Which Parade will You Join?

Imagine the scene on that first Palm Sunday: The Jesus procession arriving in Jerusalem–a chaotic mix of people singing and dancing, waving palms and spreading cloaks on the ground.

Historical records tell us that at the same time, across the city, Pilate is arriving in a military procession in perfect formation with all the pomp and ceremony necessary to make an impression. every Jewish festival, the Roman army would have had an extra presence. Imagine the Roman army with Pilate arriving in Jerusalem just in case there is trouble.

Jesus arrives with a small informal band of followers. Pilate and his generals arrive on war horses. Jesus arrives on a donkey. Pilate arrives with an army marching in perfect time. Jesus arrives with peasants in disorder. Pilate proclaims the power of Rome to control by military might. Jesus proclaims God’s reign of love.

No one would wave at Pilate. They would just stay out of the way. Jesus’s followers gather around and make a party out of the parade.

Pilate’s procession displays political and military power and Roman imperial theology which goes like this:

“the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome, but the Son of God. Augustus, was the son of the god Apollo. Inscriptions refer to him as “son of God,” “lord” and “savior,” one who had brought “peace on earth.” After his death, he was seen ascending into heaven to take his permanent place among the gods. His successors continued to bear divine titles, including Tiberius, emperor during the time of Jesus’s public activity.”[1] (Adapted)

You might recognize the story line in Jesus life: Jesus son of God, lord, savior, peace on earth. You might remember hearing that Jesus ascended into heaven. When Mark was written 60 years after Jesus’ death, the author would know the story of the Roman gods. In the Jewish tradition there could only be one God. If you believed that Jesus was God then the Caesar, the Roman emperor could not be God. The story of Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem is designed so that we will ask the question: Which parade would you rather participate in?

Do you want to participate in the parade that rules the world by force, by military might, by wealth, by power? Do you want to participate in the parade that fills the world with love, compassion, healing and restoration of relationships?

That is the question we are confronted with 2000 years later. Jerusalem is a central location through much of our scripture. In many places in scripture it is central to the worship life of the Jewish people and as a city dedicated to the glory of God. But Jerusalem is also the center of the “domination system” Borg and Crossan identify three characteristics of the “domination system:”

  1. Political oppression
  2. Economic exploitation
  3. Religious legitimation – meaning that the system is justified using religious language [2]

How many times do we look around the world and say, “that’s just how it is?” How often do we look around and feel ineffectual in our ability to change the systems that we know exist? That’s part of what the domination system does. It makes the world, as it is, seem like the norm. It seems too big for us to take on. I wonder how many of Jesus’ followers watched Pilate arrive in Jerusalem with his army and thought there was nothing they can do about this oppressive presence in their city. The Jesus procession reminded people that it didn’t have to be that way and called into question the strength of Pilate and the army that backed him.

Throughout our own scripture we see the struggle between good and evil. Is God’s love stronger than evil? It is a question that has been asked throughout time. It is a question that is seen in the competing images of Palm Sunday. It is a question that we continue to ask in the fiction of books, movies and TV of our own culture. Palm Sunday encourages us to ask ourselves some important questions:

Who is more powerful: God or Culture?

Who would you rather follow? God or Culture?

Which parade do you want to participate in? The Jesus parade or the Pilate parade?

As we move towards Good Friday we need to ask ourselves if we will stand at the foot of the cross and bear witness to the pain and suffering in the world. We need to ask ourselves if we are willing and able to walk the path that Jesus walked on Palm Sunday bringing love, compassion and healing to the world around us in spite of threat and intimidation. Jesus path is one of both personal and communal risk in the face of what seems overwhelming odds.

Jesus stood against the Caesar who proclaimed to be God and as people of faith we choose to follow in Jesus’ path proclaiming hope for the world.

[1]. Borg, Marcus J.; Crossan, John Dominic (2009-03-17). The Last Week (p. 3). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[2]. Borg, Marcus J.; Crossan, John Dominic (2009-03-17). The Last Week (p. 7). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

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Here for a Good Time

Last week I wrote about eternal life as abundant life now. Abundant life occurs when we know God in this life—in our ordinary, everyday lives. This passage builds on the theme of abundant life and gives us some clues about how to get there. Most of us go through life doing whatever it is that we do: working, caring for family and friends, participating in community activities and hobbies. These things are valuable and good. The passage reminds us that life is short and we are going to die anyway. Death is inevitable. The question becomes whether we want to simply die at the end of our lives or do we want our lives to have produced abundant life?

