Sunday, September 28, 2014

"Who's the Boss around Here?" Or, "Hold Me Closer, Tony Danza"

MATTHEW 21:23-32
23When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
28“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

So on this week’s bulletin, I so wanted to put a picture of Tony Danza on the cover. You’ll all be happy to know that Dan encouraged me not to. 
But really, this passage is about “Who’s the Boss”?

The Chief Priests and Elders come up to Jesus and ask, “Who the heck to you think you are?”

See, Jesus had been causing a ruckus. He’s finally letting the cat out of the bag, although he’s not directly saying so. Through his actions, he’s let the people who are paying attention know who he really is. Instead of parading around shouting “I’m the Messiah!” from the rooftops, he’s grabbing someone else’s donkey, marching into Jerusalem like a king, flipping the tables in the Temple in a fit of rage, and then cursing a fig tree ala three year old because he was hungry and it wasn’t producing any figs. 

It’s bold. It’s a little bit crazy. And it’s not going to end well. 

Who the heck do you think you are?, the Chief Priests and Elders ask. 
Who do you think you are, causing this ruckus?
Overturning the tables, and the peasants’ expectations and the status quo?
Telling folks that the last shall be first and the first shall be last?
Overturning our systems of power and prestige and financial establishments?
Who do you think you are, coming in here, disrupting our political systems, our financial and religious systems, even our agricultural and labor economies?
Who the heck do you think you are?

Who’s the boss here? And why are you acting like one?

Jesus, remember your place, they are reminding him. Remember that you are just a Jewish peasant, questionably educated, if at all, from the dirty, questionable, town of Nazareth, from questionable parentage. Remember that you’re just a carpenter’s son, if Joseph really is your dad, and that crazy locust eating guy with the dreadlocks and the body odor, he’s your cousin. Get back where you belong. Remember your place.

Jesus, remember that the crowds surrounding you are fair-weather friends. They are going to abandon you as soon as you stop giving them what they want. They are there to just suck the life out of you and then it’s no more “Hosanna!” No more, “Prophet!” No more, “Save us!”

Remember that this Temple has been here for over 500 years, and this economy has been working for us, and we’ve made nice with the Romans and we’ve been left alone and we can handle these crowds, and everything is copacetic. 

Jesus, remember who you are. 

Who do you think you are? They ask him.

By whose authority do you do these things?

And so. Like all true teachers, like all the good leaders, like all the folks who have ever meant anything in our lives, Jesus has a way of determining what they really need. 

Do they really need to know the answer to that question? Or do they already know it, and are afraid to admit it? Afraid to confront it and embrace it and live it.

Who the heck do you think you are?

Jesus answers their question with a question.

John the Baptist, that guy you rejected, that guy you didn’t believe, that guy you thought was crazy, that guy who upended your social systems and called you all to repent, the one who lived on honey and locusts and wandered the wilderness and refused to participate in any of the powers of oppression of either the Roman State or the Temple Authorities, he knew who I was. 
So where did his authority come from?

And with that, he’s caught them. He’s put a mirror up to them. He’s helped them answer their own question. If they say that John’s authority is from God, then they have to admit that they were wrong. If they say that John’s authority came from himself, from human origin, then the crowd will revolt. Either way, answering the question means that they are admitting that they are not the ones in charge, they are not the ones with the right answers. 

The crowd knows something that these religious right do not. 

The ones who are in pain, the ones bleeding for twelve years, the ones who prostitute themselves, and are hated by society, the ones who have scabs flaking off their skin and snotty-nosed children crawling all over them, the ones looking for water in the heat of the day, they know something that you do not. They know what their need is. They know what their weaknesses are. They know that they have pain and questions and fear and exhaustion. They know that they need more than their own self-righteous indignation. 

They know that they need Jesus.

Where does Jesus’ authority come from? From heaven or from humanity? 

I think the answer is yes.
The answer is both.

Because Jesus came to us as a human, full of humanity and hunger and flesh and exhaustion, full of temper tantrums and condemnation and overturning of tables and cursing of fig trees. Because Jesus rides to us like a king — but on a donkey, he heals us — but with his own spit, he offers us living bread and wine — but of his own broken body. 

