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.)

Change the World

I was 24 years old, and I’d spent the past 7 years of my life studying religion, the Bible, and spirituality, and I graduated for the third time in my life and I had no idea what was going to become of me. I had recently, finally begun the process of becoming a pastor but later than usual, so now I had to wait. I started looking for a job and could not find one.  I mean, I contacted Starbucks and they didn’t call me back — (thanks, guys, like I don’t give you business).

Through a professor I ended up hearing about a position in a church that seemed to match some of my passions.  I applied for it, and by the grace of God and some folks who saw potential in me, I got the job.  My first ‘professional’ job.  It was a director/missions position and I moved in to a place that I quickly realized resembled a book I was reading at the time —  ‘The Help.’  I seem to have traveled back in time into pre-Civil Rights.  This community is the only predominantly African-American county in Florida and at the same time segregated (by schools and funeral homes, etc), either really rich or underresourced and poverty stricken… A less than 50% graduation rate, poor literacy, and so on…

So, I moved by myself to the ‘ghtetto’, got a big dog like they told me, an alarm system, etc.  My Mom’s prayer life increased exponentially, and I was genuinely excited to work on these ministries that had begun there — A neat after school program, English classes for non-English speakers, and the opportunity to get to know some beautiful people.

The couple years I was there God taught me many things.  I learned things about how the world works, about suffering, isolation, community, and justice.  I learned things about myself, but more than anything, I think God was showing me things about God-self.  God is in the places where people avoid.  God is to be found where there is seemingly little light.

In the cycles of poverty and violence and oppression that I witnessed I began to ask where hope was?  Where justice was?  Where the kingdom that we Christians hear about was?  And as a minister, what I possibly could say that really meant something — not just nice words or just talk about heaven — but that actually changed someone’s life.

That brought me to the Gospel of Luke.  All the gospels have their own ‘flavor’ so to speak — they are written for certain audiences for certain purposes and thus sometimes address different things.  I resonate with Luke as a champion for the outsider.  One of my favorite scripture passages is Luke 4:16-21:

Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been raised. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue as he normally did and stood up to read. The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”

Prior to the part to this passage, Jesus is born in a meager situation – one that allowed for shepherds to visit.  He begins to grow and finds himself studying in the temple.  He is baptized and then spends some time of preparation in the wilderness.

Jesus then went home to Nazareth.  As his family’s habit he went to the synagogue to worship.  There they repeated the Shema (found in Deut and Numbers), the central verse of Judaism, pledging allegiance to one God.  Then they prayed, heard a passage read from the Torah, then a passage from the prophets, a sermon, and a final priestly blessing.  Jesus was given the honor of rearing the scroll and then preaching.  He read two verses from Isaiah 61.

The words Jesus read in the synagogue in Nazareth when he announced the beginning of his ministry are incredibly meaningful and reflective of his mission. He identified himself as the “Servant of the Lord,” prophesied by Isaiah, who would “bring justice” to the world (Isaiah 42:1-7). “Most people know that Jesus came to bring forgiveness and grace [and he did!]. Less well known is the Biblical teaching that a true experience of the grace of Jesus Christ inevitably motivates a man or woman to seek justice in the world” (Tim Keller, ‘Generous Justice’).  How much more radical can you get than mentioning the year of the Lord, jubilee, in your opening statements!

Now, I will confess that I still have moments where I feel hopeless.  Where I indulge in pity parties.  Where I wonder what this ‘fulfilled in your hearing’ business means.  I still see injustice, suffering, and oppression — I can think that the powers have won, and feel despair.  But I find that this is why we are a people of hope… and a people of action.

The ‘fulfilled’ tense is one that is currently happening and continues to happen.  I worked on my Board of Ordained Ministry paperwork while living in this community, and one of the questions was related to the kingdom of God.  While reflecting on where the kingdom of God is breaking through I discovered it was often in the little things.  In the midst of what seemed like a hopeless environment in seeing the big smiles of children.  In telling kids who rarely if ever hear words of love in their homes, “I love you, no matter what.” In making chili; in giving out candy; in living in the midst of it all.

I read the Bible and I’m overwhelmed with the amount of Biblical material that expresses concern for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the alien.  Jesus didn’t come in power and using all the glory and authority of God,  he came lowly and without a place to rest his head.  He didn’t show off his knowledge and stick to the synagogue alone, and built up his spiritual life for himself.  He was continuously with people.  He healed the sick.  He liberated those who were oppressed by spirits.  He was criticized for hanging out with the wrong crowds.  In the same way we who go to church, and have Bibles (and maybe even read them), who know about a life of prayer and can talk about spirituality and grow in that way — but unless we use all of those things that build us up as individuals to build up the church and to love the unlovable, to speak up for those who don’t have a voice and to change our lives, we are not really following Jesus and walking where he is… we are posing.

“We must move beyond an anemic view of our faith as something only personal and private, with no public dimension, and instead see it as the source of power that can change the world. ”
-Richard Stearns, ‘the Hole in Our Gospel’

How do we as the church follow Jesus this way?  How do we as individuals do this?  God does not ask us to give things we do not have or cannot give, but God can’t use what we don’t offer to be used.

Prayer:  God, thank you for the incarnation – for being a God who comes down and lives with us and doesn’t simply ask of us things from on high.  Thank you for being with us still, through your Spirit — you never leave us alone.  Thank you for continuing to call us deeper — beyond ourselves.  Fill us with your love.  Fill us with your compassion and with passion.  Change our worlds again, and help us be agents of change, for the growing of your kingdom.  Amen.

a going away gift from the after school program

a going away gift from the after school program that hangs on my wall

Manifesto in progress

Seek justice.
Love mercy.
Walk humbly with God.

Speak truth but always alongside grace.
Don’t think too highly of yourself,
and don’t think too little of yourself —
claim your status as a beautiful mess.

Be uncomfortable — that’s how you grow.
That’s how you stay grounded.

Sing a lot.
Read a lot.
Paint a lot,
and be messy.

Don’t mind what others think of you.
Another’s greatness does not diminish you,
and your greatness does not diminish others.

Flee from expectations.
Beware the proud crowd.

Empty yourself.
Take time to be filled up,
and empty yourself again.

Struggle with your opinions.
Don’t give up.

Take your time — you don’t have to be fast.
Be thoughtful, and leave time for wonder.
Receive praise.
Be kind.
Share your umbrella.

Don’t forget about the tools you carry with you.
Use them.

Travel and get our of your little world.
Always seek perspective.

Remember provision.
Remember grace.
Remember who you are,
who you’ve been,
and who you want to be.
Remember who you don’t want to be.

Don’t bind yourself up–
regularly unbind what needs to be unbound.

Give thanks every morning
and every night
and the moments in between.

Have long conversations over café con leche.
Seek people who will love you
and push you beyond yourself–
                    people who will see what you can’t see.

Love God well and with passion.
Don’t worry so much.

Speak out against injustice.
Be unpopular.
Make people uncomfortable.
Be scandalous.

 

manifesto in progress