Tuesday, March 29, 2011

March 27, 2011 - Now But Not Yet - I See Dead People

March 27, 2011

Matthew 23:1-7; 23-27; 37

Now, But Not Yet

I See Dead People

In 1999 one of the most popular movies was The Sixth Sense. You may have seen the movie, which starred Bruce Willis as a psychiatrist and Haley Joel Osment as a young boy who saw people who had died. There is a scene where the psychiatrist asks this young boy about the people he sees. The young boy makes several comments, the most interesting being they don’t know they are dead. Seems like a pretty big thing to overlook if you ask me.

I think of that line when I read this passage from Matthew’s gospel, a passage where Jesus just rips into the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus also saw dead people, and those people also didn’t know they were dead. They were alive physically, but when Jesus looked upon the scribes and Pharisees he pronounced them to be people who were spiritually dead, and tragically they had no clue they were spiritually dead. In their minds, they were righteous and were living exemplary lives; they believed themselves to be the very embodiment of religious people. Kind of scary to think about, isn’t it, being blind to the reality of being spiritually dead.

When I read a passage such as this I wonder, what if there are things about my life that I don’t recognize? What if there is spiritual deadness in my life and I can’t see it? Could I be as blind as the scribes and the Pharisees in recognizing spiritual deadness?

There are few things worse, I think, than cold, dead religion; except perhaps, not being able to recognize that cold, dead religion is prominent in your life.

Jesus takes on the cold, dead religion of the scribes and Pharisees in this passage. One of the reasons Jesus ratchets up his criticism of the scribes and Pharisees is because it was only days before his crucifixion. Jesus is already in Jerusalem, the Triumphal Entry having taken place just a day or so earlier. Being only days from his crucifixion, Jesus turns very serious as he draws a distinction between dead religion and a living faith. He has only a few days remaining with his followers so he is very intent in this passage to peel away the layers of lifeless religion that dominated the landscape of faith at this time in history.

So let’s go through this passage, the highlights of which we read, as we discover what constitutes dead religion. Jesus groups his criticisms under a couple of categories, the first of which is –

Dead religion is legalistic and imposes a burden upon others.

I have talked about legalism on more than one occasion, but it always bears repeating that legalism is a dangerous distortion of faith and seeks to drain the life out of genuine faith. Legalism is the desire to create lists of rules and regulations about how we are to live and then seeks to impose those rules and regulations upon others. Legalism is not content, for instance, to say that one should honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy. That is too simple and leaves too much room for personal interpretation about what it means to honor the Sabbath. Legalism will define in very minute details how others ought to behave on the Sabbath and if those rules aren’t followed the legalists become very condemning.

One of the best examples I can think of for legalism is Barney Fife. We all love the character of Barney, don’t we? Barney was a legalist – he arrested almost the entire town of Mayberry when Andy was out of town for just eight hours, and it was for offenses such as jaywalking – jaywalking, in Mayberry! Can you imagine what a horrendous crime that would be? Andy sits down with Barney and tries to explain to him the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law.

Jesus was very hard on legalism and always condemned it. Early in Matthew’s gospel he says Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30). In today’s passage he is more direct, saying of the scribes and Pharisees do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to life a finger to move them (verses 3-4).

Legalism is when we are all about form, and we are rigidly and unbending about form and forget about the intent and purpose behind the form.

The scribes and Pharisees were merciless in taking a rather basic tenant of faith and expanding it into a myriad of rules and regulations. Jesus simplified faith down to two basic elements – love God and love our neighbor. That is simplified in the sense that there are two basic commands, but it’s not simple to actually live those commands. The scribes and Pharisees felt compelled to make long lists that governed every conceivable behavior and then codified those lists into religious law, with the effect being that people were weighed down with the burden of the innumerable laws and regulations.

Faith is often challenging, but that is not the same as being weighed down by the burden of rules and regulations. Faith is not meant, Jesus says, to weigh us down as a burden. Faith should lift us up and bring life, not crush us under the weight of legalistic regulations.

It is extremely discouraging, I think, when you enter some churches for worship only to be beaten down with the weight of their legalistic rules and regulations. It’s what causes many people to look at churches and say that’s exactly why I don’t go to church.

The spiritually dead are hypocritical.

A hypocrite, someone has said, is someone who complains about the amount of sex and violence on their VCR.

We don’t like that people complain that churches are full of hypocrites, but Jesus pointed out that the religion of his day had its share of hypocrites. Five times in this passage Jesus calls the scribes and the Pharisees hypocrites. Five times! Can you imagine how they must have been fuming! But we can also imagine the people listening who were nodding their heads in agreement with Jesus. Lots of people recognized that the scribes and Pharisees were hypocritical; Jesus had the nerve to point it out.

Hypocrisy is the attempt to present one’s self as something they are really not. Sometimes a hypocrite can fool people, but most of the time people can see through the fa├žade.

