Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Extravagance, Love, and the Poor

"For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me."  These words, or at least some paraphrase of them, seem to be quite well known.  Jesus utters them in response to his disciples' scolding of a woman for pouring an extremely expensive jar of perfume like ointment on Jesus.  (The jar of ointment apparently cost nearly a year's salary.)  The disciples think that this extravagance would have been better used if it had been sold and the money used to help others, and 300 denarii would have been able to do quite a bit of good.  But Jesus praises the woman for what she has done.

But for some reason, Jesus' remark about there always being poor folk has received much of the attention.  I have often heard the passage used as a general justification for not helping the poor.  After all, you'll never solve the problem.  Go ahead, enjoy whatever extravagances you want.  Jesus did.

Of course that is not at all what Jesus said.  To begin with, Jesus is talking to his disciples, and quite clearly the problem of poverty will not be solved in their lifetime.  And so they will have ongoing opportunity to show kindness to the poor, as Jesus clearly expects them to do.  And the extravagance in this passage is not a personal gift to oneself.  Rather it is an act of love, the sort of extravagance one lover gives to another.  This sort of extravagance is not self serving or manipulative.  It rushes from the heart, sometimes without much rational thought.

It seems to me that Jesus points out to his disciples, and us, that faith is not a purely utilitarian enterprise.  Yes, he does come to bring good news to the poor, but Jesus is about more than a social agenda.  He is about love, both love of God and love of neighbor.  And love often has a tendency to issue forth in extrvagance.

By personal inclination, I'm a bit inclined to side with the disciples.  When you consider all the money that gets spent on religion, couldn't it be better used to alleviate hunger and suffering?  And indeed, some of the marvelous church architecture, music, and artistry is a mixed bag.  It is sometimes hard to tell if these are extravagances offered to God or monuments to those who created them.  But I think Jesus' words are meant to be of help to us here.

Jesus does not provide us any easy litmus test.  Rather this is a heart matter.  The question is whether or not the extravagance is an act of love given to another.  All extravagances don't count.  The old joke about a husband giving his wife another very expensive gift each time he cheats on her is an obvious example of a self-serving extravagance.  It seems less motivated by love than by guilt or fear or the idea of a payoff.  But loving God with all your being and your neighbor as yourself produces a different sort of extravagance, or at least an extravagance with very different motivations.

Institutional religion sometimes breeds institutional faith.  And I suspect that the fascination with spirituality in our age is in part a hunger for something a little less institutional, something that flows from the heart.  Jesus praises this woman's costly gift because it is a heartfelt extravagance offered in love.  But the minute we start trying to deduce formulas from this episode, to justify not doing more for the poor and so on, we have left the realm of love and the heart.

I wonder how much of my faith life actually emanates from love?  How much of my work, my service, my worship, my giving, my prayer, etc. is an extravagance that pours out from my heart, offered as a present to God or to "the least of these" in whom Jesus is found?  And how much of my faith life is a bit more calculated and self-serving.  I don't think any formula can answer such questions.  The answers require looking deep within my heart.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - God Can't Be Very Happy

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
     whose hope is in the LORD their God, 

who made heaven and earth,
     the sea, and all that is in them;
        who keeps faith forever;
     who executes justice for the oppressed;
        who gives food to the hungry.

The LORD sets the prisoners free; 
     the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. 
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
     the LORD loves the righteous. 

The LORD watches over the strangers;
     he upholds the orphan and the widow,
     but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.    (from Psalm 146)

Like most parents, I love my children.  I want the best for them.  If they were in a difficult situation, I would be "on their side."  But being on their side is not the same thing as supporting whatever they do.  Thankfully my experiences with this have been of the minor variety, but loving a child sometimes means saying "No."  It sometimes means correcting or even punishing.

Most parents, and even lots of children, can appreciate what I'm saying.  Yet very often we Christians seem quite unable to receive correction from God.  Christians of all stripes tend to latch on to a portion of the biblical message and then claim God's blessing and sanction for their side.  The stereotype, to which there is some truth, is of liberal Christians focusing on loving and helping others while ignoring issues of purity and morality, while conservative Christians do the reverse.  And at times, both sides can be rather arrogant in their claim to be the ones right with God.

But at the risk of making that same mistake myself, I feel the need to comment on the political right's frequent claim to be in God's camp.  I have no problem with them speaking openly about their faith and how it impacts their politics.  If their faith had no bearing on their politics it would strike me as a pretty meaningless faith.  But for politicians to publicly wrap themselves in Christian faith and then actively pursue policies that benefit the rich at the expense of the poor cannot be pleasing to the God of the Bible.  One has to read the Bible in an incredibly selective manner to miss how much God is on the side of the poor and oppressed.  I cannot recall any passages where God promises to help the rich get more, but I can recall quite a few that promise to topple the rich and powerful and have them exchange places with the poor and weak.

Besides all this, those who would speak for God should expect to be held to higher standard.  Pastors aren't any "better" or less sinful than other folks, but because we so often proclaim God publicly, it becomes very important for our lives not to undermine our proclamation.  The same sort of thing applies to politicians who wrap themselves in their faith.  And those who invoke the Christian mantle as a key element of their political service imply that their policy positions are somehow sanctioned by God.  But just as I would be very upset if a child of mine did something wrong and said, "My father said I could," I think God is probably pretty worked up about  the behavior of some folks who say, "God supports what I'm doing."

No doubt all of us upset God on this account from time to time, but Jesus and the biblical prophets  reserves their harshest criticism for those who wear their faith conspicuously while failing to care for those they deem "beneath them."

But finally, I wonder if God is not most upset with the Church.  For it is the Church which has fostered a faith that easily claims the label Christian without opening a Bible or learning what Jesus commands us to do.  Jesus' last words to the Church in Matthew's gospel are about making disciples of all people, "teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you."  But the Church has substituted, "Believe in Jesus, come to worship now and then, and drop a little money in the plate."  God can't be very happy with us.

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Monday, August 22, 2011

Sermon video - Jesus Is Lord and Other Subversive Statements

Sermon also available on YouTube.

