Christmas Sorrow

Peace, Sermon

Christmas Tension – how do we celebrate joy in the midst of such pain? 

(This year, Christmas 2012, was the year that a gunman killed 27 people in an elementary school, 20 of them children, because he was mad at his mother. What follows is the Communion meditation I wrote for service that Sunday, 16 December 2012. Memorial Chapel, Ft. Leavenworth, KS )

As we approach the Lord’s Table this morning, we do so struggling with the tension of celebrating the Christmas season with all the bells and lights and food while there are dozens of parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, friends and relatives mourning the tragic killing of their loved ones. Children have died and children are not supposed to die.

There is raging on the internet. Sorrow in the streets. Fear in the hearts of mother’s and father’s who are wondering if they should even send their children to school. I know this fear for I have this fear. There is no small amount of hopelessness and helplessness that there is no way to even end this problem. I read just this morning that two more shootings have happened in this country. People are wounded and dying. Is this how we solve problems in this country, at the point of a gun? It is senseless, it is tragic, it is frightening.

Has God left us?
Has God hidden his face from us?
Has God any power whatsoever?

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wondered this as he watched his nation descend into madness. The North and the South were not agreeing. Politicians who should have been solving problems were digging in, bulwarking their beliefs behind cannon and musket. His son went to war and was wounded in battle, returning home to never walk again.

“For what?” Longfellow wondered. “Where is the peace?”

Every year during the war, on Christmas, the bells of churches would ring calling for a ceasefire, for peace. At night, after the holiday had passed, the guns would start anew and more would die. On Christmas Day in 1863, Longfellow wrote the familiar lines in response to the horror of the bloody fratricidal conflict in general and to the personal tragedy of his son, Lieutenant Charles Appleton Longfellow, who was severely wounded in November 1862. Has God heard? Has he forgotten? Does God care?

Yes.

God knows sorrow. Knows senseless death. Has a broken heart for us and for our children.

CHRISTMAS BELLS

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Till ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head
‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said,
‘For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.’

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.’

There is hope in Longfellow’s words. Therein is strength.

As we approach this Lord’s Table this morning, we remember that Christmas is not really about the bells, lights, food, and four-day weekends. It’s about a child that was born with a mission, a child born who would sacrificially die to cleanse sin from the world, giving us an example of true peace. When Mary sees old Simeon in the temple, he tells her prophetically that “a sword would pierce her heart…” in relationship to her son. In that moment, Mary sees that there is more to the story than just a baby. In the midst of joy there is often pain. As there is here, at the Table.

All are invited to claim Christ. Let us come to the Table this morning, remembering Jesus’ sacrifice as we remember his birth.

Now, I will tell you the story as it was told unto me, that the Lord Jesus, the same night in which he was betrayed took bread…

Christ the King and how we fail to live that truth.

Sermon, Theology

Procurator Pontius Pilate was a career statesman. His star was rising when he got the assignment to Palestine. He was the fifth prefect to oversee the land and after a brief stumble early in his career had shown some talent in leadership. Legend has it that his mother was a pictish girl from Scotland and his father a minor Roman official. Whatever the story, getting the assignment to rule in Palestine was potentially a step towards greater things in the Empire. I wonder how coming from humble stock, scrapping your way to the top of the heap impacted his style of rule. What little we have of his leadership show a man who is capable of exercising force though not the shrewdest of politicians.

Pilate was the leader of an occupying force in an occupied land. He was sent by Rome for one purpose, rule the little known, little understood, but somewhat important little land of Palestine. He was the face of the mighty Roman empire. He spoke for the Emperor, Tiberius. His hold on the land was not strong. Only a foolish leader would think that they could rule in that area without some struggles but so far it had not been terrible. As occupied lands went, Israel was not the best nor the worst that he had been involved with over his rising career as a statesman.

Our text this morning finds him in Jerusalem, overseeing the chaos that was Passover. Thousands descended upon the city from all over the world making it a melting pot of potential danger. Last year had been a bit of a disaster. There had been unrest during the celebration which had boiled over into violence. The Procurator, dealt with it as he had the power to, putting it down with the force he was comfortable wielding. It was not remembered kindly by the populace, Luke would remember it as the day that the “blood mixed with the sacrifices…” It would become the signature event of Pilate’s time as Prefect – insurrection put down with violence. He has to do so several times, each with more energy until finally, it was an insurrection put down with such force in Samaria that resulted in his getting called back to Rome.