Jesus’ authority comes from both his humanity and his divine chosen-ness.

So what’s worse, Jesus asks, to be the broken person who tries to do the right thing, or to be the broken person who lies about doing the right thing, and then goes and collects the tax money from the temple, or proclaims to know all the right answers from high above the crowds in the bell towers or the ivory towers or the financial towers where things are clean and well-kept and organized and decent and in order?

These people over here, the ones whose lives are a mess, the ones who are broken and hurting and wandering and wasting and living in fear, they are the ones who’ve got it right. They know their brokenness. They know their lack. Their need.

But you, he tells them — Can I even say, he tells us — You parade around in your fancy robes and and claim that you have the answers. You claim that you are in the right. You claim to have the authority because of who your father was, or because of your education, or because you picked yourself up by your bootstraps, or because of where you were born. You’ve put yourself first. 

And in your rush to get to the front of the line, you’ve missed it. You’ve passed by my face in the beggar on the street. You’ve missed me in the face of the minimum wage worker who just made your sandwich or frothed your latte. You couldn’t see me in the bus driver or the single mom with the two year old throwing a temper tantrum in the grocery store. 

You’ve been so busy being right, doing what you’re “supposed to do,” following the path laid out for you, that you’ve gotten so so lost. 

I’m not going to tell you who I am, Jesus says. Your fear won’t let you hear it anyway. 

I’m not going to tell you who the boss is. It’s all too messy for you. It’s all too full of life and doubt and the messiness of transformation. 

But if you want, come work in the vineyard with me for a bit. Get some calluses on your hands and stain your fingertips with grape juice. Come sweat and work and ask a few questions. Come work in the soil and help with the compost and get a little sunburnt. Change your mind and go. Work side by side with someone you think you’re too good for. Learn from them. They’ve seen something that you haven’t. They understand something that you don’t.  Change your minds. Go into the vineyard. Here it is, right in front of you, right where you can see it. 

Follow the crowd of brokenness and you’ll change your minds, you’ll believe. 

Oh Jesus, help us to change our minds, and go.


And also, This: 

And This: 

The Endless Riches of a Bankrupt God

MATTHEW 20:1-16
1“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

The other day at The Table, I yelled at a lady. Two ladies, actually. But one was an old woman. In one of those scooter wheelchairs. The other lost her teeth somewhere and can’t afford new dentures. 
I yelled at scooter lady. And at toothless.
Ok. maybe not “yelled.” But definitely scolded.

They were both being so greedy. But that’s nothing new. They’re always greedy. This night though, I’d had enough. I was just at some kind of breaking point.

It’s so weird. At The Table, our community meal that we serve twice a week at Hot Metal, everyone is usually so grateful and kind and pleasant during the first round of food. Everyone gets a meal. Everyone is served. Everyone is happy. 

It’s awesome. It’s like the Kingdom of God, right there on the corner of 27th and Jane street.

But come time for “second serving,” when we dish out any extras in styrofoam take-out containers and line them up on the counter like a wall between us and them, and folks start crowding in line, they start looking at what the other gets, they start questioning why Jane got two and I only got one, or why this has an extra scoop of potatoes, but I wanted more gravy, or why don’t you carry more bags, more plastic forks, more napkins and salt and pepper packets and more more more.

It’s like we’ve fed the beast at the first serving. And it wakes up. And during seconds, people lose all sense of dignity and propriety and common decency. 

Well, the other night, I’d had enough. 
Enough of the greed and the gimme’s and the comparisons.

That night, I told the throng of folks waiting in line that we didn’t have enough for everyone to have seconds. That some of them waiting in line might not get it. That they should only take one if they really needed it, or knew someone who did.

The first woman, who had raced to be first in line, then asked, “so, can I take two?”
NO! You cannot take two! Did you just hear what I said?!

Then scooter lady came up, and cut everyone in line, because, well, she has a scooter… And I gave one to her. And I tried to smile. And I took it back and put it in a bag. And then took it back again and put it in a different bag that didn’t have any holes in it. And I thought that was the end of it. But then she proceeded to ask someone else for another to-go. She wanted thirds. 

