes admitting our disease. This kind of repentance is ultimately about hope, otherwise it would be pointless. It admits the mess we are in- “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” (51:3) But it also is hopeful in that we are not hopelessly lost in our sin- “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (51:2); “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (51:10); “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit” (51:12). The repentance we see in Psalm 51 is full of hope. It is all about reaching out to the one who can grant us transformation and save us from the mess we are in. God can cleanse our hearts and fix our desires.

This repentance also has the power to stop the cycle of covering one sin up by committing another sin- just as David murdered to cover up his adultery with Bathsheba. In repentance we limit the destructiveness of our sin by facing our responsibility.

God is like a loving parent watching over us. Sometimes parents need to correct their children. Sometimes they need a timeout, or need to say sorry, or need to have a serious talking to so they know the seriousness of playing in the road. It is love. It doesn’t always feel like love, but it is. A God who doesn’t care wouldn’t care if you were playing in the road, or if you hurt someone, or if you were becoming a cruel person. It is a loving God who cares who we are becoming and on what path we are walking.

We don’t always like to look at this aspect of our spiritual lives. We don’t want to look at sin. It doesn’t feel nice. It feels gritty and uncomfortable. When we aren’t feeling well we go to the doctor. The doctor will poke and prod a bit. They might ask us to take off parts of our clothing. They might place a cold stethoscope on our chest and ask us to breathe deeply, or cough. And then they might ask us about our lives. Do you smoke? How do you eat? Do you exercise? Then they might find the cause of our discomfort and they will describe a particular disease to us. It’s not a comfortable process, but when we get down to understanding our disease then we can make changes by taking medicines or doing certain exercises. Then we will begin feeling better. We would like to jump over the uncomfortable part- David would have liked to- but that would be to lead a shallow life. We are called to lead lives of deep transformation, and that means honestly facing who we really are- the parts we like and the parts we don’t. God doesn’t shy away from our not so pretty parts. God sees us truly and loves us knowing all our deep dark secrets, but God also loves us too much to leave us as we are. God calls us, like he called David, to face our sin so we can lead a better life. Amen

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Look, Trust, and Live

There is a pattern in of behavior we see in human life. We have a tendency to grow complacent and take the blessings of our lives for granted. We can tend to focus on the negative, or what we lack, rather than be thankful for what we have. I don’t know if you notice this in yourself at all. I know I see it in myself.

We see this human pattern in the life of the Hebrew people in the wilderness as well. In our Gospel reading Jesus references the book of Numbers chapter 21. In that passage they are in the middle of a grump. Despite the miraculous way God has rescued them from slavery in Egypt their familiarity with God and God's provision has caused them to take it all for granted. They complain that they were better off as slaves in Egypt. They complain that they will starve and God provides them with manna (Ex 16). They complain that they are thirsty and Moses strikes a rock and God provides water (Ex 17). They complain that they want meat and God gives them quail (Num 11). They still find more to grumble about. After all this miraculous provision- after saving them from slavery- after seeing the miracles- after eating the miraculous food and drinking the miraculous water in a desolate landscape- they still complain. They complain against Moses and they complain against God.

Can you see yourself doing that? We don’t want to see ourselves that way, but I think we have a tendency to complain and forget about the blessings in our lives. I have probably told you about the time I went to Cuba on a mission trip. I didn’t have much Spanish, but I had a little, so I tried to make conversation. “Tengo mucho callor”, I said. Which means “I’m very hot”. It was warm, but I wasn’t really that uncomfortable. I was more just making conversation with the limited Spanish I had. When I woke up in the morning I found that the Cubans went out and bought a whole bunch fans. These are not rich people. Upon reflection, I realized how much we tend to complain, even if just for conversation. We talk about the bad weather, or the long line at the grocery store, or the traffic. But we have temperature controlled vehicles and houses, so the weather doesn’t affect us that bad. In our grocery stores we have more food, and more varieties of food than most of the world. And how amazing that we have vehicles to help us cross great distances in very minimal time, all while keeping us out of the weather. That sure seems to beat walking, or riding a horse in the rain.

