Posts Tagged ‘Jesus’

I’m not sure how to answer that question anymore. I was raised as a Christian and claimed that faith for my own when old enough to understand what I was doing. I have committed over half of my 35 years on this planet to Christian ministry as a minister. I have a weakness for this faith that makes me swoon over things like Jesus, grace, incarnation, hymns, and liturgy, but so much of what is considered “Christian” these days in America repulses me and makes me want to run away. The expression of Christianity that resonates most with me is old, simple, organic, and real. Krista Tippett’s answer to this question really reflected how I feel also:

I do consider myself to be Christian, or this is the way I would say it: that’s my mother tongue. That’s where I come from, and that’s my mother tongue. That’s my heritage.

– Krista Tippett, from an interview with Buddhist Geeks podcast, “Carving Out a Life of Meaning”

Christianity is my mother tongue. It’s what I know, who I am, and in my blood. I’m very comfortable and fluent in speaking it, even though most conversations are about what it isn’t as much as what it is.

I first began practicing mediation about two years ago in response to a health crisis I experienced. (You can read more about it here: My Journey Into Real Happiness) It was a purely secular, self-help attempt on my part because medication was not working. I didn’t even entertain the thought of Buddhist teaching for a long time. It was simply something that helped me and made me feel better. Almost a year ago I started reading more about Buddhist teaching to gain some understanding and context for what I was experiencing in meditation. The dharma, the teaching, really ignited my meditation practice and helped me to take the practice off the cushion and apply it to everyday life.

Buddhism isn’t a religion as such. There is no one to worship. There are teachings but not some universal dogma which everyone must believe or suffer for all eternity for rejecting. We’re already suffering here and now, and most of it is of our own making, Buddhism teaches. In Buddhist practice we can walk back down the path that led us into this mess. We can begin to understand it. We can make choices to be aware of our thoughts and actions. We can be kinder to ourselves and others.

Somewhere I read that Buddhism isn’t something you believe or something that you are, it’s something that you do. When one master was pressed on the question “Are you a Buddhist?,” he simply answered, “I practice Buddhist meditation.” I don’t think Buddha himself would self-identify as a Buddhist, nor would Jesus likely be able to identify with all that has been done in His name.

I think my best answer today at this point in my life  is that I am a follower of Jesus who practices Buddhist meditation. Christianity may be my mother tongue, but I’m bi-lingual. As I become more fluent in this Eastern tongue, it has informed my Christian faith and enriched my daily life. There will never be a day when I cease to follow Jesus, but I have incredible respect and appreciation for this ancient path that has at last introduced me to myself.

Namaste and Peace Be Unto You


If you are interested in the correlation of the two practices, I highly recommend:

  • Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian by Paul Knitter
  • Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Naht Hahn
  • The Enoch Factor by Steve McSwain

Sermon
Pentecost, June 12, 2011
John 7:37-39, Acts 2:1-21

In the text we read that Jesus promised the Spirit would come after Him. The outpouring of the Spirit happened on what is known as the Day of Pentecost, some 50 days after the resurrection, which we observe this Sunday. Sadly, this day often goes unnoticed in many churches. To be sure there is plenty of bad theology out there regarding the Holy Spirit and the whole subject can be confusing, but the knee jerk reaction not to talk about it is just as bad if not worse. We need to understand what the Bible actually says about it. As simply as I can put it, the Spirit is the living Christ at work in our lives. There are three symbols of the Spirit in these texts that reveal the work of the living Christ in us.


First we read that the Spirit is like water.

We should not overlook that Jesus stood up and said these words on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles. Given the terrible drought that we are experiencing across the South, we might consider holding a Feast of Tabernacles ourselves.

You see, it was tradition during this feast that they would put up booths or tents as a reminder of their journey through the wilderness during the exodus and how God was faithful to deliver them from Egypt. As part of that observance they would gather palm branches and make a leaf canopy over the altar. Every day of the feast the priest would gather water from the pool of Siloam and carry it to the altar in procession with trumpets blowing then pour the water in a bowl next to the altar and pour wine in an another bowl on the other side. Thanksgiving prayers were offered for the water God gave Moses when he struck the rock and for the rain that has sustained them since. They also prayed for rain for the next year and a fruitful harvest. This was the biggest feast of the Jewish year and this was the culmination of that feast on the last day when people are praying for rain that Jesus stands up and says, “If anyone is thirsty let him come to me and drink, whoever believes in Me.”