The problem with the scribes and Pharisees was their inability to recognize their hypocrisies. Everyone has failures and shortcomings; that’s not the issue. The real issue is when we either can’t recognize our shortcomings or we refuse to recognize them. That is when we deceive ourselves, and we mistakenly believe we can deceive others as well.

These were people – the scribes and Pharisees – who should have known better. The scribes and Pharisees studied the scriptures, they studied the long history and tradition of faith, and they were also were people who were supposed to be leading and teaching others about what constituted the important elements of faith. It was from an attitude of love that Jesus spoke these words. Jesus was all about bringing life, and his desire was to bring life to dead and dying forms of faith. They were hard words, but they were words that he spoke to raise that dead faith to life.

The spiritually dead are more worried about external matters than internal matters.

The scribes and Pharisees were more concerned about appearances than the content of character or the condition of one’s heart.

There is something insidious in the fact that one can follow all the rules of religion – and in the process be seen as very faithful – while at the same time violating the fundamental foundations of faith. It is possible to fulfill all the external regulations, as did the scribes and Pharisees, and yet have little or no love in one’s heart for other people; it is possible to be a great giver of one’s resources but not give even the smallest portion of one’s heart in love for others.

Jesus said the scribes and Pharisees were like a cup that looked sparkling clean on the outside but inside was dirty and grimy. Just as they were very concerned that the cup was ceremonially and ritually clean without concern for the inside, the same was true about their lives – as long as everything looked fine on the outside it didn’t matter about the inside.

And then Jesus makes an even harsher comparison as he says they are like whitewashed tombs, looking nice on the outside but containing only deadness on the inside. Tombs were whitewashed at times to try and make people forget the purpose of a tomb. It was symbolic, Jesus said, of the person who is interested only in the appearance of faith and righteousness, while underneath that veneer of righteousness can be hidden all manner of hypocrisies.

Jesus says the scribes and Pharisees made a great show of their religion – seeking the places of honor, offering their long public prayers in order to impress people, making it obvious when they were fasting, and calling attention to their offerings. Love, though, is its own evidence. When love is the foundation, it never has to be proven, because it is obvious. If you love your spouse or your children, you don’t have to make lists of how you will prove it; your actions will demonstrate your love.

A number of years ago I was in the back of a sanctuary when a young man walked in for worship. It’s not uncommon for people to dress casual these days but this was in the days when people did not. He came in wearing a T-shirt and pair of jeans and in one pew someone leaned over to their neighbor and said look what the cat has drug in. What they didn’t know was the young man was 18 years old and on his own. His father was in rehab and his mother left and he had no idea where she was. The young man was trying to continue with school and worked in a restaurant to make some kind of a living. Appearances don’t tell the whole story, do they?

Jesus was so saddened by the presence of lifeless, dead religion. Jesus is about bringing life. May we always accept the life he brings.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

March 20, 2011 - Now But Not Yet - A Lasting Commitment

March 20, 2011

Luke 14:25-35

Now, But Not Yet

A Lasting Commitment

Are you familiar with the term planned obsolescence? Planned obsolescence is the idea that certain products are made to last only a limited amount of time and then must be replaced. The idea is that if a product lasts an infinite amount of time the manufacturer of the product makes less money. What would happen to the auto industry if a car was built to last forty years? Can you imagine having the same cell phone you had ten or fifteen years ago? Some products have a short lifespan because of technological innovation, but many products don’t last because of the built-in mentality of disposability that permeates our society. What have people traditionally done when something has outlasted its usefulness? It’s thrown away. Not only is that a bad environmental practice, it also contributes to the attitude of disposability in our culture. Is something no longer useful – throw it away and get another one. Tired of something – throw it away and get a new one.

There are serious consequences to a mentality of disposability. Besides the obvious consequence of filling landfills with so much stuff, there are psychological and spiritual consequences as well, such as believing that nothing really lasts, that nothing is permanent. In a society where so many things are disposable, everything is in danger of becoming disposable. It’s a mentality that even seeps into relationships.

Unfortunately, relationships don’t always last. Even when love is recognized as the foundation of the relationship, there is the possibility of the relationship ending. Not all friendships survive. Not all family relationships remain intact. Not all marriages last. Perhaps we have arrived at a point where we wonder if it is possible to expect that a commitment can last. In a world where so much has become disposable, is it possible to expect that any kind of commitment can last?

Our Scripture passage for the morning asks that question. It takes us to the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem. Luke tells us that while traveling, great multitudes were going along with Him. As the crowd grows, Jesus begins to speak to them about commitment, and he presents a very strong picture of what it means to follow him. Listen again to some of his words, as found in verse 26 – if anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple. And in the next verse – And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

Wow. That’s a very strong passage, isn’t it? It has a certain shock value, doesn’t it? It no doubt shocked the people who were listening that day. Let’s back up to what was happening at that moment so we might understand this passage more clearly.

Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. One of the reasons he was drawing large crowds, I believe, is because many hoped he would arrive in Jerusalem to proclaim himself a political messiah. People were anxious to free themselves of Roman rule and many were following Jesus in the hope that he would be the one to finally bring them freedom.

Jesus didn’t want anyone to have misunderstandings about the nature of his mission. Jesus believed in being very clear about what it meant to follow him. This passage is the opposite of the fine print we find so often these days. We have all received the flyers advertising, for instance, a computer at a ridiculously low price, and when you get out your microscope and read the extremely small print you find it says something like only one per store; does not include monitor, software, or any thing you need to actually make a computer work.

Jesus is seeking to make his message as clear as possible. He is saying, in essence, this road to Jerusalem is not a march to a political victory. I am not going to claim a political kingdom. I am going to give up my life to demonstrate the immense love of God. And the implication then becomes – what is the nature of our commitment? What is the depth of our love?

Jesus wanted people to understand that following him had some associated risks. Some were already plotting to kill Jesus, and anyone associated with him could face the same fate. Yes, it was wonderfully attractive that Jesus healed the sick and fed large crowds and threw open the doors of the kingdom to all, but he was asking what will happen to that commitment when things get tough, as they inevitably will?

It’s a valid question. It’s the difference between love and infatuation. To make a comparison, many of those who were following along with Jesus were comparable to someone on a first or second date. There’s a lot of excitement and emotion, but there’s not yet any real depth, it’s not really love, at least not at that point. There may be a lot of excitement, but what happens when a time of testing comes to a relationship built on infatuation? It may or may not survive. But love – that is a different matter. Love says I’ve been with you through the fun times and the easy times, and I’m going to be with you through the tough times as well. Infatuation considers the questions could this person be the one? Could I spend my life with this person? I’m not sure.

Jesus is reminding those following him that there was coming a day when it would be dangerous to be associated with him. Peter faced that danger, and his resolve quickly wilted. Jesus was asking if people could retain their commitment if it became unfashionable or unpopular to be his disciple.

When I was in high school I participated in my first official protest. It was during the energy crisis of the early 1970s and the school decided they would turn the thermostats down to save on energy costs. I don’t remember how low they were set, but it was chilly in the classrooms, so we organized a protest. We decided that when the bell rang to begin classes on a particular morning we would all march to the gym and remain there until the thermostats were turned back up.

The morning of the protest we were all excited. The bell rang for class and we marched to the gym. We weren’t going to take those cold temperatures any longer! We were fighting The Man!

It didn’t take very long before the intercom crackled to life, and we heard the voice of Anthony Pisano, the principal. Mr. Pisano was tough, and he proceeded to inform us that anyone not in their classroom in five minutes would be given a three day suspension. Our protest folded like a cheap card table. It was rather amazing how quickly and easily we gave in. Of course, we weren’t exactly protesting a huge injustice. It’s not like we were protesting the ravages of poverty and hunger or fighting against the injustices that so many people were facing on a daily basis. We were a little bit chilly in the nice classrooms of our really nice school. What we needed, besides a cause worthy of protest, was a greater sense of commitment.

Jesus looked at the multitudes of people following him and knew they needed to understand it would not always be easy to follow him. He knew what they did not – the time of his crucifixion was drawing close, and he knew the challenges that would be placed upon those following him and associated with him. And he needed to tell them what might be waiting for them as his followers.

That’s why Jesus used such strong language – because tough times were coming for many of them. When Jesus spoke of the need for them to carry their cross, they knew exactly what was meant. People in the day of Jesus had seen a lot of crosses with people nailed to them. That image wasn’t just symbolic to them – it was very real.

It’s one of the reasons why Jesus calls people to a community. It’s much easier to withstand difficulty when you are part of a group. When you have some people who will encourage you and stand with you and love you it is so much easier to remain faithful, isn’t it?

That’s the gift of the church. It’s also the calling of the church. The church is called to stand with those who believe they stand alone. The church is called to stand with those who are oppressed, to stand with those who are lonely, to stand with those who are the victims of the powers and the systems of the world.

We are fortunate that we don’t face the challenges to faith that faced those who were following Jesus. But there are many in our world who do. And we must pray for them

Years ago, my friends and I used to play around an old foundation near our home. We had a field of several acres in front of our house, and off to one side of the field was a foundation in a grove of trees. The concrete block foundation had obviously been there a long time, as some trees were growing within the walls. No one in our neighborhood seemed to have any idea when the foundation was built or why the home was never finished. As we climbed on the walls and used it as a fort for our imaginative playtimes, I often wondered about the history of that foundation. Who built it? Why did they never complete it?

