Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Untimely Born...


 Untimely Born…

 

1 Corinthians 15:1-11
15:1 Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand,

15:2 through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you--unless you have come to believe in vain.

15:3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,

15:4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures,

15:5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

15:6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.

15:7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.

15:8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

15:9 For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.

15:10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them--though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.

15:11 Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

 

Another Easter is upon us (what an interesting phrase!). “Upon,” as in “on top of,” or “burdening” us? This may be the language of a parish pastor, for whom “Holy Week” is actually what college frats might dub, “Hell Week.” Of course, none of this harsh labeling is due to any animosity toward God, Jesus, or the celebration of Christ’s Last Supper, trial, death, and resurrection. It’s mostly the result of each year’s Holy Week demanding a string of sermons and services, and some notable amount of “novelty” and/or creativity on the part of the preacher. After all, the congregation will be listening and offering their critique of the Holy Week messages—the few who show up on Maundy Thursday, or the dedicated group who join you at whatever kind of Good Friday service(s) your church or community put up—as well as the hordes who often “fill the church” on Easter. They expect you to tell them something they have never heard before, all the while not losing the narrative of the “tried and true” story of “Up From the Grave He Arose.” This is unlike Christmas, when the universal thrill of the holiday is so all-encompassing that they will be happy almost regardless of what you tell them in the Christmas message. Easter is different—they know the story as well as they do the Christmas one, but will be on the lookout for any fresh way you can relate it to their life, and most especially the one they are living right now. It’s a challenge. Some may just punt, tell the simple journalism account of the ancient event, and with outstretched arms, proclaim, “He is RISEN!” Others of us try and try and try to find a kernel of newness in the narrative. I always found SOMETHING, but it was often not the balm I had hoped it would be. In my defense, however, I DID try to find direct connections to the people I was serving at that point, and when I was successful, they “got” it. I was never one to make fun of the “Christmas/Easter” crowd, either. I was grateful they came, did my best to make them feel welcome in their own church, and take a crack at preaching in such a way they might actually want to come back before December 24. 

 

As one who never preached the same sermon twice—ever—I can say that my commitment to write “fresh” messages each week, including for the major Christian “events,” was good fodder for finding the unusual, the inspiring, or the just “Huh!” moments in the scripture accounts. When I say that I never preached the same sermon twice, it is true, but in a bit of a “mythical” way, in that I DID recycle some of my favorite (innovative or “whacky”—you decide) biblical interpretations of a text, and a story or two. Did I ever tell one congregation about “another church I once served”? Of course, but either omitted or changed the names to protect the innocent. Occasionally, I’d be REAL sneaky and say something like, “I’m going to tell the NEXT church I serve…” I found that this line always got their attention, and may be used as a “back door” into their religious psyche. 

 

Back to Easter. I decided to use this I Corinthians text for this week’s Easter retirement sermon because I don’t believe I ever did. I confess that, in spite of trying to introduce something novel into my Christmas and Easter messages, I kept in the familiar “rut” of Luke 2 and John 20, because these creative reductions of what happened are most familiar to my audience and me, and because if I screw up the rest of the sermon, at least they get the simple story again, and we all know how scripture is often the eternal “earworm” that sticks with a hungry soul, even if the preacher is having a bad day.

 

