Tuesday, October 28, 2014

What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?

     As everyone knows, I just spent the last couple days at convention and at Clergy conference.  Our featured speakers at both was Jack Jezreel, the founder of Just Faith, so I have to admit that I enjoyed the last three days.  In fact, I know people here are not thrilled about going to diocesan convention, but those of you who have been before should give it another try.  The last couple years we have tried to do away with resolutions that have no measurable action point and have tried to do a better job of telling our stories.  Many of you know that Mike Wagner and Lydia and probably Lacy did yeoman’s duty trying to get the parish ministry “commercials” finished in time for convention.  Those of us gathered around the table for Indaba remarked how fun it was to learn what other parishes were doing.  There was the orange clad “Bucket Brigade” that fights hunger, several churches engaged in gardening, a FreeStore for battered women, jail ministries, healing ministries, and other ministries and their impact described at length.  Some crazy church had a choir that went commando!  We worshipped and we told stories.  There was not much not to commend to you regarding the gathering.  In fact, next year, if you have time and finances, you really should consider giving convention another try.  That’s right.  The one who hates pointless meetings the most among us commends a meeting to you!
     As with all change, there are invariably vestiges of the past.  We had one resolution this year.  It was a resolution which asked the national church to re-translate Scripture, take another look at our Holy Week liturgies, and to create resources that would help us to be better at interfaith relations.  The impetus for the resolution seemed to come from the belief that there are people in our pews preaching hate against Jews, Hindus, Muslims and others.  I found it a rather ironic process, truth be told, that this was the primary resolution in the midst of a convention in which members of the diocese were committing themselves to the commands of Jesus in Matthew 25.  As a diocese, we were affirming our call to feed the hungry, to clothe the poor, to heal the sick, to visit those imprisoned, to free slaves, and to do any number of other ministries in the effort to make disciples of Jesus Christ.  Make no mistake, nobody was speaking against the resolution.  For my money, I wish it had asked the national church to create resources which would make us more effective missionaries to those of Jewish, Muslim, and other faith backgrounds.  Then again, I cannot imagine an Episcopal priest preaching specifically against the Jews.
     Yes, as we will look in a couple minutes, the Jewish leaders were determined to bring Jesus down in the eyes of the people.  Yes, the Jewish leaders eventually plotted to kill Jesus.  Yes, the Jewish leaders tried their best to silence Peter and John after Pentecost.  Yes, leaders of the Freedmen synagogue scattered many in the early Church after the stoning of Stephen.  But, lest we forget, Jesus was a Jew.  Yes, that is correct, salvation comes from the Jews through the seed of Abraham.  The early Apostles and the vast majority of disciples were, of course, Jews.  The author of the book that we are reading was, that’s right, a Jew.  Even Paul, who held the coats while the Freedmen synagogue leaders stoned Stephen was Jew.  It is hard to be faithful to Scripture and be anti-Semitic.  Jews and Gentiles do horrible things; and Jews and Gentiles also do some amazing things which honor our Lord.
     That being said, the idea that we do not have an obligation to make disciples of Jews and Hindus and atheists and Muslims is simply misplaced.  If Jesus is Lord, all owe allegiance to Him.  If Jesus was raised from the dead as so many witnessed, then He alone is worthy of praise.  It is a difficult question.  It is a question which has not gotten easier to answer with the passage of time.
     Our story in Matthew today picks up on Tuesday of Holy Week.  The Pharisees, the Herodians, and the Sadducees have all had their turn to take the Galilean yokel down in the eyes of those visiting the Temple in preparation of the Passover.  Now, a teacher of the law takes his turn by asking Jesus which law is the most important in the torah.  Human beings being human beings, there had been an effort over the centuries to determine which laws were more important than others.  We should not be too surprised by this effort to pronounce some sins not so bad and others unforgivable.  In some traditions, we have mortal and venial sins.  In our own, we tend to have our sins and those committed by others, right?  Our sins are ok; it is the sins of the others that necessitated His death on the Cross, isn’t it?  I know, I know, the mote and log are another reading.