Spiritual Hiccups - Generation to Generation

Today's psalm speaks of one generation lauding God's works to another. That makes perfect sense. Generations generally try to pass down what they deem important to the next. Children more often than not learn the things that really matter to their parents. In my suburban neighborhood, it is almost unheard of for a child not to attend college. A college education is simply expected and a child has to really go against the grain to go into the workforce straight out of high school.

The parents I know wouldn't dream of allowing their children to drop out of school at age 16. Many require their children to participate in sports or other extra curricular activities. But when it comes to faith, many parents I know, even ones who are very active in church life, leave say that issues related to faith are a personal choice that they leave to the children. The age when they allow children to decide for themselves about faith participation varies, but I often see it as young as 10 or 11.

Now obviously the time comes in every child's life when religious participation becomes his or her choice. But I wonder what it says about the faith of previous generations that so many do so little to pass that faith down. In fact, I'm not so much arguing for more forced attendance at Sunday School as I'm wondering about how insignificant faith must be in many of our lives based on how little we attempt to pass it on.

When I look at some of my own failings at handing down the faith, it doesn't so much cause me to question my parenting as it calls me to carefully consider how central faith is to my own life. What about yours?

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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sermon audio - Jesus Is Lord and Other Subversive Statements

Sermon text - Jesus Is Lord and Other Subversive Statements

Exodus 1:8-2:10
Jesus Is Lord and Other Subversive Statements
James Sledge                                         August 21, 2011

“Praise the Lord!  Jesus is Lord!”  These phrases roll easily off the tongues of Christians.  But for many of us, Lord is a peculiarly religious word.  We know that England has a House of Lords.  We’ve watched movies where people say to the king, “Yes, my Lord,”  or seen Sith lords in Star Wars.  We’ve heard of people “lording” it over someone.  But “lord” is not a part of our everyday language.  And so it often never occurs to us what a politically charged and even subversive statement it once was to say, “Jesus is Lord.”
In the days when Christian faith was born, there were others who claimed the title Lord, Caesar in particular.  It was common for people in the Roman empire to greet one another with the words, “Caesar is Lord.”  And so for the very first Christians, to say, “Jesus is Lord,” not only employed a term Jews had used for centuries as a deferential substitute for God’s personal name, it also stood as a direct challenge to the authority of the emperor.
The question of who is actually lord, to whom we owe total allegiance and obedience, is often a critical one for people of faith.  The faith statements that make up our denomination’s Book of Confessions include “The Theological Declaration of Barmen,” a rather cumbersomely named document in which German Christians took issue with their Nazi government’s claim to be lord over certain aspects of life.  The Declaration was written by Lutheran, Reformed, (that’s us) and other Christians who were troubled by the arrangement the state Lutheran Church had made with the Nazis, an arrangement that said Jesus was Lord over spiritual matters but the state was Lord over the realm of blood and iron.  The Declaration flatly rejected the idea that “there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords.” 
This insistence that Jesus alone was Lord, over and against Nazi claims to be lords over the political and military realms, was a dangerous statement, one likely to be seen as subversive by Nazi officials. 
And in that sense it was not unlike those first Christians saying, “Jesus is Lord” when others said it was Caesar.
Living as though Jesus or God is Lord can easily put people in conflict with others who would claim that title.  Like Caesar, Pharaoh claimed to be Lord, and he demanded absolute obedience.  And Lord Pharaoh said to the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, that they must kill all the Hebrew baby boys when they are born.  But the midwives feared God.  That’s the Bible’s way of saying they thought God’s claim to be Lord trumped Pharaoh’s.  Despite the awesome power Pharaoh wielded, Shiphrah and Puah were sure that God was Lord.  But that was a dangerous stance to take.
The midwives’ defiance undermines Pharaoh briefly, but he still insists, “I am Lord!”  And he commands that every Hebrew boy be thrown into the Nile and drowned.  But our story tells us of one mother who will not acknowledge Pharaoh’s claim to be Lord.  She hides her young son, and then devises a plan to preserve his life, a plan to circumvent Pharaoh’s claim that he is Lord.  But it is a dangerous business to challenge Pharaoh’s claim.
In one of the Bible’s more famous stories, this mother waterproofs a papyrus basket, places her son in it, puts it where she knows that the baby will be found, and strategically places her daughter to observe what happens. 
One of Pharaoh’s own daughters spots the child.  She recognizes right away that this is one of the Hebrew children, one of the boys under a death sentence from Lord Pharaoh, her father.  But for some reason, Pharaoh’s own daughter now denies that he is Lord.  She takes pity on the little boy and even joins in the very transparent little conspiracy with the baby’s sister and mother to defy Pharaoh. 
We have sometimes turned this into the cute story of baby Moses in the bulrushes, but this is dangerous, subversive business these women are engaged in.  Ancient kings and Pharaoh’s often thought little of killing one of their own children if that child challenged the authority of her father and Lord.
As the story of Moses unfolds, we will learn that God has big plans for him.  He will be a critical component in God’s plans to free Israel from slavery and establish them in the land of promise.  But the story of Moses is possible only because of the subversive behavior of certain women who refuse to recognize Pharaoh’s claim to be Lord.  Some may do so out of their strong Jewish faith while the compassion of Pharaoh’s daughter seems to recognize God’s lordship unwittingly.  But regardless, only because these women engage in the dangerous business of challenging Pharaoh does Moses have a story at all.
For some reason, the story of this God of ours is bound up in our stories.  When God calls Abraham and Sarah, there is the explicit promise, In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.  When the grown up Moses meets God at the burning bush, God says, “The cry of the Israelites has come to me.  I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them.  So come, I will send you to Pharaoh.”  Jesus says that when we encounter the sick and the poor and the hungry, we encounter him.  And the Bible says that we are the body of Christ, that God’s love and touch comes through us.  The divine story is all tangled up with ours, and very often it can move forward only in those moments when people challenge and defy others who claim to be Lord.
One of the curious things about current day America is how one of our most popular lords has become the individual.  American notions of freedom and individualism have gradually been perverted into the notion of “the autonomous self.”  I alone am lord and master of my life.  And so it becomes increasingly difficult for politicians to act for the good of the whole or for voters to elect representatives who will do so because as autonomous selves, we are answerable to no one but ourselves.  And so we simply seek our own good.  We want low taxes but all of the benefits we enjoy.  Cuts must fall to someone else.  And there is no lord greater than ourselves to say to us, “You must sacrifice for the good of the neighbor!” at least none that we will listen to.
Christians say that Jesus is Lord, but we have become quite practiced at ignoring what Jesus actually says.  We have faith that Jesus will bless us or get us to heaven, but our lord is our own wants, desires, or preferences.  And we dare anyone, even Jesus, to tell us otherwise. 
But perhaps we need to ask ourselves whether we’re really cut out for this lord business.  To borrow a popular phrase, “How’s that working out for you?”
Seems to me that in a world where everyone is his or her own lord, we are becoming more and more fractured, more and more divided, less and less able to build community or a society that is good for all.  We cluster in groups of like-minded folks, and we often do not play well with others.  We get caught up in the animosities of your group versus my group. As lord, my views are and those of my group are right, and yours are wrong.  Making things better requires my winning and your losing, and so working together with those who differ from me becomes almost impossible.
But into this hopeless situation the faint memory echoes.  “God is sovereign.  Jesus is Lord.”  In Christ, God is moving history and creation toward God’s purposes.  But in the strange ways of God, this usually requires people to challenge and subvert those others who claim to be Lord.  This is often risky business, but in every age there are people of faith who rise to the task.  There are politicians who will say “No!” to self-serving ideologies and agendas of their own party.  There are people who will stand up to power and say, “God will judge us by how we treat the poor and the needy.”  In every age there are those who will say, “No nation or ideology or political party or religious tradition or economic system is Lord.  Jesus is Lord!  And I will defy any and all other lords to serve him.”
And each time that happens, the hope of something better draws a bit nearer; the dawn of God’s future shines just a little brighter. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Not Far from the Kingdom