The first thing that caught my eye in this text was the phrase in verse 6: “Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.” Paul tells us something here that is unique. Honestly, it sounds more like the Lukan author, who has a penchant for giving details and numbers, but I like the “most of who are still alive” part. This is significant, especially in light of what Paul will say a couple of verses down the road. When I read verse 6, I thought of the movie, Apollo 13. If you don’t know by now that I am a “space buff,” you haven’t been reading too much of what I write. I grew up through the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo era, and have never gotten over the advances and accomplishments of the people who made it a reality. I STILL like to go back and watch the cache of movies and documentaries I’ve amassed on DVD, and won’t miss new, stirring ones that show up, like the haunting film, “First Man” about Neil Armstrong, as portrayed by a brilliant Ryan Gosling. Of course, Apollo 13 is the Ronnie Howard movie portrayal of the one “failed” mission to the moon, most of the narrative for which came from James Lovell’s book about it, “Lost Moon.” Like the Christmas and Easter stories, you probably know Apollo 13’s. Not long after blasting out of Earth orbit and heading for the Moon, a mundane cryogenic “tank stirring” task precipitated an explosion in the Service Module, the part of the spacecraft that housed most of the essentials for life aboard Apollo. Breathing oxygen was bleeding out into space, oxygen that was also essential to the “fuel cells,” the mechanism that generated the electrical power for the Command Module (home to the astronauts on the journey, and the only part capable of getting them safely back to Earth). Again, not to belabor the story, but in essence, they used the Lunar Module as a “lifeboat” until they could loop around the Moon and fire up the batteries on the Command Module to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. It all worked, they were safely home, much drama was part of how and why, and the rest, as they say, is history, blah, blah, blah.

 

As the movie is winding down, after the astronauts are safely aboard the aircraft carrier, Tom Hank’s voice (as Jim Lovell) narrates the closing scenes. As the camera pans over the jubilant “geeks” at the consoles in Mission Control, Hanks tells us that most of these engineers and flight controllers “have gone on to other things,” but that “some are still there.” Paul’s words that “some are still alive” from the 500-plus that witnessed the events around that first Holy Week prompted this Apollo 13 connection in my possibly twisted mind. I began an investigation, my inner dialogue and I. Is the story of Apollo 13 a micro-cosmic (sorry) “version” of the story of God and humanity? What begins as a romantic “mission” gets suddenly derailed by a human failing, and everything kicks into survival mode. Maybe this is as good a definition of the scriptures of the Hebrew Bible as there could be—“survival mode.” God and humanity going back and forth, trying to find a way to “keep alive” and together. Both parties must pool their “creativity” and expertise to overcome the plethora of obstacles to this partnership. At one part in Apollo 13, when a fight breaks out between astronauts Fred Haise and Jack Swigert, Jim Lovell intervenes and reminds them of the goal—survival and GETTING HOME. The prophets of the Old Testament do exactly the same thing, and it often seems like they are attempting to convince BOTH humans AND God of this, fearing that either/or may be ready to abandon the mission.

 

The Christ Event is the Lunar Module, in this scenario. Christ IS our “lifeboat” who “gets us home,” but even Christ can’t land us, safely. We also need a cast of thousands and our OWN commitment to “re-enter” the scorching atmosphere of life and the challenges of relationships. Once the Lunar Module saves our astronaut-heroes, it is cut free and burns itself up, resurrected in the on-going story of the ones it saved and a grateful nation. You can draw your own parallels here. 

 

Each year it seems we lose another astronaut or one of the principals who got us to the Moon. And we lose more of us who lived through the actual events, such as the hazardous flight of Apollo 13. Thankfully, there are storytellers who have recorded these events for us to read or watch, and even museums dedicated to their remembrance and the “re-living” of them for those who weren’t yet alive when they took place—those “untimely born.”

 

Of course this is our last parallel. Paul felt he “missed out” on the actual events around that first Holy Week—what he labels “untimely born,” and yet it is the incredible richness of his scriptural storytelling, his innovative crisis management, and the church he helps launch that has formed, fostered, and “forwarded” the faith we now share. And to this story, we are all “untimely born,” relying on those who have gone before us to “get us home” in our relationship with God and the Community of Faith. Now WE are part of that on-going cloud of witnesses, just like Paul, charged with keeping the story of redemption alive. The church is our “museum” of the story where we regularly rehearse and re-live the biblical events that give us our meaning and connect us all to God. Easter is the successful and triumphant “splash down” signifying to us that in Christ, we are all delivered home safely. 