There is this very strange story in the book of Numbers. The people complain and express their lack of trust in God and God causes a release of snakes. Some of the people are bitten by the snakes and they die. They see and experience a deadly symbol of the state of fallen humanity. In our rebellion against God we experience suffering and death. The deadly serpent reminds us of the consequences of our rebellion from God. Because of human rebellion we live in a world drowning in sin and suffering. But, it’s not that God want us to obey Him because He is power hungry or something. Really God wants the best for us, but our hearts and wills are damaged so we sometimes want things that will ultimately lead to our destruction..

It is like drug addiction. Often there is some kind of emotional wound or emptiness that a person feels that leads to drug use. The drug gives a kind of immediate relief from the discomfort, but the road it leads down is ultimately one of destruction.

God is the source of love and life and joy a beauty, and so to rebel against God is to cut yourself off from the source love, life, joy, and beauty. That is a road to destruction

In a strange kind of living parable the Hebrew people feel the pain of turning away from God- in the form of snake bites. They realize the error of their ways and they come to Moses and say, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” They repent. They turn towards God. They realize the stupidity of what they've done. Turning away from the God of life means death. It is cutting of the limb you are standing on.

Moses hears their cry and has compassion. He prays to God on behalf of the people. And God give Moses some strange instructions. God told Moses, "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” They needed a focus point for their faith. They needed a sacrament. They needed to very concretely practice their faith. They needed to put their trust into action. They needed to believe that what God said was true- look and trust ... and live.

Trust in God is different than believing things about God. The people knew God existed, they just didn't believe that God would take care of them. Belief is different than trust. God instructs Moses to make a bronze serpent. God gave the Hebrew people a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace that God will save them. Whoever looks at the bronze serpent, trusting in God's words, will live. Their trust needed a focal point- they needed an action to activate their faith.

I heard a story about a high school student. She was taking a Physics class and she was supposed to present to her class on the physics of a pendulum. She explained to the class how a pendulum worked. It has a weight that is fixed to a point by a wire. She described the physics and how, because of gravity and other forces acting on the pendulum that it can never reach the same point it is swung from. She drew diagrams. She showed the class the formula on the black board, and to really make her point she set up a giant pendulum in the classroom. It had a barbell weight secured with a rope to the ceiling in the center of the classroom. She asked if everyone understood and believed what she said and the class agreed. She then asked the teacher if she could use him as a part of her presentation. The student asked her teacher to stand on a chair at one end of the classroom. She then set up the pendulum with the 20 pound barbell. She attached the wire and made sure everything was secure. The student raised the barbell to the teacher's nose and adjusted the chair so the rope was tight. She reminded the classroom, "now remember, because of gravity and the other forces acting on the pendulum the weight will not be able to get this high again. Based on the physics I just showed you, which you all said you believe, when this weight swings back it will not be able to reach the teachers nose". She let the weight drop and the teacher watched as it slowly swung through the pathway between the desks. The class collectively held their breath. The teacher watched as the weight slowed and then stopped at the other side of the classroom and then started back down towards the teacher. The weight got closer and closer and suddenly the teacher jumped off the chair afraid he was going to get his teeth knocked out. The teacher may have understood the physics in theory, but not in his heart. He didn't believe it enough to trust it.

I like that story. It is a reminder to me that faith is something that has to be more than a theory. It has to get into my heart. I have to be willing to act in a way that reflects my belief. If I jump off the chair like the teacher did, then part of me really doesn't believe it. Of course we need to be sure that what we believe in is worth believing. As the preacher Stuart Briscoe once said, "faith is only as valid as its object. You can have tremendous faith in very thin ice and drown. ... You could have very little faith in very thick ice and be perfectly secure". God had shown Himself over and over again to be worthy of the Hebrew peole’s trust, yet they were unwilling to trust God. God never said it would be an easy walk through the wilderness, but God made promises to protect and keep them. They turned from those promises again and again.