In dry desert communities water is life. Likewise, the Spirit gives life and sustains us through the desert places in our lives. For those worshippers at the feast they knew all too well the struggles of survival, finding water, drawing it several times a day to keep your family and livestock alive, like the Samaritan woman at the well. They reacted much like she did at first when she He heard the offer of this “living water.” A lot of Christians think grace must be too good to be true, because they keep trying to do something to earn God’s love and forgiveness. It seems like the cross just wasn’t enough. They need to feel as though they’ve earned it. Jesus is offering living water to quench our spiritual thrists, yet so many feel compelled to attach strings to this offer that Jesus never did.

Specifically, it is “living water” that gives life. There are places like the ocean or the Dead Sea that cannot sustain us because they are full of “dead water.” Meaning, fresh water flows into them, but it does not flow out.

“Dead water” is synonymous with “dead churches” and “dead Christians.” That sounds like an oxymoron, an impossibility. How can churches and Christians be dead? They are dead because they do not have the living water of the Spirit flowing in and out of their lives. We cannot soak up the grace of God continually and not share it with others. At the wedding at Cana and on the hillside feeding the multitudes the wine, the bread, and the fish did not run out as long as it was being given away. Jesus said that “streams of living water flow from within Him.” It is an inexhaustible supply of grace. If we want to experience the life-giving Spirit of the Christ, we have to give our lives away to the thirsty among us, sharing God’s love and grace with others. If we don’t, our well will run dry, our waters will stagnate, and we will wither.


In Acts 2 we find that the Spirit is like wind.

When the day had come for the promise of the Spirit to be realized, the disciples and other followers of Jesus were in Jerusalem gathered together in one place when, “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting,” Acts 2:2.

It’s really hard to try to explain the Holy Spirit to someone. How does all this work? What does it mean? Those can be hard questions to answer sometime, but the Spirit is like the wind. We don’t see the wind, but we see what the wind blows. We can tell where it’s coming from and feel where it’s going. When Jesus was trying to explain spiritual things to Nicodemus, a highly educated man, He said, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit,” John 3:8.

Still, you have to wonder why it’s not easier at times. There are times when you just wish God would write on the wall what you should do, because you just don’t know anymore. David Lose wrote:

The Holy Spirit does not come to solve our problems but to create them. Think about it: absent the coming of the Holy Spirit, the disciples could go back to their previous careers as fishermen. I can almost hearing James and John explaining, “Sure, it was a wild and crazy three-year-ride, and that Jesus sure was a heck of a guy, but maybe we needed to get that out of our system before we could settle down and take on Dad’s business.” Once the Spirit comes, however, that return to normalcy is no longer an option.

The Spirit is also the rushing wind that comes into our lives and shakes them up, moves us out of our comfort zones, and calls us to the great adventure of walking by faith and not by sight. It’s worth noting that the wind “filled the whole house.” That means that there is no place where it is not. That’s exactly like God. God isn’t impossible to find. God is impossible to avoid. God is everywhere. There is no place that God is not. So no matter wherever we are, God is with us. There is no place or no situation we may find ourselves in where God is not with us and able to see us through it.


Lastly, the Spirit is like fire.

Just like God provided a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to guide the Israelites out of Egypt and through the wilderness, the Spirit is the fire that lights our way.

It can be hard to understand what God is doing in our lives a lot of times, even on the good days. I’ve often told people that the hardest choices we have to make in life are not the choices between good and bad. Those are easy. We may not always want to the right thing, but if we know this is good and the other is bad, we know what we should do even if we don’t want to do it. The really hard choices in life are between good and better. Those are the choices we have to pray hard about. We ask God to show us what He wants for our lives, because often we don’t know which way is best. In those moments we “lean not on our own understanding.” We trust God, seek His direction. What we are doing is asking for the Spirit to show us what to do, to help us find peace in the middle of a difficult time in our lives.

The Spirit is also like the “consuming fire” that burned on the mountain with Moses. It consumes everything in us that pollutes our character and dilutes our message. It convicts us, grips our hearts and turns them to God and to the least, the lost, and the lonely among us. Were it not for the conviction of the Spirit we might withdraw into ourselves and spend our lives only on our pleasures, but the Spirit of God compels us, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” It moves us out of selfishness and into selflessness. On the Day of Pentecost the tongues of fire consumed the pride and prejudice that threatened the first church and brought unity and peace between everyone gathered there.

Lastly, just as a fire burned over the tabernacle in the wilderness to remind the Israelites of God’s presence with them, the Spirit burns within us assuring us that God is with us. Church membership is no guarantee of a person’s character. There are just as many rascals inside the church as there are outside it. The one and only evidence that someone is following the living Christ is the Spirit that shines through their life.