That foundation, it seems, could be a metaphor for faith. It is possible, Jesus warns, to fail to consider the implications for a life of faith, and thus abandoning it when difficulties arise. In a world where relationships so often seem temporary, where commitment seems to be a thing of the past, may we be ever committed to our faith.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

March 13, 2011 - Now But Not Yet - New Life

March 13, 2011

John 2:1-11

Now, But Not Yet

New Life

Over the years I have had some interesting experiences officiating weddings. Some of those experiences have been strange, some have been funny, and some have been very touching. One of my most memorable experiences was officiating at the wedding of a couple who were both in their 80s. They dated in college, went their separate ways, and married others. Years later they both lost their spouses and met again late in life at a college reunion. I have a picture of them in my office, and both of them are gone now. He passed away two years after they married and she passed away about two years ago. It was a very memorable experience performing their wedding. Some weddings, though, are memorable for the wrong reasons. Years ago, at another wedding, just before the processional began, the bride approached me and said, just so you won’t worry, I have contacted the sheriff’s office and they have promised to drive by to prevent any trouble. Actually, until she said that, I wasn’t worried about anything, but I immediately began to wonder what kind of trouble she was anticipating. I certainly didn’t ask!

This morning, as we continue our series of messages Now, but Not Yet, we come to a miracle Jesus performed while attending a wedding ceremony.

This is not one of the major miracles of Jesus, if it is proper to describe any miracle as less than a major event. This miracle is different from the others. No one was healed by this miracle, as happened on many other occasions; no one was raised from the dead, as happened with Lazarus (John 11:43), with the widow’s son (Luke 7:11-17), and the daughter of the synagogue official (Matthew 9:18-26); this is not multiplying a few fish and loaves into a feast for thousands of people (Matthew 14:13-21). This is a much smaller miracle in terms of impact.

This miracle seems out of place in light of what John says at the end of his gospel, in the final verse – Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written (21:25).

With so many things to record about Jesus, it seems a little odd that John would record this miracle, where no one is healed, it is not a life and death situation, and almost no one realized at the time that it even took place. The fact that John includes it – and presents it as the first miracle of Jesus – means there must be something very significant about this miracle of Jesus.

I believe the significance of this miracle is that it represents the new life and accompanying transformation that comes because of Jesus. Jesus is all about bringing new life and transformation. I believe this is underscored as the miracle took place at a wedding, where two people begin a new life together and their lives are transformed because of that new life. And when the water is changed into wine it is a sign of the depth of change and transformation Jesus can bring about. Seen in this light, this miracle sets the stage for all that is to follow, as the gospel is about new life and transformation.

So let’s go through the story and see all the ways it shows new life and transformation.

Then, as now, weddings were important events, maybe even more important in the day of Jesus. The lives of the far majority of people in that time and place were very difficult. Poverty was a daily grind, and scratching out a living was an incredibly difficult task for most people. There were very few days of rest and relaxation and no vacations. It was get up in the morning, scratch out a subsistence living, and then repeat the next day and the next day and the next, and on and on. Weddings, then, were like an oasis in the midst of hard lives. The celebration for the couple would go on for about a week and would involve the entire community. The married couple would not go away on a honeymoon, but would stay in their home and be treated like a king and a queen by the community for the week. That week was a gift because their future would be full of so much hardship and struggle.

This is why, I think, Jesus often portrayed the kingdom of God like a banquet or other occasion of celebration. Those kinds of examples would really resonate with people in his day. Imagine what it was like to live at a time when life was so fragile. It wasn’t just the difficulty of making a living, or the challenge of providing adequate food and shelter for your family, but also the medical challenges. A minor infection that would barely register as a slight inconvenience to us would be life threatening in that time. Life was incredibly hard and incredibly fragile, so the image of a banquet and a table overflowing with food was a very, very powerful and attractive image.

The new life and transformation presented by Jesus is a cause for celebration. This is a story that should remind us that faith is not a stale or stodgy exercise, but one of joy. When I was in elementary school the minister of our church was a very serious, very dour man. I can’t recall him laughing or even smiling. There was about him a manner of severity. I don’t mean to pick on him, but he was a scary guy because he was always so serious. I was in the sixth grade when a new minister came to our church – William Norris. We always called him Reverend Norris but we jokingly referred to him as Wild Will. Talk about a night and day difference! He was very gregarious, with a loud laugh that you could hear a block away and you heard it often. It was a lot of fun to be around him, and to a great extent, it changed my conception of faith from one that was stale and boring to one that was exciting and worthy of celebration. There are times, certainly, for solemnity, but not all the time. Even at a funeral service we can appreciate a bit of humor and recognize that at such a difficult time there can still be an attitude of joy because of the promise of faith.

This attitude of joyous celebration was in direct contrast to the dour and long-faced attitude of the religious leadership of Jesus’ day. Reading about them in Scripture, you get the feeling they were not much fun to be around. People brought their children to Jesus; I don’t think many people brought their children to the scribes and Pharisees. You can tell a lot about a person by the way children react to them, and from what we see in the gospels Jesus was a magnet not only to children but to all ages.