To help them learn to trust in a very real way God gives Moses some strange instructions. "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live." "So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole." They looked at a symbol of their own suffering and death. The snakes were biting their friends and family. Instead of getting rid of the snakes they were taught to trust God in the midst of their suffering. When they were bit, they looked at the bronze snake and they lived. When they looked at that strange symbol of their suffering they lived.

Some have looked into the Hebrew and have concluded that these were no ordinary serpents. The serpents that were biting the people were called in the Hebrew "Saraph" serpents. This word "Saraph" can mean a few things. The plain meaning is "fiery". The Serpent is a "fiery" serpent. This might mean that the bite burned like fire.

"Saraph" might have a bit more of a mysterious meaning. "Saraph" might point to a kind of winged serpent that we find in the art of ancient Egypt (Glen Taylor). If that is what we are talking about, then the bronze serpent might have looked something like what you see on the cover of your bulletin. Perhaps it is a stretch, but just maybe this is what the Hebrew people were looking at with eyes of faith. Imagine a serpent standing tall in front of you with wings stretched out on either side. … They looked at this symbol trusting that God would save them from the poison of the world. The Hebrews looked at this sacrament- this means of the grace of God- and lived.

This image was important to the Hebrew people. They carried it with them when they established themselves in the Promised Land. We read that over 500 hundred years later the reforming King Hezekiah smashed the bronze serpent (which may have been kept in the Temple) because people were worshipping it by burning incense to it. What was meant to be a sacrament for healing became a source of idolatry and so it had to be removed. But, imagine that this symbol remained in the hearts and minds of the Hebrew people as an object of faith for over 500 years.

Jesus points to this Bronze serpent in the gospel of John chapter 3, "14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” Jesus is saying that he is like the bronze serpent. Jesus will be lifted up on the cross. People will look at the suffering of the cross and it will become a means of their own healing from the venom of the world. We are invited to look at him and believe. We are invited to look at the cross- an instrument of torture and destruction- and receive life. Just as the Hebrew people looked at the symbol of their suffering- the Serpent- so we look at death and suffering symbolized by the cross and through it we receive life because of the work Jesus did there.

We don't know exactly how it works, but we are told God's motivation for doing it in verse 16, "16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." The cross, was God's self-sacrifice. It was the best way to show that God would hold nothing back- Jesus would hold nothing back- in order to show us how much he loves us.

Like the Hebrew people we are invited to respond. It is not enough to have a theory in your head about this. The bronze serpent was raised and they were invited to look upon it and believe God would save them from the venom. Jesus was raised on a cross and we are invited to look to him and believe that this is the ultimate act of love for us- this is God saving us. We are invited to see God entering into our suffering out of love for us. We are invited to act- to get out of our seats and come forward with our hands out to receive the bread and wine- Jesus' body and blood. We are invited to accept that Jesus did this act of love for each of us. AMEN

Sunday, 8 March 2015

What do we do with our sin?

If someone was to imply that we are a sinner we are likely to take offence.  We tend not to think about ourselves in terms of sin. Or, we will set the bar very low. We will say things like “well, I’m not Hitler” and “I’ve never killed anyone”. So we set the bar so low that nearly anyone can step over it. But it’s work asking, “who gets to set the bar”?

We could take a traditional stance and look at the Ten Commandments. As I go through them keep your own tally privately to yourself.

1)      Have you ever made something in your life more important than God? Have you used something like an idol? Have you put something in place of God?

2)      Have you ever used religious language to justify something that really wasn’t the way of God? Have you ever used God's name in vain? Have you ever made God’s name meaningless?  

3)      Have you ever broken the Sabbath? Or, to put it another way, have you ever gone a week without taking a day to stop and remember that the world won’t stop turning without you, and to refocus your life on God?

4)      Have you ever dishonoured your mother or father? Have you ever treated them less than kindly, or spoken less than kind words to them, or about them?