There would be no such bloodshed this time. He was convinced that he could hold the city from itself. These Jews were a volatile people. Why couldn’t they just settle down and become Roman? Others had. It seemed like those that he served with, the other prefects, none of their lands had the kind of unrest that his had. Every year it was something else. Someone else. Rising up and rebelling. All they had to do was pay their taxes. Really. That’s it. At the end of the day, Rome was not interested in the Jews becoming Roman, of worshiping their gods and taking their traditions. Tiberius, as all Caesars before, was interested in one thing – money. Bring home the tribute. In exchange, we’ll give you peace. The Pax Romana – Roman Peace – was to be the payoff.

To accomplish this, Pilate had been given several Legions to command but most of his forces were auxiliary forces who, scorned by their brethren, served the occupying Empire. He had brought them with him to Jerusalem. He would have Romans by his side. He was not confident in the Auxiliaries to do exactly what they were told. He had paid a political price for that last year when the riot was put down during Passover. The Jewish face of the Empire, Herod, had smeared his name a bit in court as a brutal man though his rule was no more or less violent than the last. He wished Herod would get it into his head – Tiberius would never trust a non-Italian to speak for him. So Herod served Pilate and Pilate served the Prefect of Syria and he served Tiberius. This is the way of Empire. This is the way of the kingdom of the world. Everyone serves someone and everyone serves themselves.

Peace and money. This is all. This is all anyone ever wants. Money to do as they will and the peace to pursue it. The way of the world, the way of kings and kingdoms. So had it been for centuries and so it would remain for eons to come. Money and peace. The latter to be thrown to the side in pursuit of the former.

It was that peace that was threatened the day that the Sanhedrin came into his hall to condemn this peasant carpenter from Nazareth. They knew his weakness. They knew that his hold on the city was tenuous at best – in they came with their accusations of zealot, rabal rouser, and rebel. What was he to do? He had heard the reports. This Jesus, Yeshua they called him, had been notorious for some time. He had spies and informants moving with this crowds as he had drawn closer to Jerusalem. Herod had some dealings with another prophet of sorts, John the Baptist, and it had not gone well so Pilate was understandably treating this Yeshua thing with kid gloves.

He had stood by and allowed the Prophet to enter Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. He had heard the back brief from his centurion about how the poor and slave class saw in the peasant carpenter some kind of King. He heard how they brought out branches and even threw their coats – the only outer garment they owned – on the ground so that the feet of the donkey would not touch the ground. Such was their devotion. Perhaps there was something to what the Sanhedrin was saying. He never trusted them. They claimed allegiance to Caesar and the Empire but he knew better. They cursed the ground he walked. It was always like this. In trying to maintain some semblance of “what used to be” they tried theological arguments, trickery, archaic legal arguments under their religious law, character assassination but in the end, they capitulated to the only real power in the world. Roman power. They brought their theological issue into the very seat of secularity to be judged by a secular Prefect. What little respect he might have had for their monotheism, their puritanism, their law-abiding, was blasted as they called upon all sorts of arguments to get him to “do something about that carpenter.”

And what had Jesus done? Healed some people? Called them names? Pointed out their hypocrisy? How did Jesus’ teachings hurt them in any way? People were paying their taxes – not just to Rome but also to the Temple. They were getting theirs. What they were not getting was respect. Yeshua was calling them out for what they were – power hungry, greedy, abusive. People liked Jesus. It threatened their power. It threatened their place in society.

None of this really mattered. Who really cared whether or not some widow put money into the temple tax box? So what if these men in their clerical class lived off the poor? As long as the tribute was paid to Rome, peace would come by the sword. Peace would remain in Jerusalem. These Sanhedrin only mattered to Pilate as they stood in the way of another peaceful Passover. They would play their part in the pageantry was was Jerusalem and he would play his – at the end of the day, money went into the chest and the chest went to Rome. If religion was a part than fine, whatever gets the job done. That is the kingdom of the world. That is the kingdom of mankind. That is life. So be it. Jesus would come to court.

He had tried to pawn his problem off on Herod but the crafty politician would have none of it. He could not pass the issue up the chain or the Prefect of Syria would put a bad word before the Emperor. Perhaps Pilate could not do the job, perhaps he should be replaced. No, he would deal with it. Here. Now.

Jesus enters the court. Pilate saw the abuse. He saw the blood, the bruises. Whatever had taken place last night had not been kind to the peasant. He looked exhausted. Caiaphas had been clear in his accusation – Jesus had threatened the rule of Roman Law. They could not execute him, only the Romans could do that. Pilate saw through it, he knew their charges were bogus and false. He called them out, “Judge him according to your laws.” But they would have none of it. They wanted death. Death was to be the price of peace.