Lent has traditionally been a time of giving something up. It is common to give up particular foods but giving something up is only beneficial if it changes us somehow or leads us deeper into God’s spirit. Our passage this morning gets at the heart of letting go of life that has become comfortable and creating space for new life.

I want to tell you a story of death and resurrection in my own life. Through most of my life, I felt very shy and insecure. I learned ways of coping. In school and on the bus, I always kept my nose in a book. At church events I poured coffee so I could appear engaged without actually having to carry on a conversation. I didn’t speak to other people any more than was absolutely necessary.

When I was doing my training for ministry we had a workshop on shame and self-esteem led by another group of students. A few minutes into the workshop, I found myself crying. I was trying so hard to hide my tears. I cried off and on throughout the morning. Several people in the group took me aside to ask if I was OK, if I needed to talk or if they could do anything. I snivelled that I was fine and didn’t need anything.

http://www.ssjd.ca/labyrinth.html

The Labyrinth at St. John the Divine. http://www.ssjd.ca/labyrinth.html

We were staying at a St. John the Divine, an Anglican convent in Toronto. Outside the convent was a labyrinth. After lunch I went out and walked the labyrinth. A labyrinth is similar to a maze but there are no dead ends. There is one way into the center and when you reach the center you turn and follow the same path out again. Walking this path into the center of yourself and God is an opportunity to pray.

So I walked into this labyrinth. As I walked I realized that my soul was close to death. I realized that I wasn’t really living. I was just going through the motions of living. I walked with more tears. I stood in the center of the labyrinth—deep within myself and deep within God. I realized that I didn’t want my spirit to die. I wanted to live fully and abundantly with joy. I walked out of the labyrinth knowing that something would have to die. That’s the story of our faith—death and resurrection. If my soul wasn’t going to die, then my way of living and being in the world would have to die in order to create space for a new life.

I went back inside and people asked again if I was OK. This time my response was different. This time I started talking about what I had experienced in the morning and how that connected to my life up to that point. What I had been doing allowed me to cope but it didn’t allow me to live abundantly and with joy. This was the beginning of a new life for me.

The passage of scripture encourages us to allow something in our lives to die so that we might create space for God in our lives. In reflecting on this passage Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh write, “attachment to life as one now leads it, leads to death anyway, while disattachment from living in the present [way] will lead to eternal life.”[1] What I needed to learn that as much as I had learned how to cope, I didn’t really know God but by letting go of the things that allowed me to cope, I could experience God.  It seems counter intuitive. It often feels like what we do in our lives gets us through but my experience suggests that we experience God in the letting go.

This week someone reminded me that life is short and we should enjoy it. Think of the Trooper song: We’re here for a good time. No matter what we are going to die at some point. Do we want the lives that we live to simply be toil and pain or do we want the life that we live to be abundant? It isn’t that life will always be easy or that things will always go the way we want but can we find abundance in the midst of difficulties and pain?

When I talk about being here for a good time, I’m not talking about accumulation of things. I’m not talking about seeing life as one big party where we hop from experience to experience while avoiding anything that is challenging. The song speaks about sun shining in the midst of rain.  I’m talking about the things that actually allow us to experience and know God. That is the good and abundant life—to know God.

To know God we need to embrace authentic life. It means being real with ourselves and others. There are days when life is challenging and we don’t have to carry that load alone. If we are used to being strong and independent it can be a challenge to share our very personal inner lives with another and yet that might be the space we need to experience God’s presence. If we always feel that the world is against us and nothing ever goes our way perhaps the challenge is to ask where God is in the midst of these challenges without assuming that we know the answer. We might be surprised that God is in the midst of a change that makes us uncomfortable. We might find that hanging on to the way things are in our own lives or in the congregation may actually be preventing us from experiencing God. Letting go of life as we know it allows something new to grow. Just like the grain of wheat that falls into the ground we need death in our lives to create new life.