The greatest evidence of the arrival of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost was unity among all the different Christians that were gathered there. When we are all following the Spirit, seeking God’s will and our neighbor’s interests above our own, there will be peace and unity in the fellowship. That’s the Church the world needs to see. One that is alive, healthy, and full of grace.

May the Spirit of the living Christ fill us with living water overflowing with His grace. May the Spirit of the resurrected Christ blow a fresh wind into our lives wakening us to His call. May the Spirit of the coming Christ light a fire within our hearts that may burn brightly with His love. Amen.

Matthew 5:1-12

I confess that I am intimidated to preach about the beatitudes because it does feel a bit like climbing a mountain, and I know how out of shape I am. Where do you start? How will we make the journey? These simple words are profound in their depth and their impact, and it’s hard to imagine that saying more words about them would make them any more powerful.

This passage is perhaps the one most people associate with the teachings of Jesus more than any other except for the Lord’s Prayer. The two passages are definitely related, as both come from the Sermon on the Mount. The beatitudes paint a picture of what the world would look like when the Lord’s Prayer is answered, “thy kingdom come; thy will be done.”

The word “beatitudes” doesn’t come from our English word attitudes. It comes from a Latin word meaning blessings. The word is better understood as “fortunate.” The greatest temptation we face in reading the beatitudes is to think they are a list of what we should aspire to become or what we should do, but Jesus is not saying, “you will be blessed if you are poor, if you mourn, if you are hungry…” He is saying that those who are poor, mourn, hungry..  are blessed… right now, this moment. This is not a to do list. It is Christ blessing the least, the lone, the left out, the lost, and the little.

It’s worth noting that the first teaching of Jesus in the New Testament is a blessing on the least among us. He declares that the kingdom of heaven has come to earth in and through their lives and their suffering. People in His day and ours assumed that the most religious, the most devout, the most faithful, the most prosperous, and the most powerful were surely the ones who God would bless, but once again Jesus turns everything upside down, or should we say, right side up!

It is just like we American Christians to read the words of Jesus and think of them in terms of what we must do, to make them a formula for success in the Christian life. We are hard-wired to think in terms of achievement and accomplishment. For some of us it may in fact be quite disturbing to realize that Jesus proclaimed that we are loved and accepted by the Father just as we are, just because we are. There is nothing that we can do to make God love us any more or any less.

I think we come to a passage like this with the default setting in our minds, “what do I have to do to be blessed?” So we read and think about these sayings of Jesus looking in them for a prescription for a blessing. What must we do? How can I be blessed? Many of us will find it unnerving and will not at all be satisfied with the answer… you are blessed.

Knowing that we won’t be satisfied without an answer to the question I will offer a suggestion… be. Just be. Let go of the temptation to do something to make God pleased with you. Let go of the guilt of believing that God is not pleased with you because of something you have done. Just be. “Be still and know that I am God.” Are you beginning to see why I said this passage feels like climbing a mountain? How hard is it for us to just be? To be still? To rest in the presence of God, in the love of God without feeling the urge and impulse to do something or feel guilt over something?

What does it mean to just “be”? First of all, I think it means to be with God. To know and enjoy the presence of God all around you. The challenge is that we feel so isolated and distant from God so often in our lives. One of my favorite authors says, “God is not impossible to find. God is impossible to avoid.” God is all around us and in us. Contrary to what some might think, we do not have to conjure up God’s presence through ecstatic worship or ritual prayer. If you want to experience God’s presence, let go of all those impulses to do something, let go of your guilt, and just be. Let the presence of God surround you. A Celtic prayer that has been very meaningful and helpful to me in visualizing and anticipating the presence of Christ in my life comes from the Northumbria Community:

Christ, as a light
illumine and guide me.
Christ, as a shield
overshadow me.

Christ under me;
Christ over me;
Christ beside me
my left and my right.

This day be within and without me,
lowly and meek, yet all-powerful.
Be in the heart of each to whom I speak;
in the mouth of each who speaks unto me.
This day be within and without me,
lowly and meek, yet all-powerful.

Christ as a light;
Christ as a shield;
Christ beside me
on my left and on my right.

Let’s begin our day and begin our theology from the perspective that God is here with us, Emmanuel. That we are loved, accepted, that we are blessed, rather than from the perspective that we are lost, damned, and deserving of hell.