 

At the end of the movie Apollo 13, Tom Hanks gives the following speech:

 

Gene Kranz retired as Director of Flight Operations just not long ago. And many other members of Mission Control have gone on to other things, but some are still there. As for me, the seven extraordinary days of Apollo 13 were my last in space. I watched other men walk on the moon, and return safely, all from the confines of Mission Control and our house in Houston. I sometimes catch myself looking up at the moon, remembering the changes of fortune in our long voyage, thinking of the thousands of people who worked to bring the three of us home. I look up at the moon, and wonder, when will we be going back, and who will that be?

 

As a retired pastor, I often find myself doing the same kind of retrospective about the church, “thinking of the thousands of people who worked to ‘bring us home’,” and “wondering who will that be?” that will lead us onward as we “re-live” the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and witness him to the world. Who WILL that be? You? Me, even in retirement? This I know: it will be one untimely born. Amen. Oh, and HE IS RISEN! He is risen, Indeed! Happy Easter, Beloved!

Friday, March 22, 2024

The End of Religion


 The End of Religion 

Mark 11:1-11
11:1 When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples

11:2 and said to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it.

11:3 If anyone says to you, 'Why are you doing this?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'"

11:4 They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it,

11:5 some of the bystanders said to them, "What are you doing, untying the colt?"

11:6 They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it.

11:7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it.

11:8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.

11:9 Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

11:10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!"

11:11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

 

This weekend is what we Christians have dubbed, “Palm Sunday,” because of the “triumphal” parade that occurs into Jerusalem, with Jesus as its Grand Marshall. Of course, there are those who choose to honor it as “Passion Sunday,” reading and elucidating on the Gospel texts about our Lord’s death on the cross. Even with a two-time seminary education, I confess that I am more greatly influenced by the traditions of my upbringing at Grace UMC in Oil City, where this Sunday was always about the parade and the palm branches we all waved, in remembrance.

 

The mnemonics of the day are unmistakable: the donkey upon which Jesus rode (or “both animals” in a kind of circus act, if you are Matthew); the palms, or coats (if you are Luke); the people shouting, “Hosanna, Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”; and the disciples telling the owner of the donkey, “The Lord has need of it.” I confess, though, of something that has always caught my eye in the Markan narrative, even as a child, when it was read in church, and it is in verse 11: “Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything…”

 

Have you ever moved from a place where you had lived for enough time to generate a host of memories? How did that feel? Did you take some extended time to look around one last time, re-triggering some of those precious deposits of your history? Here are a few of my experiences…

 

Way back in 1977, I found myself spending my last week all alone in the home I was raised in. For the final decade of his working life, my Dad had accepted a new job with Venango County as the Assistant Director of Two Mile Run County Park, and the position required him, my Mom, and my youngest brother to live in a county-owned home on the park’s property. They had moved their just a few days ago. My middle brother was away at college, so I was left to close out the homestead, as I was to be married and move into my newlywed apartment with my bride—after a short honeymoon—at the end of the week. The house was empty of furniture, except for my simple bedroom furniture. (My parents were keeping the house, and moving my grandparents into it the following week.) I remember packing most of my belongings into a couple suitcases at the end of the week, putting on my suit, and heading off to the wedding, but before I left, I had to take one last walk around the now empty house that had so many memories for me. The cavernous emptiness of it echoed as I walked around from room to room, remembering many of the things that had happened there over twenty-plus years. While I would visit there again many times after my grandparents moved in, and years later yet again, after my parents sold it to my youngest brother on article of agreement, it would never be the same. That last tour was an emotional fulcrum, as the teeter-totter of life shifted from being part of a loving family to going off to start my own.