The season of Lent brings us closer to death and resurrection and provides a perfect time for us to reflect on the things in our own lives which prevent us from experiencing God. It is the perfect time to allow habits which harm us, the people around or the creation to die. It can be scary to allow particular aspects of our lives to die but as resurrection people we know that in order for there to be life, there must be death.

And we see a bit further on in the passage that Jesus is resisting what will be next his life. He recognizes that the path he is on will lead to a violent death. Jesus could still have walked away at this point. He could have gone back to carpentry or join the fisherman that he hung out with. That would have been the safe and comfortable thing to do and at the end of his life, he would have died anyway. And we hear him question God and asking what the purpose of his life is. Jesus isn’t terribly excited about the prospect of death but he recognizes that death is the only way for new life to be created.

The Scarlet Letter Bible paraphrases this way:

“Jesus said, “It’s time for the authentic human to be recognized. I’m telling you, really, if a seed never falls into the earth and disintegrates, it remains just a seed. But if it disintegrates, it produces fruit. If you love your life, you’ll lose it. If you let go of your life as it is, your horizons will expand forever. If you want to serve me, you have to do what I do. You have to go where I go. If you do this, God won’t let you down.

“I’m troubled. What am I supposed to say? ‘God, keep me from my fate?’ No! I won’t deny the reason I came here in the first place! God, make yourself known!”

Just then a voice came from heaven, saying, “I’ve made myself known, and will do it again.” When people heard it, they thought it was thunder. Some said that an angel had spoken to him.

Jesus said, “The voice wasn’t for me. It was for you. It’s decision time. The world’s ruler is about to be sent into exile. I’ll be upheld, and everyone will come to me.”

The passage offers a choice: Die with nothing to show for it or choose abundant life. The choice is yours.

“By his own admission, the advent of the hour leaves Jesus anxious. Yet, in spite of his anxiety, Jesus embraces the appointed time and what God wills for it.”[2] Letting go is not an easy process but in the process we can trust in God’s presence which holds us and strengthens and guides us.

[1].  Bruce Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998) pg 212.

[2]. Bruce Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998) pg 212.

For God so Loved the World

From: https://spiceofyourlife.wordpress.com/2012/12/23/gods-gift-john-315-19-bible-resources

From: https://spiceofyourlife.wordpress. com/2012/12/23/gods-gift-john-315-19- bible-resources

This is a well-known passage that sometimes is simply taken for granted. I want to spend some time looking at different parts of the passage. I’m using the inclusive translation here:

Yes, God so loved the world: God loves every bit of the world with all of its imperfections, with all of our mistakes, with all the hatred and violence that exists. God loved and continues to love the world. God loves the world. Not just Christians or people like “us” but the world and loving the world means being engaged in all the messiness of life in the world. It means getting our hands dirty in loving the world. You cannot tend a garden without getting a least a bit of mess on you. Loving the world is no different.

As to give the Only Begotten One: God loved the world so much that God became “part of it, vulnerable to it, partaking of it.”[1] According to Marcus Borg, this phrase doesn’t refer to the idea that Jesus died for our sins but that God became part of the world. God loved the world and became part of it participating in life and in death.

That whoever believes: The idea of believing in statements about God and Jesus is a relatively new phenomenon. Belief has more to do with “commitment, loyalty, faithfulness, allegiance to the beloved, and trust in the beloved”[2]—in this case God as known in Jesus. In our culture belief is often understood as affirming a list of statements about Jesus. But belief isn’t intended to be about affirming doctrinal statements. Belief is about our ability to place our trust in God’s presence and our commitment to follow Jesus’ teaching as faithfully as we can.

May not die but have eternal life: Somewhere along the way in translation and interpretation the original meaning of this phrase got lost. Marcus Borg indicates that eternal doesn’t refer to what we think of as heaven. He references John 17:3 which indicates that “This is eternal life: to know God.” We know God in the present and in knowing God we find eternal life. Borg doesn’t discount an afterlife but that suggests the focus is on knowing God in this life. [3] I like to use the term abundant life in place of eternal life simply to help make the distinction clear. Abundant life focuses on the present and living with the fullness of God in each day.