5)       Have you ever murdered anyone? We have to add to this Jesus’ statement from Matt 5:21-22 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment”. So have you ever harbored deep seething anger towards someone? Have you let the seed of murder germinate within you?

6)      Have you ever committed adultery? Jesus shifts this one too. He says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:27-28). Jesus isn’t saying you can’t notice that someone is attractive. The idea here is do you indulge in erotic thoughts about someone and let your mind run wild and unchecked?

7)      Have you ever stolen? It doesn’t have to be anything big. It might not even be a thing. Have you ever taken an idea and presented as if you thought of it?

8)      Have you ever lied?

9)      Have you ever coveted something that belonged to someone else? To covet is to want something very intensely- you almost make yourself sick over it.        
So how did you do?

These are God’s laws we have broken. We sometimes will say, “Well, I did that a long time ago”, but if you stole a car or murdered someone 10 years ago you would still be liable today in a court of law as if you did it yesterday.

So for those of us that had to say “yes” to a number of the questions I just asked about the 10 Commandments what do we do? If we lie, we are a liar. If we sin, we are a sinner. It’s not a particularly fun thing to think about, but what do we do about it? We seem to be the kind of people that do these kinds of things.

I think we do a few things to deal with our sin. One thing we do is just say we don’t believe in sin. Sin isn’t a really thing and we aren’t sinners. Basically it is denial, but some people seem to use that as a strategy.

Others psychologize it. I was watching a show with my parents on Friday night and this woman was presented with a number of horrible things she has done to a number of people, and one person makes the comment, “I think she has a mental illness”. So she wasn’t suddenly responsible for the horrible things she has done. We sometimes blame our childhood or past experiences for the things we do. And I’ll admit that our experiences and our metal health has an effect on our ability to make decisions, but I don’t think we can chalk up all our sin to mental illness or the way we were brought up. I realized how much I did this when I read a book by a psychologist on the Seven Deadly Sins. So often I don’t look at a horrible thing a person does as sin, but as the action of someone who is psychologically diseased. So someone who is prideful or narcissistic is really just overcompensating for low self-esteem. Someone who is full of lust has issues with intimacy and never really feels accepted. So one way of dealing with sin is so psychologize it. We remove the responsibility saying that they can’t really be held accountable for it because they can’t help it. We sometimes psychologize ourselves claiming to be victims of circumstance and refusing to deal with our destructive habits.
Sometimes we deal with our sin by retreating into a habit. We self-medicate through alcohol, drugs, pornography, gambling, or a number of other escapist habits. We attempt to dull the pain of carrying our sin around.    
Sometimes we become perfectionists thinking that if we can be perfect now then that will make up for our past failings. We become legalists.

In ancient Israel (and most other ancient cultures) they dealt with sin through sacrifice. What can you give God? God has given everything. Mysteriously, all over the world, people decided to offer life. Animals were sacrificed to deal with sin.

The Temple in Jerusalem was a massive sacrifice machine. It took a lot of structure to keep it going. It had an army of priests that were continuously presented with animals for sacrifice. During Passover people from all over Israel (and even all over the Roman Empire) would flood into Jerusalem to offer sacrifice and worship at the Temple. Many people wouldn’t bring animals with them on their long travels to be used for sacrifice. Imagine pilgrims from all over flooding into Jerusalem for the most important festival of Passover. Most of them have to buy an animal for their sacrifice in the temple. The outer court of the Temple becomes a market.  The sounds of cattle, sheep, doves, and the crowd fills the temple courts. Maybe those selling are taking advantage of the situation, charging a bit more than they should. Some in the crowd grumble and argue about the price gouging with those that are selling and changing money.  Only certain monies were allowed in the temple. Some coins had images on them that weren’t allowed in the temple so you had to change the money if you wanted to bring money into the Temple. No doubt there was a fee for changing the money. I imagine it a bit like buying popcorn at the movies- You are a captive customer. 

