Monday, 28 September 2015

Mark 9- do not be the cause of separation from Jesus

In today’s Gospel there is a lot for the modern person to stumble over. There is mention of exorcising demons, which is often hard for many of us to hear since we tend to live in a world that is highly suspicious of the supernatural. Jesus speaks about it being better to have a large stone tied around your neck and to be thrown into the deep, rather than place a stumbling block before a “little one.” And Jesus instructs us to cut off hands and feet and to gouge out our eyes in order to avoid “hell”, “where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched”. These statements don’t seem to match the Jesus we often think we know. For most of us we think about the kindness and gentleness of Jesus, who is quick to forgive and who carries a lamb in his arms as he guides the fold to green pastures and clear waters. As children of the European Enlightenment it is natural for us to emphasize the rational nature of the ethics of Jesus, and de-emphasize miracles and other supernatural events. Every generation and culture has aspects of Jesus they like to emphasize and other aspects they want to censor.

For example, in the first century in the Roman Empire the fact that Jesus died on a cross as a criminal was incredibly scandalous. The cross was difficult for other cultures as well. In the 16th century there was a Jesuit missionary who arrived in China, Matteo Ricci. He was a brilliant renaissance man who quickly mastered Chinese language and culture. In the style of Paul in Acts 17, Ricci attempted to find the truth in Chinese culture and use those truths to teach Christianity. A difficult aspect of Christianity for Ricci to teach was the cross. Many philosophical and moral teachings of Christianity had their compliment in Chinese values. Ricci taught that Christianity was a perfecting of those already existing truths. However, Jesus’ crucifixion was not easy to communicate. It did not make sense in that ideology, especially in a culture where authority was highly respected. Jesus’ condemnation by the highest religious court of the day was an offence to Chinese values. For this reason he didn’t present the cross right away. One day, however, a servant of the Chinese court happened to come across a realistic statue of Jesus on the cross among Matteo Ricci’s belongings. The shocked servant confronted Ricci, screaming at him, believing that he was practicing black magic in some attempt to kill the Chinese ruler. It was a horrifying image, so he thought it must have some horrifying purpose. Jesus’ moral and philosophical teachings were acceptable, but the cross was an offense.

In societies where racism is the norm, Paul’s teaching that in Christ ethnicity is transcended (Gal 3:28) is offensive. In cultures where honour is of the utmost importance, forgiveness of one’s enemies is scandalous. In cultures where they emphasize the invisible realm of the spirits, Christ’s work as an exorcist might be emphasized and his moral teaching might be considered secondary.

This is all just to say that there are cultural moods that human beings deal with in different times and in different places and the temptation is always to try to force the gospel to match our cultural mood, rather than see where our cultural views might have to be challenged. So today it might be good for us to attempt to open our minds to what the Gospel has to say to us rather than filter out the uncomfortable bits. Our current cultural mood says that everyone is right in their own way, and we should not judge, so it is hard to hear Jesus teach about consequences and judgement, and especially hell. We tend to accept scientific views of reality as the only reality, and so we are deeply suspicious of supernatural beings like demons that can assault human beings. We tend to dismiss all that as primitive superstition, or as mistaken mental illness.

Something that was taken for granted in Jesus’ day was the presence of spirits that sometimes oppressed people. There are many cultures that continue to believe this, and in these cultures there are very educated people. So this belief is not a lack of intelligence or sophistication. It is a different worldview.  We might want to dismiss this aspect of the gospel, but it is actually very prevalent. Jesus and his disciples are constantly dealing with evil spirits that are oppressing people and that ministry is constantly linked with the ministry of healing.

But, all this is secondary to our reading. Now that we have dealt (in small part) with the few cultural stumbling stones we can look at the actual meaning of the Gospel lesson.

In our reading, the disciples come across someone helping a person who is being assaulted by an evil spirit. He is using the name of Jesus as he is trying to help the person and the disciples tell him to stop.

Imagine going to Tim Hortons and you see someone standing next to a banner that says, “St. Mark’s Anglican Church” [the church where this sermon was preached]. They are buying coffee for people and are doing evangelism. Say that you don’t recognize the person and you know for a fact that they are not a member of the congregation. How would you feel? … Wouldn’t part of you want someone to stop him just in case he had some wacky ideas and gave you a bad name?

So the disciples did what some of us would hope our priest and leadership would do and ask them to stop using our name. But, Jesus is not for this plan at all. He says, "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.” The thrust of the message seems to be don’t cut off anyone from Christ no matter how small their connection to him.