I think we not only need to be with God, but I think we also need to be ourselves, our God-created, God-gifted, one-of-a-kind selves. We need to be who God has called us to be. We don’t feel blessed, accepted or loved, when we try to be someone or something we’re not. You might call that sin… living below our God-given potential, living from our false self. You are the only you there is or ever has been. You don’t have to be something you’re not for God to love and accept you. When we try to be someone else, we’re in fact saying that God made a mistake on us. God makes no mistakes. That is the message of Jesus to all who overheard these blessings on the hillside that day.

I’d like to invite you to hear the beatitudes once more as paraphrased by The Message and listen for God’s good word to you:

You’re Blessed

1-2 When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:

3“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

4“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

5“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

6“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

7“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.

8“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

9“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

10“You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.

11-12“Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.

I received one of the highest compliments I’ve ever been given this afternoon. While leaving a courthouse in a north Louisana parish (county), I was stopped by a guy in the hall who knew me. He said he remembered me coming to the state prison where he was incarcerated over five years ago. He apologized for not remembering my name but said he remembered my face.

I’m glad that was all he remembered. Not a sermon. Not a personality. Just my face. It’s not about what we say, what we profess, but what we do that makes a difference. Being there may be the most significant thing we can do for the hurting, the lonely, and the dying. Case in point.

I don’t share this to brag. I share it with the upmost humility and will cherish the compliment more than any Amen, any applause, or any paycheck I received in the ministry. I’ve had a lot of regrets from things I said and did while pastoring. There are a lot of sermons I’d like to have back, plenty of deacon’s meetings I wish I would’ve missed, a few services I’d rather have skipped, but there is not one minute spent with inmates in the state prison that I regret.

Of all the things I have ever been involved with, nothing has been more personally, spirtually, or humanly gratifying than time spent with those guys. I always believed “there for the grace of God, go I.” Only one mistake separated them from me, only one. I cannot tell you the number of times I drove an hour one way after an 8 hour day to spend time with those guys. So many times I was tired and didn’t ‘feel’ like going but was always so glad I did on the way home late at night.

On this very ordinary, aggravating, stress-filled work day it did wonders for my soul to be remembered.

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

Matthew 25:37-40

 


Please remember Steve. He’s out of the state prison and recently completed his diesel mechanic training. He’s serving as an inmate trustee cleaning the courthouse and doing maintenance on the Sheriff’s department vehicles until his sentence is served in 2012. He’s up for parole next year and asked for all the prayers he could get.

I haven’t given up on reading the Bible. It’s just not the only thing I read anymore. It’s been a lifelong challenge to study the Bible and bang my head against the pages until I see something I didn’t see before. It’s never been more challenging to wrestle with those words than it is now. I see life differently. Everything is not as black and white as we’ve been lead to believe. Life is full of nuance and mystery that refuses to be explained away easily. Science has taught us so much, but so much remains a mystery. It’s the stuff of religion, romance, imagination, and fate.

I’m reading the Gospel lesson for tomorrow curious as to what approach a preacher friend would take on it but also scratching my head and wondering what, if anything, this means to me. Go ahead and read it if you like, Mark 5:21-43. I’ll wait…

So if you’d like to think that Jesus was just a prophet, a revolutionary figure, a reformer, or even a charlatan, here comes these passages that declare without pretense that he was more than what you take him for. We can debate whether these things happened literally or were the embellishments of people writing to make a theological statement, but we would miss the point of what these passages are supposed to teach us about who Jesus was and who we are.

There are plenty of people making money selling the latest greatest whatever in religion. Miracle handkerchiefs, annointed oil, holy water, seeds of faith, multi-millon dollar sanctuaries, fantastic programs, mega-star personalities, and on and on. In this passage both Jairus and the woman believed that touching Jesus was enough to heal. Touch is a powerful human experience in and of itself without any special magic.

In college I learned what to do and what not to do when it comes to caring for the ill and dying. In what was supposed to be a practical how-to of pastoral care, the only thing I remember from that class was the professor said when making pastoral visits to the sick 1) never sit on the bed, 2) read a scripture, 3) have prayer, and 4) never stay more than a few minutes. Seriously. While I was job shadowing a hospice chaplain the next semester, I learned that he broke every rule. He told me how important it was to touch people, especially the dying. So many terminally ill and shut ins, go days and weeks without anyone touching them in a meaningful and compassionate way. I watched him sit on the bedside and hold hands, rub shoulders, kiss foreheads, even cry and pray with people, and we almost always stayed until the time was right to leave.

