Monday, August 20, 2012

A Surprising Reversal

The following sermon was preached August 19th 2012 at Lighthouse Lutheran Church in Freedom, Pa.

It is a tremendous privilege to be here at Lighthouse Lutheran and invited to preach. As pastor Whalen said, I am a student at Trinity School for Ministry, and studying to be ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. I haven’t always been an Episcopalian though. I was actually raised as a Presbyterian, and my family is still active in the Presbyterian Church. I’ve visited quite a number of different churches before finally landing in the Episcopal Church. For a while I even attended a Lutheran Church. I found much to admire there and have learned that it has a lot in common with my own Anglican/Episcopal church.

Not only have I had the opportunity to experience a bit of the diversity of the Christian faith, but I’ve also sat in on a few services from entirely different religious traditions. I took a class in World Religions a few years ago, and our professor asked that we visit a variety of places of worship from outside the Christian faith.  His hope was that we would gain a greater appreciation for what it felt like to be an unbeliever or seeker visiting one of our churches. He wanted us, in a kind of reversal, to know what it felt like to be the outsider looking in.

Following these instructions, my wife and I visited Beth Hillel-Beth El, a Jewish Synagogue, on a Saturday morning. We certainly did feel like outsiders. At the door to the sanctuary there was a bowl full of yarmulkes. I awkwardly took one and fastened it to my hair. Inside there was hardly anyone there, accept a few worshipers. All of the prayers were being sung in Hebrew. I tried to follow along, putting my very limited knowledge of Hebrew to the test, but didn’t have much success. The service seemed to go on forever and eventually the sanctuary was full of worshipers. There was a brief lesson (given in English thankfully) and I began to feel a bit more comfortable, especially when I looked across the way (they met in the round) and caught the eye of a familiar face, a co-worker of mine who seemed extremely amused and bewildered to see the young man she knew from work who was studying to be a Christian pastor.

Although the service was largely in another language, I felt I could connect with the scripture readings, many of the prayers, and even a lot of the lesson. The biggest moment of cultural-religious vertigo came not during the service, but afterwards as I looked over the welcoming table in the lobby. There was a small stack of newsletters with a title that certainly raised my eyebrows. The name of their newsletter was “The Pharisee.”

My gut reaction was to think, “Don’t they know that the Pharisees are the bad guys? Why would anyone, especially such warm and friendly people as these, want to be associated with that vicious, arrogant, self-righteous rabble?”  In Christian circles we are accustomed to thinking of the Pharisees this way. When the Pharisees come up in a Gospel reading our programmed response is to boo and hiss saying, “I can’t wait to see how Jesus nails them this time!” Seeing the Pharisees lifted up as a standard of godliness and faithfulness seemed like a highly ironic reversal to me.

The original audience of today’s gospel reading would have had the opposite response.  Among the people of God who were serious about being faithful and living according to the Holy Scriptures, the Pharisees would definitely have been considered the good guys. They distanced themselves from the Temple establishment that had become corrupt and compromised by its association with the Pagan Roman Empire, and instead emphasized that fidelity to God was to be found in everyday actions such as gathering around the table and having a meal with family. They shared with Jesus a belief that the writings and prophets were holy scripture, along with the law, as well as a belief in the resurrection of the dead, the final judgment, and the age to come. Believe it or not, out of all the various religious movements of his time, Jesus appears to have most in common with the Pharisees! 

When Jesus tells a story about two men who went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector, it would seem immediately obvious to his listeners who the good guy was and who the bad guy was going to be.  Pharisees were known for their piety, but one wouldn’t expect to see a tax collector in prayer at all. Tax collectors were notorious for being greedy colluders with Rome, traitors, and oppressors of the poor. Jesus, however, turns the people’s expectations on their heads.