Every Easter and Christmas churches are much more full than any other time of the year. … Mainly it’s people who call themselves Christians, but don’t really make a priority of going to church the rest of the year. They call themselves Christians. They believe in God and in the afterlife, but they don’t really have an interest in investing time in learning about Christ or his ways. It can be easy to discount these people for not taking their faith seriously and not contributing to the work of the church. I’ve even heard them called “tourists”. Jesus may tell us to not cause them to be disconnected from him, no matter how weak and fragile the connection. A small connection is still a connection. A positive feeling towards Christ is still a positive feeling and not a negative feeling.

The Pope is visiting North America and on the internet I’ve recently seen some protestant Christians posting negative things about the Pope (and the Roman Catholic teachings about the Pope). I wonder if they need to hear Jesus’ words, “Whoever is not against us is for us”. It doesn’t mean we agree on everything. Others might be drastically wrong about some things, but Jesus’ words should have weight here. Do not damage another person’s connection with Christ thinking they aren’t one of us.

Don’t disconnect people from Christ. In fact, cut out anything that blocks the path to Christ. If it is your hand, cut it off. If it is your foot, cut it off. If it is your eye, gouge it out. Whatever is in the way of your path to Jesus, get rid of it. 
 There are a couple ways to read Jesus’ teaching here. One, is to ask ourselves (as individuals), what causes me to sin? Does my hand cause me to steal? Do my feet cause me to betray my friends? Does my eye cause me to lust? Surely we know that sin is deeper than this. Otherwise a prisoner full of murderous rage, would be considered sinless and holy since his opportunity to act out his murderous inclinations has been taken away. We cannot cut off all our appendages and senses and hope to be holy and sinless. Unless our desire is to be as holy as a fencepost. No, what causes us to sin is a disposition in our heart that doesn’t trust God. That is what has to be cut out. But, that doesn’t make it any less drastic and serious. We have to treat this spiritual amputation with as much seriousness as we would treat an actual physical amputation. Jesus uses very strong language here- he speaks of amputation and gouging of eyes, and being cut off from God in hell. Jesus couldn’t use more serious language to speak about this. It is no less serious just because we look at this as a spiritual amputation. In many ways it is more difficult. In fact, it is impossible without the work of Christ’s Spirit.

There is another way to read these words though, and they might actually fit better with the rest of the passage. in this way we read it in light of the Christian community, rather than the individual.  A disciple has cut someone off and told them to stop using the name of Christ. Now Jesus says that those who will be cut off will be those who cause others to stumble. The Greek work here is close to our word for being scandalized, which is to be so put off that a person is willing to walk away from Christ in disgust. In the Bible Christians are sometimes called the ‘body of Christ” (1 Cor 12). A healthy body means that all the parts are looking out for the whole. If the eye is about to be damaged, the hand rises to protect it, and the feet move the body away from the danger. Perhaps Jesus is thinking about this kind of body- specifically, his body. Reflecting on Christ’s words, suddenly if the hand causes the body to sin, we are to cut it off. The disciple had cut off the stranger with the weak connection to Christ, but now Jesus warns them about placing a barrier between people and him. The disciple is the one in danger for placing a stumbling block before the one who was using the name of Jesus. The ones to be especially careful of are his little ones- the ones with immature faith, or weak faith. He may in fact be warning us that if we cause people to stumble, if we cause people to lose their faith in Christ, then we may be in danger of being amputated for the sake of the health of the body. It would be better to be thrown into the ocean with a massive rock tied around your neck. Don’t be the cause of someone falling away from Christ.

This means that we should also pray for those who have hurt us in the Church, or who have tempted us to walk away from following Christ. We should work hard to try to forgive them because Jesus says they are in an incredible amount of danger. Jesus couldn't use stronger language to speak about the danger they are in- he speaks about amputation of limbs, gouging out eyes, drowning with a rock tied around your neck, and being separated from God's presence in Hell. According to Jesus these people are in incredible danger. 