There was nothing magical, super spiritual, or clinically effective about what he did, but it made such a difference in those lives. I never saw one of them jump out of bed miraculously healed either. They all died. Everyone of them, but I like to think their spirits were healed, which was so much more effective than a ceremonial pastoral blessing.

Before we write sermons and build churches around the “touch of Jesus,” he said in the passage that it wasn’t touching him that made them whole. Lots of people were touching him and pushing him around, but none of them were miraculously healed. He told the woman who touched him that it was her faith that made her whole. When Jairus found out his daughter had died, Jesus told him, “Don’t be afraid; only believe.”

I don’t know how to adequately describe faith. It’s not about “believing” the right things. It’s about hope and trust in what can be. I readily admit that there are people in my life who have much more faith than I do. I’m a skeptic by default. I reason everything out and try to figure things out for myself, but there are people I know who just hope against hope for no other reason than it’s all they have. I need people like that around me, because all too often we encounter situations and crises that are beyond our ability to cope with or fix. We have to make a choice. Either we resign ourselves to be victims of circumstance, lie down, and take it, or we declare with every ounce of our being that we refuse to accept reality as it’s presented to us. We hold onto faith.

The law of odds says that more times than not miracles are rare. If they happened routinely, they wouldn’t be considered miraculous. It’s the exception for a devestating illness to suddenly disappear… for young girls on death’s door to get up and walk. Even for those who experience miraculous turns of fate, they too eventually died. All of them. It doesn’t mean that they didn’t have faith.

I’ve never been so angry as to visit terminally ill people who were visited by a faith healer or a preacher selling indulgences. It makes my blood boil to think of the people who’ve been told, “if you only had faith, God would heal you.” I’ve buried plenty of men and women of great faith. Life happens and so does death. No snake oil salesmen can change that.

I take away from these encounters with Jesus that there is something in us that we have the abilitiy to tap into that allows us to transcend our circumstances. There is divinity in us. It’s in our cosmic DNA. There are traces of timelessness in us that defies death, disease, and adversity. I do believe that people can discover faith that enables them to tap into the incredible potential of our bodies to heal themselves, but more importantly they can realize that they are more than flesh and blood and bones. They are spirit, and death and disease can never kill them.

50.

People who look
for the secret of long life
wind up dead.

Their bodies are the focus of their lives
and the source of their death,
because they think a healthy body
is all there is to life.

Lao Tzu used to say
a man who truly understood life
could walk through the jungle
without fear
or across a battlefield
without armor, totally unarmed.
Wild animals and weapons couldn’t kill him.

I know, I know:
what the hell does that mean?
“Well, he couldn’t be killed,”
Lao Tzu said,
“because his body
wasn’t where he kept his death.”

~ Tao Te Ching, adapted by Ron Hogan

At this moment Iran is erupting in waves of violence from protestors who support and oppose the declared victory of Ahmadinejad in this week’s Presidential election. Students at Tehran University are pleading with U.S. President Obama not to accept the election results and to stand with them.

Students rescue injured riot police officer

Students rescue injured riot police officer

I thought this photo was compelling. Students are rescuing an injured riot police officer who was attacked by protestors. This is the kind of action that will start a real revolution. Violence won’t. From Ghandi to Martin Luther King, Jr. to Jesus non-violent resistance and courageous acts of selfless love have turned the tides of history.

While Iran and the larger Middle East does not want to be Western nor should they, they do want to be free. There have long been stories about the changes among younger Iranians and the break with the powers that be. I’ve long thought that within my lifetime a revolution would ensue. Whether or not that revolution is crushed or turns the hearts and minds of all Iranians will depend on whether more students choose to emulate this act of selflessness or swing bats and burn buildings. Choose peace. Choose love. Start a fire that consumes hatred and oppression, and it will never burn out.

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C
Luke 14:25-33

Just when you think you’ve found a way to read the Bible that doesn’t make you pull your hair out or throw it out the window, your journey comes to an abrupt halt in front of a monolithic roadblock like this one. Where is Brian McClaren when you need him? Will somebody from the “kinder, gentler Christianity” movement please stand up and do something with this thing? Anybody from the Jesus Seminar around? Dear God! This thing is heavy! What the bleep?

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.”

“anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

“any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.”

Ok, before everyone rushes out to get their hammer and chisel and start rounding off the edges of this thing, let me tell you that it won’t help. Save your energy. Everyone makes a mad dash to point out that Jesus didn’t really mean you have to hate your momma. It was just a figure of speech, sort of a theological “shock and awe.” This is obvious from Matthew’s version, “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me,” but ‘hello!’ this is not any easier to swallow.