Surely these are some of the better known words of Jesus.  "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength... You shall love your neighbor as yourself."  Jesus is quoting from Scripture, what Christians now call the Old Testament, in response to the question,  “Which commandment is the first of all?”  But Jesus seems unable to give just one commandment.  Two are required to give an adequate synopsis of life as God intends.

Jesus has forever linked these two loves: love of God and love of neighbor.  And when the scribe who has asked Jesus the question agrees with Jesus, adding that these two loves are much more important than all the typical sort of rituals and activities associated with religion, Jesus says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

Not far from the Kingdom.  That's a remarkable statement.  There is nothing here about faith statements or believing in Jesus.  Rather loving God and loving neighbor are the critical components of drawing near to the Kingdom.

In Mark's gospel, Jesus' very first words are, "The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the good news."  The good news of the kingdom requires a repentance, a reorienting of life that is expressed in a life shaped by these love of God and neighbor.  And Jesus insists that this unnamed scribe has understood the good news of the kingdom because he realizes what kingdom life looks like: love of God and love of neighbor.

Somewhere along the way, Christian faith began to emphasize belief to such a degree that love became secondary.  Though rarely articulated, many Christians find it perfectly acceptable to profess their faith while not showing the least bit of love to their neighbors.  In fact, many Christians find it acceptable to hate their neighbor if that neighbor is different from them or disagrees with them, or if caring for that neighbor might entail any personal sacrifice.

For those of us who want to claim the label "Christian," what is it that allows us to make that claim?  Can "believing" in Jesus make us Christian if we will not live as Jesus calls us to do?  If Jesus cannot speak of loving God without including loving neighbor, can we be God's people without embodying both these loves?

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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Naming Rights

“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  Some of us are more familiar with this line as, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars..."  It is a familiar phrase that often gets inserted into discussions about people's relationships and loyalty to church and state.  But I don't think Jesus is talking about how the faithful relate to the government. 

Jesus never really answers his opponents' question about paying taxes.  He simply asks them to produce a coin, which they do.  He asks whose head and name are on it, and they tell him.  But I think the translators mislead us here in that Jesus actually asks "Whose image is this?"  It's the same word used in the Greek version of the Genesis story where God creates humankind in God's "image."  The question about image carries with it implications of ownership.  (By the way, the Pharisees are violating their own teachings by having this Roman coin with a graven image of the emperor on it.  Jesus has already one-upped them as soon as they pull out the coin.)

We are quite familiar with people putting their names on things.  Designer clothes sometimes have initials or a crest of the maker, allowing everyone to know that you are wearing something by that designer.  Corporations pay big dollars for "naming rights" to stadiums and sporting events.  But some venues and sporting events resist this trend.  The Masters gold tournament won't sell its naming rights.  For whatever reasons, it does not want its identity muddied by another name.

According to the Bible, we humans bear, in some way, the image of God.  And as Christians, we are marked by our baptisms.  We acquire a new identity as we are joined to Christ.  You might say that God has double naming rights on Christians.  It is part of our nature and it is stamped on us a second time in baptism.  Although perhaps none of that is necessary in that Scripture also tells us,  The earth is Yahweh's and all that is in it." 

So when Jesus says we are to give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor, and to God what belongs to God, it's not clear to me how much the emperor is going to get out of that deal.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - I've Had Enough

Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us,
    for we have had more than enough of contempt. 

Our soul has had more than its fill
    of the scorn of those who are at ease,
    of the contempt of the proud.      Psalm 123:3-4

When someone says, "I've had enough.  I can't do this anymore," it can mean a lot of different things depending on the situation of the one who says it.  I imagine that most all of us occasionally feel we are at wits end, that we cannot continue as things currently are.  Perhaps we have been trying very hard to do something we think is worthwhile, but we have made no real progress.  We feel our efforts are in vain, that we have not drawn any supporters to our cause, and we are ready to fold.

Perhaps we have tried to make a difference in our community, to make it a better place, but those who have power or control purse strings have thwarted us, and we are ready to give up.

But when I read the words of this morning's psalm, speaking of "the scorn of those who are at ease," this complaint seems to come from the poor.  Certainly the psalmist cannot be counted among the well off.  And that got me to wondering about how a poor person in our day might speak as the psalmist does.  "Have mercy on us, God.  The wealthy blame us for our own poverty.  Now they blame us for the nation's debt and say we should not get help with food or healthcare.  We have had more than enough of their contempt.  We can no longer bear the scorn of those who live in fine homes, drive expensive cars, and live lives of ease."