This is the situation Jesus walks into. It is important to realize that this is not a new scene for Jesus. It would have been as expected as walking into the church at Christmas and seeing a nativity scene set up.  This would not have been a new scene for him. This was what he experienced every year since he was a boy.

This is the background of our gospel reading, “he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” (John 2:15-16).

What do you think was happening here?

I think we get a hint at what is happening when we look at where all this is taking place. The temple was a segregated place. There was a section that non-Jewish people were allowed (the court of the Gentiles). Everyone was allowed there. As you progressed deeper into the temple it became more and more exclusive. There was a place where Jewish women were allowed (The women’s court). As you go deeper there was the court of Israel, where Jewish men were allowed. Then there was the court of the priests. And then there was the Holy of Holies, where only one priest entered once a year.  
The Temple court where all this buying and selling is taking place was the only place where the Gentiles were allowed to worship. Isaiah 2:2 says, “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it”. Israel was meant to be a light to the nations. They were meant to draw the whole world to God. But, they tended to turn in on themselves. The court where the world was permitted to come worship was made into a market, rather than a place of prayer. It was an unjust market at that- where people were taken advantage of for financial gain. Jesus’ actions could be seen as primarily about Israel not fulfilling her calling. Jesus was bringing judgement on the temple.

I think we get a hint at what was happening when we look at Jeremiah chapter 19.  There, God tells the Prophet Jeremiah to go and buy a clay jar from the potter and gather some of the people. And there he was to foretell the coming destruction- “Behold, I am bringing such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. Because the people have forsaken me and have profaned this place…” (Jer 19:3-4). “Then you shall break the flask in the sight of the men who go with you, and shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts: So will I break this people and this city, as one breaks a potter's vessel, so that it can never be mended” (Jer 19:10-11).  Then Jeremiah stood in the temple “court of the Lord's house and said to all the people: ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, behold, I am bringing upon this city and upon all its towns all the disaster that I have pronounced against it, because they have stiffened their neck, refusing to hear my words’” (Jer 19:14-15).

I suspect something like this is happening with Jesus. Jeremiah broke the clay vessel as a symbolic judgement and destruction. In a similar way Jesus was declaring God’s judgement. When he ran the animals out and scattered the coins the sacrifice machine stopped. The flow of animals for sacrifice stopped. Jesus symbolically destroyed the Temple in this action. I don’t believe this was Jesus losing his temper or using violence to deal with injustice. This was a prophetic action declaring the judgement of God and destroying the Temple.

When they ask for a sign of his authority to do this he said, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19). Jesus equates the Temple with his own body. The temple was the place for Israel to deal with sin, now suddenly Jesus was the place to deal with sin.

Do we maybe have our own little temples that we use to deal with our sin? Do we have a temple of denial where we bring our sin? Do we have a temple where we psychologize out sin? Do we have a temple of perfectionism? Maybe it’s a temple of addiction where we bury our sin? Do we use these as temples to deal with our sin, when the real place to deal with sin is Jesus? Maybe Jesus wants to destroy those temples.

One of the primary symbols of Jesus is the “lamb of God”. It is the image of a spotless lamb, wounded, and slain, for sin in order to save people. During Passover they would remember the blood of the lamb on the doorposts that protected the household from plague of the death of the firstborn.

We no longer have to travel to a temple to deal with our sin. We no longer have to offer the blood of a lamb as a sacrifice for our sin. The Jerusalem temple was destroyed in 70 AD. Sacrifice in Jerusalem stopped on that day and it is unlikely that it will ever be rebuilt (especially with the Dome of the Rock built on the temple mount). Animal sacrifice stopped very shortly after the death of Jesus. The worldwide phenomena of animal sacrifice for sin that seems to have been a part of almost every culture has almost stopped entirely because of the influence of Christianity (even among some who didn’t convert to Christianity).[1]   