Jesus is saying that if we’re going to follow Him we have to love Him more than our parents, our family, even our own lives. So before we all get too comfortable with this Jesus we’ve been touting on our blogs, you had better get in the Gospels and find out just which Jesus we’re talking about. Sure, it’s an easy thing to be in love with the Mr. Rogers version of Jesus, the flannel board version, the Santa Claus version, the social activist version, the Dr. Phil version, but what about the real version? Will the real Jesus please stand up?

That’s really what studying the Bible is about isn’t it? Trying to discover the authentic Jesus to enable us to live an authentic faith. The problem with a passage like this is that it demands a response. You cannot ignore it. You cannot move it. What do you do with it? You cannot explain it away. This isn’t a story about walking on water, raising the dead, or healing the blind. By all measures of scholarship this is the historical Jesus, raising the stakes for all of us in this merry band of “Christians” on the journey with Him to Jerusalem.

Some people apparently got the idea that hanging with Jesus was all about dinner parties, free hillside buffets, magic shows, witty debates, and adventure. No doubt many of those traveling with Him nearer to Jerusalem had the mentality of those that waved the palm branches and shouted “Hosanna!” when He walked into town. They thought He was launching a revolution to overthrow the Romans. Not quite.

Jesus would have been a lousy pastor today. We spend all our time trying to draw a crowd and keep it. He spent more of His time sending them away. Maybe this is like in Batman Returns when Bruce Wayne disperses his dinner party by faking a drunken rant in order to save them from the bad guys there to kill him. No, not hardly. This is an invitation to follow Him but at your own risk.

Often times in history the most devout fall into the extremism of belief, which almost always ends in “kill or be killed.” In the movie Syriana George Clooney’s character noted, “you can’t bomb this out of them.” We’ve seen modern reinterpretations of calls to arms, which usually entail fund-raising, letter writing, screaming from the top of your lungs wearing a plywood plackard, and in some cases guns, but when Jesus launched a revolution he went on neither offense nor defense. He went to Jerusalem as a lamb to the slaughter, silent before his shearers. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” It’s a revolution alright, but you don’t pick up your sword. You lay it down.

Less we get too comfortable with Jesus and rank Him among the other great spiritual teachers of history, He makes these outrageous claims, and we struggle to rationalize them. Just who does this guy think He is? Are we really prepared to follow Him? Do we have what it takes? Evangelicals spend all their energy telling people how easy it is to be “saved.” Then once you’re in, they spend the rest of your life telling you how many hoops you have to jump through to be a Christian. I’ve said for years that we’ve got to rewrite the brochures and the infomercials, because the church has no concept of “truth in advertising.”

I’m driving down the expressway and see the latest sermon series plastered on a billboard with cute graphics and catchy slogans, and I’ve got to shake my head. Is this what the gospel has become… a marketing campaign? Watered down, politically correct, culturally compatible, spoon fed mush? It may build big churches and big egos, but it’s a half gospel from a false Messiah. It’s an easy thing to be a “Christian” in America. Try doing it in Iran or China or Sudan. It’s not just about persecution. It’s about living an authentic faith in poverty. The prosperity gospel doesn’t go down so easy on an empty stomach.

I don’t know what to do with a passage like this. I don’t know what to do with a man like this. Sometimes I feel like turning around and walking off like the rich young ruler who went away sad. Other times I think myself committed, then we get to Jerusalem and before the day’s over I’ve denied Him three times. Geez.

All I know to do is in every small decision, every word, every action to choose to act on the side of love, to try to be selfless, to refuse to be owned by things and be swayed by the fickle winds of the culture. Maybe in some small way I can be subversive. Maybe, just maybe, for a moment I can follow Jesus.

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C
Luke 14:1-14

I doubt that Jesus ever turned down an invitation to dinner. While reading through the Gospels, you’re as likely to find Him at a table as you are on a dusty road, and He didn’t appear to be all that concerned with who the host might be. On any given day you might see Jesus eating on paper plates with the riff-raff of society or on the fine china of the well-to-do. By His own account His freedom of association apparently fostered an ugly smear campaign, “Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” Luke 7:34 NKJV.

