Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday; the beginning of the season of Lent. This season is one in which we as the Church and as believers journey with Jesus towards the cross. We are reminded of our own mortality as well the mortal death that the Son of God faced in order to bring us life. It is a season in which we are encouraged to engage in confession, repentance, and discipline so that God's grace might shape us into a more Christ-like people.

So let's begin with confession. I don't pray like I should. I don't like admitting it and its something a pastor should probably never have to say, especially not the pastor of a church where prayer is valued as highly as it is in this one. But I guess that's the thing about confession; you've got to make known those weak and not-so-great parts of you that you would rather hide. I struggle with prayer and I've struggled with it for a long time. In fact, its difficult to think of any significant portion of my adult life where it hasn't been a struggle. I've read books, heard opinions from people I respect, taken classes, and tried numerous different practices of prayer. I think it is even safe to say that many of those things helped for a time and helped me to grow in certain ways. In spite of that, I'm back where I always end up; a place where I'm not praying on any kind of regular basis. Of course, there are the prayers I lead as a pastor and I think those times of corporate prayer are extremely important, probably even more important than times of individual prayer. But I also know that Jesus had to withdraw to lonely places to pray. I confess now that over the last several months I have not been making those lonely places a priority in my life.

Repentance. I feel some level of guilt over my poor prayer life but I've got to be honest, I'm pretty convinced those feelings don't come from God. We often talk as if guilt is God's tug on our conscience to get us back on track and there may be some level of truth to that but I think we must admit that guilt has been an unwieldy tool in the hands of Christianity. More importantly, this kind of guilt stems from an unhealthy image of God; a portrait of God that looks something like a perpetually disappointed parent. I think God probably hates that we so often see him in this way. Instead, he wants us to remember that he is the loving father in the story of the "prodigal son", always welcoming us back home. And if that is the proper image of God, then I think that the son who decides to return home is the proper image of repentance. Luke never says anything about the prodigal feeling sorry for what he has done. Instead, he says that "he came to his senses" and decided to return home. His return home is his act of repentance because it shows that he recognized the error of his way, changed direction, and started heading down the right path. The father doesn't hold it over the son's head that he ran away. He welcomes him home because he realizes that the son's arrival is his repentance. He wouldn't have come home if hadn't already recognized the error of his ways. I recognize that my prayer life needs to be more than it is and I am turning away from the lazy and indifferent approach I have taken toward it recently.

Discipline. If repentance is not focused on guilt but a change of direction, then discipline is not a matter of punishment but of taking steps down that new path. Often people will choose to give up something as their Lenten discipline. This is something I've done for the past two years and I have found it to be an important means of spiritual formation. The spirit of Christ's life on this earth was one of service and sacrifice. Therefore, I believe that Christ's Spirit speaks to us when we engage in these practices, no matter how small. However, this year I intend to adopt a different discipline for Lent. Instead of giving something up specifically, I am making a commitment to seek those quiet places of prayer at least three times a week. I'm not going to say for how long each day or which days or what time of day or what kind of prayer practices I will engage in or anything like that because I know from experience that those things lead me down a road to a legalistic prayer life and therefore ultimately back to where I am now. But I will say that this commitment will at least mean getting out of my house, my office, or whatever other place there is that will provide insurmountable distractions three times a week throughout the season of Lent. Because saying 'yes' to a serious time of prayer, automatically means saying 'no' to the many things that clamor for my attention. This commitment means seeking those quite and lonely places.

I believe that the Spirit of God will meet me in those places and shape me to be more like his Son to the glory of the Father.

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Universal Covenant of Patience and Love

There can be no doubt that the God revealed in scripture is a God who hates sin. Story after story, text after text makes this abundantly clearly. God is constantly calling upon his people to be faithful and obedient and when they are not he takes action or proscribes some action to deal with that sin or disobedience. The story of Noah and the flood found in chapters six through nine of the book of Genesis is just one such story that demonstrates God's hatred of sin. Genesis 6:5 says that "the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil" and so God decides that he must rid his creation of humanity's abundant wickedness by destroying everything on the earth except for Noah, his family, and the animals who come on the Ark with him. If God is willing to wipe the slate of creation clean through the waters of a flood, the creation which God called good only a few chapters earlier, then clearly God regards humanity's sin as having fouled things up pretty badly

But in the midst of this story of corruption, sin, wrath, and punishment there is also a story of God's patience and grace. This is the case because after the flood God makes a covenant with Noah and his descendants and even all of the earth. This is the first of many covenants which God enters into in the Old Testament. (We'll actually be looking at each of the major OT covenants throughout the season of Lent. The only one we won't cover is the one with David which I preached about on the last Sunday of Advent. You can listen to the sermon here or read about the passage here.)