So what do we do with our sin? We bring it to Jesus in prayer. Not in a short little dinner time prayer. But we really come before Jesus in prayer, bringing to mind the damage the sin has caused and the cost Christ paid. With as full an understanding of the sin and its effects as we can muster we come before Jesus and ask forgiveness and for understanding and grace so that we can be free from committing the sin again.  Then we come to members of the body of Christ and we hear words of forgiveness spoken over us.
There are some who say that we really need to speak our sin to another human member of the body of Christ. There is power when our secret sin is exposed to another person and we see that the person still loves us and accepts us and even declares Christ’s forgiveness over us. This has a very old tradition. James 5:16 says, “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed”. This doesn’t have to be the case for every sin we commit, but there are times when we do something particularly destructive that would make it helpful to involve another person.            
We no longer need temples to deal with our sin. The place to deal with sin is Jesus himself. It doesn’t require the blood of animals that was spilled for thousands of years all over the world to deal with sin, instead Jesus offered his blood to deal with our sin. We can go to him for healing and transformation.

[1] I should mention that Buddhism (~450BC) and Jainism also speak against the sacrificial practices of the Vedic Hinduism they arose out of.  

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Questions for studying and praying through a psalm

These are questions used as a part of a study I'm leading- "The Spirituality of the Psalms" 
The Spirituality of the Psalms

Read the psalm over a number of times until you feel you have a good grasp of its “flow”.

Look at the psalm grammatically to see what the sentences say.

  • Who is speaking? 
  • What is/are the subject(s)? 
  • What actions are in the Psalm? 
  • Are there metaphors and images are used? 
  • What tenses are used (past, present, future)? 
  • Are there repeated words or phrases?
Write a sentence to capture the heart of the psalm.

Imagine the circumstances the author is writing about. The title may give a clue.

Does the psalm teach you something about God? Does it teach you something about human beings?

What type of psalm is this: prophecy, teaching, consolation, prayer, thanksgiving? If the Psalter is the Bible in miniature what part is expressed- Law, prophecy, wisdom, or history?

Moving from the intention of the human author to the Divine Author, and looking at the broad history of God’s people from Genesis to Revelation, read the psalm again. What does it say to you in this broader context?

  • For example, the people of God, Israel, and Zion are seen as the church. The anointed king David would be viewed as Jesus Christ. 
  • Imagine that the Church or Christ were speaking these words. 
  • Are there words or phrases that are familiar from elsewhere in the Bible? 
Does the psalm suggest some moral action for us to take?

When you imagine singing this psalm as a part of public worship, how does that effect how you read it? What if you imagine using it as your own personal prayer?

How do you react to the psalm personally?

  • What emotions come up in you? 
  • Are there parts that comfort you? 
  • Are there parts that offend you? 
  • Spend time with the parts that bother you. Try to relate to the author’s point of view.
Imagine the psalm was written about you and your world.

  • Who would you be in the psalm? 
  • What would the connections be? 
  • Who/what would the enemy be? 
  • How would the images apply to your life?

If the Psalms are a mirror of the soul- What part of the soul is being addressed?

Monday, 2 March 2015

Meaningless Suffering- Psalm 22

The psalmist cries out,
Ps 22:1-2 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?     Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;     and by night, but find no rest.

