Condemned by the Righteous

Though Lent is often uncomfortable by its nature, I felt particularly uncomfortable this Lent. There’s been a lot going on for me as far as reading, travel, and processing discoveries. In the midst of all that, I’ve been preaching every other week at a midweek service, guided by the selected passages and main themes in Adam Hamilton’s 24 Hours that Changed the World. One of the weeks I got to preach the title was ‘Condemned by the Righteous,’ the passage was, in part Mark 14:53, 55-56, 61-65:

They took Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled. . . . Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none.  For many gave false testimony against him, and their testimony did not agree . . . The high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus said, “I am; and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’ ”Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?” All of them condemned him as deserving death. Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” The guards also took him over and beat him.

All of the passages have been from Mark, which has been interesting because I took a class specifically on Mark in seminary. In Mark things happen fast and even abruptly, and now we’ve entered the passion narrative, a critical piece where Mark places much emphasis.  We began our look at Jesus’ final 24 hours beginning with the last supper, followed by his time of anguished prayer in the garden, and now he is betrayed with a kiss from one of his close friends, and abandoned by the rest of his disciples.  Jesus was arrested in secret and with no grounds, made to walk under arrest, placed in a dungeon-ous pit and accosted by the pillars of the community for hours.

“The God of the universe chose to walk in human flesh as an itinerant preacher, teacher, carpenter, healer and pauper. He came as one of us. He healed the sick, forgave sinners, showed compassion to the lost, and taught people what God was really like. We must not miss the irony here: It was not the “sinners” who arrested God when he walked among us. Those who took him into custody and tried him were the most pious and religious people on the face of the earth. The God they claimed to serve walked among them in the flesh, and they could not see him.  They were so blinded by their love of power and their fear of losing it that they missed him.” –Adam Hamilton in 24 Hours That Changed the World, p. 48.

How could this happen?  How could the most pious men in the community, the persons who everyone thought of as being the most dedicated to God do this?  Not only because it was God, God-self — but because even if they didn’t think he was the Messiah, why would they spit on, mock, abuse, and sentence to death an innocent man?  How does that happen?

This passage is not new to me and yet this year I’ve seen it anew.  It has convicted me.  It has brought up many questions for me. And though I often think of the church with the subtitle of ‘Adventures in Missing the Point;’ I don’t believe that is solely the case here.  To me, this is an example of what fear can do to people.

I finished reading the book ‘The New Jim Crow’ recently and I was beside myself upset over this book and its revelations of mass incarceration, the overwhelming high percentage of blacks who get put in jail. and the history behind discrimination regarding voting, and other things.  I had conversations around for-profit prisons and detention centers. What struck me the most is that some of the language in the book was the very same language that someone accused me of not too long ago while discussing immigration.  Things like “the breakdown of law and order…”  Fear!

“Fear performs its poisonous work within all of us. How often are we still motivated by it? In what ways does our fear lead us, individually and as a nation, to do what is wrong–what is at times unthinkable–while justifying our actions as necessary?” (p. 50). These righteous men feared Jesus because peple liked him and that put insecurity in them and their roles. They feared losing power or status. Who knows all that they feared. I must ask, would I be found among those who out of fear and insecurity sentenced an innocent man to death?  How would my decisions be different if I asked myself not “What is the thing that will make me feel most secure?” but “What is the most loving thing for me to do?” (p. 51) As much as I want to condemn these men, judge them, and proclaim that I would do no such thing, I can’t say that with certainty.  I can’t say that with certainty because we have… we have done the same.

What are some examples? Between 1885 and 1967, approximately 49,000 homosexual men were convicted of gross indecency under British law and many forced into chemical castration. In addition to current mass incarceration and existent systematic racism, the old Jim Crow laws in past are good examples. The Holocaust, apartheid in South Africa, and so on. All things that I think in part were flamed by fear.  Fear of the unfamiliar.  Fear of losing power.  There are many different kinds of fears.  But in addition to these examples that are on more massive scales, I wonder about the things in our lives specifically.

