Tuesday, March 26, 2013

the way of power or the way of humility?

There is a line from the film “Cool Hand Luke” that was on my mind this week as I thought about Palm Sunday. For those that may not have seen it, the movie is basically about a prisoner, played by Paul Newman, who refuses to conform to the ways of a brutal prison system. He is clearly a type of Christ-figure. After that prisoner, nicknamed Cool Hand Luke, dies at the hands of a ruthless guard and the warden, the rest of the prisoners are shown sitting around telling stories about Cool Hand Luke. One of the inmates, a guy nicknamed Dragline, a kind of Peter figure, says to the others “Oh Luke, He was a natural-born world-shaker”. That is Jesus. After all, we are all still, 2000 years on, gathering together to tell and hear stories about Jesus of Nazareth—a natural-born world-shaker. On Palm Sunday— in fact—all throughout Holy week—Jesus’ world-shakin’ ways are on full display—and it seems he might have planned it that way.
The story we hear on Palm Sunday is one of the most well-known in all of Christendom. The images are burned into our collective memory. Jesus, on the back of a donkey triumphantly riding through the eastern gate of Jerusalem with a crowd of people cheering and shouting, waving palm branches and laying down their cloaks in front of him. But there is more to the story.  Imagine: it’s a spring day in Jerusalem in the year 30. It is the beginning of the week of Passover—the most holy week in the Jewish year. Jews from all over the Roman Empire are flooding into Jerusalem to participate in the festival commemorating their ancestor’s release from slavery in Egypt. It is an exciting, sacred, and dangerous time in the Holy city. Jerusalem was under the control of the Romans and they always sent extra troops into the city during Passover to reinforce the soldiers stationed there—this was a show of force and a warning to their Jewish subjects not to get too worked up during the festival. Now, just imagine you’re on those streets teeming with religious and political tension. Two very different processions are about to march into this fragile situation. Through the eastern gate of Jerusalem comes a humble Jewish mystic on the back of a donkey. He was followed and surrounded by a group of his disciples—mostly members of the peasant class. Across town another procession is coming. This is an imperial procession led by Pontius Pilate—the Roman governor of Judea. Marching behind him is a column of Roman soldiers and cavalrymen on horseback. They are wearing armor and helmets, they are carrying weapons—just think of it—what a scene—could these two groups be any different? At the same time the humble Jewish mystic who spoke of the peace of the kingdom of God is coming through the eastern gate riding on a donkey—Pontius Pilate and the most powerful force in the world are coming through the western gate. These two processions embody the central conflict of Holy week—In both the 1st and the 21st centuries. New Testament scholars Marcus Borg and Dom Crossan say the Jesus procession certainly seems to have been a prearranged counter-demonstration. The scriptures indicate this. In Luke 28 we hear Jesus is going up to Jerusalem---the wandering prophet—mystic—teacher is preparing to enter the city of Jerusalem, the center of power. It is here he will confront the powers that be—and by the end of the week those powers will execute him. The Gospels say that When Jesus gets close to Bethphage and Bethany, two small villages a few miles outside Jerusalem, he says to two of the disciples, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, “why are you untying it? Just say this, the Lord needs it. This looks like Jesus is deliberately following a script written by the Prophet Zechariah.  In Zechariah 9:9 we read: “rejoice greatly o daughter Zion! Shout aloud, o daughter Jerusalem. Lo your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Jesus the humble prophet and mystic is creating a demonstration to counter the one Pilate and his soldiers are putting on. This is Jesus creating a piece of street theater. He wants to consciously say, he wants to consciously demonstrate, he is a no body. He is contrasting humility and power. He is coming into town as Zechariah’s humble, peaceful king—a nobody—a little man on a donkey leading a group of powerless nobodies. We are not impressed by little people—are we? If the divine came into town in a little cheap car—would even notice? Don’t we tend to notice the big people, the celebrities, the successful people with big houses and cars—the people with status. If we’re honest don’t we have to admit we like power? Prestige? Position? Don’t our egos crave it—even in subtle or disguised ways? The search for power is isolating—the craving of power, of position is separatism. And isn’t that prevalent in our culture? Don’t we, even if in subtle and disguised ways, encourage our children to want that power, that position. Many of us crave a powerful position so we can have power in the office, in the home, in politics, whatever. We crave power and in craving power we build a society based on power,—economic, military, and so on. The craving of power is in its nature isolating. If we want peace in our hearts, in our streets, we need to understand this. As long as we as individuals crave power, whether in the office or in the street, or in the home—that is as long as we crave the sense of domination, the sense of building power, and influence—we are bound to live in world that is the result of that process. On Palm Sunday Jesus is teaching us about power and domination systems, in both the 1st and 21st centuries, by putting his vision side by side with Rome’s. He is saying there is another way to be in this world—as Holy week shows, they didn’t listen then, and I wonder if we can listen now.
So again, what is Jesus saying to us with his piece of street theater? What is he demonstrating?—I say it is nothing less than the core of his teaching—he is summarizing his message just before he dies. As we look at what that teaching is we should keep in mind the show of power marching through the opposite gate.
What Jesus is doing is fascinating— When I read the gospel this week I was reminded of a teaching tool from Zen Buddhism. In Zen there is something called a koan. This is a phrase from scripture, a short story, or an episode from the life of a great teacher that is used to illustrate an important truth about the nature of ultimate reality. Essential to a koan is paradox—a statement that seems contrary to common sense and yet is perhaps true—like “less is more” or “the nobody is king”. When I read the gospel accounts of Palm Sunday I read a koan—I read Jesus, the master teacher, the Rabbi, giving us a lesson about the divine nature by enacting or demonstrating the core of his teaching. if we really allow ourselves to be grasped by what this humble king is showing us on Palm Sunday—it would surely shake the world.
Looking at our epistle reading for today, we hear Paul talking about the mind of Christ—the mind of the humble king.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ 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”. HUMILITY is at the core of this. We should have that mind that Jesus had—Paul is saying we should empty ourselves, humble ourselves—that we should not be self-centered but be God centered. Is this possible? It seems to have been for Paul and Jesus since Paul is certainly referencing his own experience as well as Jesus’. Paul’s words are consistent with the message of the humble king riding into town on a donkey.
Jesus’ own teachings from the Gospels also point to the humility at the core of his vision for the world. He is tells us to die to ourselves, or to humble and empty ourselves every day when he says, “pick up your cross daily”, elsewhere he says blessed are the poor, and blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the pure in heart—these beatitudes point to humility. He said, “If you want to save your life you will lose it”—another teaching on dying to self or humility. And in Matthew and Luke both, Jesus says something that sounds very much like the humble king we see on Palm Sunday, “All those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted”. This is what he is showing us on Palm Sunday—the humble man on a donkey with no army and no power is king. That was not the way of his world—and of course it is not the way of our world—in fact if we’re honest with ourselves we will admit it is diametrically opposed to the ways of our world. Do we notice the nobody riding into town? What if we all had the courage to truly follow Jesus, the natural-born world-shaker? And this is it—the whole point of this day leading into Holy Week--the whole point of Jesus’ demonstration--on this Palm Sunday WE ARE ALL in Jerusalem--There are two processions marching into town right now—one is the way of power and the other is the way of humility—which one are you in? AMEN.