God sent the Only Begotten into the world not to condemn the world, but that through the Only Begotten the world might be saved: Christianity has sometimes lifted up the idea (and often based on this passage) that if you believe the correct doctrine about Jesus you will be saved and go to heaven in the next life. If you believe incorrectly you will be condemned to hell. But this passage doesn’t actually uphold that theology. This passage very clearly reminds us that God loves the world and that in our trust and faith in God we find abundant life.

Whoever believes in the Only Begotten avoids judgement: We hear judgement in this context and often think of God the divine judge sitting in heaven handing out punishment. The Greek word that is used here refers to an “on-going process of judging, in which deeds are continually evaluated relating to light or darkness, being righteous or being oppressive, sustaining life or diminishing life.”[4] Randall Bush writes that “Christians are too often prone to see the life of faith as an examination for which we hope to receive a passing grade, rather than a continuum of daily acts.”[5] If we think of it this way, we always have the opportunity to make decisions about our behavior—to judge what is right and wrong, to choose good or hurtful behavior in our lives. If we are faithful to Jesus’ way, it becomes so ingrained in our being that we no longer need to choose right or wrong. Behavior that is abundant and life-giving becomes our life. By knowing God we know how to behave and how to live.

But whoever doesn’t believe is judged already for not believing in the name of the Only Begotten of God: Whoever doesn’t trust in God’s presence or is unable to absorb the message that Jesus brings will always have to be choosing right or wrong. The choices won’t always be as clear or as easy to follow through on.

On these grounds the sentence is pronounced: That though the light came into the world, people showed they preferred darkness to the light because their deeds were evil: Here, the writer of John is trying to set boundaries around who is in and out of their group. In the ancient world the boundaries were important. Care and concern and love extended only to those who were part of your group. In this case, the people who follow Jesus are understood as the enlightened ones. Membership in the enlightened group was not based on right belief but on deeds. People whose deeds seem to mirror that of Jesus become part of the light. People whose actions seem to be outside of what Jesus taught become part of the darkness. Part of what was so radical about Jesus’ message is that he broke down the barriers and boundaries. Jesus consistently associated with people who were outside his own social group. This verse extends the group consciousness not based on family relationships or social class but on behavior.

People who do wrong hate the light and avoid it, for fear their actions will be exposed; but people who live by the truth come out into the light so that it may be plainly seen that what they do is done in God: People who wanted to continue to hate and oppress would avoid associating with the new Christian group. The radicalness of the Christian group actually would naturally draw in people who wanted compassion and justice and love. It would naturally keep out the people who wanted to continue living with hate and violence. Everyone has the possibility of being part of the “in group”. Being part of this is not based on social class, family, ethnicity, religious background. Being part of the Christian group is based on behavior that reflects Jesus’ life.

So what does all this have to do with us? This passage re-orients the focus of the Christian faith from in which emphasis is on the next life to one in which we are focused on abundant life around us each day. The focus is not on right belief about God but on our trust and faith that allows us to know God in the present. This sense of God’s presence infuses our being so that we are filled with God’s spirit that continually leads us to behave in ways that mirror God as shown to us in Jesus.

What is most important in our faith is not the specifics of what we believe about Jesus but our willingness to place our trust in God and in the way of life shown to us in Jesus that offers compassion, love, healing, generosity for all the world. God loved the entire world, regardless of whether people are part of our “in group” or not. Sometimes it is tempting to vilify the people who perpetrate violence and hate in our world. In doing so we forget that God loves the entire world—even people we think are our enemies—and that God’s love has the ability to transform individual lives and the world.

May all our behavior reflect the love that God has for the world. May we constantly spread the love and compassion that we experience to every person that our lives touch.

[1]. Borg, Marcus J. (2009-03-17). Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (p. 307). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[2]. Borg, Marcus J. (2009-03-17). Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (p. 307). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[3]. Borg, Marcus J. (2009-03-17). Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (p. 144). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[4]. Bush, Randall K. Preaching God’s Transforming Justice. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 156.

[5]. Bush, Randall K. Preaching God’s Transforming Justice. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 156.

The Old Fool watches Jesus in the Temple

IMG_3502This week’s blog tells the story of Jesus clearing the temple as  witnessed by the Old temple fool.

