Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Like a Human Being...

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 replied, ‘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 listens to my voice.’

Daniel 7:9-14

9 As I watched,
thrones were set in place,
and an Ancient One* took his throne;
his clothing was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames,
and its wheels were burning fire.
10 A stream of fire issued
and flowed out from his presence.
A thousand thousand served him,
and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.
The court sat in judgement,
and the books were opened.
11I watched then because of the noise of the arrogant words that the horn was speaking. And as I watched, the beast was put to death, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. 12As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time. 13As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being*
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One*
and was presented before him.
14 To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.

For my field ed experience, I’m an intern at the Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community. I get to hang out with people at their ministry called “The Table.” It’s about as simple as it sounds. If you’re hungry, come to The Table at about 5:30 on Tuesday and Thursday nights and you’ll be treated to a free hot meal, a place to sit, and if you listen hard, some pretty interesting and eclectic and heartbreaking conversation. People from all ages and backgrounds and perspectives come to The Table. The place is so full of sticky, sweaty, hungry humanity that I leave exhausted, completely drained. It’s all I can do to drive home, give my son a bath, put him to bed and then collapse on the couch to play Plants Vs Zombies or watch reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

A lot of homeless people come to The Table. Some who could use a good “drying out” and others who are just down on their luck and looking for work. Sleeping under bridges has hardened some, has made others just tired. We also get a lot of lonely older people. They are estranged from their children, or never had children, or their children just live far away. Their bones hurt; their joints ache. We also have a table of widowed men. They meet at the McDonald’s on Mount Oliver every morning for coffee and Egg McMuffins, and then meet up again at The Table in the evening. Some of them are homeless, some are living off of social security, and others got out of the steel business just in time and are doing quite well living off their pensions, but they’re all just hanging on, holding on to this daily routine, holding on to each other. Then we have our “Occupy Table.” They’d been sleeping in tents in Mellon Park before they got kicked out, and have since formed their own little communities, sleeping on friend’s couches or in vans in Walmart parking lots. They’re tired too, and now just looking for jobs as baristas or sous chefs or freelance photographers. Some are still trying to hold on their idealism; others are just worn out and want to be able to afford a burger and a pack of smokes.

This place is chock-full of humanity. You’re in the thick of it. On any given night, you’ll see the broken families, the worn out day laborers, the dirt caked fingernails, the matted hair, the broken teeth, the guys still suffering with PTSD from the Vietnam War. You’ll see the hunger. The deep hunger of humanity. You’ll see people scramble to the free bread table, almost knocking each other down just to get the biggest loaves. You’ll see people get into arguments, debating politics, or the recent Port Authority cuts, or the Ref’s call from last Sunday’s Steeler game. They’re waving their arms, cussing at each other, raising their voices, and mostly, it’s just so they’ll be noticed. Here are people who are longing, aching, for community, for a place to belong, a place to call home. A place to be truly human. A place to rest their bodies and their minds and their hearts from the constant attacks from the media, from the failures of the government, from our social and economic systems, from the bigotry and the heartache of humans failing each other. They are longing for a break from the beasts of our day. And aren’t we all?

For Daniel, the beasts are the kingdoms and rulers that have threatened Israel’s very existence and way of being. They are far from human. In chapter 2, they are clay and iron and silver and gold. In our passage, they are bestial hybrids, horns and wings and tusks and teeth. They are the oppressors, the powers and the systems and the structures that force Israel to be who they are not.

We may not have foreign nations commanding what we eat or changing our names or throwing us into dens of lions, but we have beasts here. They’re the advertisements that tell us that we’re too fat. They’re the culture that tells us that violence is the answer to our problems. They’re the society that believes that money can make us happy. They’re the religions that isolate and control.

These systems, fears, failures, and prejudices are the beasts of our day. They’re the things in our society that make us think that we are somehow less than human, that we are simply the sum of our parts -

  • I am just a drunk who sleeps under a bridge,
  • I’m only this broken, arthritic body that my children have rejected,
  • I was once just a soldier in a failed war, and now I’m nothing but migraine headaches and alcohol addiction, or
  • I’m this collection of master’s degrees and grade point averages,
  • or I’m these publications and awards and professional accolades,
  • or I’d be somebody if only my boss would notice me, or if I could afford this car, or if my children would get good grades, or if I could just get married, or if I could quit smoking or eat organic or lose weight or...

The beasts want us to forget that we are made in the image of God. The beasts try to distract us from the very truth that we have been made just a little lower than the angels. But Daniel’s vision reminds us that it isn’t another beast who comes to deliver us. It’s “One like the Son of Man” - which just means “one like a human being.” The enemies are those who are sub-human, the ones who deny their own humanity, the things that oppress us and keep us from being who we are truly made to be.

And for the first time in the book of Daniel, this seventh chapter gives a glimpse of Daniel’s fear. Daniel is completely freaked out. If we just read a little further to verse 15, we’d hear “As for me, Daniel, my spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me.” In chapters 1-6, Daniel is depicted as a confident hero, one who knows all the answers and has worked the “system” well. But here, Daniel is scared out of his mind.

What is this fear about?

- The beasts frighten him. But he’s seen beasts before.

- The judgment in front of the Ancient One frightens him, but he’s been pretty familiar with the judgment of God before.

But what he hasn’t seen yet is this “One like the Son of Man” - someone or something, a community perhaps, that is so real, so vulnerable, so very fleshy and messy, and complicated and hungry and broken, terrifying and exhausting and so very very human. It’s to this humanity that is given dominion, and glory and kingship. And that’s scary.

When Pilate asks if Jesus is the King of the Jews, Jesus replies, “My kingdom is not of this world.” And I see him gesturing to the flags of the Roman empire, the eagles on his standards, and the swords and armor and military guards surrounding him. He says, “If my kingdom were from this world,” this world of fear and control and suppression, this world of power and exchanges and rigid definitions, “my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews;” they’d be playing your game. “But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

This is scary, ‘cause this gets him killed. And this is scary because somehow, in his weakness, we are saved.

Jesus’ kingdom isn’t a kingdom of beasts. We have got to remember this. Jesus’ kingdom is a kingdom made of lepers and prostitutes and tax collectors and friends who doubt and fear and run away. Jesus’ kingdom is a human kingdom.

And isn’t that the mystery of the incarnation? Isn’t it strange and scary and wild that God should come to us in our humanity?

There is a wonderful ambiguity in the text for today. According to scholars, the Aramaic could mean either “One like a human being coming from the clouds of heaven, or with the clouds of heaven.” These two simple prepositions, “from” or “with,” give us two pictures of what could be going on here. Is the Son of Man coming down from the clouds, coming down to us from the heavens? Or is the Son of Man ascending, going up, coming from this earth and joining to God? I don’t think anybody really knows. And maybe that’s how it should be. God comes to us in our humanity. We come to God in the same way, through our true humanness, through our connection to Jesus Christ.

To paraphrase Simone Weil, 20th century mystic and philosopher, when we come before God, we don’t need to have all the answers, we don’t need to shed all of our doubts, we don’t need to get rid of our fears; we only need to know that we are hungry. We are hungry for real food. For real nourishment. Longing to rid ourselves of the beasts of our day who try to manipulate and control us into being something other than who God has made us to be. May we come to this table today in our true humanity, with real hunger, with an honest desire to be fed by the one who was hungry himself, the one who defeated the beasts of Daniel’s time and of our own, and the one who invites us into the kingdom of true, full, real humanity. Thanks be to God.

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