     In any event, the expert in the law asks Jesus which law is the most important.  Jesus answers quickly with the Shema.  The Shema, taken from Deuteronomy 6:5 was supposed to be prayed twice-daily as a reminder of the obligation of each Jew to Yahweh and to His commandments.  Such would not have been too surprising as a number of the lawyers listening; nor would have Jesus’ continuing statement which brought in Leviticus 19:18.  Since at least the time of Rabbi Akiba (not to be confused with the Rebel Alliance general in Star Wars), some lawyers had considered Leviticus 19:18 to be among the most important principles in the torah.  Given that Jesus has already given an answer like this in chapter 7, most who heard the statement were likely not too surprised, though those who were hearing it for the first time might have wondered at the commitment He was demanding when loving God and loving our neighbor.  Whether the lawyer had a rejoinder for this answer, we will never know, as Jesus follows up His answer with His own question.
     Jesus asks those experts assembled to identify the Messiah.  Predictably, the experts answer that the messiah is the offspring of David who will lead them.  As we have discussed repeatedly around here, the leaders of the Jewish people often expected a political or military leader who would lead them to freedom.  Naturally, the messiah would come from the lineage of David.  Certainly, Scripture seemed to support this view.  Prophets such as Samuel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah pointed to such a figure, so the answer would have seemed obvious.
     Jesus, of course, understands the paucity of their messiah when compared to Him.  So, He asks a follow up question.  If the messiah comes after David, why does David call Him Lord in Psalm 110?  Perhaps only Pauline understands this among us, since she is from the blessed land of England.  Can you ever think of a time where a king or a queen calls a child, “Lord”?  I’ll save you some frustration.  You won’t.  Authority passes down in lineage.  Princes and princesses call their mothers and fathers by such an appellation, but never does the king or queen make obeisance to their children.  What David is saying in Psalm 110 makes no sense from a human understanding.  What did Solomon call his father?  At official functions, it was probably Lord.  What would Solomon’s children have called David?  Lord.  At no time would a descendant have outranked king David.  Yet Psalm 110, which the Jews knew to be made in the Spirit of Yahweh, has David talking about a descendent as one who outranks him.  And, lest you think it is a problem of translation, the Greek version of the Psalm uses kyrios for both lords in the Psalm, while the Hebrew uses Yahweh (The Lord) and Adonai (my Lord) to express the lords.  Experts in the torah would see the difficulty immediately.  It would not make sense to the way the world works.
     Those who really study the Scriptures, or perhaps returned to them after Jesus’ question, would note the remarkable relationship that David describes of his Lord to The Lord.  Adonai bears a special relationship to Yahweh.  He is not just related to David; He is somehow related to God.  He is unique.  He is special.  He is messiah, the Anointed One.  Those of use who have studied Jesus’ titles or the book of Daniel would be hard-pressed not to identify the Son of Man with the Son of God.  In Daniel’s prophesy, God sits His Son at the right hand and declares that all the world will obey Him.  In short, Jesus is teaching the teachers of the torah that the Son of Man and the Son of God are unique and special.  Better still, they are combined in Him!  The messiah is not just a human descendant of David come among them to free them of Roman or Assyrian or Babylonian rule.  The messiah is not just some figure who rides at the heads of armies or sweeps aside all political foes.  The messiah is a human descendant of the House of David who bears a special relationship to God.  In essence, Jesus is asking how they can trap Him, how they can judge Him, if they cannot even understand the Scriptures they have been given.
     Not unsurprisingly, the lawyers have no response to Jesus’ question.  Matthew records that His question and its implication so unnerves them that they cannot think of anything to say in answer to His question, nor did they have the courage from that point forward to ask Him any question in public.  Who would in their shoes?  They understand the implication of Jesus, probably better than many of us today, yet they are unwilling to voice the truth He has just revealed.
     Matthew’s narrative has been building to this point with respect to Jesus’ identity.  Jesus has performed various miracles which testify to His unique relationship to God.  His feeding of the people with fish and bread, His casting out of demons, His healing of the cripples and the blind, and His raising of the dead should now make sense to all who heard this question.  If no one has ever done such as this, what does it say about Him?  Peter grasps it in His confession back in 16:16, but he lacked the training of those who are confronting Him in the Temple.  In His questioning of the lawyers, Jesus has merged the identity of the Son of Man with the Son of God, and He has used the Scriptures to demonstrate such was the plan of God.  How do they respond?