Monday, March 18, 2013

the things God does

The things God does…..
Lectionary readings  for 031713

I've been wondering this week - and I invite you to join me in wondering.....
God is doing a new thing, says Isaiah: a way in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.  A new thing for a people in exile—a way home.  People at the end of their rope, with little hope, are reminded of the stuff God had done in the past, at the exodus from Egypt…a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert—a way home

God has done great things, says the psalmist, so we can trust that God will do great things again.   This isn’t wishful thinking, based on some faint desire; this is hope, based on the character of God.  We who have wandered off, or let God’s activity in our lives take second place, are offered a way back, another chance to come home to God.

And I wonder, could I write a song of the great things God has done in my life, in our common life as a congregation, as inhabitants of the great cosmos? 
And I also wonder, what new thing might God have for us? To those needing encouragement, or at a distance from God, or living in uncertainty, we hear this word, as the prodigal did last week,
come home, I will make a way.

All these new things and great things that God had done did bring our forebears back home to their homeland, and home to God temporarily….but soon they were back into the old ways, distancing themselves from the ways of God’s love, hope, compassion, and justice.

So God fills and empowers Jesus, to draw people back home to God again.

And Jesus, who is so spiritually insightful and developed that he is at home with God all the time, becomes a wandering teacher with no home of his own…..but he has three bff’s: Lazarus, Martha and Mary, who welcome him, often it seems, into their own home.    In the chapter before, Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead, so he is particularly welcome…..God has done great things for us, says this family, and we respond with gratitude and welcome.
It seems that he is at home here…..
And I wonder if Jesus feels at home in my house, or yours?

This story appears in some form in all four gospels, usually placed between plots to kill Jesus and his betrayal.  The opposition is closing in, tensions are high…we are getting closer and closer to that awful week that so many of us like to avoid.

And Mary breaks open an expensive ointment in the middle of this dinner party, and anoints Jesus…..what’s all that about?
Anointing generally was either a way of naming the new king, or preparing a dead body for burial.   We are not privy to Mary’s motivation, but whatever she may have been intending, it seems she ‘gets’ what is happening in the big picture—

who Jesus is,
the kind of honor he is due,
and an inkling of the coming trouble

so she does this radically, ridiculously extravagant,  tender and holy thing.

And of course somebody has to complain.  It seems like a reasonable objection; one we still hear today;  the new pope brings that quite clearly into our view.  In all the gospels you get the same reaction: what a waste of money!

In the other versions it’s either the disciples or the other guests, but here John says it’s Judas, and with hindsight long after the event, John sees a self-centered motive that he then contrasts with Jesus’ reading of Mary’s motive….it’s anointing for a body that will soon be dead. 