Pilate goes straight for the jugular – “Are you king of the Jews?” Silence reigns. Everyone hears the real question – are you a rebel? Are you a zealot? Do you claim leadership of the Jews? Jesus looked at him in the silence. Quietly, through bruised lips he says, “Are you asking me this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate smiles. Only these people would respond like that. You can’t get a clear answer from anyone in this miserable land.

“Do I look like a Jew? Your people and your high priests turned you over to me. What did you do?” Pilate is annoyed. There is no danger in this man, give me something, anything and I can toss him in jail for a little while, protect him from these priests who want to kill him and wait till the whole thing blows over. He didn’t bite.

“My kingdom,” said Jesus, “doesn’t consist of what you see around you. If it did, my followers would fight so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. But I’m not that kind of king. not the world’s kind of king.” Pilate stares at him. What was he talking about? Two kingdoms? Man’s kingdom? What other kind of kingdom could their be? Money, power, land, respect – that’s the only kind of kingdom there was and everyone, including these religious leaders, wanted a piece of it. But he wasn’t a part of that? He didn’t want money or power? What?

“Are you a king or not?”
“You tell me. Because I am King (not a king), I was born and entered the world so that I could witness to the truth. Everyone who cares for truth, who has any feeling for truth, recognizes my voice.”

More opaque comments. What is wrong with these people? Why kill? Why did he ever want to be a leader? He could have been a farmer, comfortable on his land in middle Italy, sending grain to Rome for festival but no, here he is in dirty, dusty, smelly Jerusalem discussing truth with a poor Jewish carpenter prophet.

Exasperation. “What is truth?”

There was no saving this man. He wouldn’t even save himself. In a last ditch effort he offers the crowd a murder or the harmless Jesus but they take Jesus. Let him die than. Let him die for peace.

Two kingdoms. Pilate is king of one. It’s the sexy one. The grasping one. The one people dream and work toward. Its the one where you work hard, please who you have to please, pay your dues and maybe one day, you too can retire to the beach somewhere and tell your stories. This kingdom is marked by constantly searching and seeking for wealth and glory. It is temporal. It is subjective. It is here. Now.

The Jewish leaders wanted it. They wanted it to remain status quo. They had abandoned (as Jesus was so fond of pointing out) their obligation to care for the community, the poor, the widow, the orphan, to establish a high caste. A learned caste of scholars and clergy. A class separate from the poor they were supposed to serve and instead very focused on how many miles a person could walk on the Sabbath. What? healing a man on the Sabbath? This has never been done – it does not matter that it helps people, it violates some obscure interpretation of an ancient law – anathema. “Kill him,” they said. What threat was he to them? When had he ever threatened their lives? Perhaps their livelihood but never them, never their families. They had tried to get rid of him through theological arguments. They planted people to question him publicly, they called him out, drug his name through the mud but in the end, they couldn’t stop him. They couldn’t change what was clearly changing. Life, as they knew it, was never going to be the same. They were becoming irrelevant. “Kill him,” they said. So they went to the Law. If all else fails, we can use the secular courts to maintain the past. We’ll lobby congress, we’ll throw money at it, we’ll make laws and change laws and throw out the bums that won’t get it done. We’ll make mountains out of molehills and destroy whoever stands in our way. But their heart showed out. Their hatred marked them and instead of their legacy being that they cared for those around them, that they represented the best of the Kingdom of God, that they showed the world what it was like for a people to commit to God, they demonstrated that they were just like everyone else. They were just as corrupt. They were just as depraved. The lusted for power and killed to hang on to it.

Have you made the connection yet? The Church does the same. At it’s best, it is the kingdom of God. At it’s best, it cares for those that are in need, for all that is holy and right. At it’s best it is the body of Christ in the world. When people come into contact with a Christian, they come into contact with Christ. But then, they get lost. They get entranced. They get sucked into the lie that money means influence and influence means power. They take the calling of God to serve and twist it to be that by making money on the backs of others I am serving them. By having power, I am serving them. All is fair if Abortion is at stake. I can hate others, be spiteful and destructive if it just keeps two people of the same gender from “getting married.” (contracting with each other for tax benefits etc) What are we doing? What is truth? What kingdom are we serving?

Who are you serving? Live your convictions. Live what God has called you to be and do but my friend, do so in the reality of God’s kingdom – a kingdom of love, care, peace, joy, patience, gentleness… – do so in a kingdom marked by sacrifice and love rather than hate and animosity.

Christ is the King. We are his servants. Let our service be marked by the fruit of the spirit rather than the fruit of the world.

Amen.

We are rich and we are poor – living with it.