     As we all know, Jesus will be dead before three more days pass.  Those who fear a loss of power or prestige, those who fear that the Romans will come down hard on the people of Judea, and those who cannot accept His identity as being unique with God will combine to have Jesus killed.  Yet even that is not unforeseen by God.  Jesus, in a striking rebuke of the knowledge they have rejected Him, will pronounce His woes on all those who reject Him as the Messiah, the Lord.  Better still for us, He will allow Himself to be handed over to them and to die for our sins.  By that Sunday morning, we know that His identity will be proven true.  By that Sunday morning, we will know that their understanding of messiah will pale behind the reality of His glory.  By that Sunday morning, we will be free not of worldly powers and rule like Romans and Babylonians and kings and emperors, but of the consequences of our sins.  By that Sunday morning, we who call upon Him as Lord will know true freedom!  By the end of this Holy Week, we will know the true meaning of love!
     Who is Jesus?  Your answer to that question will singularly determine how you live your life.  If He is just a good man, a wise teacher, a gifted rabbi, your life should look little different from those of other faith traditions.  Each of those traditions offers ways of life that can be admired.  If, however, you take Jesus at His word and identify Him as God’s Messiah, as the fullness of David’s prophesy in Psalm 110 and of Daniel’s prophesy of 7:14, then His commands on your life, on all our lives, is inescapable.  The words of Matthew 25 become less a suggestion for good living and moral uprightness and more evidence of a Resurrected life, a transformed life, a cross-bearing life that glorifies our Lord!
     Make no mistake, our answer to that singular question has repercussions which transcend our lives.  Loving God and loving neighbor as ourselves means there is a cost.  Those who accept Jesus’ claim as messiah must commit everything to Him.  Love, in this context, is not just an emotional assent, and intellectual agreement; it is a commitment, reminiscent of God’s commitment to Israel and our Lord’s work on Calvary, that works hard to draw others into His saving embrace.  Loving God means that we value our relationship to Him above all things.  Loving God means that we we value His relationship to those around us above all things.  All that we do, all that we say, all that we hold dear is to bring the world into right relationship with Him.  That ability only comes through our commitment to Him and through our relationship in Christ.  We feed the hungry not to assuage their stomach pains, but to remind them that God and we love them.  We visit them in prison not to assuage their loneliness or isolation but to remind them that God is with them and we have not forgotten them.  We clothe them not to cover their nakedness but to remind them they are of more value to God and, thereby to us, than the lilies of the field.  We work to free them not because we find captivity abhorrent but because we recognize we were created to be free, free from walls, free from chains, free from sin!  All that we do, all that we are, honors Him and draws them into relationship with Him through our Lord Christ.  Anything less dishonors Him.  Anything less runs the risk of allowing them to face eternity apart from Him.
     Yes, it is difficult to understand that God would become human.  Yes, it is difficult to accept that God loves us to the point of dying for us even when we do not accept Him or even fight against Him.  Yes, in this world of lots of little “truths” and political correctness, it is difficult to proclaim His Truth and His authority.  But is no more difficult today than two thousand years ago nor, I suspect, any time in between.  If Jesus is who He claims to be in this passage, then you and I have a unique message, a Gospel, to proclaim.  That we might understand the truth of His claim to our Lord, He was raised that amazing morning so long ago!  And now, just as He did to those who sought to trap Him 2000 years ago, He puts the question to us and to all whom we encounter in our daily life and work.  What do you think about the Messiah?  Whose son is he?  If He is merely of human origin, then He is no different than any moralist who has ever lived.  He is worthy of admiration; He is worthy of respect.  But if He is the Son of God, then all authority does, indeed, belong to Him.  He deserves our worship and our service as befitting the fulfillment of the Great Commandment!  Almost as importantly, the claims of the Second Commandment means that our lives ought to be dedicated to introducing the world around us to Him, that all might be saved!


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Lord who lets us argue and who brings us home in peace . . .