I couldn’t take it. “Do not TRICK other people into giving you more than one!” I told her. “Do you see all these people in line? Do you see that THEY haven’t gotten any?!

And then she said, “Where are the cookies? I want cookies, too.” 
And I just started a crowd funding campaign so that I can keep doing this next year. 

I think I might be crazy.

But boy if my work at The Table doesn’t encapsulate the tension found in today’s parable so well. 

On the one hand, I really think The Table is a picture of the Kingdom. It’s a small taste of what God wants for all of us. We all get fed. We all live in community. We all work together.

On the other hand, we are humans living in a human world, full of human greed. And we want to race to get it all before anyone else gets there. We want all the to-go boxes, even if the meatloaf is just going to rot in our fridge and the bread is going to get stale on our countertops.

And on the one hand, I wish I could work in the vineyard for free - to not even ask for the day’s wages, to just bask in the light of the warm sun and the comfort of being in God’s vineyard, working for and with God. 

On the other hand, I need to feed my kids. I “need” things like car insurance and lattes and beer money.
So I’ve started this IndieGoGo campaign, trying to raise enough money to keep my position as The Table Minister at Hot Metal. The church itself can’t afford to keep me, so here I am, begging folks on Facebook to support me, $2 at a time.

And I’m so conflicted about the whole thing. Because I wish I could just work at The Table for free. I wish I could just focus on my work and serving others and keep smiling when I want to strangle someone, and keep encouraging when I feel their despair, and not have to worry about feeling like I owe someone something, like I’m in debt, like any time I treat myself to a new pair of underwear or a hit of caffeine that I’ve disappointed someone, that I’m not being a good steward of the money that they’ve given me. 

This parable makes me nervous. More than nervous.
Because I’ve always been a “good girl.” 
I’ve always done the right thing and hardly even drank in college.
I’ve always thought that if something is worth having, it’s worth earning. 
I’ve always been the kid who shows up on time, ready to work the full day, ready to earn my hourly wage.

I’ve always believed that if you work hard and apply yourself and said no to drugs, you’ll get what you worked for. And then you won’t have to feel bad about it. You’ll feel like you deserve it, because you earned it. 

Three master’s degrees later, and I’m starting to wonder about all of that. I’m starting to think that scooter lady has the right idea. Cut in line. Run over people’s toes. Demand the third helping.
But I HAVE been living like that without even meaning to.

Just by the fact that I’m a middle class American means that I have benefited from someone else’s back-breaking labor, someone else’s misfortune, someone else’s victimization. Someone else got to the vineyard a lot earlier than I did. Folks have gotten there a long time ago. And some of them are still waiting to get paid. 

Initially, upon reading this parable, I related to the workers who’ve been in the scorching heat all day. I’m the one who deserves more because I’ve worked harder, longer, smarter. I’ve gotten the good grades and played nice on the playground and picked up the litter and recycled all the soda cans.  But really, I’ve come to the show late. I’ve been given a full day’s wage even though I’ve only worked an hour or so. I’ve been given enough for the day even though I haven’t really earned a single thing in my life.

There is always going to be laborer who got to work earlier than you did.

There are a thousand ways that I’ve demanded the third helping. 
With every third world t-shirt and rainforest clear-cutting Big Mac, with every fill of my gas tank and every wasted moment on Facebook, I’ve used what I haven’t earned. I’ve wasted what’s been given to me.

And this is enough to forgive the scooter lady. And the toothless lady. And the two mentally ill folks who are threatening each other with their plastic forks, and the homeless guy who needs yet another clean t-shirt, even though he was pretty well stocked just the other day.

But that, I think, is the point of the parable. God functions under an entirely different economy. God doesn’t have time clocks. We don’t belong to a union. We don’t get paid vacations and employer covered health insurance. We don’t work for God. 

We aren’t God’s employees. 
We are God’s children.

God pays and pays and pays, not because God needs workers, but because God wants more folks inside of the vineyard. We all get a denarius, a day’s wage, enough to live on, whether we work eight hours or one hour. We all get enough because God wants us to have enough, not because we’ve earned it, not because we deserve it, not because we’ve done a certain amount of work for God. But because God wants all of God’s kids under one roof.