I’m just the old fool who sees everything that happens. I watch and collect stories to share. Sometimes the stories are simply for delight and joy. Sometimes the stories reflect a reality. Sometimes people can’t see themselves and my stories help them to see more clearly – just like in a mirror that has fogged up. You can see an image but it isn’t clear and doesn’t reflect the reality of the person looking into the mirror.

I spend my time here in the temple. I see what happens here. The pilgrims arriving from all over the countryside: hot, tired, hungry, thirsty and poor arriving off the road with almost nothing but the clothes on the backs. Why do they do it? For some it is a deep yearning to worship God. For some it is an obligation. The wealthier ones want to see and be seen. They’re not really here for God or for worship.

That’s the thing about the temple. You probably imagine it as a place where people come to worship and some do come here to worship. But it is also the center of the theocracy. This is really God’s palace and all the people who serve in the palace function as the government of the Jewish people. Somewhere along the way, God gets lost and government takes over. That’s why some of the people come here. They want to be at the center of the power. They want to be seen in a place where they can control the people. They just want the power and this is the place to be if you want power.

As you come down through the temple ranks, people become less and less important as individuals. Most people really do come to worship God here but it becomes difficult to authentically worship God within these walls. As soon as the pilgrims from all over walk into the courtyard they are bombarded with the market: people selling the sacrificial animals; other people exchanging money so they have the proper currency for making offering inside the temple. All of this is done at a cost of course! But nobody ever says anything because that’s the cost of worshiping and all because the ones with power will it to be so.

But the temple changed today. Nobody saw it coming. Nobody saw him coming. Just a poor Jewish Rabbi with his entourage of followers. No one noticed him arriving. I noticed. I notice everything. I saw him come in. He’s very ordinary looking and yet brings a commanding presence with him. As he arrived in the temple he looked around. He wandered through the temple taking in all the sights and sounds but not speaking. I followed at a distance since I could see that something was happening. I watched his face and his body as he moved through the temple. At first it was wonder at seeing the temple and then it was disbelief as he wandered past all the market stalls. Then it was anger as he stopped and listened to a transaction.

I could see him struggling with his emotions, wondering whether he should confront what he was witnessing. Would that help or hinder? Would people be more able to worship with all the money changers and vendors out of the way or would they feel that with the familiar gone, God had abandoned them?

Finally I could see a decision cross his face. He went to the nearest table and spoke to the people there. He told the worshipers that it didn’t have to be like this. They didn’t have to buy the animals for sacrifice. He accused the vendor of cheating the worshipers. The worshipers listened closely but the vendor became angrier at the accusations. A crowd began to gather and Jesus the rabbi grabbed the nearest cage of birds and opened the door. The vendor reached out to grab Jesus but he flipped over the table between them. That’s all it took before the entire temple erupted in violence. There were animals running loose everywhere. There were people running and trying to get out of the way. There were fights going on all over the place.

That Jesus might have initiated the change but he certainly didn’t do it alone. He, along with the worshipers who remained, freed all the animals and turned the temple as we know it upside down. In the process he incurred the wrath of the temple authorities. Some of them came and tried to restore order. They accused Jesus and asked him what authority he had to turn the temple upside down. What authority did he have to change the structure of the temple institution?

He responded but quoting scripture. He beat them at their own game by reminding them that the temple is a place of prayer. It is not a market place. The authorities always claimed that they had the monopoly on worshiping but a rabbi from nowhere reflected back to them that they were not worshiping in spirit. He reflected back to them that bricks and mortars, their power and control were not authentic worship. He reflected back to them the system of oppression. In turning the temple upside down, Jesus reclaimed the worship of the people, took control of worship away from the authorities and gave it back to the ones who really wanted to worship.

I got that out of what the rabbi was saying but he also talked a bit of nonsense in the process—something about destroying the temple and rebuilding it in three days. That’s a bit of an impossibility considering that it’s taken 46 years to get this far. Maybe when we look back on this in a few years maybe it will make more sense. Maybe we’ll discover that it isn’t really about the power and control, it isn’t really about the building. Maybe we’ll discover that this Jesus Rabbi died and that his death brought new life to the world, transforming something that was destroying people into something that brought life. Wouldn’t that be an amazing end to this story?

But I’m just an old fool so what do I know?