     Our story from Exodus provides a couple lessons for us, one negative and one positive. It has been on my mind this week, in particular, as many of you have dropped in to express your opinions about what will happen at or to St. Alban's, even as you sought to understand why Karen and I were convinced God was calling us to Nashville. The story takes place after Moses' famous intercession on behalf of Israel. To refresh your memories, God freed Israel from Egypt. He led them through the Red Sea. When they hungered for bread, He gave them mana. When they hungered for meat, He gave them quail until they got sick of it. When they thirsted in the desert, He caused water to flow from the rock. Just before this scene, He has brought Israel to His mountain. He called Moses up the mountain to give Him the torah to give to Israel. While Moses was gone that forty days, Israel got impatient. Rather than waiting for Moses to return, Israel sculpted a molten calf and began to worship it. God was, understandably, furious. In fact, He is so angry with Israel that He tells Moses He is going to destroy them all and make a nation out of Moses.
     Is God's anger understandable? Absolutely. Could He make a new nation out of Moses without violating the covenant He made with Abraham and Jacob and Isaac? Of course. Moses is a descendant of the family. Were God to destroy everyone and start all over with Moses, He would still be keeping His promise to Abraham and the other patriarchs and matriarchs. Moses, though, wants nothing to do with starting over in the scene right before this. In that scene, Moses appeals to God's desire to glorify Himself in the world to convince God to turn aside from His plan. Were God to destroy the Israelites, Moses argues, neither the Egyptians nor any of the “ites” would think God worthy of praise. God relents, but He tells Moses He is going to punish Israel for its unfaithfulness.  The problem is how God is going to keep His covenant with such a stiff-necked, hard-hearted people.
     As you might imagine, Moses does not relish the idea of the people being punished. Every time something goes wrong, they blame him. All he gets to do is listen to is whining and griping and complaining. And when they are not grumbling, they are sometimes plotting to stone him for leading them into this mess. Did you lead here because there were not enough graves in Egypt? At least in Egypt, we got to eat meat occasionally. We need water, and you lead us to a desert? Moses knows what the future holds for him, and he wants no part of it if God is not “all-in.”  Moses has learned all too well that Israel needs God, that Israel cannot be saved if God is not shepherding them.
     Moses reminds God that He has told him to lead these people, but not who will go with him. He asks God to teach him His ways, if He has found favor with His servant.  God assures Moses that His presence will  go with him and that He will give him rest.  But Moses complains that it is not enough.  If your presence will not go with us, do not lead us from here.  Moses appeals to God’s selection of Israel to begin with.  How will we and how will people of the earth know we are distinct?  Again, God promises that He will give Moses the very thing for which he asks.  But Moses wants a sign!  The man who saw the burning bush, the man whose staff invoked the ten plagues on Egypt, the man who parted and then closed the waters of the Red Sea, the man who arranged for the manna, the man who got his people quail, the man who struck the rock in the desert so that the waters flowed, the man who went up the top of the holy mountain to get God’s instruction for the people requires a sign.  He asks to see God’s glory so that he will know he has found favor and that God will keep His promise.
     God tells Moses that what he asks is impossible.  In the movie Dogma, there is a seen where the angel tells Bethany that he has to speak for God because the awesome voice of God causes the heads of mere mortals to explode.  “It took us four Adams before we figure that one out.”  Imagine what the glory of God would be like.  God’s voice terrified Israel; His glory reflected in Moses’ face caused them to ask Moses to hide his face.  Yet, here is Moses asking to see God’s glory and to see Him face to face.  God tells Moses He will proclaim His glory while protecting Moses, but that Moses will be allowed to see only His back.  It will be enough for Moses.
     Our lesson today contains several lessons, but two of which are appropriate to us as we come to this point in our journey together.  One is a negative example; the other is a positive lesson.  By negative, I mean that it gives us an example of what not to do or be.  My conversations with those outside our denomination the last couple weeks have brought up this story repeatedly as to why they think it is ok to stone certain groups, to ridicule certain groups, to support those who kill “evil” people such as abortion doctors, and the like.  The argument goes something along the lines of “God takes sin seriously and sometimes uses us to execute His judgment.”  They are absolutely right that God takes sin seriously.  He takes sin so seriously that He cannot allow Moses to see His face in Moses’ current state.  Just as you and I breathe or blink without thinking, God destroys sin.  What He is protecting Moses from in this part of the narrative is Himself and His unwillingness to countenance any sin.  We might say, though, we need to understand that we are grasping to define the undefinable, that it is in God’s nature to destroy all sin, that it is an autonomic response of who He is.  It is such a part of Him that He does so involuntary.  God understands this and acts to protect His servant Moses.