Me, sometimes I've had more than enough of a society that wants to label itself "Christian" without feeling compelled to offer healing, good news to the poor, and release to the captives, the very things that mark Jesus' ministry.

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Monday, August 15, 2011

Sermon video - Tradition, Boundaries, and Grace

Sermons also available on YouTube.

Sermons also available on YouTube.

Spiritual Hiccups - Jesus, the Troublemaker

Today's gospel reading of Jesus "cleansing the temple" is a famous event in his life.  In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), this event seems to galvanize plans to kill Jesus, although in John it happens at the beginning of his ministry.  (I never understood how biblical literalists accounted for this difference.)  But as well known as it is, I think there are some misconceptions.  Jesus' cleansing activity is not in the temple building jtself but within the larger temple complex, part of its courtyards and grounds.  And I'm not sure the people he drives out are very different from the volunteer that runs a little bookstore off the church lounge or the Presbyterian Women selling tickets to win a quilt.  In fact, the people Jesus goes after are more "necessary" than these modern folks.  They were helping out of town pilgrims acquire animals for sacrifice or exchange Roman coins for acceptable coins without idolatrous images of Caesar on them.

This story sometimes makes me wonder about the "business of the church."  Many congregations are significant little enterprises with endowments, investments, and fundraisers.  I get advertising all the time promising to help us increase giving from our members.  And a lot of this material is pure marketing.  I don't know that this is bad, per se, but it still gives me pause when I think of Jesus overturning the tables of folks who were engaged in activities that I probably would have voted for if I had been on the governing board at the temple.

Jesus was quite the troublemaker.  Makes me wonder what he might do if he showed up at our little church enterprise.

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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sunday Sermon text - Tradition, Boundaries, and Grace

Matthew 15:10-28
Tradition, Boundaries, and Grace
James Sledge                                               August 14, 2011

Over the last few decades, many congregations have gone through intense struggles over worship styles, and especially over music in worship.  There is even a name for it: “The Worship Wars.”  I went to and typed in the term “worship wars” and it immediately showed me seven books with “worship war” in the title, along with others that had something to say about these wars.
Our experience with the worship wars has been pretty low grade here at Boulevard.  For whatever reason, this congregation seems more open to a little experimentation in worship than some others.  But that’s not to say we’ve never had any skirmishes.  When I first arrived in Columbus, I occasionally heard disparaging remarks about “those people who worship in the basement.”  That they said “basement” rather than “Fellowship Hall” says a lot.
And on those summers when we’ve combined our two services, we have sometimes upset folks who want the organ and not the keyboard.  Others thought that using a screen to project words obscured the beauty of the sanctuary.  And some who were used to worshiping in the Fellowship Hall, now chapel, found sanctuary worship too rigid and stifling.
Regardless of worship style, no matter what sort of building or architecture, whatever the elements of a worship service, these quite necessarily become bearers of holiness for those who use them.  If in any way people draw near to God in worship, then of course the elements and appointments of that worship take on a sense of the sacred.
Congregations don’t have fights over carpet colors in the sanctuary or where to put the flowers or what songs to sing because they obsess over the trivial but because worship is important to them.  Every denomination’s, every congregation’s worship traditions, and other traditions as well, are connected to their faith.  And so it is hardly surprising that anything which messes with these traditions is highly suspect.
Tradition issues set the context for our gospel reading this morning. 
Before Jesus heads out to the district of Tyre and Sidon, some of the Pharisees and scribes come to him, bothered by his disciples’ cavalier attitude toward religious tradition, particularly ritual hand washing.  Now ritual washing is about as foreign to us as electric guitars or pipe organs to First Century Jews, but these rituals were an important part of how many Jews tried to maintain a spiritual purity before God.  For a variety of reasons, they had become a significant focus, and ignoring these traditions probably offended the Pharisees in much the same way some of us would be bothered if someone came to worship in ragged cut-offs and a tank top.  And so these religious leaders asked Jesus, “Why?”
Jesus’ response is to blast the Pharisees and scribes for thinking that honoring their particular traditions is the same as honoring God.  He calls them hypocrites and quotes Isaiah to them.  “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
Jesus then turns to the crowds and tells them that neglecting purity rituals doesn’t make one impure.  Religious impurity comes from their words and their actions.
Then Jesus heads out to Tyre and Sidon where he encounters a Canaanite woman, and here the story gets a little strange.  Jesus has just spoken about how traditions can make us hypocrites, yet he proceeds to treat this Gentile woman according to the standard traditions and stereotypes of his day.  And what comes from his mouth seems beyond cruel.
Women were not supposed to approach men publicly, and Jews did not associate with Gentiles to begin with, and so a traditional Jew would not have been at all surprised by how Jesus reacts.  He does not even acknowledge the woman.  But the woman only increases her untraditional, anti-social behavior, following after Jesus and yelling.  The disciples are offended by her behavior and ask Jesus to shoo her away.
At which point, ignoring the woman becomes the nicest thing Jesus does.  Now he not only says that he is sent only to the lost sheep of Israel, but he calls the woman a dog, a typical Jewish slur for Canaanites.  Jesus seems as caught up in his culture’s traditions about women and outsiders as the Pharisees are caught up in theirs about ritual purity.
But then the woman responds to Jesus’ slight about being a dog, turning it on its ear to claim that even dogs should get a little something from the master’s table.  It is a stunning exchange.  No one ever matches wits with Jesus and comes out on top.  Priests and Pharisees and scribes and all sorts of learned religious figures try and always lose.  But now a Gentile, Canaanite woman with an unclean, demon possessed daughter goes toe to toe with Jesus, and Jesus can only say, “Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.” 
To be honest, I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with this piece of Scripture.  How can it be that Jesus, the Son of God, needs to be instructed on God’s grace, needs to have his boundaries expanded?  How can he speak to her as he does after just teaching about impurity that comes out of the mouth?  Indeed some commentators suggest that this an enacted parable by Jesus.  If so, I guess that lets Jesus seem nicer, but it all still seems strange to me. 
And it’s even more curious that Matthew places this story in the context of Jesus blasting the Pharisees over how their traditions created boundaries to God’s grace, how impurity came from one’s words.  But then again these were issues for Matthew’s own congregation.  His Jewish church was increasingly adding Gentile members, and not without some real clashes over traditions and purity.
But I keep coming back to this unnamed, unclean, Canaanite woman whom Jesus calls a dog.  She has broken propriety and tradition to get to Jesus.  She has acted in ways that simply were not done, and when Jesus insults her and tells her, in no uncertain terms, that he has other priorities and is not going to help her, she dares to argue with him, to challenge him.  And Jesus’ assessment of her behavior?  “Woman, great is your faith!” 
And I can’t help but wonder what that says to those of us for whom faith is conventional, tried and true, connected to the habits and practices we grew up with.  Many of us who grew up in the church have picked up lots of assumptions of what worship looks like, what faith looks like, and even assumptions about how God should and would act.  But what happens when God’s grace is bigger than we ever imagined?
If you have a lot invested in a particular faith tradition, in a particular way of doing things, then I suppose it might seem a little threatening to hear that God’s love and grace are bigger than you had imagined, that the boundaries are not where you thought they were.  But if you have ever wondered whether or not you are important enough to matter to God, if you have ever wondered whether God is concerned about you or longs to connect with you, then the idea that God’s tender love and grace has so little respect for boundaries that even Jesus seems surprised, sounds like absolutely wonderful news to me.