Meal sharing was an important social event of the day that reminded everyone just where they were in the pecking order of the community. To be invited was a great honor, and to sit at the head of the table was a double honor. This is the sixth time that Luke records Jesus being the special guest of religous leaders. You have to wonder why He kept accepting the invitations after being repeatedly set up and exploited. Then again, why did they keep inviting Him? Jesus had a knack for working His way through their philosophical mine fields and often left them choking on their own hypocrisy, but the establishment was determined to undermine His ministry and disgrace Him publicly.

On this day Jesus was not the only invited guest for dinner. Another guest who showed up was a man suffering from a medical condition, known as “dropsy,” which caused fluid to accumulate in his body and swell his legs, most likely the result of a heart or kidney problem but often regarded as a curse for sin. The trap was sprung pubicly for all to witness. Do you heal him or not? If you don’t heal him, you’re cold-hearted and have no compassion, but if you heal him, you’re disregarding the Sabbath and have no morals.

It’s a techincal gray area for what’s permissible behavior on the Sabbath. So in His wisdom and wit Jesus deferred to the ruling of the experts, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” They would not answer, so Jesus healed the man and sent him away. Then he asked them “If one of you has a son or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull him out?” The different sects actually had writings that set precedent for just such a scenario. One group believed it was ok. The other said they should stay in the well till tomorrow. Now, they could not answer without exposing their own hypocrisy.

If people were superstitious enough to believe that dropsy was caused by sin, in their minds Jesus didn’t just heal him physically. He was actually removing the consequence of sinfulness… guilt and shame. Neither was Jesus satisfied with just silencing His hosts. He went on to tell a parable that revealed that they suffered from an accumulation of self-righteousness that was no doubt caused by a spiritual issue of the heart.

As you read the rest of the passage, it appears to be a simple lesson in social etiquette and graces, but it actually threatens to undermine a religious system that endures to this day. Luke makes a special point to say that this is a parable, which implies that there is subtext and meaning of spiritual signifigance.

When I was young we had a family tradition on Sundays that we would all go to my grandparents’ house for lunch after church where my aunts, uncles, and cousins would all get together. My grandparents had a really big dinner table where all the food was spread out like a feast, but it was still only large enough to seat the grown-ups. So there was a smaller table in the kitchen for the big kids and lap trays on the floor for the little ones. I’ll never forget when I was older in high school that one day I was promoted to sit at the big table. I thought that I had made it, but it would be several more years before I had fully arrived and was allowed to join the adults at the table for coffee in the afternoon.

The seat you sit in often says a lot about your place in the world. Just last week it was reported that an assitant high school principal in our area sent out an email to her faculty requiring teachers to sit the black boys in the front row of the class to keep a closer eye on them. While African-Americans have struggled for fifty years to move to the front row, I doubt this is why they wanted to be sitting there. Although the principal quickly recended the order and reprimanded the assistant, it’s shameful and painful to see discrimination and prejudice limping along in our day.

I have no doubt that you have also witnessed situations in life, where things just seemed out of balance. Often times, we don’t have a choice in the seats we take. We do what we must and look to a day when the scales will be even again. In Luke’s day there were enormous socio-economic gaps between the wealthy and the poor, between men and women, between the insiders and the outsiders, and those who had power and those who suffered at its hands. By the time this Gospel was written it had been several years since the death and resurrection of Christ, and many people began to question whether or not Jesus would return in their lifetime and exactly what that meant for Him to return. So there was a growing divide between those that believed and those that questioned. It was tempting to believe that injustice would prevail and the score was fixed, but Jesus told this subversive parable that counters the imbalance in the world. See vs. 7-11.

We learn in the parable immediately following this one that the kind of banquet that God plans comes with an open invitation to everyone. In that parable just like in Jesus’ day the religious leaders and the self-righteous scoffed at attending such a banquet where just anybody would be sitting next to them. Instead they scampered to be on the A-list to the members only parties where they would “see and be seen.”

If we understand this idea that God invites everybody, that puts us all on equal footing. No one is better or more deserving in attendance than the next person. A friend of mine who is a Southern Gospel singer/songwriter wrote a song called “The Ground is Level at Calvary.” The same goes for the religous leaders of Jesus’ day as well as our own. Our preachers, deacons, and missionaries must lead through service and humility and not from the power of a position and notoriety. We live in a strange modern era where many Christian leaders are operating and being treated like CEO’s and rock stars, which is just a post-modern upgrade to “touch not the Lord’s annointed.”