Soldiers, religious persons and mobs end up murdering God’s son. Whether under the guise of following orders, or good biblical values, or standing up for law and order, or all of the other excuses people give for doing nonsensical things, injustice is seemingly justified.  When have I let my fears cause me to behave unjustly – whether by action or inaction.   We are not told that any of the religious individuals involved in Jesus’ trials spoke up… not one.  When have I remained silent in the midst of injustice?  It doesn’t have to be something spectacular or newsworthy — injustice occurs in many times and places — be it in our jobs, our homes, schools, the places we shop for food (even the very food we buy) or other places we pass through.

These are the things that I have been pondering.  As we remember this day the injustice that was the cross, may we not only remember how we are complicit in it, but how we are complicit in other injustices even today.

Let’s pray:

Lord Jesus Christ, you became weak so that we might be strong; you poured yourself out so that we might be filled; your body was broken so that we might be fed; you died upon a cross so that we might live. And yet your ways are not our ways. Save us from our strengths. Place within us a hunger for righteousness and a thirst for justice. Remind us that in giving we receive. Keep us near the cross, a sign of judgment and hope, of forgiveness and new life. Amen. (Kenneth H. Carter,  Just in Time! Prayers and Liturgies of Confession and Assurance, Abingdon Press.)

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Why church?

I’ve mourned the Church for a while – for years.  I’ve literally wept over the many ways it has caused pain and has deeply hurt people.  Not too long ago I sat in my living room shedding tears over the World Vision back and forth stance regarding individuals who are homosexual.  I’ve mourned because of congregations rejecting black pastors because of their skin color; I’ve cried over discussions about the construction of unnecessary and extravagant buildings while children starve around the corner; I’ve cried over church-people demonstrating a ‘me’ mentality and comfort-driven focus when it comes to worship. I’ve mourned people hiding their diagnosis of HIV/AIDS lest they be marginalized or rejected in their faith community. Recently I’ve cried over myself and the realization that though we have come a long way in my denomination in the equality of women (in ministry and beyond), we still have a long way to go.  I weep when I contemplate that anyone would hate their own person because the Church has made them believe they’re unworthy of love.

I cry over the seminary I graduated from — due to the actions of its leaders over the past several years, and its seeming lack of allowing space for grace in its stance on different points of view and understandings of Scripture; which to me speak of a lack of love and humility.

I cry because despite all of these things, I love the Church.  I love the Church because I believe she is created and called to be more than she is, and because I believe Christ loves  her more than I can even fathom.  I cry because I believe that these words from Bill Hybels are true, that:

“There is nothing like the local church when the local church is working right! It transforms lives, heart by heart… soul by soul… life by life. That’s why the most important thing I can do is to lay down my heart for the cause of Christ.”  

I believe this because I’ve seen it – I’ve experienced it!  The power of a loving, grace-filled community — there is nothing like it.

Upon pondering these things over the years, I’ve had the thought and impression that Jesus too weeps for his Church — the whole of the Trinity weeps (as Steve Harper says).  I don’t doubt that when we hurt, Christ hurts, and when we cry, Christ cries.  I then believe that God is heartbroken over many of the actions (and inactions), words, and sentiments in God’s Church.  Over what seems to be in many groups a disposition of judgment, an inability to love in the midst of differing opinions, and a lust for power.

With so much disappointment I’ve wondered at times what then is the point of continuing with this institution.  Why church?  I’ve been asked this question by frustrated individuals in the past and very recently.

I’m a pastor who belongs to the infamous millennial generation; the generation that is said to be absent from the church.  People ask me, how can we attract your generation to the Church?

Well, I distinctly remember the night – halfway through seminary –  I was contemplating on faith as a journey, and I came to the clear conclusion that, very simply, to follow God is to LOVE God and LOVE neighbor as myself (which does require that I love myself as well).  That’s it — it’s that simple, not to say easy.  This was a big deal for me because that is not how I’d always seen things — faith, church, God.  It’s incredible how our perception and understanding of God affects how we then view ourselves and others, and our weaknesses and those of others.