Sunday Sermon audio - Tradition, Boundaries, and Grace

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Defending the Faith

It doesn't take much reading between the lines in this week's verses from Acts to realize that the "Jews" who attack Paul and cause his arrest are actually Jewish Christians.  This is all a part of the fights that roiled the faith as the early Church struggled with how to include Gentiles into the fold.  For a long time the majority opinion was that Gentiles had to first become Jewish in order to be followers of Jesus.  Paul is clearly not in this camp, and it causes him much grief. 

It helps to remember that the early Christians did not think of themselves as a different religion from Judaism.  Jesus was a Jewish Messiah.  And so when Paul welcomes Gentiles into the faith without circumcising them or having them follow Jewish dietary law, he is seen by many Christians as undermining the core of their faith.  And so it seems almost certain that Christians are responsible for the arrest and eventual execution of the the New Testament's most prolific author.

That is truly something to stop and ponder for a moment.  Christians, out of their strong desire to defend the faith, attacked Paul as an enemy of that faith.  The man whose writings would be used by Martin Luther and John Calvin to form the theological underpinnings of the Protestant Reformation was himself killed because other Christians objected to his novel take on Jesus.

Of course there is little reason for us to be surprised.  Faith seems capable of producing both incredible acts of self-giving and sacrifice for the sake of others, as well as heinous acts of hatred and violence in an effort to uphold the integrity, teachings, or purity of that faith.  A person who knew nothing of history and read the story of Jesus might be stunned to learn about Crusades, the Inquisition, forced conversions, and pogroms against Jews.  But we know all too well that religion, even the faith based on one who called his followers to pray for their enemies, can easily be channeled into hate.

I have become increasingly convinced that anytime faith produces hatred, it has gotten off track.  Regardless of whether or not I agree with the stance of those involved, when the voices become shrill and start to spew vitriol, a dangerous line is being crossed.  I do not mean to say that there are not evils and wickedness that need to be challenged and thwarted, but the ends cannot justify the means for those whose faith is rooted in love. 

When you are sure that you are correct about some important element of your faith, how do you view those who hold a view very different from yours?  Are they still your kindred and neighbor, or have they become your enemy?  (Americans might do well to ask similar questions about political views.)

Perhaps there are times when we must label someone an enemy.  But it is a dangerous and often tragic move, as Paul can tell you.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - The Trouble with Wealth

A lot of people are familiar with the story of Jesus telling a rich man to give all he had to the poor and then follow Jesus.  This wealthy fellow is sometimes referred to as the "rich young ruler," although no such person appears in Scripture.  In Mark he is simply rich.  In Matthew he is young and rich.  And in Luke he is a rich ruler.  But regardless of how he is identified, many of us can stand at some distance from the story.  Jesus didn't say all rich people had to sell all they had, just this fellow.  Jesus didn't say I needed to sell anything.

Of course Jesus has more to say after the rich man goes away shocked and grieving.  He turns to his disciples and says, "'How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!' And the disciples were perplexed at these words."

I'm not sure why we aren't any more perplexed than we are.  Like those first disciples, we are prone to think of wealth as a blessing.  People pray to win the lottery or to get a better paying job.  We spend much of our lives trying to acquire wealth.  So shouldn't we be a bit befuddled to hear Jesus say that this wealth is a huge impediment to our being a part of God's new day, to being a part of God's redemption of all creation?

The standard American dodge on this one has been to say that we aren't really wealthy.  Only in America do people making hundreds of thousands of dollars claim they are "middle class," just as only in America would someone build the palatial mansion constructed by George Vanderbilt in Asheville, NC and call it Biltmore House.  Or as Vanderbilt sometimes referred to is, his "little mountain escape."

But in recent years, while we still like the label "middle class" we have lost much of our aversion to being wealthy.  TV commercials sell us financial planning products to help us "build wealth."  So as we seek to build wealth, or as we fret when our wealth disappears in the latest stock market decline, what are we to think when Jesus says to us, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!"?  What is so bad about wealth?  Why is it so problematic for being part of what God is doing to remake the world?

One thing that strikes me immediately is how wealth separates us from the very people God is so concerned about, the poor and the vulnerable.  I've noted in this blog before how even Christian churches tend to segregate themselves by income levels.  But having wealth separates us from those without it in many other ways.  They live in different neighborhoods from us.  They shop at different stores from us.  Often they attend different schools from us.  Worse, we often presume these divisions are "their fault" just as we presume that our wealth is our doing.  And so when Jesus speaks of bringing good news to the poor, we tune it out.  Talk to us about personal salvation Jesus, not about the poor.