While attending this wedding celebration, the wine runs out, and Mary comes to Jesus to tell him. It’s interesting to note that she asks nothing of Jesus. She never says, can you do something about this situation? I don’t think there is even a hint of a suggestion that Mary was asking Jesus to do anything.

Jesus responds to his mother by giving what sounds like a very abrupt answer, and the NIV actually takes some of the edge away that we find in other translations – “dear woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My time has not yet come.” Even in that gentler translation it sounds kind of abrupt, doesn’t it?

I once read an article by a skeptic trying to discredit faith, and the author of the article used this verse as an example of what they considered to be the harsh and mean personality of Jesus. Obviously, the person did no research into the verse, as the language may sound a little abrupt to us but that is not the case. The word woman is the same word used by Jesus from the cross as he committed his mother to the care of John.

(The Gospel of John, Volume One, William Barclay, The New Daily Study Bible, pp. 114-115)

The rest of the response meant something along the lines of don’t worry; you don’t quite understand what is going on; leave things to me, and I will settle them in my own way.

What Mary did was what people have since done on countless occasions – she turned to Jesus when there was a problem or a need, and she trusted him. That is the essence of faith – to say Lord, I don’t know how this situation can ever be resolved, but I’m going to trust you. That is not to say that we abandon people and tell them just trust God, everything will be okay. The book of James warns against that kind of response (James 2:14-17 – What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.)

Mary is exhibiting a trust that runs to the deepest level of life, and is a trust that says whatever happens in life I remain in the hands of God and I will always be in the hands of God. For people who lived such vulnerable lives, that was a powerful level of trust.

So Mary tells the servants do whatever he tells you, and Jesus tells them to fill six stone water jars to the brim. They were large containers – twenty to thirty gallons each John says – and they were used to comply with the religious regulations of washing. They probably had some water in them already, but Jesus asked for them to be filled to the very top. Then he tells them to draw out some of the water and take it to the master of the banquet. And in what must have been an awkward moment, the master of the banquet tasted what was brought to him. I say awkward because I don’t know when the water became wine. The servants may not have realized it was changed yet. They may have seen it as water that people used to wash their hands, arms, feet, and ankles. The sight of someone drinking it would have been an interesting moment.

The master of the banquet pulls the bridegroom aside and says everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now (verse 10). The practice would be to serve the best wine first and after a few drinks, when people were tipsy enough to be unobservant, you would bring out cheap wine.

There is abundance in the life of the one who follows Jesus. The amount of water in these containers means a lot of wine – far more than was necessary. There is abundance to the life of the one who follows Jesus. Jesus says later in John that I have come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly (John 10:10). That statement, unfortunately, has been turned into a gross caricature by some, as they have twisted it to mean only a financial abundance. The abundance offered by Jesus is of a more spiritual nature – it is an abundance of love, an abundance of hope, an abundance in the depth of relationships, and so much more.

Then the old is turned into something new. Dirty water in some stone jars becomes sparkling wine, just as Jesus can take a broken heart and make it whole, bitterness becomes joy, even death becomes life.

Everywhere Jesus went, he brought newness and life. He took water and made it wine, he resurrected Lazarus, he healed the sick – new life always followed him. There are countless people who could testify to the newness Jesus has brought to their lives.

As I thought about the ending to this message I considered a story of someone who experienced a radical, monumental life change because of the gospel. As I thought about it, it seemed more appropriate to think of more incremental changes in life. Most of us have not had a huge 180-degree turn of life experience. For most of us, God’s grace has brought smaller, more incremental change to life. Jesus turned the water into wine in a sudden miracle, as he does some lives. Most of us though, follow the longer change – like the slower fermentation process when wine is made. Just as the miracle of changing the water into wine wasn’t obvious to most people and was mostly seen in retrospect, so it is with our lives. We may not see some of those changes until we look back from a point further down the road in life. But those changes and the transformation does come. It may be the eventual change of getting over a hurt, overcoming a doubt, moving on from a failure, realizing that our trust in God has grown.

May we give thanks for the change and transformation he brings.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Dangerous Road of Judgment - March 6, 2011

March 6, 2011

John 8:2-11

Now, But Not Yet

The Dangerous Road of Judgment

I am grateful that religious people are always portrayed in such a positive light. Even people who don’t believe in God see religious people as gracious, accepting, and nonjudgmental. They do, don’t they?

Wouldn’t it be nice if we were always seen that way? Next to the accusation of being a bunch of hypocrites, religious people most often accused of being highly judgmental of others. It’s actually kind of hard to argue with that point, because it’s true.

But it’s true for everybody, I think. Not that I’m trying to shift blame or responsibility, but it seems to be part of our nature to make judgments about people. In fact, if I mentioned some names you probably have a judgment about them that pops into your mind immediately. Billy Graham. Mother Theresa. Charlie Sheen. I’m tempted to say I’m not putting him in the same group as Billy Graham and Mother Theresa but that would be judgmental, wouldn’t it? It’s hard not to judge though, isn’t it? Let’s keep that in mind as we consider our Scripture passage for this morning.