Some of Christ’s teachings are hard to take. It is medicine, not candy. Some medicine tastes good and is comforting. It relieves guilt and spiritual pain. … Other medicine is very hard to swallow. Instructing us to amputate limbs and organs that might cause us to enter eternal separation from God in hell…. That is a hard pill to swallow. Our present cultural mood we find ourselves in makes that a hard teaching. So some of his teachings will clash with our cultural values, but sometimes his teachings are hard because of our human inclination towards sin. That makes his teaching hard no matter who we are or what culture we come from. It may sound simple- do not be the reason someone becomes disconnected from Christ. The hard part about this teaching is how seriously he takes this. It is so serious he invokes amputation, eye gouging, drowning with a rock tied around our neck, and hell. It is hard medicine to swallow, but it is still medicine and it is for our good.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Pride and Humility- Mark 9

Pride and Humility

Putting together a resume can be a paradoxical experience. You want to emphasize your strengths, and minimize (or hide) your weaknesses. You want to show that you have a high level of education and went to a prestigious school. You want to show that you worked for important organizations, and was trusted with important responsibilities. In a resume you want to do this to impress your potential employer, and in particular, you want your potential employer to be more impressed with you than the other people applying for the job. … But, at the same time, you don’t want to appear to be bragging, or full of yourself. It’s a delicate balance.

If we are really honest with ourselves we find ourselves doing this all the time. We secretly compare ourselves to others and try to find a way to come out on top. “My kids are better behaved than their kids”. “I’m prettier than her”. “I get paid more than him”. “I’m smarter and more competent at my job than him”. Maybe even, “I do more at the church than them”. We don’t usually make these thoughts known. It’s not polite, and we wouldn’t want people to think badly of us, so we hide these thoughts.

The disciples were caught in this kind of predicament. They arrive at Capernaum and Jesus asks them what they were arguing about along the way. (No doubt he overheard and knew very well what they were arguing about.) They answer with silence- likely filled with embarrassment. Just as we would be if some of our internal comparisons were made public.

It might seem a bit strange that grown men were arguing about who was the greatest, but parts of their culture seemed to encourage it. For example, there was a religious sect at Qumran (who are believed to have written the Dead Sea scrolls). They were known to annually rank each member of the community according to the worthiness of each person.[1] … Imagine each year you are given a number that ranks your worthiness as a member of this church. “You’re 1, you better start trying a bit harder, you’re at the bottom of the pile. You’re 10. You’re 5.” “Oh, you moved up 3 ranks this year, keep up the good work”. … This seems to be the kind of context for the disciples’ argument. Jesus saw their argument for what it was- pride.

The theologian Peter Kreeft says that “[pride] is the first and greatest sin because it is in violation of the first and greatest commandment, ‘you shall have no other gods before me.’ Pride puts self before God. Pride loves your self with all your heart and soul and mind and strength rather than God”[2]. Pride is turning away from God thinking we can do better on our own. This was what happened to Adam and Eve- they tried to ignore God thinking they could do better without His guidance.

St. Gregory the Great believed that pride was the source of all other sins. In stealing we think we deserve to have something someone else has. In murder we believe we have the right to decide if someone should live or die. In not honouring the Sabbath or our parents we are self-entitled and deserving of what we have received and so have no desire to give thanks. All sin has pride at its root.

We might be able to say that all biblical character development comes from the tension between the sin of pride and its opposite, the virtue of humility. We read in Proverbs 3:34 “God opposes the proud, but shows favor to the humble”. And in Proverbs 16:5 we read, “Proud men, one and all, are abominable to the Lord”. Jesus’ sharpest words in the gospels were directed against the religious people who were full of pride. He spoke about the prideful Pharisee praying next to the sinful tax collector and declared the tax-collector forgiven in the parable (Luke 18:9-14). He said to them ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you’. (Matt 21:31). He called the religious proud hypocrites who like to been seen by others to be holy, but who are inwardly full of sin. They may have seemed to have their lives together, but the root sin of pride was planted firmly in their lives.

It is pride that Jesus is confronting in our Gospel reading. The medicine he administers is for his disciples to learn humility, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." He takes our desire for greatness and turns it on its head. He teaches a similar lesson in Matt 23:12 saying, “those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Jesus exalted humble fishermen and made them his apostles. Pride is confronted by learning humility, which is just thinking honestly about yourself. It is not a tall person pretending he is short. Or, a smart person pretending she is dumb. It is seeing yourself as you are before God. It is remembering that you are mud made into the image of God. Humility is recognizing that we are creatures- created by an amazingly wise, powerful, and loving God. Humility is recognizing that we are His and that He knows how best to live and that He deserves our love, respect, and service. Humility is the natural position of the human heart in the presence of God. The saints thought humility was so important St. Augustine said, “Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues, hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.”