This is a particular kind of human suffering. We are actually quite willing to suffer if there is purpose behind it. Or, at least we are willing to push through it without crying to God in such agony. Childbirth might be such a pain. I’ve heard it described as a purposeful pain (assuming everything is okay with the baby). A purposeful pain doesn’t necessarily leave one feeling forsaken by God. Suffering to protect someone you love is similar. You might be able to endure incredible hardship.  As long as the person you are protecting is safe, you do not feel forsaken- There is a purpose to your suffering. Feeling forsaken is a particular kind of pain that feels senseless- it has no meaning- it has no point.
It is uncomfortable to sit with those who are suffering, especially when we don’t feel like we can fix their problem. Those who have severe depression are used to hearing people’s tidbits of advice, but we would be better to sin in silence with them.  They are used to receiving advice on how to cheer up and look at the bright side of life, or how they should exercise more, or get out of the house more, or eat healthier food. It is much easier to give advice and walk away rather than sit in the tension with them and endure the suffering with them in silence.
 When someone deals with a death there is a similar kind of reaction, instead of sitting in silence we want to say, “Well, they are in a better place now”. We have such a low tolerance for sitting in the pain of another person. This soon becomes obvious to the person suffering and they begin to hide their suffering so they can relieve the discomfort of the people around them. They begin acting to relieve the anxiety of the people who are unwilling to be with them in their pain. So they fake it, and are left even more alone, not even given permission to suffer in the presence of others.  
We even want to rush past the sad parts. People will go to work the same day of the funeral of someone near and dear to them to distract themselves and “do something”. We often want to speed past Good Friday to get to Easter Sunday as if sitting in Good Friday is somehow wrong because it is sad. More and more I hear people saying I don’t want a funeral I want a “celebration of life”. And where does this leave those who are broken, suffering, and who are lost in their grief and have no interest in celebrating?    
We often want to jump ahead of the first lines of Psalm 22. We don’t want to sit in them and be uncomfortable. We want to jump to further in the psalm where there is some comfort, but we should be careful of that desire for avoidance. For ourselves as mourners we must be careful to allow ourselves to grieve properly, and as comforters we must allow others permission to rest in their suffering.
Job’s friends wept and sat with him for seven days in silence, but they eventually want to give meaning to his suffering. Surely God wouldn’t allow this to happen for no reason, so they start to believe that Job is being punished for some awful secret sin. It’s the idea of karma. Job must have done something to deserve such suffering. We sometimes do this in more subtle ways. But, from the opening chapters we know Job has done nothing to deserve his suffering. But, Job’s friends push him to expose the secret sin and ask forgiveness, but they are really only making things worse. Not only is he suffering, but now his friends have accused him of deserving his suffering. Not only is he suffering, but he is also now a “sinner”. 
          The book of Job rests in the tension between two questions. On the one hand we have the Satan’s question, “Can people love God and be good without being showered with blessings?” Satan is saying people will only love God and be good if there is a reward. Without blessings of property and family and protection from pain and suffering people will not love God and be good.
          On the other hand, we hear Job’s question- “Is it right for God to let those who love him suffer?” How can God, who is good and all-powerful, watch one of his children who loves Him, suffer and not do something about it?
            Job does not attempt to answer either of these questions. It rests in that tension. The question the book of Job really wants to deal with is this. In this mystery of undeserved and meaningless suffering, how do we speak to God? That is the real point of the book of Job, not to explain suffering. The real point of the book of Job is how to speak to God in suffering. Job is our model for that. The psalms are our model for this as well.
Ps 22:1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?     Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? 2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;     and by night, but find no rest.

When we would feel too polite, or pious to speak these words Job and the Psalms give us permission. Job and the psalmist express their anger to God. They expresses their questions and demands answers, but they never turns their back on God. They hold onto God even when their theology seems to fall apart. 

When we hear the cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We don’t primarily think of a Psalm. We usually think of Jesus when he is crucified. Jesus chose these words to be on his lips in his last moments. Why?  In Philippians 2:6-8 we read that Jesus
“who, though he was in the form of God,    did not regard equality with God    as something to be exploited, but emptied himself,    taking the form of a slave,    being born in human likeness.   And being found in human form,    he humbled himself    and became obedient to the point of death—    even death on a cross." 