The Pharisee is outwardly blameless. He does all the right things and then some. The Law requires the faithful to fast on the Day of Atonement, but this guy fasts twice a week! The Law requires the faithful to tithe on certain crops, but like a good Pharisee, this guy tithes on everything – even garden herbs. Everything the Pharisee says about his actions is true. The problem is the spirit in which it is said. The Pharisee does not come to God humbly acknowledging his utter dependence on him, but instead is full of pride in his own accomplishments. The Pharisee’s prayer offers praise to himself rather than to God! The Pharisee finds his justification, the validation for his standing before God, in comparison to other people. He isn’t like the wicked tax collector, he is one of the good guys, and on that basis he believes he can come boldly into God’s presence.  The Tax Collector, in contrast, stands far off and beats his chest.  He acknowledges that he is a sinner, and begs God for mercy.

At this point, we may be tempted to compare ourselves to both of these characters. You may say, “God, I thank you that I am not like this wicked Pharisee who seeks to justify himself on the basis of his good deeds, but I am a good Lutheran and know that I am justified by faith alone!”  Do you see how doing that would be another ironic reversal? We are more like the Pharisee than we care to admit, even if most of us wouldn’t be quite as blatant about it. It seems like an unavoidable part of our human nature to find our identity and justification by comparing ourselves to others. I once read a sermon by Debbie Blue that put it this way,

“We construct, we know, our goodness over against some other person or philosophy or way of being. How can we feel good if we don’t know what out there is bad, or define ourselves over against it? And it works better if there’s a bad that seems “out there,” something we think we are not really a part of (corporate America, fundamentalism, decadent living, worldliness, repressive government, whatever).”

We saw this principle illustrated well recently in the media. The president of Chick-Fil-A came out against same-sex marriage and in defense of traditional marriage, and suddenly it felt like everyone was scrambling to take sides. One side was congratulating themselves that they weren’t like those backwards bigots who hate gay people and the other side was congratulating themselves for not being like those liberals who don’t support freedom of speech and mock traditional values. For a couple of weeks it seemed like the whole nation was seeking to justify themselves on the basis of whether they did or didn’t patronize a particular fast food restaurant.

Jesus commends the tax collector because of his humility. The tax collector knows that his life is not pleasing to God. He doesn’t try to justify himself by comparing himself with someone more sinful than he is. He is remorseful and realizes that he has nothing to stand upon but God’s mercy. The Pharisee’s prayer tells us very little about God and much about himself, but the tax-collector’s prayer is rooted in his faith that God is merciful and gracious. Because of his humility, the tax collector’s prayer is accepted but because of the Pharisee’s pride and presumption, his prayer is rejected. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”(Luke 18:14 ESV)

Our justification lies not in our righteous deeds – how well we stack up against others, or with whom we associate ourselves.  It lies rather in the most dramatic reversal of all.  “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV). The very Holy One of God, God’s only begotten son, in whom he was well pleased, became despised and rejected for us. The wrath due to us because of our sin was poured out on him, and God’s blessing, love, and forgiveness was poured out on us guilty sinners. God the son humbled himself to become man, to suffer for us upon the cross, and even descend into Hell itself. Although he was laid low by the powers of sin and death, God exalted him through his resurrection and ascension, so that we too might share in his glory. It is to Christ and Christ alone that we should look for our justification.

God, be merciful to me, a sinner!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

What is Man That You Should Be Mindful of Him?

Psalm 8

1 O LORD our Governor, *
how exalted is your Name in all the world!

2 Out of the mouths of infants and children *

your majesty is praised above the heavens.

3 You have set up a stronghold against your adversaries, *

to quell the enemy and the avenger.

4 When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, *

the moon and the stars you have set in their courses,

5 What is man that you should be mindful of him? *

the son of man that you should seek him out?

6 You have made him but little lower than the angels; *

you adorn him with glory and honor;

7 You give him mastery over the works of your hands; *

you put all things under his feet:

8 All sheep and oxen, *

even the wild beasts of the field,

9 The birds of the air, the fish of the sea, *

and whatsoever walks in the paths of the sea.