Ultimately though, humility will lead us to not focus on ourselves. Peter Kreeft says that “Pride has ingrown eyeballs. [but] Humility stares outward in self-forgetful ecstasy”[3]. Genuine humility will imitate Jesus as he washes the feet of his disciples (John 13). Humility is marked by selflessness, and respect. Humility means the reason you do something is less about you and more about others. And so Jesus teaches that regarding God’s kingdom, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Jesus taught us to be servants not just of those we like, or those we feel comfortable with, or those we look up to, but to be servants of all. In Jesus’ language, Aramaic, the word for ‘servant’ and ‘child’ were the same.

In Jesus’ day children were extremely low on the social totem pole (as were servants). In the Gospel’s they are a symbol of the forgotten, or those who people have no use for. A child will not help you climb the corporate ladder. A child will not owe you favors. Children, in Jesus’ day, were often to be neither seen nor heard. To welcome a child you have to humble yourself. You have to get down to their level. You have to make eye contact. You have to ask them questions and become interested in their games and stories. This sometimes involves making a fool of yourself as you enter the play of a child. It is nearly impossible to be full of sinful pride and truly play with a child. It takes humility to make them feel welcome.

They were encouraged to embrace a child in a culture that gave them very little status at all. They were objects to be owned, or a nuisance to be quieted. Jesus taught them that to compete with other disciples, especially to mistreat disciples lower on the “totem pole”, was in essence to reject Jesus. To embrace the child, the “least of these”, is to embrace Jesus, and God Himself.

Philippians chapter 2 repeats an ancient hymn or creed of the early church- “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (2:6-8). Jesus, had the ability to be the greatest, but chose to be the least. He attempted in some way, to become the zero in the rank of humanity. He lowered himself in order to serve. Even to the point of being betrayed and killed on a cross.

As human beings we are often caught trying to put ourselves ahead of those around us. We do it at school, at work, in politics, and pretty much anywhere else we bump into each other. But, Jesus turns this on its head teaching us that to be great in God’s kingdom we paradoxically have to become last, and a servant of everyone. To begin to see ourselves as servants, and to learn to welcome those we can’t manipulate into giving us greater social standing (like children in Jesus’ day) will undo the pride that often marks our lives with others. It is a lesson Christ exemplified with his own life- identifying with the rejected, the least, and the zero’s on the social totem pole. Amen.

[1] Hurtado, Larry. commentary on Mark
[2] Kreeft, Peter. Back to Virtue, 97
[3] Kreeft, 103

