Sunday, November 22, 2009

a beginner's sermon

John 18:33-37
"Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him 'Are you the King of the Jews?' Jesus answered, 'Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?' Pilate religed, 'I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?' Jesus answered, 'My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.' Pilate asked him, 'So you are a king?' Jesus answered, 'You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listend to my voice.'"

My twelve week old son, Jonah, is starting to notice his world.

When he was born, we’d have to put our faces four inches from his in order for him to see us. He’d sleep all the time and only cry when he needed to eat.

Now, he stares. He can focus on things twenty feet away. When we wind up his Winnie the Pooh mobile, he kicks his legs and shakes his arms, and smiles in anticipation of the music and turning figures. He follows the spinning of the fan blades on the ceiling, and cries out in excitement at the Mylar balloon we tie to his leg. We watch him work: trying to find his hands, hold his head up, swallow when he nurses. He is suddenly intense: he can go from joy to screaming in an instant. When he is happy, his smile floods his whole body, and when he is upset, he becomes rigid, flushed.

And suddenly, my husband and I find ourselves experiencing the world anew. We cheer when he gets out a good burp, smile at a full diaper, talk about how much he’s eaten that day. We track his eyes, trying to find out what has him so mesmerized, so focused. We can almost see the synapses firing.

For Jonah, every moment is full, intense. Even when he’s sleeping, he’s sleeping hard.

I think that it is really appropriate that we observe Christ the King Sunday the Sunday just before Advent, the Sunday before we begin preparing to celebrate the entrance of Jesus as a tiny infant king into our world. Remember the three magi, who come to pay homage to the infant Jesus as king.

So I encourage you to hold on to that image of Jesus as an infant as we think about Jesus as King.

Our passage today places us, not in the quiet midnight manger, at the beginning of a savior’s life, but at the end of Jesus’ life, at his end days full of conflict, drama and turmoil. Jesus is confronted by Pilate, a man who, historically, cared only about political power, and would as soon kill a Jew in order to keep the so-called peace as swat at a fly. And Pilate is pulled out of bed in the middle of the night to pacify a raucous crowd, demanding the death of Jesus. The crowd wants Jesus dead. Or maybe, more accurately, the crowd is drawn into a drama created by men of power who want Jesus dead. But these politically and religiously powerful men are so caught up with themselves and their law, that they don’t have the courage to condemn Jesus themselves. They don’t even enter Pilate’s house in fear of “ritual defilement.” And, according to their code, they can only administer the death penalty through stoning, and they want something more humiliating, more dramatic to punish this one who threatens their carefully choreographed social order. A crucifixion would be the ultimate rejection of Jesus by the Jewish leaders. In a way, they are saying, you are no Jew, deserving of a Jewish death; rather, you deserve the death of slaves and lower classes, the death of one who stands outside, on the edges, death by crucifixion.

But Pilate needs a “reason” to crucify him. High treason is the only crime worth the crucifixion sentence. After all, the Romans, too, have their rules and codes to abide by. So Pilate asks, “Are you a King?”

And Jesus responds with ambiguity, but Pilate, like the religious leaders who want Jesus condemned, wants things clear cut, boundaries clearly defined. Pilate lives in a world of absolutes – he obeys instructions; he carries out the law, not unlike the religious leaders who brought Jesus to him in the first place.

But Jesus wants to talk about Truth. Not the law, not codes or social boundaries, something messier, more complicated, muddled. Jesus isn’t interested in Kingship or political power or labels. Even when his life is at stake, Jesus wants to talk about the Truth of God.

Throughout the Gospels, when Jesus speaks of the coming kingdom of God, he doesn’t call God king, but Father – God ruling not as a typical, tyrannical king, but as a loving parent.

The Israelites of the Hebrew Scriptures wanted a king.

They, like us, had difficulty relating to a god who is a loving Father, and instead wanted a King, someone to tell them what was right and what was wrong, someone to set out clear boundaries and give them all the answers. Talking of Truth is so messy, so much more complicated, than having someone just tell us what to do. But 1 Samuel 8:7 tells us that “Israel’s demand for a king was in fact interpreted as a rejection of God.” And all through the Hebrew Scriptures we see that the prophets know that God is the only one who can be a true, good king, because God does not want to be a king in the conventional sense. But the Israelites still insist on having a human king; someone to tell them who they are, what to do, where to go. God wants to talk about truth, to get in to the mess and the mud, to be in relationship, not rule over us as if we were wild horses needing to be broken. Unlike the reign of humans who want to constrict and manipulate, God’s reign is the reign of a good parent. God doesn’t care about human power, only relationship. And that’s scary, and complicated, and frustrating, and so freeing.