10 O LORD our Governor, *

how exalted is you Name in all the world!

I have a confession to make. I am a bit of a comic book geek. My strong suspicion is that there are more than a few people reading this that I can really geek-out with about comic books. Those people are surely familiar with the work of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. They are responsible for the bulk of Marvel comic’s flagship heroes, Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk and the Fantastic Four.  Along with heroes they also created many memorable villains. One of their most fascinating is Galactus, an extremely powerful and highly advanced entity who survives by devouring worlds. He sucks the life out of a planet and moves on. His herald, the Silver Surfer, leads him to Earth, but the Surpher is so struck by the beauty and nobility of human beings that he intervenes on our behalf.  Galactus dismisses his plea saying:

"Do they themselves not tread upon anthills, trampling on those who crawl gently within? They wish the humble ant no harm, but care not if it lives or dies!”

To Galactus, humanity is as insignificant as an ant-hill. In light of God’s incomparable might and the sheer vastness of the cosmos that he has created, why should God’s attitude to us be any different than that of Galactus? As the Psalmist asks “What is man that you should be mindful of him? The son of man that you should seek him out?”

The answer, I would submit, lies not in the nobility of human beings but in what the old English mystic Julianof Norwich called God’s, “most marvelous courtesy and Homely love!” This charming expression of Julian’s is meant to capture God’s openhearted hospitality and readiness to be disadvantaged as well as his willingness to become near to us and have fellowship with us. In other words, God’s humility and graciousness.

The Psalmist writes “You have made him but little lower than the angels; you adorn him with glory and honor.” The word that is translated here as angels, presents some questions. It is a Hebrew word, ‘Elohim,’ that is often used to refer to God himself. It just as easily could mean heavenly beings or angles. The New Testament authors, working from the Greek text, take it for granted that the word should here be understood to mean angels and so shall we.

2 Peter describes angels as “greater in might and power” than human beings. We may be lower on the celestial hierarchy than the angels, but according to the psalmist it is not to angels but to human beings that God has granted glory, honor, and dominion over his creation.  Genesis 1:26-27 tells us that God created human beings in his own image, which means that they were created to be regents of God’s royal authority. Not only that but they were created to know and enjoy God’s fellowship. What gracious courtesy God has shown in sharing his authority with people! How humble God must be to allow such familiarity between himself and his lowly creature!

Psalm 8 is a song of astonished wonder at God’s marvelous courteously and homely (or familiar) love towards the humble ant-hill of humanity.

God granted the psalmist a glimpse of both the divine glory and the divine humility, but he has reserved for us a more profound mystery, a mystery so awesome that even the angels—greater than us in power and might—long to see it. This mystery is the miracle of the incarnation where the Son of God condescended to become himself a human being.  Nothing testifies to God’s marvelous courtesy and homely love more than that! C.S. Lewis suggests that if we want to understand the depth of this condescension we might imagine what it would be like to become a slug or a crab!

Although humanity was created to reflect God’s glory and reign as his image-bearers, we have failed in that task and grievously marred God’s fair image. We have spoiled and exploited God’s good creation. Creation itself—far from being under our mastery—has too often exercised mastery over us through flood, famine, and other natural disasters. What human beings have wrecked through our sin, Jesus Christ, came to restore. Jesus Christ is truly God but also truly man. As the truly human one Jesus is the perfect image-bearer and creation’s true lord. Through Christ, human beings at last realize their true destiny as regents of God’s authority over creation.

As the author of Hebrews tells us, Jesus was made for a little while lower than the angels, but has been crowned with glory and honor greater than the angels or any other created thing (Hebrew 2:5-18). Jesus has ascended into heaven and has taken our human nature with him into glory. A human being sits at the right hand of God!

