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March 8, 2015, 12:00 AM

Lent 3 - Year B

Lent 3

Year B

Christ the King, Quincy

 

Great things Thou hast done, O Lord, my God. I would name them and proclaim them, but they are more than I can tell. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen. 

 

    One of my best speech-writing teachers, Toby Ziegler of the West Wing, warned me from using Pop Culture references, as they drastically reduce the half-life of your remarks. Seminary professors echoed those sentiments, reminding students that that will so quickly create an insider/outsider dynamic than by preaching on a movie perhaps only a fraction of your congregation has seen. 

    And while that advice is well and good, I will share with you that I was struck by one of the central lessons in the movie “The Imitation Game” which I saw last night. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the premise of the movie, it is about Allan Turing, a British Mathematician who invents a computer to break the German Enimga Machine in WWII. While the course of the movie follows his war-time efforts, the movie is interspersed with vignettes from Turing’s childhood. This arm-chair diagnostician would probably place Turning on the Autism spectrum, and his brilliant mathematical mind often made him the target of classmate’s pranks. One scene in the movie has him trapped underneath the floor boards, with his classmates furiously nailing down the boards, sealing him in a coffin like space. 

    What the adult Turning reminds the audience is that Violence is gratifying. That, in some sense, violence is fun. But violence is ultimately hollow, as well. In the movie, as soon as Turing stops fighting the bullies, stops giving them the pleasure of his pleas for mercy, they quickly bore and move on to something else. 

    And Turing’s observation here is a brilliant way to understand this morning’s epistle. 

    The majority of biblical scholars believe that that the Epistle to the Romans is Paul’s best work. And it clearly is representative of the culmination of Paul’s earthly ministry. It is the most consolidated and refined eccliesology Paul offers the Church. But Romans isn’t Paul’s best work. In my opinion, it is here in Corinthians, where Paul’s best theology lies. More specifically, it is in this morning’s lectionary where we find the very heart of the Christian message.

    

    “The message about the cross is foolishness...but we proclaim Christ crucified.” I think it is hard for modern-day Christians to recover just how scandalous Jesus’ death was. We are the products of two millenia of art and music which glorifies Christ’s act of self-sacrifice upon the cross. But in the First Century, there was no honor in the cross. The cross was Rome’s most potent symbol of death and humiliation. It was considered so cruel, torturous way to die, that the Senate declared that no Roman citizen was ever to be crucified. Crucifixion, then, was Rome’s way of showing the conquered peoples of the world who was in charge. The cross was an instrument of death, but it was also an instrument of humiliation. Those crucified were helpless to save themselves. Their friends and family subjected to the horror of watching the one they loved ultimately die by suffication--their exhausted bodies too weak to fill their lungs with air. Occasionally, the Romans would grant the crucified the mercy of breaking their legs--speeding up death by rendering the dying unable to push up off their feet to help them gasp for air.

    And Jesus’ death upon the cross was the ultimate humiliation. When we remember Christ’s passion, we must remember how the Romans tried to humiliate Jesus at every turn. They dressed him in a royal purple robe as they pushed his majesty towards his death. They wove a crown of thorns, and hung a sign “King of the Jews” above his head. Rome, Pilate, and the local Jewish authorities wanted to scatter Jesus’ followers by making such a mockery of his death that no one would dare to follow him. 

    And it almost worked. 

    Jesus’ followers did flee in fear. The Jews who did witness Jesus’ death all questioned whether God would save his so-called Christ. While it could either be mocking or honest curiosity, those who watched Jesus on the cross wondered if he would call out to Elijah to save him. And when Jesus breathed his last, the witnesses were left with one of two possible assumptions: either this was not God’s Christ, or, if he was, he was abandoned by God. Jesus, like the writer of Psalm 22 might proclaim; “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?”