     But look at where the story occurs in the timeline of salvation history.  Has Israel been taught that sin requires a blood sacrifice?  No.  They do not yet know about the torah.  They do not yet realize that it will take blood to wash their sins.  Naturally, if they do not yet understand the Temple system, they have no idea that God’s Son will come in ultimate fulfillment of that requirement, that all who claim Him as Lord will be washed clean in His blood.  The Cross is not even a wild idea in their heads, even if it is already accomplished in God’s mind as He speaks with Moses.
     When we or other Christians look back on the story of the molten calf and use it as justification for “executing God’s judgment,” we are guilty of misusing God’s Word and of dishonoring Him in the world around us.  Does God take sin seriously?  Absolutely!  Does God sometimes execute judgment?  Of course.  Could He use human beings to execute His judgment?  He can, and I think sometimes He does.  I wonder, however, how many of those whom He uses in such instances know they are fulfilling His purposes ahead of time?  By that I mean that Jesus, whenever He is describing Judgement Day, always teaches that it is He and His angels who will do the culling, who will do the separating, and who will do the judging.  Yes, you and I are called to take sin seriously.  Yes, we are called to call our brothers and sisters into repentance when they sin and to call the world back into relationship with Him.  But the effectiveness of that call to repentance and the power of that call are not determined by us.  Christ’s offer on the Cross made repentance acceptable before God; Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross made it possible that all humanity could see God’s glory without being destroyed.  When God teaches that He who knew no sin became sin, this is what He meant.  Jesus has paid the price!  In full!  Jesus has made it possible for us to get back into right relationship with God.  Jesus has made us worthy to stand before our Lord.  None of it, absolutely none of it, depended upon us.  All we can do is share the wonderful story.
     When we hear people in our daily life and work claiming that we are called to mock certain groups because of their sin, that some lives are not as important as others because of their sins, or that it is ok for us to take an active point in their punishment and death, we need to be the voices that are saying “no!”  We need to be the voices that are reminding others that our efforts cannot atone for our sins, that our judgements can be wrong, that we are just fishers of men and women, that He is the one who decides punishment.  Might such a reminder upset our friends?  Naturally.  But when we remain silent in the face of such comments, that this group deserves to die or that group deserves to suffer, we are closer to the Pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  Worse, our silence carries a cost.  By remaining silent, we allow our Lord to be dishonored among those who do not yet know Him!  And make no mistake, when people ask what we think of this behavior or that behavior, we are called to tell them.  But never are we to ridicule them, never are we to called harass them, never are we called to execute His judgment on them.  They, like us, are cross-bearers who follow the Lord.  They, like us, sometimes stumble, sometimes tire.  More amazingly, He died for them, even if they ultimately reject Him.  He, not us, decides when their time and their chance to repent is up.
     Now, I said at the beginning that there is a negative lesson and a positive lesson.  We focused on Matthew and so missed the reminder of the power in a faithful Intercessor.  But as I reminded you of the story, I told you that Moses convinced God to turn aside from His wrath and the new plan He was going to execute.  Have you thought about the audacity demonstrated by Moses?  Moses has the temerity to argue with God!  Argue.  And Moses is not alone.  I have joked in the past that I should be serving at a St. Jacob church because I fight with God constantly.  I fuss, I fume, I tell Him how things would be better if He did them my way.  And, while He has not had to resort to dislocating my hip, He has, from time to time, had to take that holy 2 X 4 and crack it over my head!  How many of you are the same?  How many of you argue with God and His plan?
     We speak on occasion around here of being called into His family.  We talk in the language of the perfect adoption.  Because of our faith in Christ and His faithful obedience, you and I are seen by God as first born sons and first born daughters.  We are entitled to a double share of the inheritance because of Christ’s work on our behalf.  The sins which would cause us to be destroyed by His glory like Moses in today’s are so covered by Christ that He sees Him in us!  He longs for that wonderful parent-child relationship with us that all humanity craves.  He wants nothing more than for us to think of Him as abba, daddy.