Jesus’ act of self renunciation, his emptying, has become the means by which we are filled with glory and honor. He has poured himself out for our sake. By becoming a servant he has made us kings. By becoming poor he has made us rich. Thomas Oden writes,

“His poverty consisted in the self-renunciation by which he assumed servant form—he was born in a stable, remained poor throughout his life, worked with his hands in common labor, was without a home of his own, and finally in his crucifixion was stripped of his robe and laid in the grave of another—all signs of poverty, of complete and willing lack of worldly resources. This poverty has made redeemed humanity rich by enabling persons to share in his glory by faith.” (Classic Christianity,261)

Again, who are we that God should show us such courtesy!? Have you ever considered the vastness of the universe? Among all the billions of stars in all of the whirling galaxies, our tiny planet revolves around one. Our brief life here is a mere blip in the span of cosmic history and yet God loves us with such mighty, burning, passion that he chose to share his own undying life with us.

If the Psalmist has reason to praise God in astonished wonder, we have more.

O LORD our Governor,
     how exalted is your Name in all the world!


Saturday, August 4, 2012

Feed The World

We have all seen the commercials with those wide, hungry, eyes that stare out at us from our TV screens or from the cover of brochures. These images are compelling because they bring us face to face with a hunger and need that is unimaginable in our affluent society. If we are people of conscience, we are convicted and feel an urgent need to do something—anything—but the need seems so great and the task so overwhelming that we are paralyzed. What could my dollar a day really accomplish?

People all over the world are hungry. Many of them are quite literally hungry, but they are also hungry on another level. The poverty, oppression, chaos, disease, and injustice in the world awaken in us a hunger for peace, stability, order, well-being, and justice. The Bible has a word for the kind of peace and harmony just described, the Hebrew word ‘Shalom.’ When God’s kingdom arrives at last, all things will be put right. There will be Shalom. Until that time our hearts cry out, “How long?!”  

People flocked to Jesus because they recognized in him the hope of a world made right. In him they saw the truth and goodness that they were so very hungry for. They followed him wherever he went and made it very difficult for him to have even a few hours rest and quiet with his disciples. Instead of being annoyed or impatient with them, our text tells us that, “he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things”(Mark 6:34 ESV). In this one sentence the author of Mark’s Gospel speaks volumes not only about our Lord’s heart of love for his people, but also about who he is and why he has come.  In Jeremiah 23, the Old Testament reading that accompanies this gospel reading in the lectionary, God pronounces judgment on the corrupt leaders of the people of Israel saying,  “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” (Jeremiah 23:1 ESV). There is a similar denunciation of the wicked shepherds of the people of Israel in Ezekiel 34. Israel’s leaders led the people astray, and their wickedness brought God’s judgment on the nation.  This resulted in their exile and captivity to foreign overlords. The leaders of Israel failed in the task for which they were appointed. Instead of being good shepherds that care for God’s people and lead them in his ways, the shepherds were more like wolves! They ruthlessly exploited God’s people for their own ends. They did not strengthen the weak or heal the sick, they did not bind up the broken nor restore those cast off or search for the lost, but they ruled them with violence and cruelty. In fact, the way that the Bible describes the cruelty with which they exercised their authority is the same way it describes the oppression that the Israelites suffered in Egypt. Therefore God promises to rescue his people from their jaws. He promised to come and shepherd his people himself through the good Shepherd that he would appoint.
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness’ (Jeremiah 23:5-6 ESV).

There is a story I once heard about Joseph Stalin that I think is relevant to this gospel. In a speech he once gave to a conference of Soviet leaders, Stalin announced to those gathered that he would teach them how to govern the Russian people. Much to the perplexity of the audience, he produced from a cage a live chicken, which he commenced to savagely pluck of its feathers. He dropped the hysterical and bloodied creature to the ground where it hobbled about in agony. Looking around, Stalin produced a small amount of feed from his coat pocket and trailed it after himself as he walked a few steps away. The chicken followed slowly behind picking up the bits of grain.