God’s going to go bankrupt with this business model, giving everyone enough to survive on, even if we’ve only worked the last hour. It’s a terrible business model. 

But having kids is never a sound business venture to begin with, is it?

It’s not about the work. It’s not about how much we get done. It’s not about how many bushels of grapes that we pick or how many dishes get done or even how many souls get saved. God doesn’t care about any of that. Because when it comes down to it, the dishes just get dirty again and God’s the one who does the saving. God just wants to see us wandering around God’s kingdom. God wants relationship. God just wants to bring us into the kingdom. 

Come inside. Come inside where you get enough, even if you don’t think you’ve earned it, even if you don’t think you deserve it. Come inside where you get to be God’s child. Where you get what you need simply because you belong to God.

Somehow we have to hold the tension of working in the vineyard, in God’s Kingdom, while also living in this world of corruption and capitalism and the power of the all mighty dollar. Somehow we have to live and work and love in God’s vineyard, God’s Kingdom that is here and now, and also not yet. Somehow we have to live in to God’s economy and still go home to bank accounts and finance charges and interest rates. Somehow we still have to feed our kids amidst the reality that there are far too many kids out there who don’t get to eat at all.

So we need to be careful. Because enough really is enough. Don’t feed the beast and make being in God’s kingdom all about gathering up more for ourselves. We can’t put God in a to-go box. We can’t hoard the grace and get upset that someone else gets the same amount as we do. We get one family. God’s family. And that’s enough. 

I need to remember that when I’m frustrated that there aren’t more people helping out at The Table. I need to remember that when scooter lady is demanding more cookies, and when someone has, for the third time that night, stolen the trash bag out of the women’s restroom. We are family. And that’s enough. 

Come in to my vineyard, God says. Come in and have enough. Have enough for the day. Have enough and don’t worry. Have enough and don’t compare. My grace is sufficient for you. You’ve got all that you need. 

Thanks be to God.


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Mapping Forgiveness.

MATTHEW 18:21-35
21Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
23“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

So that crazy whipworm looking thing on your bulletins is actually a map. It’s a map of Laniakea, or “immeasurable heaven.” It’s a super cluster of galaxies that R. Brent Tully and his team from the University of Hawaii have mapped. It’s, essentially, a hunk of the universe. Using their best calculus and physics and measurements and imagination, they have mapped something which they cannot see, cannot go to, cannot even completely fathom or comprehend. This hunk of the universe measures 500 million light years across. It contains 100 million billion stars. And somewhere behind that red dot, is our solar system, our sun, our earth, the city of Pittsburgh, the Greenfield Neighborhood. 

Humans have been mapping what they cannot see, where they have not been, where they have no means of getting to, for millennia. 
It’s a crazy act of faith, really. To map what you have no real proof actually exists. But we need maps, to help us place ourselves, to find meaning, to gain perspective and direction.

Peter, wanting to show off his theological mapping skills, says to Jesus, “hey, how often should I forgive my brother or sister? Seven times?”

Now Peter is speaking in metaphors here - he is essentially asking/telling Jesus that he knows all about forgiveness. He’s figured it out. Seven, in Jewish culture, was considered to be the perfect number. So, here Peter is, coming off of the “who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven discussion, trying to show off his theological muscles, to be the teacher’s pet, in front of Jesus and the rest of the disciples. We should forgive others as many times as is perfect. Aren’t I great! Don’t I get a sticker! A pat on the back! Extra time for recess?!
Peter asks, “I should forgive perfectly and completely, shouldn’t I Jesus?”

And Jesus responds, “No. Peter. You should forgive seventy-seven times. Seventy times Seven times. (the Greek is unclear here) You should forgive more perfectly than perfect. Here, hold this dunce cap, sit in the corner, and let me tell you a story.”

Here is a story of where we have not been. Here is a story of hyperbole and exaggeration to help you get just a small taste of what God’s grace and forgiveness is like. Here is a rough map of God’s grace.