I remember attending a Pastor’s school at Beeson Divinity School several years ago, and Alistair Begg was the featured Bible teacher for the daily services that week. I was amazed by the way he handled the Gospel of Luke that week and the personal humilty that came through his message. Immediately after the service we were all gathered in air-conditioned tents on the lawn for lunch. I looked up to see him seated just a few tables over from my wife and I. It was strange because no one was sitting with him at first until the other tables began to fill up. I guess it was kind of like when Moses came down from the mountain and his face was glowing.  His message was just powerful that morning. I was struck that he was eating a sandwich and chips on a styrofoam plate like the rest of us. That may sound silly, but I imagine he could have been smoozing with the other speakers at a nice restaurant. I never saw any of the others in the lunch tent that week. He could have retreated back to his hotel room until the next service, but he didn’t. He ate with us, which I remember today even more than the message that he preached.

“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross,” Philippians 2:5-8 NKJV.

We all have friends and family members that we love to spend time with and enjoy their company. Jesus set that example for us in his life, so he’s not condemning that kind of fellowship. I think in these last verses he’s condemning exclusive fellowship and challenging us to be intentional about who we include.

I have greatly enjoyed using Celtic Daily Prayer of the Northumbria Community in England as a devotional guide for my prayers and scripture readings. They adapt a form of family prayer for meals based on the Jewish prayers for Shabbat. When giving thanks before sharing a meal they mention the importance of leaving an empty seat at the table with an extra place setting:

“To welcome the Christ who comes in the guise of a stranger or ‘unexpected’ visitor. [To] remind us that we long for the coming of Christ – His returning – and yet honour his presence with us. Also, it teaches us to treat with honour whoever may come and be given the place prepared as His.”

It’s required of us to make outsiders feel like insiders and as insiders to be humble and gracious hosts. Back when I was in college and recently married, I met an older couple through a want ad in the paper who needed some help. I learned that the husband was completely blind and the wife was legally blind. They really wanted to go to church but had no way to attend. Although I was traveling about 30 minutes to serve as worship leader, I offered to bring them with my wife and I. We had seemingly nothing in common and regardless of their disabilities they were just a bit peculiar.

I remember helping them from their house to the car that first Sunday morning. The wife ran back into the house as we were leaving because she had forgotten her tambourine. I was in a panic. I knew they would stick out like tambourine players in a church full of white Southern Baptists, and I knew that my pastor absolutely loathed the tambourine playing in the services we did at the state prison. I sweated the whole way to church not knowing how to handle the situation.

When we arrived at church, I helped them out of the car, and when the wife went to pick up her tambourine I politely told her that I didn’t think she would need it. That didn’t matter, because she “wanted” it. Of course you would know that they wanted to sit on the second row in front of the pulpit. I remember leading worship and those two carrying on up front with their tambourine, while everyone was looking around to see where they came from. I felt like timidly raising my hand with a red face and announcing from the pulpit, “they’re with me,” but I didn’t want to single them out anymore than they were already. They came to church with us for several weeks before they decided to go elsewhere.

I say that to say that the people that we often have an opportunity to include may be very different from us. They may not have good hygiene or proper clothes. They may be uneducated or hungry. They not believe anything remotely close to the way we do, but still when we make room for them, we make room for Christ.

I sat at the big table as a pastor for several years. These days I feel like I’m back in the kitchen again on the floor with my Snoopy lap tray. I seem to make a mess of things often enough. From time to time I even flick a macaroni at my cousin and spill my juice, but for the first time in a long time I feel like Jesus is sitting on the floor with me, and it’s ok to be me. From Celtic Daily Prayer:

Bless, O Lord,
this food we are about to eat;
and we pray you, O God,
that it may be good
for our body and soul;
and, if there is any poor creature
hungry or thirsty walking the road,
may God send them in to us
so that we can share the food with them,
just as Christ share His gifts
with all of us.
Amen.

I just started reading a new book. I couldn’t get into The Lord of the Rings as easily as I did The Hobbit. My second attempt to read Eugene Peterson’s Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places failed too. It’s not an easy read like his other books have been. I honestly tried though. I just wasn’t buying it nor enjoying it.

I picked up Searching for God knows what by Donald Miller at the library today. I just can’t put it down. I really enjoyed Blue Like Jazz. His conversational writing style is enjoyable and hysterical. I’ll blog more about the book a little later, but I thought I’d share the first couple quotes that jumped out at me:

“I realized the gospel of Jesus, I mean the essence of God’s message to mankind, wasn’t a bunch of hoops we needed to jump through to get saved, and it wasn’t a series of ideas we had to agree with either; rather, it was an invitation, an invitation to know God.

“If you happened to be a person who thought they knew everything about God, Jesus would have been completely annoying.”