 

Years later, I would do another such “walk around” in a small home that was the first owned by Dara and me. This time, it was a small house we had purchased from an elderly widow in our home church, a house we had begun to remodel in a small community called “Rocky Grove” that was just as welcoming and quaint as it sounds—a place that we thought we might live in forever, in a house with both character and much potential. God had different ideas, though, and now I was revisiting one last time the place where we welcomed both our daughter and now a son, who was just a month old. Parked in the driveway and ready to roll was a large U-Haul truck with all our earthly belongings. Next stop: Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in the suburb of East Liberty. I will never forget standing in my daughter’s room where we first placed that precious, tiny “package” into a custom-made bed built into the corner of the room by her loving carpenter/grandfather. Our little girl was two now, but as I took my last look around, I could only think of standing beside that bed/crib, rubbing her little back, and singing lullabies to her until she fell asleep. Even as I write this, I tear up, thinking of scenes like this that we will never relive. They are precious, but seeing them only in the proverbial rearview mirror of life brings a tinge of sadness to otherwise joyous memories. Little did I know that less than two decades later, I would be shedding tears in a similar bedroom scene…

 

Fast forward to the Fall of the year 2000. Our “little girl” had just been settled into her freshman dorm at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio, some five hours from “home,” which was the mansion-now-parsonage of the Coraopolis United Methodist Church. We had been appointed to that church the Summer before my daughter’s sophomore year of high school, and she had chosen the third floor ballroom of the mansion as her bedroom. Now here was her Dad, sitting on the edge of her bed the day after we had returned from depositing her at college, crying elephant tears for yet another precious, yet traumatic transition in life. As excited as I was for Shelah and her “new life” at a wonderful college—a place where she would soon meet a man who would become her husband—and with a roommate who would be a life-long bestie, a Daddy had “lost” his “little girl.” Sure, she would be home and would sleep in this room again, but mostly as a guest, and not a resident, for her life was just beginning again. This scene of Dad shedding elephant tears on the edge of her bed would repeat itself for about two weeks before the joy of this transition would begin to overtake the grief.

 

I could go on with many other stories like this, several of them being about how it felt to take the final survey of a church from which I was moving, a place where I had preached a few hundred sermons, and served a congregation I had come to love. I would think of the weddings, funerals, baptisms, and other life transitions I had been privileged to officiate and celebrate with them. 

 

I’m sure by now you are thinking of a few of your own times like this, and if so, this sermon has met one of its key goals. These are precious and unforgettable times for us all, aren’t they? This weekend’s text reveals that even the Son of God had them, too. 

 

Of course, we can speculate that the tears Jesus shed in the Garden of Gethsemane were due more to the thought of leaving his human foray into the “far country” behind, and especially the Band of Brothers he had gathered unto himself. Don’t we try to recapture some of the emotion we imagine Jesus experience at the Last Supper when WE consecrate the elements of Holy Communion? None of us is immune to these deeply moving experiences and life transitions. None of us, even the Son of God.

 

Is this not exactly what was going on for Jesus when the Markan text tells us he entered the temple in Jerusalem and “looked around at everything”? Was it his humanness that was waxing nostalgic about the time he had spent in the temple as a youth? Was he reliving his discussions with the religious leaders when, as a teen, he held them spellbound with his “unearthly” knowledge of the scriptures and the Divine? Could Jesus’ “last look” around the Jerusalem temple have even a deeper meaning for us all?

 

Perhaps it was the timeless, divine “part” of the Son of God who visited the temple that day? Might it be that Jesus was thinking of how his “Father in Heaven” had set the wheels in motion for an eternal reconciliation for all of humankind, not only with the Godhead, not only that which would lead to an eternal home with God, but a redemption that would conquer the power of even the worst of human sin? Humanity, reconciled to God, to the rest of creation, and eventually even to each other, and the utensils and trappings of the temple would no longer be needed to affect it—one last look around the final resting place of religion would send a powerful message, wouldn’t it? This look at “everything” in the temple would most certainly have been an emotional time for Jesus, and for more reasons than we can ever imagine, I suppose. Add to this the fact that the drama that was about to unfold, with himself being the chief protagonist, and he may have also resorted to the familiar temple as a point of brief refuge. 