Here’s another woeful realization:  I’m part of the Church, which means I’m complicit in its failings.  Unfortunately for me, I have to fess up too.

If to the right or left I stray,
That moment, Lord, reprove;
And let me weep my life away,
For having grieved thy love:
O may the least omission pain
My well-instructed soul,
And drive me to the blood again
Which makes the wounded whole!
(I Want A Principle Within — Charles Wesley)

“It’s our job to love; God’s job to judge; the Spirit’s job to convict.”

What is compelling and beautiful about the Church is not its ability to be perfect (that’s impossible when we people are involved), but its demonstration of radical love and forgiveness; its humility- it’s Christ-likeness.

If I’m being honest, I’ve been discouraged recently -for many of the reasons I mentioned above and also for the tension in our denomination.  Not that this discussion does not need to happen – but because of the rhetoric.  Again, I don’t expect perfection, after all, I call the Church (which is the group of people, not the building) a motley group of forgiven messes, because we are broken, messy individuals, hopefully growing, through God, in love and character.

Appropriately timed then is Dr. Steve Harper’s most recent book, ‘For the Sake of the Bride‘ which has continued this conversation rumbling around in my head.  In our denomination there are rumors of a split, specifically due to the issue of homosexuality.  I’m not going to lie, when I picked up the book to read it I was somewhat cynical.  I was expecting to be disappointed — it wouldn’t be the first time I’d been disappointed.   Dr. Harper is actually one of the people I most respect in ministry, but whenever this topic comes up, it’s rare that any conversation is satisfactory.  These conversations are often exhausting and discouraging.

Well, I can say that what Dr. Harper has written is beautiful.  I teared up during the introduction (I guess we’ve established that I’m sensitive — something I have to say I’ve observed Dr. Harper being as well!).  It’s not because any of the material is particularly scandalous to me but it’s honest, vulnerable, and from the heart.  It brings us back to what it’s all about — love God, love others — and for someone who’s been feeling discouraged and restless, I’m thankful.  I’m thankful for Dr. Harper putting words to feelings I’ve had for a long time, knowing he’ll receive flak from certain circles.  I’m thankful because in the midst of our errors and prejudices, God works, redeems and pours out grace.

And thus, I’m hopeful — I will embrace my stubborn streak in this instance and employ stubborn hope — because God’s love and grace is overwhelming and overcomes all.  I’m hopeful because of people like Dr. Harper, and other followers of Jesus who I come across on a daily basis who long to serve God and to love others.  People who are not afraid to be uncomfortable.  People willing to sit at the table and dialogue.  People who recognize the sacrifices that come with following Jesus.

I say all of these things not because they haven’t been said before, and haven’t been said more eloquently, but because I realize that I’m not alone.  I’m not alone, and neither are you.  (That’s another beautiful aspect of the Church.)  And in the midst of my frustration, I am hopeful — I’m hopeful more than anything because of God; because of how God works in us, when we allow God to work in us, and how God works even despite us (despite me, for sure!).

Also, I believe that the Spirit is always at work, but it seems there are times when the Spirit blows like a small gust that lifts up a couple of leaves, and  other times in history when the Spirit blows like a category 5 hurricane.  I don’t know to what mileage the Spirit is blowing currently (forgive the analogy) but I do sense an increase.  I encourage you to read books like Dr. Harper’s and Adam Hamilton’s ‘Making Sense of the Bible,’ and see if you don’t feel it too.

 

…But give me the strength that waits upon You in silence and peace. Give me humility in which alone is rest, and deliver me from pride which is the heaviest of burdens. And possess my whole heart and soul with the simplicity of love. Occupy my whole life with the one thought and the one desire of love, that I may love not for the sake of merit, not for the sake of perfection, not for the sake of virtue, not for the sake of sanctity, but for You alone.  – Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

Amen.

 

Why church