As we continue our series of messages Now, But Not Yet, this morning we come to the passage in John’s gospel of the woman caught in adultery. One of the most famous stories in the gospels, it is a stern warning against the dangers of judgment.

The first thing that strikes me about this passage is the person that’s missing. There should have been two people brought before Jesus. John twice makes the rather indelicate point that the woman was caught in the act of adultery. Where is the man?

The men who dragged this woman before Jesus were not a bit concerned about keeping the law or about matters of personal righteousness. If they were, there would have been two people brought before Jesus that day.

No, these men, these teachers of the law and the Pharisees were not a bit interested in righteousness, holiness, or any of the other matters they purported to support. John tells us this was done in order to trap Jesus.

Isn’t it rather pathetic to see this group of men using this woman in an effort to make a point, to use her as a pawn in their plot to discredit Jesus? There are few things as sad as those who are willing to use other people for their own ends, regardless of how much pain they inflict in the process of doing so. And these men were willing to see this woman executed in order to make their point. Adultery was a very serious crime, so serious that the guilty parties could be given the death penalty. How sad.

Adherence to the law is not what is at stake here. As in numerous other places, the religious leaders were out to get Jesus. By bringing to him a case they believed to be absolutely clear-cut in regards to religious law they hoped to put him in a position where they might discredit him.

William Barclay says of these leaders They were not looking on this woman as a person at all; they were looking at her only as a thing, an instrument whereby they could formulate a charge against Jesus. They were using her, as a person might use a tool, for their own purposes. To them she had no name, no personality, no feelings; she was simply a pawn in the game whereby they sought to destroy Jesus (Barclay, John, p. 6).

It’s a sickening scene, isn’t it? It’s the kind of scene that puts a knot in our stomach because it was a game everyone could see for what it truly was – using this woman in order to make a point.

This was a religious gotcha game, and they still go on today. It happens when someone asks you a question, not because they are looking for help finding an answer, but when they are seeing if you will answer correctly. You know those kinds of questions, don’t you? Well, let me ask you this, and it is often asked in front of other people to test you and to put you on the spot. Religious gotcha games happen when we become the judge and the jury, believing we are the ones qualified to make all manner of judgments about others.

God doesn’t see sinners and he doesn’t see nameless people; God sees people. He sees people worthy of his love, worthy of his redemption, people who make mistakes but are still his children and worthy of his love and grace.

Judgmentalism carries with it a moral superiority. It says I am so much better than others that I am in a moral position to make judgments of others. But that’s not true, is it? Not only is it not our job to judge, we have no standing to make judgments of others.

Judgment is also a way of isolating us from our own dark side. Illusionists use redirection in order to create their illusions. They get people to watch one thing so they miss what they are doing to create the illusion. Redirection is the most important tool of a judgmental person, because it turns attention to others so we can hide or own faults and failures. The accusers of this woman saw her as a distraction from their own sins.

Judgmentalism keeps us from being honest with ourselves. The London Times once asked the great theologian G. K. Chesterton what was wrong with the world. His reply was very succinct – Dear Sirs, In response to your question as to what is wrong with this world – I am. Those men confronting Jesus that day would never have been able to see the truth in such a statement.

And then Jesus, John says, bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. What Jesus wrote is one of the great mysteries of the Bible. One of the traditional thoughts is that Jesus wrote some of the sins of the accusers. It’s interesting that John does not use the usual Greek word for writing. John uses a word that means to write down a record against someone, so the view that Jesus was writing out their sins may well be correct.

What I find particularly admirable about the response of Jesus is that he doesn’t react – he responds, and there is a very big difference. How often do we just explode into reactions in tense situations? This was a very tense situation. I’m sure there was a lot of shouting and screaming and people were already picking out their rocks. We can see these men, standing there with rocks in hand, eyes ablaze with self-righteous anger, sentenced passed and punishment ready to be meted out, perversely enjoying their condemnation of this woman and anxiously awaiting the moment to begin casting their stones. How would you like to be in the middle of such a scene and everyone is looking to you? I would fall apart!

But not Jesus. Jesus does not react – he responds. Most every situation becomes infinitely more complicated because of reacting instead of responding. Can you imagine Jesus, in the midst of this chaotic scene, calmly stooping down and writing in the dirt?

But they keep shouting their questions and then Jesus stands up and gives his immortal response – if any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her. I’ve tried to imagine how Jesus delivered those words. Did he shout them in righteous indignation, or did he speak them softly, letting the power of the words deliver the full impact?

What an impact they had. After stooping back down to begin writing again the crowd left, until only Jesus and the woman were left. And he asks her, Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? No one, sir she replied. Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin. Wow, what an amazing moment.

But it’s at that point that some people have difficulty, because they fear Jesus lets her off the hook too easily.