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

wisdom and the power of words

James says the tongue is a fire, a fire that (though small) can set a whole forest on fire. In chaos theory it is proposed that a butterfly can set off an incredibly complicated chain of events that can result in a hurricane. James is saying our words can have this kind of incredible effect. Though small, the tongue can cause great harm, but I would also say it can cause great good as well. Karl Marx spoke words that resulted in the rise of communism that spread across the world. The words of Adolf Hitler resulted in the rise of Nazism and World War 2.  Martin Luther spoke and wrote words (along with others) that resulted in the Protestant Reformation that reshaped Europe and Christianity.  The words of Gandhi inspired a movement in India that resulted in freeing India from British colonial control. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke and inspired a non-violent civil rights revolution.  A huge fire can be set with the tongue!  James is wise to warn us about the power of our words. They have potential to do incredible good, but also incredible evil. I’m sure many of us remember hurtful words spoken to us as children or as teenagers. Hopefully we also remember encouraging words spoken over us by someone we looked up to.  
If words are this powerful we should we should be careful to evaluate our speech. Do we use our words to tear people down, or to build people up? Do we gossip and cause division, or do we spread kindness and unity with our words? Is our tongue a servant of truth, or of lies? Do we use our tongue when we should be listening? Do we remain silent when we should say something?  Do our words point people to Christ, or do we just reinforce the status quo?  Because words are so dangerous James reminds us that not many should be teachers and that teachers will be judged with greater strictness. (Those of us who preach should remind ourselves of that persistently.)
Jesus too puts tremendous emphasis on what comes out of our mouth. Jesus last week taught that it was not what goes into our mouth (the food we eat, and how we eat it) that makes us unclean, rather, it is what comes out of our mouth that makes us unclean. James tells us that “anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect”. Our words are very important indicator of our spiritual state.  
In our Gospel passage Jesus is asking about how people speak about him.  He asks his disciples “Who do people say that I am?” The answer is mostly positive- People said "John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." In general, the people seemed to like Jesus and respect him.  They weren’t saying he was a heretic, for example. Things are not so different today. If you ask people on the street about Jesus they will likely say positive things like “political revolutionary”, “wise teacher”, “healer”, “a good person”, “an enlightened person”, “a prophet”, “a miracle worker”. It’s pretty rare to get people saying negative things about Jesus. (They have lots of negative things to say about Christians, but not so much about Jesus.) While people will say positive things about Jesus, they don’t really give a very full picture.   
Jesus turned to his disciples and asked “who do YOU say that I am?” Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah."  Peter answered the question correctly, but his understanding of who the messiah was to be was limited by his culture. Peter’s definition had no room for a messiah that suffers and dies, so when Jesus begins to explain that he was going to suffer and die Peter pulls him aside and scolds him for talking nonsense. Peter wants Jesus to match his expectations of who he is. By “messiah” Peter means that Jesus is the one God will use to free the people from their enemies- especially the Romans. He is the king who has come with God’s presence, reuniting Israel and their God. He is going to usher in a new golden age. 
Jesus’ definition of “Messiah” includes great suffering, being denied by the highest religious authorities, and being killed. To Peter, this definition of Messiah is completely contradictory to his definition. Ruling God’s people as a kingly superstar and being killed by those he was to rule cannot go together. They are opposing ideas. So, Peter attempts to correct Jesus’ definition. “No, No, No. That’s not how this is supposed to work. If you’re the messiah you are to rule and destroy the Romans not die, that’s not part of the plan!” I suspect it was a temptation to fulfill the expected role of the superstar king minus the suffering. Like Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness when Jesus was offered the world by Satan, Peter is now unwittingly playing the part of Satan, who tempts him away from God’s will.  Peter rebukes Jesus, but then Jesus rebukes Peter.  Jesus pushes back hard against the temptation. Jesus was out to destroy evil, not the Romans. His eyes were set on a greater enemy. Peter’s vision was too small.  
Of course this is a question Jesus asks us as well, “Who do YOU say that I am?” In a sense it is the most important question for you to answer. My time with you as your priest has only been valuable insofar as it has helped you to answer that question with your lips and by how you live your life. 
Like Peter, it is tempting to define Jesus according to our tastes. There are bits we might like to cut off. Maybe bits that make him seem a little harsh, like when he turns over the tables at the temple, or when he tells people that he is the only way to the Father, when we like to see him as always gentle. Maybe he is a bit too accepting of people on the margins of society and we just aren’t ready to follow him there, so we cut that bit out, or just ignore it. It is tempting to try to reshape Jesus into an image we find more palpable rather than try to reshape our minds and characters according to who he actually is.
How we define Jesus has consequences for us as his followers. Peter did not want to accept a suffering messiah, but perhaps that was because he knew his disciples would suffer too. The ways we want to change Jesus, or critique Jesus with be an indicator or our own fears and dislikes about suffering with him, or following the marginalized into uncomfortable places. We might want to cut out bits that make Jesus seem harsh and not accepting because of the cultural mood that is prevalent in our culture.   
The answer we give to the question “Who do you say that I am?” has implications for who we are as his followers. Not only does Jesus as our Messiah have to die, but we are called to die too. Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and lose our lives for the sake of the Gospel so that we can gain our true lives.   The German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffor said “When Christ calls [someone] he bids them come and die”. His cross was to resist the Nazi forces from inside Germany, which eventually led to his execution. 
Now the tempting thing for me to do it to try to soften this definition of “discipleship”. It makes us feel uncomfortable. I know I feel uncomfortable thinking about it. I’m afraid that God might ask me to do something that I’m not willing to do. And, I’d rather not ask people to come and die, but they are not my words, they are Jesus’ words. He calls us to follow him on the way of the cross.
But Bonhoeffer also said that “Jesus asks nothing of us without giving us the strength to perform it. His commandment never seeks to destroy life, but to foster, strengthen and heal it.” Jesus wants us to give it all because he wants us- he wants you. He wants all of you. In him is freedom. In him is joy. In him is transformation. In him you find your true self. 

Peter was shocked by Jesus’ words- his redefinition of “messiah”. And with that shock came the shock of what it meant to be a disciple of this kind of messiah.  But look at where it leads. Christ suffers and dies, but is then resurrected victorious over all evil and rescuing humankind. So where will this redefinition of “disciple” lead? It will not end in the grave. It will end with our Messiah, our Lord, our Saviour, and our God, who through his cross recreates the world. Amen.
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