 

Any way you slice it, what this “look-see” punctuates is the end of religion. I’m using “religion” here to mean the many ways human beings contrive to “appease” God and/or make a useful “connection” to the Divine. After Jesus Christ and the totality of the Christ Event, God has forever been “appeased” by God’s own sacrificial love, and the “connection” is perpetual, due to the same agency. If we use the word “religion” now, we should see it as a polite term defining how we each appropriate the relationship that God has instituted with US, with little help on our part, except other than living with gratitude, pursuing peace with one another, and welcoming others into “the fold.” We may still have our edifices dedicated to our faith, but we Christians now call it a “Communion table,” not an altar—or at least should—because there is no longer the need for a sacrifice, except those born out of love for one’s fellow human beings, and the “least of these.” 

 

Unfortunately, “religion” of the earlier variety is hard to kill off. We rather like to manufacture out own “ways” to God, even if our faith traditions stress “relationships” over “retribution,” as Jesus would have us do. Why? Because we want to maintain control, reluctant to surrender it, even to the Son of God, and/or the Spirit of God. “Old Time Religion” keeps us in the driver’s seat, and too often allows us to welcome those whom we “appreciate” and close the door in the face of the ones we fear or despise. As we know from Jesus’ ministry, too often the temple had become a place of such controlling religion, from the “money changers” to the “high priests” who hammer Jesus because he threatens the hierarchy they had established to “maintain purity” and keep distance from the goyim (Gentiles). Is this not what Jesus prophesied when he said, “Tear down this temple and in three days I will raise it up”? His final look around the ancient temple may have given him the “real” courage he needed to “raise up” a temple not made with hands, but one that would welcome all of the people all of the time, forever. 

 

As modern believers, we are challenged to finally sound the death nell of the kind of religion that excludes and “filters” (judges?) who gets IN and who stays OUT. And as people who believe in the true power of love as came into our lives in the Jesus of God, we must also accept people of “other” religions who likewise focus on relationship than ritual. The three major biblical religions—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—are challenged to make peace with one another by the very same Christ Christians “claim” too often as exclusive Messiah. And all other people deserve to be accepted as the People of God, not because of what they believe—or don’t believe—but because of the sacrificial love God demonstrated to the world and the ages in Jesus Christ. It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer himself who dreamt of the advent of a “religion-less Christianity,” pointing instead to a faith that was lived out in beloved community, something Bonhoeffer sketched out in "Life Together."

 

The final end of death and hate was sown by the death and resurrection of the Son of God, and now we, as his followers, may bring it to fruition by ending religion and heralding that the Kingdom (Realm) of God is about relationships. Amen.

Friday, March 15, 2024

Greek to Me...


 

John 12:20-33
12:20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.

12:21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus."

12:22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.

12:23 Jesus answered them, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.

12:24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

12:25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

12:26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

12:27 "Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say--' Father, save me from this hour'? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.

12:28 Father, glorify your name." Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again."

12:29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, "An angel has spoken to him."

12:30 Jesus answered, "This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.

12:31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.

12:32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself."

12:33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

 

Greece has historically been one of the most curious and “factually motivated” cultures on planet earth. Of course, they have also been culturally advanced in the areas of philosophy and the arts, as well, but their almost pathological passion for information is most likely what drove a number of “Greeks” who seemed ever-present and curious during the ministry days of Jesus Christ, to seek him out. The author of the Gospel of John is often the one picking up on the presence of these inquisitive Greeks. 

 

I must say a word about curiosity, for it is what has been the motivator for our world of knowledge arrived at by great thinkers, great researchers, and creative authors down through the history of humanity. When we want to know WHAT happened, WHY it happened, and HOW it happened, we are doing more than answering the typical questions of journalism! These are the questions of enlightenment and learning. I wonder if today’s “curiosity” will carry human learning very far, given what we regularly see of it is more interest in social media, “pop” culture, fashion, iPhones and X-Boxes, and sports betting than in libraries and focusing on the core studies of STEM (Science, Technology, English, and Math). I often wonder that if Jesus were walking through our time, what would be the questions he would get from any curious observers? Would he get inquiries such as “What must I do to be saved?” or “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Or, would he be asked where he “emigrated from?” What was his favorite singer or band? Or maybe even whom did he like in the Super Bowl? I do fear that our cultural “curiosity gene” has developed a serious birth defect. And yet, God still loves us and wants to redeem and reconcile us.