Once upon a time, there was a king. And the king had some slaves. And this one slave owed more money than he could ever repay in ten lifetimes. This slave owed a million gazillion dollars.  And the king came to him and demanded that he get his money back. All of it. Right now. And of course, the slave didn’t even have a million dollars, let alone a million gazillion dollars. So the king says, “well, if you can’t pay, I’m going to take you, your wife, your kids, and everything you’ve got. I’m going to lock you all up until you can pay back every red cent.” And the slave pleaded with him. Begged him for forgiveness. And the lord shows him mercy and forgives the whole debt. A million gazillion dollars wiped right off the guy’s credit history.

So the slave goes on his way. And, forgetting his great debt that was forgiven, he encounters someone who owes him a quarter. And he shakes him and chokes him and threatens him. Then throws this poor guy into debtor’s prison. Pretty hypocritical, eh?
When the poor guy’s friends hear about what happened, they go back and report to the king about the slave’s hypocrisy. And the king gets mad, throws the hypocrite to the torturers, and punishes him worse than if he’d been thrown in prison to pay off his debt in the first place.

We have so often taken this story to be a direct analogy - God is the king, and we are the slaves who owe everything we are and then some back to God. And I think this is true. But I think, at some point, the analogy breaks down. It breaks down and I don’t even think the writer of this Gospel realizes it completely. 

Forgive and forgive and forgive, Jesus says. Forgive perfect times perfect. Forgive and then forgive some more. 

But who in this story forgives perfectly?  No one. Not even the Lord/King. Does Matthew even get this? Does even he realize the incredible depths of God’s love? I don’t think so. Because the writer of this Gospel is trying to combine two different pictures of God. One where God forgives and forgives and forgives. And the other where God is the Lord who has a limit to his forgiveness. In the story, this king forgives once, and then hears of the slave’s hypocrisy, and then forgives no more. This king’s forgiveness is far from seventy times seven. It’s far from perfect. 

And maybe this story is just to tell us that there are limits to God’s forgiveness. Maybe there is one unforgivable sin, and that is to be forgiven yourself and then hoard it, to not pass that forgiveness on to others. To claim forgiveness for yourself but then refuse to share it. “Oh Lord, Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” I think this is an important point worth seriously considering. And I think hyperbole is used to get this point across.
I also think this is an attempt to map somewhere we have never been. This story is an attempt to describe a kind of forgiveness that has never been seen or experienced before. This is radical forgiveness. Crazy forgiveness. It’s the forgiveness that is extra-terrestrial. Here’s this story. This is a place where we’ve been. We know it well. The place where people have been graceful and others have taken advantage. The place where people who have been forgiven refuse to forgive. This place is familiar. It’s been clearly mapped and visited and known to be true. But let’s go beyond this place. Let’s map something outside these lines. Let’s go 77 times beyond. 70 times 7 beyond. 

Somewhere behind that red dot is our galaxy, our solar system, our earth, our country, Pittsburgh, the neighborhood of Greenfield. 
The folks at the University of Hawaii will never see for themselves if their map was right. They’ll never know for sure if their calculations were correct, if their theories of physics were accurate. But they’ll map it anyway.

We will never see for ourselves the full, accurate map of forgiveness. We’ll never know for sure if our forgiveness was enough or right or healthy or anything close to how forgiveness really is. At least not in our life time. 
But, Jesus says, map it anyway. Tell stories about it anyway. Live into it anyway.

Maybe, someday, humans will find the technology to see the whole of Laniakea for themselves. But until then, we’re just tiny people, with tiny brains, soaking up vitamin D from one of the 100 million billion stars in our supergalaxy, trying to make a way out of no way, trying to map what we cannot see, where we cannot go, with only very rudimentary tools to help us.

But this is the act of forgiveness, too. It’s trying to map a way forward in a relationship that has hit the edge, that seems like it will fall off the edge of the earth into nothingness. The act of forgiveness is drawing a map beyond what you think exists. It’s believing the earth is round even though everyone else thinks it’s flat. It’s trusting that there is more beyond the beyond, that  there is something beyond that broken relationship, those hurtful words, those painful years, even when you can’t see it, have never seen it, even when you don’t think you’ll ever be able to get there.