It’s an act of incredible love and devotion.  Is love ever wasted?   Surely a heart that open will also tend the poor, but for now, for this moment, it was the right thing at the right time.
While she still could, she did …no procrastinating.

And I wonder, do I put off showing my love for Jesus?

Mary doesn’t consider the cost, nor does she care what people think, nor is she forced into this act;
…nothing else matters but showing her love; it’s an entirely spontaneous, ludicrously generous, tender recognition of the value of one life, that of Jesus, this agent of the God who does new and great things.

And I wonder how I respond to the new and great things God is always doing?  How spontaneous, generous, tender, recognizing am I?

Then there’s this lovely phrase: and the fragrance filled the whole house.
It’s a little, inconsequential detail, but important enough to be included in the story remembered and written down  years after Jesus.

Perhaps it contrasts with  the “stench of death” of the previous chapter, when there was an objection to opening Lazarus’ grave.  Or with the stench of greed and betrayal and looming violence, festering in and beyond those walls.

So it really speaks to me. the fragrance filled the whole house.
…the fragrance of generosity
…the scent of love and understanding
….the aroma of tenderness
in a world of greed and violence and distance from God.

And I wonder what fragrance are we emitting into our own houses, or this house of God, or the world that is OUR home?  

Do we in any way resemble Mary, and her sister Martha,  who by both  acts and attitudes,                                                             show adoration,                                                                          humility,                                                                                           service, love, gratitude?

While our Isaiah and psalm readings spoke of the great and new things God has done and is doing, this story calls for a response---what are WE doing?  

May our homes be filled with the fragrance of love
May our lives give off the scent of generosity
May our hearts be full of the aroma of grace.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Come to the waters

I watched a TV documentary this week about elephant poaching for ivory, and the investigator commented, there are two kinds of people – those who wish for possessions, and those who wish for something much larger. The poachers, the go-betweens, the consumers of beautiful ivory items….and those who actively try to stop this because they see a much bigger picture.

I’m guessing most of us are not involved in poaching, but we are desperate consumers of stuff.   Most of us are not involved in the trade of ivory, but we rarely question where our stuff comes from, or what some people had to go through to get it to us.

Sadly, many of us aren’t actively involved in anything larger, either.  Our vision is pretty limited to our own little corner of the world, and is usually material- based, earth-bound, tangible, logical.  If I can see it, and it affects me, I’ll pay attention.

For example, in our Isaiah text, the writer has God asking, why are you working for something that doesn’t satisfy?   Have you ever asked yourself that?  Have we ever considered that all our hustle and bustle and ambition and scrambling up the ladder of success isn’t actually satisfying us?

So now that I’ve raised the question, what ARE you thirsting for?  

Some of us might answer something like
A new job
A raise
A promotion
A good grade on a report card

Others, a little more in touch with the nonmaterial realm might say you’re thirsty for
good news from a medical test
relief from depression
comfort after a loss

 Or those with a bigger vision who “wish for something larger” might say you thirst for
A little more respect at work or a bit more affection at home, or
Answers to life’s perplexing questions, like the disciples in our gospel reading

And as our vision expands, so does our thirst, and then we thirst for things like
more compassion,
justice, or world peace
or a deeper connection with God.

So what are you thirsting for? ………
And once you name it, is an hour a week sitting fairly passively in a church, doing it for you?

Of course not.  No more than one glass of water a week would satisfy your physical thirst

God invites,  Come, quench your thirst with something much larger, something free. 
What God offers is only found in the larger visions—it’s soul food—promised in Isaiah’s wonderful passage of the new abundant life that follows trauma of loss and exile for God’s people then, and now….
God’s vision of a reversal of values for those who’ve been devastated by war, broken by loss, scattered physically and battered emotionally…God offers a different mindset that invites us into something much larger, and it’s free…its wondrous metaphoric language is a reminder that the material realm is not the only one in the cosmos: we also live, mostly unaware, in a realm of soul energy that we can’t see, where God-qualities like kindness and compassion float freely,
where care of the earth and the elephants matters deeply,                                                                                where Love, the life force of the cosmos, not possessions or power, quenches thirst

This realm is a rich source of thirst-quenching water, an ever-flowing stream, not a once-a-week well.   And if we’re still thirsty, we need to be coming to the waters more often, day by day, sometimes hour by hour….to live our lives close to the stream.

If we don’t, we’re a waste of soil, like the fig tree in the gospel reading.
(Reading from The Wisdom Way of Knowing p58)

And if we DO,
(Reading from The Wisdom Way of Knowing p59)

Story from the ancients about the teacher handing  out the water…..

This Lent, this week, this day, let’s stop struggling, whether for possessions, prestige, power or even just pleasure.
Instead, let’s come to the waters, and tap in daily to the divine stream of abundant life.  Then, and only then, can we be involved in that something much larger  that will bring about compassion, justice, world peace, a deeper connection with God.

It is our human job to release that energy so the planet  and all that’s alive may also have abundant life we know through Jesus the Christ.
What are you thirsting for?   Come to the waters.