But, for some reason, we humans think we need kings. We want to be directed, guided, told what to do. God is invisible to most of us, and we need the concrete, the reality of flesh. King David tries to be the best kind of human king possible. We see this in our Psalm reading for today:

“Psalm 132 asserts the remarkable piety of David. According to this text, David pledged his utter devotion to Yahweh, such devotion that David made it a primary pledge of his monarchy that he would remain unsatisfied until Yahweh’s ark was adequately housed. […] The ark as “dwelling place” and “footstool” is taken to be the throne on which the invisible God sits. The ark is indeed a vehicle for “real presence.”

Housing the presence of God – the ark – is David’s primary pledge as king. He promises to be devoted to God and to give God a place to be.

Unfortunately, we often try to house God in a different sense. We try to put God in a box, to define who God is and what God wants. We can’t handle the expanse of Truth, so we try to create boundaries, borders lined with cement bricks and barbed wire, in order to deal with a God that we can control, understand, hold in our hands.

But if we take this idea of housing the presence of God to mean that we welcome God with true hospitality, then we have something different indeed. David defined his kingship as one whose primary role was to invite God in. This becomes one of the most important roles of a pious king. The king should house the presence of God.

But the Temple is destroyed. The Davidic line, essentially, ends.

The Jews are in exile. They must follow the rules of an alien empire. And maybe it’s because of the oppression that they’ve suffered, or maybe because of the many years that have passed, or maybe because they need physical freedom before they can have spiritual freedom, they forget David’s primary goal. They, and we, forget that the role of a king is to house the presence of God.

Years of oppression, sadness, and boredom can cause some of us to look for power however we can get it. We begin to look for a messiah who will come and give us the same kind of power that we see all around us – the power that tells us that success, money, intelligence, and “having it all together” is the only kind of power there is.

Doesn’t this happen to us all the time? We are so distracted by the “rules” and the everyday demands of the world that we forget relationships and start buying in to what we think will give us power? We start thinking that our lives would be better if we just had that new car, or if our debts could be paid off, or if we just got that promotion.

But here comes this Jesus. Jesus who comes to us as an infant. Jesus who breathes deeply, eats heartily, breaks the rules, stares with wide eyes, lives intensely. Jesus who got out a few good burps, who stared until people thought he was a little rude, and noticed things that were overlooked: the woman touching his cloak in the crowd, the man who couldn’t get to the water to heal himself, the political leader who was so wrapped up in power and following codes and rules that he scoffs at the idea of Truth.

THIS is our king.

So when we say that Christ is King, we are not saying that Christ is the one who binds us, who gives us rules and codes to follow, or the one who can demand our execution with the wave of an arm.

When we say that Christ is King, we are saying that Christ is the one who houses the presence of God.

The Temple that was supposed to house the presence of God has been destroyed. But Jesus rebuilds it.

Jesus rebuilds the Temple by becoming the Temple – the place where God resides. Jesus becomes King, not when he takes on power, but when he becomes a dwelling place for God. But, again, this looks nothing like the Hebrews’ or our idea of king – for Jesus refers to God not as king, but as Father.

Are we willing to become subjects of Jesus as King, by also inviting God into us? Are we also willing to become dwelling places for God? This is no boxing in of God, but an invitation to relationship. To acknowledge God as our Parent is to invite God in, and to invite God in, is to take on the role of king. Jesus invites us, too, to call God Father, and to create spaces in our lives where God may dwell.

John 1:12 claims that we are all children of God.

Jesus becomes the Temple, the place where God dwells. But we are also children of God, and we, too, may become temples, places where God may dwell. We then, become a kind of spiritual royalty, many “Davids”, and our goal is to make ourselves Temples, sacred places where God may dwell. We are no longer subjects of oppressive rulers and situations. We are freed to be rulers in the only way that matters, we are free to invite God into our lives, to become children of God. This freedom, and our ability to be dwelling places come as a gift from God. Just by being created by God, just by being infants in the hands of God, we can be vessels which invite the presence of God.

I try to remember this when I see the freedom and passion of my son. He lives completely, fully, intensely, and is truly a child of God. Jonah is a king because he invites the world in, invites God in, and although he doesn’t understand it, although he is often confused and frustrated by it, he is fully present to it. This is what it means to house God, to welcome God in, because he sees the magic and mystery in the everyday things of this world, and offers himself to it fully.