Sermon

poor” – it’s a word with baggage in our culture. Every four years about this time, it’s a political word – most other times it’s either equated with guilt or anger. Seems like we either feel guilty for not doing more or angry for perceived abused of the system.

Today’s Text was all about the poor. It is a sermon that I approached with some trepidation. My goal was to preach the Scripture without it being a. political, b. some guilt inducing rant, or c. a progressive diatribe. My wife tells me I got there. I went with the Proverbs and James passage.

The central question I dealt with is the one that I think we struggle with – who is poor?

Often, the comparison is made with the poor in third world countries and the poor in America but this is comparing apples and oranges. The two are not the same. The question in my mind is: does this person have resources? See I want to get away from “rich/poor” and focus on resource. Those who are fat in resources (be that money, time, spiritual, emotional etc) verses those who are lacking. A person may not have much money but be rich in time. A person may have a pile o’ money but be destitute in spirit.

Proverbs 22 equates a good name (solid reputation) as transcending riches. The ideas of wealth and poverty are human designations. We put that on each other. Verse 2 does not pass judgement on the rich/poor but does emphasize that God made them both – not that God designated one to be wealthy or one to be poor but that both humans come from God and thus are the same. In the eyes of God – there is no poor/rich category. Verses 7-9 speak of the reality of the rich and poor – once one loans money to another, the relationship is going to be master/servant. Sallie Mae taught me that! Losing that master was a great day in my life! Those verses highlight that there are blessings that are on those who are generous and curses upon those that deal unjustly with the poor. Justice is a value in God’s economy as is a good reputation. Verse 16 highlights how God views oppressing the poor to enrich others – its bad and leads only to poverty in the community! I love this idea that the author points to – when the poor are stolen from to put more in the pockets of those who are rich – everyone loses! The whole community suffers. This thought is continued in 22-23 – the meaning here is understood in terms of power and voice, the poor do not have power to resist, they have no voice, they are “crushed at the gate” (in the ancient city-state the gate is where legal issues were settled, if you had money or resources, then you had voice and could win your issue, the poor have no money, they have no power or voice) – be careful, because God is the legal representation of the poor. That was remarkable to me in this text – using the legal system to take from those who have not to give to those who have is particularly bad for everyone and will bring calamity!!

Clearly, in this text the writer makes the argument that the poor and the rich share the same community. He does not make a moral judgment as to who is better/less than the other but it seems that one has a responsibility to care for the other. To provide some sense of security. Certainly, there is blessing for those who share and calamity for those who oppress.

I covered even more in the James passage but what it comes down to is this – lets not use our politics and emotions around poverty as an excuse to do nothing. We ALL have something to give. Yes, we do need to discover for ourselves what we belive is a lack of resources and what we are willing to give to – but we NEED to give. We all share the same space. We all share the same community. Breathe the same air and all that. We are responsible for one another. Who is poor? Who is destitute? I imagine that needs to be answered by each of us individually but let it not be an excuse for inaction. Let it not be an excuse for superiority. Don’t let a person’s station be just another way to judge and separate them from you. We are called to actually serve. Actually DO something. The poor and rich will always be with us. But those separations don’t have to BE us. We can be different. Let love and service to others be the defining characteristic of a Christian.

Humility and Humanity

Sermon

My point is that, even as religion has moved to the center of American political life, humility has moved to the periphery.

This thought, written by Stephen Prothero in response to Eastwood’s speech at the RNC highlights something that I am addressing in my sermon tomorrow. The text this week is from Mark 7 where Jesus hammers the Pharisees for missing the boat in relationship to God. They were so focused on their identity as expressed through obedience to the Law (their interpretation and extrapolation of it) that they missed the dynamism of actual relationship. Rigidity in the doing stymied relationship in the being.

Its not all bad for them. I note in the sermon that history teaches us that these rigid followers of the Law were faithful and committed people; their writings not legalistic (for their time) but rather demonstrate vitality, a gracious vision of God, a yearning for justice, and a desire for people to live faithfully. They really believed that they were the closest to what God wanted from humans. Of course, they got a little lost in that.

Its not like we’re all that different – in our drive to rid ourselves of abortion, we miss the fact that we’re to be loving, kind and willing to sacrifice to take care of unwanted humans. In our drive to “uphold freedom” and rid ourselves from any vestige of that dirty word “socialism” (early Christians very much were socialists) we  abandon the chronically poor and those that are most vulnerable in our society. Sure, we get our “pure”  religion right but miss the point of the whole thing.

I think the Pharisees were sincere. I think they were faithful to the revelation they had – they just missed the further revelation of Jesus Christ – are we missing the same thing?