Like the crowd upon whom Jesus looked with pity, there are people today like sheep without a shepherd. They wander about aimlessly, searching for security and satisfaction for the deep hunger in their hearts. There is also no shortage of those who would seek to exploit this vulnerability for their own ends. The tyrants of this world—the wicked shepherds—exploit the vulnerability and need of the harassed and helpless masses for their own ends. They know that if you keep the people hungry, fearful, and defenseless, that they are more easily manipulated and exploited. Jesus came to call people into true liberty through following him as their true shepherd. Israel followed the wicked shepherds into sin and bondage. Because of their wickedness they were carried off into exile. Although God brought the people back to their land, all was not yet as he promised. There was still the deeper exile of sin that kept them from enjoying God’s shalom. John began a movement of renewal when he began baptizing people in the Jordon. He was calling people to a new Exodus, and now the promised shepherd of God’s people had arrived in Jesus. As we saw in the previous passages in Mark’s gospel, the false shepherd of God’s people, Herod, was terrified. Here was God’s true king.

The author of Mark tells us that the people followed Jesus and the disciples out into the wilderness to a desolate place. The setting and situation are evocative of the story of Exodus, which is no accident. Moses was God’s instrument in leading the people out of slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt in order that they could serve God as they were intended to do. Jesus is a new and better Moses, who has come to lead the people to liberation from tyranny (not least the bondage and tyranny of their own sinful nature) so that they could be free to serve God in God’s Kingdom, his promised Shalom.  Just like in the wilderness, the people were hungry, and the disciples turned to Jesus. Jesus’ response seems a bit glib and somewhat confusing, as is often the case. He says, “You give them something to eat.” The people needed guidance and leadership.  They needed authentic shepherds, ones that would lead them to the truth so that they could see and know God’s kingdom. In this simple response Jesus seems to be saying to his disciples, “This is why I have called you. My people are like sheep with out a shepherd. Feed my sheep!” The Church, especially those called to ordained ministry, should mark these words. Jesus is here commissioning us to be the ones who will lead the lost in the way that they should go, and give to them that food which will truly satisfy the longing of their hearts. Food is essential for life, and God’s people perish for lack of food. The disciples do not understand though. They also do not catch Jesus’ subtle scripture allusion to 2 Kings 4:42-44, or else they would understand what Jesus is about to do next.

Jesus collects five pieces of bread and two fish from his disciples. He organizes the people and sits them on the green grass—perhaps an allusion to Psalm 23, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures” (Psalm 23:1-2 ESV). Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and gives it his disciples. The whole scene is rather reminiscent of the Eucharist. In fact the series of verbs that the author uses here is the same he uses in 14:22 during the last supper. Miraculously, the five loaves and two fish are able to feed the whole multitude of people gathered there. The people eat their fill, and twelve baskets of crumbs are left over (perhaps a basket for each disciple). The image is one of abundance proceeding from scarcity, and an example of the overflowing nature of God’s love and generosity. Jesus is able to satisfy our deepest hunger and to give us more than we ever imagined possible. In Ezekiel 34, God condemns the wicked shepherds for feeding themselves while ruthlessly oppressing and exploiting his flock, but Jesus lays down his life for the flock. The food that he gives them is his own body and blood, his life poured out for them. John’s Gospel makes this explicit,

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35 ESV)

Just as God sent bread from heaven to feed the people in the wilderness in Exodus, he has given the world his own Son to satisfy our deeper hunger. Jesus is the true and greater bread from heaven.

“I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:48-51 ESV)

The bread that Jesus’ disciples are entrusted with, and told to feed the people with, is the very bread of life – it is Jesus himself. In response to the great need of the world, Jesus commands his Church to give his people the living bread that does not perish. In response to a world of lost people like sheep without a Shepherd, the church is called to faithfully point them to one who himself is God’s shalom. In the preaching of the word and the celebration of the sacraments, including the Eucharist, the living presence of Jesus is made present to us like bread from heaven in order satisfy us, sustain us, and to give us life.

N.T. Wright, in his commentary on this passage, raises a concern that is perhaps on all of our hearts as we read this passage,