    For someone in the First Century Mediterranean, the simple fact that Jesus died on the cross was proof that he was not God’s Christ. When the fledgling group of Jesus followers tried to spread the Good News, they were often greeted with incredulous looks. For the Jews, such a humiliating abandonment by God at the hour of his death by the Romans was the sign that he was not the Christ. The Jewish Messiah would not be, could not be, so defiled at the hands of an occupying force. The idea that God would sacrifice his own Christ was a stumbling block to Jews anxious for God’s anointed one to free them from the occupation by foreign powers.  

    When the Jesus movement spread beyond the Jewish culture, they were greeted by a largely Greek culture just as suspicious of these early Christian claims to Jesus’ identity. For the Greeks, death by crucifixion just wasn’t logical. So much of the Eastern Mediterranean was influenced by the the Stoic movement of Greek philosophy, that the early reaction to Christianity was simply dis-belief. The Greeks, which Paul means those who value Greek Philosophy and culture, not just residents of the Greek city-states, valued wisdom. Wisdom would predict that God would be forever immortal. So to hear about the death of God’s son was foolishness. And so there was no wisdom in the cross--only humiliation and foolishness. 

    When seen against this backdrop, it makes sense as to why Paul is having such difficulty recruiting followers to the cause of Christ. There is nothing happy, nothing reassuring about the supposed Good News of Jesus Christ. A man who was killed by crucifixion at the hands of the Romans wasn’t only a poor choice in a poster image for a new faith, the image was scandalous. Jews decried the crucified cross as the ultimate symbol of spiritual uncleanliness, a dead body hanging from a tree, the victim of foreign occupiers. No Jewish God would foresake his own annointed one, His own Christ, to such a deplorable death. Gentiles saw the crucified Jesus as what the Romans meant it to be: a humiliating death exposing this person’s ultimate powerlessness at the hands of the almighty Roman Empire. It was a fools’ errand to think anyone could preach about a new world, a new kingdom, when the Romans were so intent on making a show of anyone who challenged their supremacy. 

    But Paul knew two things: God is God, and God doesn’t have to make sense to us. 

    Paul is rightly convinced that God’s kingdom does not have to play by humanity’s rules or expectations. The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.

    The power of God does not, is not, can not, be limited by humanity’s limitations. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.While the lectionary cuts Paul’s full argument short, he continues: Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are.

 

    God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. From these two simple postulates, we can extrapolate a wealth of theological data. 

    The first, last, and most important fact that these two rules attest to is that God is a God of transformation. God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God Chose the lowly things of this world, the despised things, the things that are not--to nullify the things that are. The lowly, the despised, those without...these are not the final state of affairs. Those things that are being cast down will be raised up by the Lord. Those who have grown old, God will make new. Those who have died in the Lord will be raised to new life with Christ. All things, the good, the bad and the ugly, the weak, the strong, and the forgotten are being brought to their perfection by Him through whom all things were made.

    I have on two previous occasions preached the curious message of Christ crucified. They were at the baptisms of Abby and John. On both of those occasions, like today, I preached my most heartfelt belief that Christianity doesn’t make a lot of sense. Christ crucified is foolishness. There are a lot of people who find the death of God to be a stumbling block. 

    But the cross wasn’t the end of the story. 

    There is good news on Good Friday, but it is not for the feint of heart. Christianity asks a believer to see not what is, but what will be. It is hard to argue with the cold facts of despair, of agony and entropy. But the message of Christ crucified is to believe in transformation. To see the end as the beginning of God’s transformative love and action in the world. 

    Returning to Turing for a moment. Christianity must stand in stark contrast to violence of any kind and in any form. Violence, as Turing reminds us, is ultimately hollow—there is no real power in committing violence against another human being, that is pure weakness, not strength. Strength, real strength, real power transform that violence into peace. 

    But relying on the foolishness of God takes courage.     

 

 

    Put simply, we are asked to become God-like: To become agents of transformation; To share the good news that bad news isn’t the end of the story; to proclaim Christ crucified, and to live as resurrected. To, at the last, observe the two rules about God: God’s weakness is stronger than human strength, but, Rule Two: no matter our weakness, our strength in God will make lighter the load of transforming this realm into God’s kingdom. 