 

Thankfully, the Greeks who sought knowledge of Jesus maintained a purity of curiosity. I would call it a “curiosity within a context.” They knew Jesus to be a “religious” leader of some sort; they were aware of the “miracles” taking place in his ministry, or at least within his “orbit”; and their questions were guided by the universally known and shared environment of these things. They were prepared to “seek Jesus” based on a foundation of the knowledge of him that had begun to “leak out” into the public sphere of “his-story.” Their query, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” was much more than a request for an audience. “To see” may very well carry the curiosity of all of human thinking. Do WE not “wish to see Jesus,” meaning all of what he was—and IS—about? 

 

I have suggested that one of the “two Greeks” (or in the case of this particular passage from John, “some Greeks”) may have included Luke, the physician. Luke was Greek, and may have also been one of the two men Jesus met on the road to Emmaus, after the resurrection. That text says that “one of them” was named Cleopas, which is a Greek name. Might the other one be the one who TELLS us this story—Luke? It is clear from reading his Gospel and his contributions to the Book of Acts that Luke is MOST curious about all things Jesus, which would have been characteristic of a Greek-trained thinker. 

 

I believe we need more “Greek” thinkers today, especially that which made them so curious about life, the universe, and everything! And this is especially true in the world of theological thinking. There seem to be only three “streams” of thinking about religion—and I’m specifically thinking of the Christian faith—today: those who codify and assert specific "orthodox" doctrines and dogma about what we “should” believe; those who believe what they are told; and persons who just CAN’T bring themselves to believe, either because of doubt OR that they don’t believe in accepting such doctrinally rigid religion as seems so prevalent. I believe it is not only HEALTHY but also formative to be curious about Jesus Christ, and to be “Greek” in desiring to know more by asking probing questions. Our desire to “see” Jesus should not be limited to “accepting” him via what others tell us we need to believe, but would be better approached by studying the Bible with other good inquirers, and not being afraid to ASK the tough questions. The best theologians have posited that forming and asking good questions is the key to serious theological reflection and understanding. The “Greek” approach to “seeing Jesus” is precisely this, and it has the ability to turn us ALL into better theological thinkers! Coming too quickly to an answer to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” may truly short-change the transformative power of that question, the answer to which may take a lifetime of prayer, study, and regular “recommitment” by the dedicated, growing-in-faith believer. Many will tell you, “Believe it, then live into it.” But what if “LIVE it, and you may come to BELIEVE it” is a better formula, especially for those who are skeptical? There should be freedom to experiment, here, and the church that spends more time “prescribing” than probing, poking, and prodding at what others so quickly want to label and market as “the truth” may be the church that fails. The curious church—the one which truly “wants to see Jesus”—may be the one that resonates with the agnostics, the disinterested and the “Nones” of our day. 

 

It is most interesting that just after being told that “these Greeks” want to see him, Jesus launches into a remarkable “vision” of the much, much larger picture of what he came to accomplish. “These Greeks” may, in Jesus’ mind, represent the countless future generations of the truly curious. He doesn’t rebuff them, he reveals himself to them—and to all of the future questioners who read this passage. The church in our day needs critical thinkers and life-long learners, ones who are willing to let their “seeing Jesus” be part of a transparent experiment in full view of others. Curiosity may have killed the proverbial “cat,” but it is the engine of both evangelism AND discipleship for any church that wants to open its arms to both GOD and God’s human creation. After all, what do you think Jesus meant, if not THIS, in verse 32—" And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”? It is in our passion to “see” him through our serious inquiry about WHO he IS and WHAT he is UP TO, as well as our curiosity as to what it means to US that “lifts him up from the earth.” And when he said that if we do this, he will draw ALL PEOPLE to himself, I believe for Jesus, ALL means ALL. If we are openly curious in our faith walk and in our approach to the scriptures, we send a very different message to the skeptics and other suspicious seekers than those who spout doctrines and “rules” in their direction. It is a message that says their doubts and questions are an “on ramp” to “seeing Jesus,” and that their current lifestyle is NOT a barrier to him “seeing” them! May we ALL want "to SEE Jesus!" Amen!