This particular covenant between God, Noah, and all the earth is a promise that God will never destroy the earth in this way again. This is a truly remarkable promise on God's part, especially when we consider how much God abhors sin and the ways it destroys his beautiful creation. Certainly, our world has seen levels of sin and evil at least as abhorrent as those in the days of Noah, if not more so. If God hates sin so much that he was willing to wipe the earth clean once just to be rid of it then certainly at times like the crusades or the holocaust or even with the gross injustices that exist today, it must be tempting for God to simply start over, to gather up a few righteous folks, the holiest of saints, and just be done with the rest of us.

But God doesn't do that. He has bound himself not to do so by this covenant that he made with Noah. Therefore, this covenant represents God's incredible grace and patience. It represents God's refusal to give up on his creation. It means that God is constantly working toward our redemption even if that means that for now he must put up with the corruption of his world while he waits for us to turn to him.

We might do well to consider this covenant with Noah the next time we ask ourselves how God can let all the bad things happen in our world that do happen. We say that we want God to come and right all of the world's wrongs but perhaps we don't realize what a cataclysmic action that would be. Perhaps the evil and injustice that exists in our world today is not a sign of God's absence or powerlessness but of God's patience. God suffers with us as he sees us and all of his creation suffer but out of his grace and patient love he refuses to step in and clean things up by sheer force as he did in the flood. Instead, God stepped into our world in the form of love made flesh in the hope that all of creation might never be destroyed again but redeemed and restored to be all that God intended for it to be. In his covenant with Noah, God proclaims to the entire world that even though there is nothing God hates more than sin, it will not ultimately be that hatred of sin which defines him. Instead, it is God's immense love for his creation which is God's defining characteristic.

Monday, February 16, 2009

A Second Touch

It is at least partially because of passages of scripture like the 8th chapter of Mark's gospel that I love to study the Bible and am thankful that such study is an enormous part of my life's work. Mark 8 is a literary masterpiece.

At first glance, Mark 8 begins with the kind of story that we expect to find in the gospel. It is a story which many people who don't attend church or study scripture have probably at least heard before. In fact, this story is so common to accounts of Jesus' life that we've already heard a similar story once before in Mark gospel. Just a chapter and a half earlier (Mark 6:33-44) we heard a story about how Jesus fed five thousand men plus the women and children who were with them. Now at the beginning of chapter 8, Mark tells an almost identical story about a crowd of four thousand people. And therein lies the first clue that there is more going on in this passage than just another miraculous feeding.

This miracle begins much like the one in chapter 6. Jesus feels compassion for the people because they have been several days without food and are far from home. Now at this point, if we have been paying much attention at all to Mark's story, we should be able to anticipate what Jesus is going to do next. After all, he fed well over five thousand people not much earlier in the story. Certainly, he can handle four thousand. We would expect Jesus' disciples to anticipate this as well since they were there when Jesus performed the earlier miracle. But much to our astonishment, when Jesus states that he wants to feed the people the disciples don't say "Awesome! Jesus is about to do another miracle!" Incredulously, they say "Where will anyone be able to find enough bread here in this desolate place to satisfy these people?" What? Are you kidding me? Didn't you guys see what Jesus did before? I can only imagine Jesus rolling his eyes in strained patience as he says again "How many loaves do you have?".

After Jesus feeds this mass of people, Mark decides to show that the Pharisees aren't too far ahead of the disciples in their understanding of Jesus. The Pharisees come to Jesus and ask him for a sign from heaven. I suppose feeding four thousand people out of almost nothing wasn't quite good enough for them. Not surprisingly, Jesus refuses to show off for them when he has just done a miracle and they completely missed the significance of it.

Unfortunately for the disciples, Mark isn't quite done emphasizing their cluelessness just yet. Jesus and the disciples are headed to the other side of the lake in a boat. On the way, Jesus tells the disciples to be on guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod. Yeast was seen as a corrupting agent in ancient Jewish culture. One's entire household had to be rid of leaven before the passover meal so that the unleavened preparation would not be contaminated by it. Therefore, Jesus is using leaven as metaphor for the disciples to guard against the corrupting influences of the Pharisees and Herod. He is saying that the house of Israel must be cleansed of their corrupt way of doing things. However, the disciples think that Jesus is scolding them for not bringing more than one loaf of bread with them for the journey. I have to imagine that even Jesus' patience wore thin that day. "Why are you talking about not having enough bread? Didn't you see what I just did? Twice!"