For many years, part of the genius of the American experience was that it tended to blur the differences between rich and poor.  One could have a small farm or get a job at the factory and make a decent living.  Of course the owner of that factory made a much better living, but the salaries were in the same universe.  But in recent decades, salaries for those at the top have soared while those at the bottom of declined.  And, as a group, those at the top seem absolutely intent on preserving the advantages that separate them from those at the bottom.  In essence, they seem hellbent on maintaining a situation that Jesus seems to deplore. 

One hundred years ago it was popular for Americans to think of our country as shining light on the hill, an embodiment of the new Jerusalem.  Clearly there was always a bit of hubris in such thinking, but just as clearly, we are moving further and further from any notion that the ordering of our society somehow embodies God's new day.  And making bellwether issues out of gay marriage or prayer in the schools only distracts us from Jesus' teachings on the kingdom, on God's new day. 

"How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!"  Jesus doesn't say it's impossible, just very, very, hard.  And as our nation seems headed down the road of cutting programs to the most vulnerable in order to solve our national debt, we appear to be proving him correct.

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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - That's Not What the Rules Say

The other day I ran across this quote in Richard Rohr's daily meditation.  "When you lose the mystical level, you always become moralistic as a cheap substitute."  (You can sign up to receive Rohr's meditations here.)  Religion is often associated with morality, and not without reason.  Certainly God created the world and us to live in certain ways, and practices of fairness and basic morality are a part of living a life that is pleasing to God.  But while morality is a part of one's faith life, no one should ever confuse morality for faith.  Abiding by the rules is a poor substitute for a life lived "in Christ." 
It is curious how some folks who are so insistent that being Christian requires a "personal relationship with Christ" will then speak of Christian faith in terms of doing what the rules in the Bible say.  While relationships may require certain sorts of patterns and ordering behavior to support them, no relationship can be reduced to keeping the rules.  Jesus himself makes that clear in today's gospel.
The Old Testament laws on marriage, divorce, and sexuality are still brought up with some regularity in modern debates about sexuality.  But Jesus characterizes some of these commandments as little more than accommodations to our "hardness of heart."  And as Jesus speaks on marital relationships, he makes a rather startling claim.  He says that divorcing one's wife is to commit adultery against her.  But if you look at the Old Testament commandments in question, adultery is a crime that can only be committed against a man.  Old Testament adultery is essentially a property crime in that it damages goods that belong to some man.  But Jesus completely redefines the marital relationship here, changing it from a contractual agreement governed by laws and rules, to a mystical union.  And that brings me back to Richard Rohr's comment.  "When you lose the mystical level, you always become moralistic as a cheap substitute."  
I don't know many people who would dismiss the need for rules and morality in human affairs.  But just as no marriage can be what is should be simply on the basis of following the rules, so life with God can never be what it should be simply on the basis of rules.  Or as the Apostle Paul writes to the Galatians as he speaks on our freedom in Christ, "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  There is no law against such things."  And I might add, there is no law or rule that can produce such things.
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Monday, August 8, 2011

Sunday Sermon video - Lord, If It Is You...

Sermons also available on YouTube.

Spiritual Hiccups - You Want Me To Do What?

What are you supposed to do with your life?  What am I supposed to do with mine?  Those are pretty fundamental questions that get expressed in many ways.  We ask small children, "What do you want to do/be when you grow up.  When they get older the question may change to "What are you going to major in at college?"  People go to career centers for batteries of tests covering aptitude, inclination, interest, personality, and so on, all in an effort to understand what sort of career would be a good fit for them. 

As a Presbyterian, I am part of something known as the Reformed Tradition, a branch of the Protestant Reformation that traces itself back to Geneva and John Calvin.  This tradition has long spoken of all Christians having a "vocation" or a "calling."  The idea is that we are each fitted and suited for some work that is pleasing to God, that will be fulfilling for us, and will be beneficial for the larger community. 

Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian pastor who is better known for his short stories, is often quoted as saying, "The place to which God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."  I've used this quote myself on a number of occasions, but I sometimes wonder if it gets misapplied in a very individualistic age focused on immediate gratification.  Looking at some biblical example of call, can we speak of them producing "great gladness," at least in the sense that many people are likely to hear that phrase?

In today's reading from Acts, the Apostle Paul says, "And now, as a captive to the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me. But I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace."  I do think that Paul would have been able to use the phrase "great gladness" to describe the joy he had of serving Jesus and the new life he discovered in that service, but I wonder how many of us would.

When you think about what you are "supposed" to do with your life, what factors do you consider?  If you are considering careers or a job change, what elements do you weigh?  We all need money to live on so most of us consider the salary.  We don't want to be miserable, so most of us look for something we think we might like doing.  But is our own sense of what will make us happy a trustworthy guide?  Do Jesus' words, "For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it," perhaps suggest that our own inclinations are sometimes suspect?  Might the "deep gladness" Buechner speaks of be something quite different from what I like or what seems attractive to me?

If we listen for the "world's deep hunger" and for what God would have us do, do we perhaps find ourselves pulled toward something that might not, at first, seem appealing?  And how do we bring something other than self with its self-ish desires to figuring out what God wants us to do?

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Sunday, August 7, 2011

Sunday Sermon audio - Lord, If It Is You...

Sunday Sermon text - Lord, If It Is You...