 

Friday, March 8, 2024

Snakes...Why did it have to be SNAKES...


 Snakes…Why did it have to be SNAKES…

 

Numbers 21:4-9
21:4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way.

21:5 The people spoke against God and against Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food."

21:6 Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.

21:7 The people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people.

21:8 And the LORD said to Moses, "Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live."

21:9 So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

 

 

Indiana Jones…need I say more? Of course, I will. It becomes clear in the opening action of “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” that our fearless hero DOES have one abiding fear—of snakes. And when he eventually finds the “Well of Souls,” the resting place of the ancient Ark of the Covenant, the place is literally crawling with every manner of viper one can imagine. Filmmakers George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg masterfully shoot this scene in such a way that most of us who ALSO hate snakes imagine them crawling all around us, even in the theater or our living rooms. Even as I write this, I can STILL see those darned snakes! Of course, after peering down into the “Well of Souls” with a torch and seeing all of those snakes, poor Indiana falls onto his back and utters, “Snakes…WHY did it have to be SNAKES…” Today’s text might suggest that God knows.

 

Genesis was not a good setting for snakes. The Adam and Eve Bible myth has Eve being “seduced” by “the serpent,” a reptile usually viewed as a snake. Interestingly, nowhere does the text say that the “serpent” is the devil, or Satan, or any supernatural entity. We have added that to the myth. Prior to the “act of disobedience” we have also dubbed “the fall,” we have an indication that humans and members of the animal kingdom could communicate. The creation myths say that Adam “named” the animals, and clearly was able to live among them, without any threat to his well-being, or theirs. When the serpent communicates with Eve, she appears not to be surprised at all, and when she tells Adam about the encounter, neither does he. The myth would lead us to believe that one of the results of being ejected from the Garden of Eden because of their disobedience (eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil) was also that they no longer had the kind of “fellowship” with members of the animal kingdom that they once did. Since this is a Bible myth (meant to communicate a truth, not necessarily be an historically “true” account of an actual event), we come away with two lessons: humans commit acts of disobedience against God and suffer the consequences of this “sin”; and snakes are the bad guys. The narrative of the myth itself talks of God “putting enmity between ‘you’ and the serpent,” so is this meant to be punishment for the serpent, or us? Frankly, I do not feel chastised by the fact that I prefer to have nothing to do with snakes, and they don’t seem to be too upset by having nothing to do with me. I guess it is a kind of object lesson? 

 

I guess we can also infer that the Genesis metaphor of the serpent is meant to stand in for whatever humans did to put themselves in such mortal (and moral) peril. Snakes get the bad rap because most of us don’t like snakes. There are two kinds of people who “like” snakes, though—herpetologists, and the rare and unusual “snake-likers” who want to keep them as pets and try to convince the rest of us how “beneficial” they really are. Good luck with that. As for me, I agree with the late comedian, Richard Pryor, who said, “SNAKES make you run into TREES!” (Meaning that when we encounter a snake in the wilderness, most of us take off running, and running quickly, in the opposite direction, putting us in risk of rapidly encountering an unmovable tree.)

 

There’s generally not a lot of meaty stuff in the book of Numbers, but this week’s lectionary passage has both some substance AND warning for “the people of God,” doesn’t it? As the text says, “The people spoke against God and against Moses…” And they got SNAKES. The moral of the story is, BITCH, and you get snakes! Snakes…why does it have to be SNAKES? Couldn’t God (and his emissary, Moses) just have offered a “Don’t make me come down there!” warning? And these “serpents” were of the poisonous variety, and thanks to their bitey tendencies, the Israelites started dying, as a penalty for their own bitey critique of both God and Moses. That’s sure a hard way to find out these were poisonous snakes, don’t you think? I’ve always gotten a kick out of the “snake-positive” folk who preach that snakes are GOOD, and that it’s “easy” to tell the dangerous ones from the “good” ones. “Just look at the head,” they’ll say, “Poisonous snakes have a triangular head.” I don’t know about you, but as a “snake-negative” type, I’m sure as heck not getting close enough to take stock of the geometry of a snake’s HEAD! When I see a snake, first of all, I notice two things: How BIG is it? And What’s it doing HERE? (Or maybe more wisely, What am I doing HERE, where there are snakes?)