Forgiveness isn’t going back to the old system or old relationship or old abuse again and again. It’s believing that something new, something out there, exists. It’s not going back to that abusive relationship or that hurtful system or genocidal regime and accepting what is. That’s just going back to the same worn path, the same worn out map, the same old place we’ve always been. Forgiveness is about transformation. It’s about demanding something beyond where you’ve been. It’s about refusing to go back to the old, the primitive, the way things have always been.

The scientists and the cartographers say there is still more. Jesus says, there is still more. There’s 77 times more. There’s 70 times 7 more. Just past the horizon. Just past where you cannot see. 

It takes a lot of faith to be a cartographer. To map what you cannot see, where you cannot go. 

But, Jesus says, be the cartographer. Stretch the imagination. Keep calculating and measuring and graphing. Trust that there is more - more beyond what we can see or where we have given up. THere’s more than our pain. There’s more than our sin. THere’s more. More. Just beyond. Out there. Believe that there’s more. And then live in to that more. 

Live in and trust the map that is Jesus Christ. That forgiveness is real and radical and a little bit crazy. 

Because our forgiveness is mapped after the forgiveness of the one who made Laniakea - and beyond. The one who made supergalaxies after supergalaxies and then came to us, travelled all the way behind that red dot to somewhere in Nazareth, to show us that there’s more than we can see, more than we’ve ever mapped before. 
More, just past that horizon. That boundary that we’ve created for ourselves. Beyond those walls we’ve put up and those divisions we’ve placed between us, beyond the end of the page where the map ends. More forgiveness, more love. More. A true whole, from a gazillion little parts. And we make up some of those parts. We are part of that whole. Take the forgiveness that is yours. Don’t hoard it. Share it. Help us draw a new map.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Myth of Redemptive Violence

MATTHEW 18:15-20
15“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

So Jonah turned 5 last Sunday, and many of you all were there to witness the event. He had a great weekend, although Dan and I are still trying to recover, trying to get the house back together, trying to hide all the extra fruit snacks and Capri Suns from his party, trying to find a place to store all of his new toys. 

He got a whole slew of Ninja Turtles from his grandma and aunt. Yes. If you can believe it, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are still around, and they’re still so. cool. And Jonah is all about them.  He calls them his ninjas. 
I’m not exactly sure what the attraction is for him. But I must admit, they’re kind of awesome. I mean, they’re turtles, but mutants, so like, BIG, and they’re teenagers, so that’s cool, and they’re NINJAS, and that’s just plain awesome.  
Pretty much take everything that’s amazing to a five year old and put it in one and you’ve got Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Rafael.  You can tell which one is which by two distinctive features: 1. by the color of masks that they wear, and 2. by their chosen weapon.

Needless to say, I’m quite uncomfortable with the whole weapon/fighting/enemy thing. 
Sure. Alone, it’s pretty harmless. Afterall, there’s no such thing as giant turtles who are also ninjas living in the sewers, and, to their credit, they are lead by an equally giant rat who is also their father and who teaches them about how to use their skills to help others, and to use violence only as a last resort. So Zen single-parent mixed race dad trying to raise his minority kids to be kind and smart and thoughtful and to avoid using violence when at all possible? I’m all for it.  
Unfortunately, in the stories, it seems as though violence is required quite often for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

And if it were the only case that my son encountered, it wouldn’t be so bad. But violence is pervasive in our culture, even in our 5 year old son’s culture. Every toy comes with a gun. Every show seems to be about overcoming evil or laughing at Captain Hook’s clumsiness or making fun of Spongebob’s starfish friend Patrick, or fighting back the evil kraang. 

It’s just a small reflection of our larger culture. Our culture is one of zealous individualism and relentless “might makes right” attitudes, language and actions.