I tend to keep a book with me wherever I go. If I have a few minutes, or if I stop to eat lunch, I like having a book along to read. Recently, I was carrying a book titled Making Judgments Without Being Judgmental. I was fascinated by the comments of people who saw the book. One person seemed very offended by the title and began to tell me how we make judgments all the time and how we need to make judgments and there was nothing wrong with doing so. Another raised the question of sin, and if perhaps people were let off too easy these days from their sinful behavior. The real reason, I think, that people want to pronounce their judgment is they are afraid of seeing people get off the hook for what they have done.

That’s were judgmentalism has everything figured out. There is no need to understand the circumstances of another person, because we already know all about them; there is no need to try to understand the circumstances of another person’s life, but every life has a context, and that context is important.

Jesus knew, no doubt, the context of this woman’s life, and he encouraged her to change her life. In the eyes of Jesus she had too much value to continue living in a way that brought hurt to her life.

The religious leaders saw themselves as the judge and jury for every action. Jesus was interested in restoration and new beginnings; the religious leaders were watching for every mistake and then they pounced. The rendered their verdict – which was always judgment – and passed out condemnation and, whenever possible, punishment. They saw themselves as the morals police and were always poised to tear others to pieces.

Jesus ends this encounter by pointing the woman to a better way. He doesn’t wring out a punishment or a lecture, but simply says go now and leave your life of sin. It’s the same message to all of us. Jesus is telling us to aim higher, to rise to the challenge of love, to scale the heights for which we were created, to allow the good to overcome the bad.

God is more interested, I believe, in restoration than condemnation. How else do we explain Biblical characters such as Moses, David, Peter, and Paul? By many standards they would be considered unfit for leadership, and yet God saw fit to use them.

But there is another interesting part of this story, and for that we go back to Jesus writing on the ground. It’s not just the speculation of what Jesus wrote that’s interesting, but the fact that what he wrote would soon disappear. If Jesus did write the sins of the religious leaders, that writing would soon disappear because of the wind, rain, or footprints trampling over the writing. Jesus not only offered grace to the woman, but to the religious leaders who dragged her before Jesus, the very men who would have been happy to stone her to death.

Jesus was about second chances. For that reason, he wasn’t so much interested in what a person was, but what they could be. Oscar Wilde said, every saint has a past and every sinner has a future. May grace, then, and not judgment, be the hallmark of our lives.

(Some of the insights into this passage were helped by the books Making Judgments Without Being Judgmental, by Terry D. Cooper and The Gospel of John, by William Barclay)

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

February 27, 2011 - Being Sane In An Insane World

February 27, 2011

Mark 5:1-20

Now, But Not Yet

Being Sane In An Insane World

Years ago I saw a movie that was a parody of Southern California culture. The main character was a straight arrow, a very normal person. The set up for the movie was that his character was considered to be abnormal, simply because he was the only sane character in the midst of a culture that seemed to have gone mad. There was a very memorable scene where he shared with a young man, who was his neighbor, that he feared there really was something wrong with him. The young man had a great line that has since stuck in my mind – just remember; in an insane world it’s the sane person who appears insane. Isn’t that a great line? In an insane world it’s the sane person who appears insane.

As we continue our series Now, But Not Yet, this morning our message is Being Sane In An Insane World. I think we could all agree that our world seems to contain quite a bit of insanity.

Our text for this morning raises some interesting questions about what passes for sanity in our world, as Mark tells the story about this man Jesus encountered. Jesus and his disciples had been crisscrossing the Sea of Galilee, and encountered large crowds each time they came to shore. After one crossing they arrived in the region of the Gerasenes. As soon as Jesus gets out of the boat a very unusual character confronts him. Listen again to the description Mark gives of this man – When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him any more, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones (verses 2-5).

This guy falls into the category of and you thought you had some strange neighbors. I have met some truly unusual characters in my lifetime, but no one quite like this man. Thankfully. Imagine what it was like for the people in this community, wondering what to do with such a person.

Of the many interesting lessons in this passage, one is that Jesus often raised the question of what is considered normal. Many of the teachings of Jesus went against the norms of his day – and ours. His teachings were so in contrast with the acceptable ways of thinking and acting that some questioned his state of mind. Earlier in Mark, in 3:20-21, we read this – then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”

Isn’t that fascinating? On at least one occasion Jesus’ own family thought he had taken leave of his senses. What was he doing, they wondered, wandering around with this group of followers? Why can’t he live a normal life like everyone else? Why can’t he do what’s expected of him? You can almost hear them pleading with Jesus – why can’t you be like everyone else? Why can’t you be normal?

Maybe normal isn’t what we should strive to be. Maybe normal is the problem. Maybe the standard ways of looking at life aren’t really the ways we should be looking at life. Maybe normalcy leads us into its own kind of insanity. It’s normal to say, or think, if someone hurts you, hurt them back. If someone takes something from you, take something from them. If someone treats you bad, treat them worse in return.