Next Jesus and the disciples encounter a blind man. Again, the healing of a blind man is exactly the kind of story we find in the gospels again and again but this particular episode has a twist. Apparently, Jesus' first touch of the blind man is not enough to heal him. When Jesus asks the man if he can see after he touched his eyes, the man says "I see men, for I see them like trees walking around" The man has sight now but its still a little fuzzy. Is Jesus suddenly experiencing a lack of healing power? Jesus places his hands on the man a second time and this time the man is able to see everything clearly? Why the need for a second touch?

The very next story that Mark tells is a conversation between Jesus and his disciples. Jesus asks them "Who do people say that I am?" They tell him "John the baptist; and others say Elijah; but others, one of the prophets." But then Jesus cuts to the chase and asks the disciples directly "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answers boldly "You are the Christ". This is a high point in Mark's gospel for the disciples. Finally, they seem to be getting it. After failing to grasp Jesus' amazing power in so many previous episodes, Peter finally gets it right. He is the first human character to recognize Jesus for who he really is.

But then Jesus begins to talk about how he must suffer and die. Peter isn't too fond of that kind of talk. And not just because Peter isn't willing to die for Jesus. He may very well be ready to do just that. But Jesus can not die. Peter has just proclaimed his belief that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the conquering hero whom God has sent to deliver Israel. Peter might die along side of Jesus in battle but Jesus can't die because if he does then that means that all of Peter's hopes and dreams for Israel will have failed. If Jesus dies, then its game over, there is no hope for Israel to be an independent nation with a God given king instead of the pagan Roman emperor and Peter takes Jesus aside to tell him as much.

Jesus' response is to actually call Peter Satan because he has his mind on man's interests rather than the interests of God. Once again, Peter has misunderstood who Jesus is and what his mission is all about. Peter's confession of Jesus as the Christ demonstrates that he has begun to see Jesus for who he really is but like the blind man in the previous story, his vision is still a bit blurry. Although, Peter is beginning to see, he will need a second touch, the touch of the resurrection if he is going to see Jesus clearly.

So it is with us as well. Most of us in the Church today have been following Jesus for a very long time; many of us our whole lives. As a result, we think we know Jesus. But incredulously, when we come to difficult points in our lives or the life of our church, times very much like ones that Jesus has carried us through before, we wonder how Jesus could possibly do anything for us. Jesus response: Give me what little you have and watch me multiply it just as I have done for you time and time before. But even when we are obedient to that command, even when we finally see Jesus in all his glory and power and like Peter we are eager to confess Jesus as the Christ, the savior who has come to deliver us, even then our vision of Jesus is not yet complete. We need a second touch of healing for we need to see that Jesus is not all glory and power; that he is also compassion, mercy, brokenness, and weakness. And he calls us to be the same if we are to be his followers. Only when we take up our own cross and trust in Jesus to lead the way no matter the costs will we really be able to see him clearly.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Contagious Holiness

Cleansing is central to the episode recorded in Mark 1:40-45. A leper comes to Jesus and says "If you are willing, you can make me clean". Jesus responds "I am willing, be cleansed". Mark then tells us that "Immediately, the leprosy left him and he was cleansed". Finally, Jesus tells the former leper that he must go show himself to the priest and offer for his cleansing what Moses commanded.

In first century Judaism, it would have been difficult to find categories that were more important than that of clean and unclean. Ritual cleanliness and purity were almost synonymous with holiness and therefore with Israel's understanding of its mission as God's people. To be unclean, like the leper in this story, was to be excluded from participation in God's covenant relationship with Israel.

In this passage, Jesus seems to simultaneously challenge and uphold these notions of purity and cleanliness. As has already been noted, cleansing is central to the story. It is important that this leper be made clean. Furthermore, after the man is cleansed, Jesus tells him to go show himself to the priest and take actions in accordance with the law of ritual purity.

Nevertherless, Jesus' response to this leper is not completely in line with first century Jewish standards. The standard response would have been to avoid the leper completely. Instead, Jesus is moved with compassion and reaches out to touch the man. This contact with the leper should have made Jesus unclean but what actually happens is the reverse. Jesus makes the leper clean.

Passages like this one can and should go a long way in guiding those of us in the so called "holiness tradition." Too often, our ideas of holiness are much like those of Jesus' contemporaries. We try to maintain a certain level of purity by keeping ourselves separate from everything in the world that might make us unclean. While holiness is certainly an important and essential part of our mission as the Church, we should not underestimate the power of Jesus at work within us to make clean those with whom we come in contact. If Jesus' touch has been powerful enough to cleanse us, why shouldn't we assume that it will be powerful enough to cleanse all those to whom we reach out in Jesus' name? A truly scriptural holiness ethic should not lead us to separate ourselves from the world with all of its impurities. It should lead us to engage our world with the love and compassion of Jesus.