Everywhere we turn around, we are using violence as an answer to some problem. Think about our iconic stories: Star Wars, G.I. Joe, Indiana Jones, Cowboys and Batman and Spiderman and Superman and all the other “mans.” Our military strategy. Our parenting styles. The NRA. And all the wars on poverty and drugs and obesity. Violence even becomes the answer to our unlikely fears: gather more guns, keep them under your pillow, weave the keys between your fingers in one hand and your mace ready in the other. 
We teach our children that violence is always the answer. It’s in our humor. In our dramas. In our answers to complicated questions.
We call it “just war” or “lesser of two evils” or “speaking softly and carrying a big stick.” 
But it’s everywhere.

It seems like we live in a Post-Jesus world. 
ISIS has murdered another innocent journalist, and the United States is responding with more air strikes.
Our police officers are being equipped with military grade weapons.
We’re teaching nine year olds to fire Uzis
And we’re giving teachers guns to keep in their desk drawers next to the sticky tac and the paper clips and the “great job!” stickers.

It seems like Jesus is gone, or if he is still there, he’s still hanging on that cross, still as a response to and a result of our violent world. 

And most scholars argue that this passage for today is a “post-Jesus” passage. It’s what scholars call a “redacted” or edited passage - a passage that reflects the voice of Matthew the Gospel writer more than it preserves the voice of Jesus himself.
Most Biblical Scholars would argue that this particular prescription for what to do when a brother or sister sins against you is not original to the Historical Jesus, but has developed as a result of conflicts encountered by the early church. This passage sounds more like something from the Early Church Fathers than from the mouth of Jesus himself. 

But it addresses a question, an important question in the life of the early church, and in our lives today - what do we do now, when there is conflict? When we’re trying to live together in a family and we’re all trying to get along but we inevitably hurt each other? What do we do when we hurt each other? 

Jesus is gone - For the early church during the time of Matthew’s writings, and for us too. Jesus is gone. At least, sort of. At least, Jesus is physically gone. Sucked up to be with God the Father in Heaven. And so what do we do when we are trying to keep going in his absence? What do we do when we’ve been left to be his hands and feet? His Church? The body of Christ? And when we hurt each other?

We still have this obsession with violence. As much as before and during Jesus’ life. I’m convinced, we would still find a way to string Jesus up, to hang him from a tree, or send him to a firing squad, or waterboard him, or knock him out with a simple, detached drone strike. 
And yet, we have also been changed, we, who carry with us the resurrected Christ, the one who overcame violence and death and pulled all the power out from under it like the magician’s tablecloth? 
We carry both in us. The violence of a crucifixion. And the resurrected body.

How do we live in a world where we are changed, but where we still await the rest of the world to catch up?
How do we live in a world where we wait for ourselves to catch up to being who we wish we could be?

We keep reading this passage about Jesus telling us what to do about conflict with the lenses of our culture. We’ve read this passage with the lenses of Individualism and Violence, drawing lines of who’s in and who’s out, all the while using the church to bully and advance the interest of those in power. 

I’ve had friends who have had people tell them they are not welcome at the church because they won’t/can’t change their sexual identity. I’ve had friends who have been forced out of doing good Christian work because they smoke cigarettes. I’ve known friends who have been confronted because of the choices they have made in their personal lives. I’ve been told that the depression I’ve struggled with my whole life comes from a lack of faith. And all of these folks who have been these voices of criticism and “speaking truth in love” have used this passage to back them up, to make them feel like they are doing the right thing.

But what they’re really saying is, “unless you’re a Christian like me, you’re doing it wrong, and you’re not welcome here.”

BUT we’ve all sinned, and we’ve all been sinned against. We are all victims of and perpetrators of sin. We’ve all played the violence game. We’ve all drawn a line in the sand and said, “you’re not welcome unless you’re on my side.”

We need to read this passage with new eyes. 
Because if we put this passage on the long line of Judeo-Christian narrative, we see a dramatic shift. We see story arch that bends, not only towards radical inclusion, but also towards a radical form of peace and reconciliation. No longer are we supposed to be an “eye-for-an-eye” culture as in the Hebrew Scriptures - which in and of itself was a dramatic step away from the myth that violence fixes everything, and was actually meant to suppress violence - but now we have entered into a new worldview, a new paradigm - one in which the sinner isn’t punished, but seen and cared for.