     Perhaps you have been a child.  Maybe you have been a parent.  Ever had cause to argue with a child or your parents?  Family relationships at their best are such that we can love each other and argue with each other.  God, by virtue of our faith in His Son, allows us to be in that kind of close relationship with Him.  He expects us to argue with Him.  He allows us to argue with Him.  Every now and then, He even allows His mind to be changed by our arguments, so long as our arguments are in keeping with His character.  Moses caused Him to change His mind because He appealed to His honor among the nations.  What would the nations think if You destroyed Your people?  Would they know it was Your judgment?  Or would they presume You were weak?  Think of that for just a second, God allows us to argue with Him.  Now, most of the time we will lose, but we lose because we do not see and hear and understand clearly.  We may be like Jonah and prefer that God zap our Nineveh’s, but God shows mercy to our enemies just as He showed mercy to us.  We may think a winning lottery ticket will meet our provision needs better, but God knows the pull money has on our lives.  Many of us are better off getting our bread daily.  And unlike us as parents or our parents, God makes no mistakes.  Better still, even when we screw up, even when we ignore His plans for us, no matter how badly, He can still redeem our messes and our mistakes!  That, brothers and sisters, is the relationship He offers and to which He calls each one of us!
     Why do I mention all this fighting and arguing and provision?  The elephant in the room today, the pastoral problem, is my announcement this past Tuesday that we are leaving.  Starting Wednesday, I had a steady parade of parishioners and others in orbit of the parish who wanted to express their concerns.  Thankfully, many of you were supportive and recognize that this call was not our doing but His.  Some of us, however, forgot that the Lord who calls me also calls you.  In the midst of this week, there has been a natural angst.  What will happen to us?  Will we ever attract another priest?  Will the bishop close our doors and sell our church?  By Friday, I had grown a bit short in my answers.  Were the church to die when I left, it would be an indictment of my time among you and of your ministry in the community around us.  As a group, we were seeking to do God’s will for St. Alban’s and not our own plan.  The ministries that we do around here, I believe, we do in accordance with His call on our lives and on this parish.  Better still, we do them to God’s glory, hopeful that our service of them in His name will cause them to ask us why or even draw them in themselves.  As Moses’ argument with God reminds us this weekend, He will glory Himself in us and give us peace.
     Will the future look like what we hope or expect?  Most likely not.  Most of you know my call story.  I wanted to wait until I had banked money and the kids had grown to go through discernment.  In my mind, churches could not support a priest with four kids.  I know His plan so far for my life and that of my family is more amazing than I could have ever dreamed.  And, in case you weren’t paying close attention, Karen and I have seven children!  I daresay His plans for St. Alban’s is more amazing than any parishioner’s wildest dreams.  Do you really think St. Thelma thought her dream of feeding the homeless would continue for forty-seven years, let alone get picked up by national radio to encourage others to go and do likewise?  Do you think St. Grant ever thought in his wildest dreams that a returned underwear ministry would produce between 5 and 10 thousand pairs of underwear for the homeless and needy in the QCA, let alone get copied by other communities?  Do you think St. Julie herds the ECW through the Bazaar because she likes stress?  And, let’s face it, did you ever think you would hear someone refer to Vern or Julie or others as “saint?”  Do you believe that St. Michelle runs SmartChoice for our parish, cleaning up after St. Robin’s and my mistakes, because she has nothing better to do during the weeks or on Saturdays?  Did you even in a million years believe that slavery existed in our midst or that your priest would be tapped by the Archbishop of Canterbury to help craft the response by our Communion and the wider Church?  Do you think St. Robin and St. Larry just like hanging out in prison because their evenings are boring?  Do you think St. George and St. Annette just like the challenge of making questions for Trivia hard, but not too hard?  Do you honestly believe that St. Nicole likes her ministry with the choir because she relishes the challenges of herding cats, that it makes being the mother of teenage twin boys seem like a piece of cake?  Looking around the room today, each you present has a ministry or more that you do in joyful obedience to God.  Our Lord knows that every bit as well as He knows each one of you and me.  He knows and loves each one of you well enough to give you the freedom to argue with Him, to share your ideas and dreams with Him, and to ask that He show you  His glory in your life.  Best of all, though, He is a loving Father who will not allow you to settle for your dreams and for your hopes.  He has even greater plans in store for each one of us than we can ever ask or imagine.  It is that Lord, that God, who will see us each through this transition and however many more we will face in our lifetimes, and who promises to bring us home in peace!