Jesus embraces the royalty, not on a warhorse through the main gates, followed by hundreds of soldiers and hired men, but on a donkey on a dusty road through the back door into Jerusalem. His triumphal entry is marked by palms torn from the trees, waved by poor peasants.

And remember what Jesus tells the disciples in the Gospel of Luke: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them: and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”

May we accept the gift that we are dwelling places for God, and may we respond to that gift as Jesus does, through humble service, and through living fully, completely, intensely. May the greatest among us become like the youngest. Amen.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Mark 12:38-44

“As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’”

My greatest insecurity is that I don’t believe “right,” that I don’t have enough faith. I know that God isn’t up “there” with a scale or a giant chart, tallying all the good things I do and measuring them against all the bad things I do. But I cannot stop the cash register, the faith checking account that says “insufficient funds.” I come up short in the economy of faith every day. And I’m reminded of my poverty every time I step on my seminary’s campus, every time I long to be friends with someone more “conservative” than I am, every time I have to cross my fingers during the creeds at church. I try to find hope that my church is “a reformed church, always reforming,” but I still may never have enough coins of faith to get me through the doors, no matter how much they discount the admission fees.

But after the birth of my son, I can’t help but wonder whether or not this “economy of faith” is what Jesus talks about at all.

Just last week we had the raising of Lazarus as our Gospel Reading. Martha stops him from entering Lazarus’s tomb because of the smell of a decaying body, and Jesus says, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” He sees Martha’s lack of faith, and raises Lazarus anyway.

Another favorite: The father of a boy who is possessed by a spirit, comes to Jesus and says, “if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” And Jesus says to him, “If you are able! – All things can be done for the one who believes.” And the father cries out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Perhaps, Jesus comes not just to reward those who believe, but to help those who don’t.

When Jesus asks the paralyzed man at the pool, “do you want to be made well?” the man answers him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” The paralyzed man doesn’t answer his question, doesn’t say, “Yes! And YOU can do it!” No, the man begins to whine, to give excuses as to why he hasn’t yet been healed – hardly an example of ideal faith.

Jesus heals the paralyzed man who is lowered through the roof by his friends, for “when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’” It’s not the faith of the paralytic that heals him; instead, the faith of his friends is recognized by Jesus.

And even Jesus’ closest friends don’t understand his teachings. They don’t recognize him after his crucifixion. Thomas is famous for his struggle to believe.

For instance, when Jesus calms the storm, Jesus rebukes the disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

And when Peter, walking on the water, begins to sink, Jesus says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

The people in the Gospels who suffer from the poverty of belief are many, some notable, future leaders, others, simple, desperate.

We pray the “Our Father.” We often think of God as the perfect parent.

Would I love my son any less if he didn’t believe I existed?

Do I love my son less because he doesn’t really know me?

When he cries out to me in his hunger, do I make him profess that there really is milk before I nurse him?

The story of the woman with the two copper coins can be about how God can make small things great, or about how God can create greatness where there is none. It can be a story of the mustard seed, that when planted, yields great fruit. But for me, today, this story is about how God’s economy is not our economy. Contrary to what many CEOs and conservatives might argue, God is not a capitalist. There is no exchange of goods when we enter into a relationship with God. I used to think that one had to believe “right,” to “profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior” in order to be “saved.” But that is only continuing with the language of an exchange of goods. “God, I give You my belief, if You’ll give me salvation” (or security, or money, or whatever) – a quid pro quo.

Some people come before God with shopping bags full of faith. And oh, how I envy them. They are rich in belief; they live in mansions of security and assurance and closeness to God. But I am so grateful that there are those stories of people who come to God with empty paper bags, and God heals them anyway. Jesus invites us, even in the poverty of our doubt. He says, “Take up your mat and walk.” He says, “Come here, touch my side, feel the wounds in my hands, experience me, even in your doubt.”

Simone Weil: “We must only wait and call out. Not call upon someone, while we still do not know if there is anyone; but cry out that we are hungry and want bread. Whether we cry for a long time or a short time, in the end we shall be fed, and then we shall not believe but we shall know that there really is bread. What surer proof could one ask for than to have eaten it? But before one has eaten, it is neither need for nor particularly useful to believe in bread. What is essential is to know that one is hungry…”

And really, the bag is not empty. God just counts with different currency. The faith is there because the hunger is there. It’s there when I doubt and struggle and worry. Faith is like the air we breathe. And our faith is there because we need to breathe. When it is there, and we realize it, we are grateful. But when we don’t, we still keep breathing.