Matthew 14:22-33
Lord, If It Is You…
James Sledge                                                 August 7, 2011

Have you ever wondered what the other disciples thought when Peter made is little excursion out onto the Sea of Galilee, walking on the water toward Jesus?  The way Matthew tells us the story, these disciples are a nameless, faceless mass.  We never see any of them individually, besides Peter.  We know that they are terrified.  Matthew says they cry out, “It is a ghost!”  Did they shout in unison.  Did someone cue them saying, “Okay, all together now.  One, two, three, go!  It’s a ghost!”? 
So how did these nameless, faceless disciples react as one of their number heard Jesus saying, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid,” and responded by saying, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  The story doesn’t tell us.  The disciples are have no role in the story after they think they see a ghost until after Peter and Jesus are back in the boat.  Only then do we hear from them again as they worship Jesus saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
That Jesus is said to have walked on water is one of the better known reports from the gospels.  It is so well known that the idea of walking on water has become a metaphor symbolizing the impossible, the miraculous.  Certainly walking on water is impossible as far as I know, but I’m not sure that this fully appreciates what is going on in our story.
There are a number of places in the Bible where water functions as a kind of anti-creation force, a danger and even a foe to God’s life-giving, creative activity.  Many Christians are fond of saying that God created ex nihilo, that is “out of nothing.”  But in the Creation story that opens the book of Genesis, there is already a chaotic, formless deep over which God’s Spirit hovers and out of which God calls forth order and life.
And the Noah’s ark story is about whether or not God will give up on wayward creation and allow it to be swallowed back up in the anti-creation forces of water. 
At the end of the Noah story creation is still just as wayward, but there is the absolute promise that God will never allow the waters to overwhelm that creation.
Alongside the powerful, anti-creation, chaos metaphor of the stormy waters, the boat was adopted by the early Church as a symbol.  And so in this story we have a nameless, faceless group of followers in a boat, believers in the Church, buffeted by the forces of the storm, when Jesus comes to them.  But in their precarious situation, in their fear, they do not recognize him, and his appearance makes them even more terrified… Until he speaks. 
Actually, we do not know how they reacted when Jesus spoke.  At that moment, the nameless, faceless disciples recede, and there is only Peter.  “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  For some reason this story cannot end simply with Jesus coming to them.  The  power of Jesus over the anti-creation, chaos forces demands something more.  It invites the disciples, the Church, or at least one disciple, one Church member to step from the safety of the boat.  “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
Perhaps this is simply Peter’s petulant bravado speaking.  But Jesus does not dismiss it as such.  No, Jesus honors Peter’s request.  He does just as Peter asks saying, “Come.”  And Peter climbs out of the boat, right out onto the anti-creation, chaos forces churning around it.  Peter steps onto the water and begins to walk toward Jesus.
But those nameless, faceless disciples, the “they” we last saw terrified, screaming about a ghost… what are they doing?  Are their mouths agape?  Did they urge Peter not to do something so foolish?  And when they see him actually walking on the water, what must they be thinking?  And when he falters and begins to sink, did that gasp and reach toward him?  Or do they shake their heads at how is own foolishness had gotten him in this mess?
I don’t know about you, but hearing this story growing up somehow left me with the impression that Peter failed.  I heard the story as a cautionary tale about a lack of faith.  Yet how many of us have ever walked on water for even a short distance?  This is no cautionary tale, rather it is an invitation to risky faith.  And I wonder if it is not an invitation the Church desperately needs to hear. 
I ran across a quote made some years ago by Earnest Campbell who died just last year.  Campbell was pastor of Riverside Church in NYC back in the 70s, and at some conference e was discussing the state of the Church and said, "the reason that we seem to lack faith in our time is that we are not doing anything that requires it."[1]  Or to phrase it in terms of today’s gospel, the Church seems not to have much faith in our day because no one is willing to climb over the side of the boat.
If this gospel story is meant as instruction in faith, as I am convinced that it is, then it seems to say that faith requires great risk.  It demands climbing over the side and onto the turbulent waters.  It even expects that we will falter on those waters.  We will become frightened and fall.  But Jesus will reach out to us and lift us up.  In fact, I suspect that slipping into the waters and being grabbed by Jesus is an absolutely essential lesson of faith.
In our day, the Church often finds itself facing great difficulties.  To perhaps press the metaphors of storm and boat too far, we have been battered by storms, and quite often the reaction is to draw in on ourselves, to batten the hatches if you will.  We become nameless, faceless, frightened disciples, huddled in out boats.  Is Jesus out there anywhere?  And if he is, who among us dares say, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
Perhaps water is not the best metaphor.  Water doesn’t carry the same sense of danger and threat to faith it did for First Century Jews.  So what is it that lies over the edge of the boat for us?  What is beyond our church walls that keeps us from boldly engaging the world around us, from carrying the good news of God’s new day out into the community.  What is it that keeps us huddled in our little boat, frightened and hoping for the storm to pass?
Do we think Jesus has abandoned us?  Are we truly alone in the storm with nothing but our own devices to rely on?  Or is Jesus moving on the storm, a power greater than all the anti-creation forces of chaos?  Can you see him?  Can you hear him calling?  And are there a few among us like Peter who will call to him?  “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you.”

[1] Told by Clifton Kirkpatrick in the “Pastoral Perspective” comments for Proper 14, Matthew 14:22-33,  in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011) Kindle location 11968 of 14135.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Doubts and Other Gifts

I love the LORD, because he has heard
   my voice and my supplications.
Because he inclined his ear to me,
   therefore I will call on him as long as I live.

So what happens when God doesn't hear my voice or incline an ear to me?  Should I perhaps write my own psalm?  "I don't love the LORD, who ignored me and turned away from my pleas."  I do of course understand that God may well hear me and not do what I want to my own best interests.  "No" is an answer.  But there are times when a clear "No" would be so much better than silence, nothing.

I sometimes think the Church does people of faith a disservice by not talking very much about doubt and the very real experience of God's absence.  In fact for many Christians, doubt and God's absence are so feared, so seen as a the opposite of faith, that they will do anything to ward them off.  Sometimes I even wonder if certain forms of zealous fundamentalism aren't simply poor strategies for dealing with doubt.  Believe certain things hard enough and vigorously enough and unquestioningly enough, and doubt won't be able to find a foothold.  (I need better labels.  "Fundamentalist" means adherence to certain fundamental tenants, and in this sense, I am a fundamentalist.  I have certain core beliefs that I think of as minimally required in order to be a Christian.)

I think that acknowledging doubts, and especially acknowledging the experience of God's absence can actually open us to deeper faith.  The absence of God can generate a desire, a longing for God's presence, and presence is something entirely different from a doctrine or set of beliefs.  And many wise spiritual guides have said that a longing for God is truly a gift from God.  Such a longing can motivate a deeper search and a willingness to be reshaped and transformed in ways that better suit God's presence.

If you have never pleaded for God to come to you, if you've never felt a painful desire to connect or reconnect with God, I suspect you are missing out on an important part of growing in faith, of growing deeper into the presence of God.