One of the lessons of the ministry of Jesus, then, is that being out of step with what is considered normal isn’t always a bad thing.

I’m sure a lot of people scratched their heads at Jesus. We have the benefit of 2,000 years that have given us a very different level of insight about Jesus. Those who lived through these events, those who witnessed them firsthand, were often confused because Jesus was not at all what they had expected from someone who claimed to be the Messiah. But Jesus was doing exactly what he was expected to do – he was meeting the expectations God had for his ministry.

It’s amazing what the expectations and opinions of others can do to us. The expectations and opinions of others can drive us to behaviors that violate our own beliefs and values.

Jesus teaches an important lesson about people as well. Everyone, to Jesus, was a person and a person worthy of love and concern. This is the guy everyone would refer to someone else. If you call me up and ask me to go visit the crazy guy who lives in the cemetery and cuts himself with rocks, I’m going to ask you to go with me. He was a hopeless case, written off by everyone.

In verse 8 Jesus calls him this man. That seems like a small matter, but in doing so Jesus rehumanizes him. That’s probably not how others referred to him, but this was a person, not just a problem. He was someone’s son, perhaps a brother; maybe even a husband and a father.

Everyone is a person first, regardless of their condition. One of the reasons people label others is so they can simply write them off and not have to bother with them – they’re a hopeless addict; they’re a chronic failure. Those kinds of labels allow us to wash our hands of someone. But people are not an addicts first, or failures first, or sinners first, or losers first – they are first and foremost people.

There is also an interesting economic question involved here. Verse 15 tells us the man was sitting there, dressed and in his right mind. Luke tells us in his version of the story (Luke 8:27) that the man was not clothed. Where did the clothes come from all of a sudden? I don’t think there was a tunic store nearby. I think Jesus got the clothes from his disciples. Maybe I’m reading too much into the passage but can’t you see Jesus saying Peter, what size sandal do you wear? Don’t you have an extra pair? Thomas what size is that extra shirt in your bag? Matthew, don’t you carry an extra tunic with you?

Jesus, I believe, asked his disciples to provide for this man, and this has been a foundational principle of our faith from the very beginning – meeting the physical as well as the spiritual needs of people. There is increasing need in these challenging economic times. I am grateful for what we are able to do in meeting the needs of people, and we are going to face increasing needs in the coming months. As state governments and the federal governments face difficult economic realities there are cuts that will come that will be painful to people, and we will face an increasing amount of need.

And then we see one of the most unusual aspects in this story, in verse 15. Listen to that verse again. When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Why were people afraid? The man was healed – why be afraid of him when he was normal? The time to be afraid of him was when he was running around the cemetery yelling a cutting himself with rocks. He had been chained. Someone was brave enough to try to chain him up on more than one occasion. I certainly wouldn’t want a job like that – would you? That was the time to be afraid, not when he was sitting there, calm, and in his right mind.

I think they were afraid for this reason – here was a guy who was absolutely out of control, living in a cemetery, and cutting himself with rocks, but was completely well. You would have to ask yourself this question – if Jesus could change that guy so much, what might he do to me? The crowd gathered there were not in the same circumstances as this man, but certainly they had some things in their lives that needed to change. But maybe they were happy with their lives; maybe they didn’t want to change.

The reality of life is this – sometimes we’re happy in our foibles and craziness and we don’t want God to mess with them. Don’t we say this at times – I really need to change my life; it’s time for me to address some issues. No, wait a minute. I don’t want to get radical and cause everybody to think I’ve gone off my rocker. We live in a crazy world! Of course we’re off our rockers! God wants to set us right, he wants to return us to sanity.

Lastly, we see in verse 18 that the man was begging to go with Jesus and his disciples, but Jesus told him to go home to your people and report to them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how he had mercy upon you.

I wonder what his family thought as they saw him approaching. Imagine how his story must have been received – the person written off by everyone else came home healed. Healing and wholeness had come to this man who had seemed hopeless, and in his healing we see what God wants to do with each person – he wants healing and wholeness, he wants us to bring healing to how we see the world and what we perceive as reality.

Lucretia Mott was a Quaker who lived in the 19th century. She decided the abolition of slavery was a cause worth fighting for, so she quit wearing cotton as it was made at the expense of the lives of others. Her husband was a cloth merchant and she convinced him to stop dealing in cotton. She formed an organization dedicated to abolishing slavery. She was not well received. At times people burned down the venues where she was scheduled to speak. Her life was threatened. Her family was threatened. People thought she was crazy? Why? Because she was convinced it was wrong to sell other human beings as slave. She was the one who was sane; it was the insanity of the time that made her appear otherwise.

Sometimes I wonder what history will reveal about our time. How will history judge our era fifty, one hundred years, and more from now? What is accepted as normal today that will be questioned years down the road, when people will ask, how did they allow that to happen?

May God open our minds and our hearts to true reality!