If a brother or sister has sinned against you, go and speak to that person.
And if reconciliation cannot be found, then bring a few people along to help.
And if reconciliation cannot be found even then, bring the church alongside you, and make amends then. 

And if that doesn’t work, treat them like you’d treat a Gentile or a tax collector.

I think, that was supposed to mean to treat them like outsiders, like folks who didn’t belong, but I wonder, did the the writer of Matthew stop to think about what this means when put in the mouth of Jesus?

Jesus, who healed non-Jews and touched the leper and spoke with bleeding women and Samarian prostitutes getting water in the heat of the day and ate with tax collectors in their homes. Matthew says that Jesus tells us to treat those who have hurt us and refuse to change to treat them like that? Does Matthew really know what he’s saying?

We’re to keep working on reconciliation. Keep reaching out. Keep trying. Never giving up. Embracing and healing and caring for and eating with the Gentiles and the Tax Collectors and the folks who have hurt us.

So much easier said than done. And it’s not even that easy to say.

Like the Israelites in the desert, like the speaker in the Psalms, I’m a kid, a kid who just wants to believe in things like Ninja Turtles and superheroes and the infallibility of police officers…
Kids need to feel in control, like they have some power, because they really aren’t in control at all. The world is so big and they are so small. This is how we should read those Psalms and demands for violence in the Hebrew Scriptures - from the perspective of a powerless little kid who doesn’t know how else to feel safe but to talk big talk.

I have been weighed down by the news of this world. All the victims. All the despair and the hate and the viruses and the fear. All the feeling like there is nothing else that can be done but bring on more airstrikes and gather up your artillery and batten down the hatches with cannons loaded. 

I feel like a helpless kid. Like a tiny country of people who keep getting pushed around and dragged through the desert and tortured and killed and abused and turned into slaves. 

So I want to get out my nunchucks and put on my mask and just start thwacking at things. To feel big. To feel like I have some power. To think that I have some control.

I can see why those Ninja Turtles are so attractive to my 5 year old son.

But who is it that I will strike?

Jesus says, “you can’t hate what has a face.”
“Go. Go and see their face. Go to them. Talk it out. Tell them about your pain. Go and see their face.”

And sometimes you need a little help. Sometimes you can’t forgive alone. So bring a couple of folks with you. Sometimes you need the whole darn church to help you forgive. Sometimes the pain is so big and the hurt is so deep that you need a whole lot of help in order to see the face of the other.

This isn’t about punishing the sinner. It’s about reconciliation of the entire body of Christ. 
And this isn’t a case where, so often, the Church has told us to go back to our abuser. It’s giving us the opportunity to do the hard work of reconciliation. To bring light into the darkness. And if the abuse keeps coming, then we put on armor - defensive armor - not of iron or steel but of light. Because the day is near. Because the darkness will end and we’ll be able to see again. Because if we’re all parts of the Body of Christ, we need that eye or that finger or that hang nail or that pinky toe in order for us to be whole again. We need that sinner. And we are that sinner. 
And it’s giving us the opportunity to remember that even though it feels like we’re living in a post-Jesus era, we are really living in a resurrection era. An era of light in the darkness, life after death, forgiveness after a horrific crucifixion. And this reconciliation enables us to remember that wherever two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, there he is in the midst of us. Giving us light, showing us his face, helping us to see his face in the Other. 

But this ain’t easy.
Like how I shifted all my anxieties about having kids into a $400 car seat, I want to stuff all my anger and pain and helplessness about the violence of the world onto ISIS and these horrific murders of the American journalists. The Ebola virus and the police brutality and the gang violence and the “accidental” death by a nine year old with an Uzi and the increase in US airstrikes are all just too much. So I stuff all my hatred onto these ISIS guys and their black masks and their big knives. 
And maybe it’s easier to do this because I can’t see their faces. I can’t humanize the face I cannot see.

But try, Jesus says. Try to find the face in the Other, in the one who has hurt you. Try to see them as a part of the Body of Christ. Try to see their face. You cannot hate what has a face. 

The mystery of the incarnation is that Jesus came to give God a face. And to give us a face. 

O God, help us to have faces. Help us to see you, who took on a face, so that we all could have faces.

Thanks be to God.