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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Clarence the Cross-Eyed Bear

Most of us have heard children confusing the words of a song.  I've been told that I once sang, "If you're happy and you know then your wife will really show it."  And I've heard a tale about some child substituting "Clarence the cross-eyed bear," for "Gladly the cross I'd bear."  Certainly changes the meaning a bit, but then again, I've heard a lot of people who can get the song right speak of the cross in ways just as far off the mark as that child's version.

I have heard many a person say something such as, "This arthritis is my cross to bear."  But taking up the cross has nothing to do with stoic endurance.  Taking up the cross is voluntary.  Unlike arthritis, it is something that can be put back down and walked away from.  And it is paired with self-denial, the voluntary giving up of my prerogatives, my advantages, my rights, even my life, for the sake of God and the other. 

We Americans, with our focus on individualism, consumerism, and personal choice, have a hard time with self denial.  But we do recognize that it is sometimes necessary.  We may deny ourselves something we want because we need to save for a child's education.  And we may deny ourselves that tempting dessert because we know we must if we want to maintain or lose weight.  But America's obesity epidemic would seem to indicate that we're having more difficulty with self denial even when it is clearly advantageous to us.

Our Congress' recent dysfunctional behavior around the debt ceiling seems to me symptomatic of our problem with self denial.  The dysfunction in Washington is fed by a popular dysfunction that wants the world's top military, social security benefits that go up every year, safe roads and bridges, and Medicare for hip replacements and nursing home stays, yet doesn't want to pay taxes.  Everyone seems to think that someone else should pay the taxes, or perhaps that government can somehow magically do all the things we want it to do without money.

I see people driving $100,000 cars, living in $1,000,000 homes, and having a second home at the beach complaining about how how they simply cannot afford to pay any more taxes.  And I myself complain about all the taxes I pay, yet I know there are people the world over who would think they had died and gone to heaven if they lived the life I am able to live.

Generally speaking, the taxes I pay are not my cross to bear.  Now if I wrote a check for $1000 and sent it to the US government for debt reduction, that might be.  And if I called my Congressman and Senator and asked if they would please raise mine a bit to help out everyone else, that might be.

In recent years, there has been much discussion over whether or not America is a "Christian nation."  Deciding requires some sort of working definition of what it means to be Christian and how that applies to entities beyond individuals.  For example, if being Christian requires some sense of self denial, of losing one's life "for the sake of the gospel," how is that to be lived out on a national scale? 

I look at our current economy, where unemployment remains disturbingly high while American companies are reporting record profits.  Would not a Christian impulse for self denial require that those companies put some of those record profits into job creation?  Would not bearing the cross mean denying some of that profit to CEOs, executive bonuses, and so forth, and instead using it to hire some folks?  Can it be said that capitalism's drive for efficiency, usually understood as making the most money while using the least people possible, is really Christian in any sense of the word?

Now I know that issues of economics, employment, capitalism, and so on are very complex.  And I do not pretend to be an expert in any of them.  However, Jesus makes it abundantly clear that any who wish to follow him must practice self denial for the sake of his gospel, his proclamation that God's new day is drawing near.  And we can't very well claim follow Jesus, praying as he taught us for God's will to be done on earth, while at the same time insisting that God's will somehow doesn't apply to the business world, national defense, or tax policies.

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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - I'll Take That Other Jesus

In case you've never noticed, there are a lot of Jesuses out there.  Google "Jesus" and check out the images.  Even discounting the ones that aren't serious, the variety is mind boggling.  There is warrior Jesus, meek and mild Jesus, wise sage Jesus, hippie Jesus, healer Jesus, buddy Jesus, angry and coming back to straighten things out Jesus.  And while not all these images are mutually exclusive, many are.

This means that you can believe in Jesus, even believe fervently, without necessarily believing in the same Jesus as someone else.  The question of just who Jesus is, of his true identity, is a critical one.  And it is the topic of today's gospel, where Peter wins the quiz with his answer, "You are the Messiah."  (Matthew's gospel adds "Son of the living God," and Luke says "Messiah of God.")  But it soon becomes very clear that knowing Jesus is the Messiah (or Son of God) in no way means that you understand his true identity.  No sooner has Peter made his confession about Jesus being God's Anointed One than he starts trying to correct Jesus, explaining to him that Messiahs aren't allowed to die.

We who are Christians have our own versions of this.  We proclaim Jesus Messiah and Son of God but then insist that Messiahs don't get mixed up in politics and tell us how to vote.  Yes, Jesus said turn the other cheek, but Messiahs don't get to weigh in on national defense policy.  Messiahs are supposed to confine themselves to personal spirituality and morality.  They need to understand that the work world has its own rules.

My own Presbyterian tradition emerged from the Protestant Reformation that professed sola scriptura (Scripture alone), and it declared itself The Church Reformed, Always Being Reformed by the Word of God.  We claim that the singular witness to who Jesus is, to his true identity, is the Bible.  But then, of course, we do some very selective reading of that Bible and come up with a Jesus that suits us.

This has gone on from the beginning of our tradition, but in our day, we have put a new spin on it.  Since we rarely read our Bibles, we are free to construct whatever Jesus we want to cobble together from things we've heard or that we've picked up here and there.  And just like Peter, we correct Jesus and tell him that Messiahs behave and act such and such a way.  But unlike Peter, who is immediately and rather harshly corrected by Jesus, we go on our ways oblivious to the fact that our custom order Jesus, made just the way we want him, may be no Jesus at all.

Now I'll be the first to admit that I often wish Jesus would be a little more proactive about this.  Why doesn't Jesus speak to us as he does to Peter?  Why must he speak indirectly through Scripture?  I would say that my greatest source of spiritual frustration is wanting a bit more clarity and direct communication from God.  But... and it's a big but.  It's not as though Jesus isn't pretty clear about a lot of things, about how I am to live and act, how I am to love my neighbor and even my enemy, how if I have more than enough and someone doesn't have much of anything, I must share.  There are a lot of times when I know exactly what Jesus expects of me, but I say, "No thanks, I'll take that other Jesus."

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