    Two Rules.

Amen.




February 22, 2015, 12:00 AM

Lent 1 - Year B

Lent I

Year B

Christ the King, Quincy

    

    Great things, Thou hast done, O Lord, my God. I would name them and proclaim them, but they are more than I can tell. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen. 

 

    Traditionally, the Gospel for the first Sunday in Lent is always the story of the temptation of Christ. Matthew and Luke go into a good deal of detail about the exact form which these temptations took, while Mark gives us only the intriguing statement that once the voice from heaven proclaimed, "Thou are my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased." Then "the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan." Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark leaves it to our own imagination to speculated about the nature of the temptations which Jesus faced and successfully overcame.

    This also provides us with the license to think for ourselves about the nature of the temptations we all face and hope to overcome. When we first think about the idea of temptation, the picture that immediately comes to mind is the idea of being tempted to do something wrong or immoral, like a child tempted to steal a cookie, or an adult tempted to fudge a little on their tax deductions. We most often think of temptation in terms of doing something we know we should not do.

    That kind of temptation comes in rather stark moral colors of black and white, and we must choose between what we know to be right and what we know to be wrong. But, at least in my experience, temptation rarely appears in such stark contrast. If it did, I think, it would be much easier to resist the wrong and side with the right. I cannot think of many people who would knowingly and deliberately set out to do what they knew to be wrong. In most case, then, I do not think that temptation is about doing what is right or doing what is wrong; temptation most often comes into play when we are trying to define what is right and what is wrong.

    Human beings want to believe, seem to need to believe, that they are doing the right thing, even when sometimes they are not. Whatever it is that we want to do, we need to believe that it is not only what we want, but that it is the right thing to do as well. And that for me is what temptation is all about, it is the temptation to deceive ourselves about what is right and wrong. 

    Maybe an example would help to explain what I mean. Suppose someone were to decide to do a little creative accounting on their income taxes this year. They would not sit down and say to themselves, "Well, I think I'll just cheat and lie on my returns." No one intentionally starts off to cheat and lie. But what they might say to themselves is something like this: "These taxes just aren't fair. I pay the same portion of my income as a multimillionaire and I don't make a tenth of what they make, and heck, most of them avoid taxes altogether. Why should I get stuck, when they get off scott free, and most of the money the government takes, it wastes on one boondoggle or another. It isn't right. So if I fudge a little on my deductions and forget to report a little cash income, it only balances the scales. Why should I be the only one who pays the full rate."

    You see, I hope, where I'm going. We don't set out to do what we know to be wrong. In a real sense our consciences would not allow it. The real temptation is not simply to cheat, it is the temptation to delude ourselves that our cheating, or other sins are really alright. Our temptation is not so much to a sinful act as to believing the lies that would justify our sins. The tempting rationale comes before the sin itself. 

    M. Scott Peck, in his book People of the Lie, calls Satan by a very interesting name. He calls him the "Father of Lies". And when we are talking about temptation, I think that name is very compelling. It is not so much the things we do, but the lies which we are tempted to tell ourselves that are the occasion for sin. 

    A full list of these lies which we are sorely tempted to believe would be even longer than this morning's confession, but taken together they present us with a view of the world that looks something like this. Each of us is solely responsible for our own well-being. That in this struggle for survival, those who are the smartest, those who work the hardest, those who are the shrewdest will prevail and gain the rewards they seek. We did not make up the rules of the game, we tell ourselves, we may not even like the rules,  but if that is the way it is going to be played, we will play to win. If self-assertion and aggressiveness are the traits that it takes to survive and win, then we will practice these skills, and gain the rewards we seek, the rewards we deserve for ourselves and our families. And finally, what is probably the ultimate delusion, the ultimate temptation, that I can play the game by the world's rules and still keep by own values my own soul in tact. That how I act in the world can be separated from who I truly am as a person. 