 

The Numbers text directly states that God is responsible for the deadly snakes. While this runs quite counter to my understanding of the nature of God, the forgiveness of God, and the grace of God, I must allow for the fact that the Jewish author or authors of this text were strict monotheists. This means that they must locate ALL causality in either the primary or the permissive “will” of God. Monotheism doesn’t allow for a strong “devil” figure, and it doesn’t even give much room for humans being able to too seriously screw up their OWN lives, unless God allows it. Hence, if there are poisonous snakes as a form of “correction,” warning, or even retribution, then God is responsible. We shouldn’t read too much into this. It’s like if you are reading a Spiderman comic book, you can expect that the story will be about Spiderman and the kinds of things Spiderman gets into. If you’re reading Numbers, then you will read pretty much the view of God that ancient Israelite monotheists would have. It’s their story, and it may not seem to jibe with the view of God modern Christians get from reading about Jesus, although there was a herd of pigs and a few temple hucksters who DID pick up on this nastier streak in the divine personality, at least according to a couple New Testament authors. 

 

I think the “serpent on a pole” was a nice touch. God told Moses to “make a poisonous serpent and put it on a pole” (I’m sure Moses was certain to give it a triangular head when he cast it out of bronze), and that when the people who were bitten looked up at it, they would live. Brilliant. Why? Well, three reasons:

 

1.They had to look at the snake, reminding them of WHY they were getting attacked by snakes in the first place (remember the bitching?);

 

2.They had to look UP, remind them that God is their salvation, the source of their healing, AND the reason they were out here in the wilderness in the first place;

 

3.And while they would be prevented from dying from the poisonous snake bites, the text doesn’t say they would be without the PAIN of the bite, which would remind them to refrain from BEING such a pain, in the first place!

 

This story obviously made an impression on the people of God, for centuries later, Jesus compared HIMSELF to the snake on a pole: 

 

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:14-15)

 

Most scholars believe that with the phrase “lifted up,” Jesus is referring to his pending crucifixion, kind of a “Look up to ME, when I am ‘lifted up on a pole’ (the cross) and you will not die from the ‘bite’ of sin.” It may be a gross oversimplification of the culmination of the Christ Event, but it certainly is a poignant metaphor.

 

Here we are, deep into Lent. So, what are the snakes nipping at YOUR heels? While we no longer believe God “sends” punishment for our shortcomings like those early monotheists, we DO understand that Jesus taught us that we “reap” what we “sow.” And while God-in-Christ FORGIVES us of our infractions, like the Israelites and the snake bites, we may still have to endure the temporal consequences of our bad choices. God may forgive my breach of the law when I get a speeding ticket, for example, but I will still have to pay the ticket. Or much worse, if my sinful behavior causes a breach in a relationship, God can forgive me, but I must ask forgiveness of the OTHER whom I’ve harmed, and work to rebuilt trust in the relationship. God doesn’t make the “hurt” go away, magically, for it serves as an important reminder of how hard it is to mend a broken relationship, kind of like the nagging pain of a snakebite, even when the consequence of death is removed.

 

So, let’s summarize:

 

--We BITCH, we get snakes. God DOES have a sense of humor.

 

--Jesus is our “snake on a pole;” because he was “lifted up,” we, too, are lifted up from the eternal consequences of our sins. However, we may still have to work through the mess we make in committing them in the first place.

 

--There are a few good reasons to read NUMBERS, and this story is one of them.

 

The Lenten journey continues, Dear Ones. Stay out of the “snake pits” of life! Amen.

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