When we look at Jesus we are in some mysterious way looking at God. And God chose to enter into our pain. We tend to hide pain in our culture. We privatize it. We don’t have public executions or tortures (thank God). We keep sick and suffering people institutionalized and hidden away. In many ways we keep suffering hidden from us. This wasn’t so in Jesus’ day. During Jesus’ time on earth suffering was all around him.
            There was a slave rebellion between 73 and 71 BC called the Third Servile War. About 120,000 rebel slaves were led by a man named Spartacus in revolt against the Roman republic. This led to about 6000 of his followers being crucified along the 200km stretch of road between Capua and Rome as a warning to those who would oppose Rome’s power. Imagine driving from Edmonton to Olds and every telephone pole has a body crucified on it.  
            Josephus also tells us during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD many were crucified before the walls of Jerusalem to terrorize those inside and to get them to surrender the city. Josephus states that they crucified 500 people a day until they ran out of wood for making crosses.        
The majority of these people we don’t have names for. They join the masses of people throughout the ages that have come up against the powers of this world and lost. They join those in unmarked mass graves. They join the masses who died by the hands of the Nazis. These people die at the hands of what looks like limitless power.
The cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” encapsulates the human experience of meaningless suffering. We never feel so abandoned by God as when we suffer without purpose. But in Jesus we see God entering our pain. So much so that Psalm 22 almost stops being ours and starts being the Psalm of Christ. St. Augustine said, “The passion of Christ is recounted in this Psalm as clearly as in the gospel”. As we read it we can’t help but witness the passion of Jesus.
Psalm 22 “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?... All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;  “He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”   

We witness not only his physical suffering, but his marginalization. He is rejected by his community. He is mocked and ridiculed. It is a ridicule that is also directed at Christians and continues today all over the world, and has been a part of The Christian story from the very beginning.  We are ridiculed with him.

Ps 22:16-18 "For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet— I can count all my bones— they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots."

Jesus joins us in our suffering- in our meaningless forsaken suffering. And we, strangely, are invited into his suffering. He promises that we too will be mocked and mistreated. We too will bear a cross. I am told that there have been more Christians who have died for their faith in that last 100 years than in all the previous centuries combined.  Jesus prays Psalm 22 and joins those who suffer, and we (as his Body) enter into the suffering of humanity with him. As his body we cannot turn away from suffering when Jesus entered into it so fully. Whether that suffering be from poverty, oppression, or physical pain, the church (when she is true to herself) always finds herself among hurting people. God did not turn away from suffering and neither can we. As God enters the suffering it stops being meaningless.     
            We are told that God became human, but not an emperor, a child born to a young woman in a stable. He was born into poverty. God was born into a family that would have disappeared with many other unnamed and forgotten families into the mists of time. God became one of the nameless ones. He became one of the powerless people. His cry is the cry of the abandoned and rejected nobodies of the world- “My God, why have you forsaken me”.
            If Christ was to absorb and conquer the evil and corrupt powers that influence this world, he could not be a user of those powers. Jesus stood apart from those powers of violence and hate and became a recipient of the violence and hatred of the powerful. He joins the nameless and faceless masses to endure the powers of sin and death that have been oppressing them since before anyone can remember. 
Psalm 22:24  he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him,  but has heard, when he cried to him.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I am told that speaking the first line of a psalm was a way of invoking the entire Psalm.[1] So we could think that Jesus wasn’t stuck in the hopeless agony of that one line. The psalm gives plenty of reason for hope and joy. God has protected the ancestors of the Psalmist. God has protected the Psalmist since he was a nursing infant, so of course God will protect him, why would he stop now.   

While we might ‘feel’ forsaken by God in our suffering many of the saints say that in our sufering we are actually drawn closer to him- as opposed to what Job’s friends say. Job’s friends see suffering as a sign of punishment and distance from God. In Jesus we see God Himself enduring suffering- with us and for us.       
          God has not abandoned us in our suffering. He has joined us in our suffering. God does not sit off in the distance watching us suffer. He joins us in all the filth, in the dust and ashes. No explanation is given, but God came to sit with us in our mess. But he will not leave us there. God will not let suffering have the last word in God’s good creation. Jesus will be with us. He will descend into the grave with us and he will rise with us. Jesus sits with us in our pain and suffering, but he is there to guide us out of our suffering as well. He is there on the other side of our suffering. Life does not end with a cross. God will not let life end with a cross. The cross will lead to resurrection and life that does not end. Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “in this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”  

[1] “citing the first words of a text was, in the tradition of the time, a way of identifying an entire passage” – James mays
Follow @RevChrisRoth