    Described in these stark terms, the flaws in these tempting lies are readily apparent. But when we look at the real world about us, it would be naive to underestimate their power. Pick up the newspaper, or turn on the TV and you will see a whole array of goods and service almost, almost, guaranteed to make you happy and successful. Need a new car, not just any car will do for transportation, a car must now be a symbol which shows the world how successful you have become. Everyone needs a home, but not just any home, a home that is large enough, modern enough, in the right neighborhood to be a projection of our success. And what about children? Even they must be taught to compete, their lives must be structured and graded and ranked, so that they will develop the skills and attitudes needed to succeed in a world they did not create.     The tempting lies which the world whispers in our ear, lead us further and further from what we are called to be, and they never provide the happiness and security they so seductively claim to offer. For how much is ever enough? Just a little more, the world temptingly whispers, just a little more and you'll have it all. Just a few more hours a day, just a few more deals, just a little longer, and we will finally have it. Finally there will be enough, and we can go back to living the way we really want to. But is there ever quite enough?

    And, even more tragically, what happens to the person who can no longer compete? What happens to the person, who through no fault of their own, fins themselves without a way to compete, without a job? Not only is their economic survival in grave jeopardy, but according to the tempting lies of the world, their whole sense of self worth is up for grabs too. If our worth is based upon our ability to compete, if we can no longer compete effectively, what are we worth? And, again what about our children. My generation has suffered a massive identity crisis. Our parents rode a tide of unparalleled economic prosperity—they lived in a place and time where hard work was roughly commensurate with economic success. But the markets my generation now navigates does not come with the same sense of security. There is a great deal of personal anxiety among people my generation who have bought into the lie that their take-home salary and self worth are somehow linked. Many of us feel valueless because they have not been able to attain the rewards we have been taught to covet and enjoy? If we value our children because they succeed, what if the world deprives them of that opportunity, or what if they choose to seek success in some other way? Are they to view themselves as failures because they don't have as much as we do?

    All these are, I believe, the tragic and unavoidable consequences of the lie of competition which our society, which Satan if you will, would tempt us to believe. And to all of these lies, Christianity shouts "No". No, that is not how the world was made, that is not how the world is, that is not how God intends us to live, that is not where true happiness is to be found.

    As St. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothings things that are". That is not a lie, that is God's truth.

    And God's truth will, as St. Paul points out, always seem out of place, always stand in stark contrast to the lies of the world. The Christian will never be at home in this world, the Christian must stand for the truth in face of the world's tempting lies, and that will always mark the Christian as an outsider, as someone who does not belong.

    In the early third century, an unknown Christian wrote a letter to another christian by the name of Diognetus, that letter has been preserved through all the centuries, and it includes this picture of what it means to be a Christian in a world which espouses lies.

    "Christians are not different from the rest of men in nationality, speech, or customs; they do not live in states of their own, nor do they use a special language, nor adopt a peculiar way of life. Their teaching is not the kind of thing that could be discovered by the wisdom or reflection of mere active-minded men; indeed, they are not outstanding in human learning as others are. They live, each in his native land - but as though there were not really at home there. ...In the flesh they are, yet they do not live according to the flesh. They dwell on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the laws that men make, but their lives are better than the laws. They love all men, but are persecuted by all. They are unknown, and yet they are condemned. They are put to death, yet are more alive than ever. They are paupers, but they make many rich. They lack all things, and yet in all things they abound. In a word, what the soul is to the body Christians are to the world."

    That I think is part of our calling. To resist the tempting lies of the world, and to act as a soul for the world. To constantly remind each other, and anyone who will listen, that true happiness lies not in competition and acquisition, but in sharing and giving compassion. That humility, not self-assertion, is our calling. And that truth is stronger than falsehood, life is greater than death, and that in God's own good time, that the truth will indeed prevail. If we will reject the lie, and live in the truth. 


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