Monday, February 23, 2009

Sinners, Tax Collectors and You and Me (Mark 2: 13-22)

Aren’t these some widely different responses to Jesus?

The tax collector gets up from his booth, right in the middle of a business day, and follows Jesus. The Pharisees, whom we will refer to as the “religious bluenoses” in order to properly categorize them, get huffy because Jesus eats and drinks with sinners. Other folks can’t figure out why Jesus and his disciples don’t fast.

When Jesus walks by Levi the tax collector, he says, “Follow me,” and without any hesitation at all, Levi does so. Later, when Jesus and his disciples are at dinner at Levi’s house, the bluenoses get huffy. “Why does your teacher eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” You know, those people. It’s kind of like how people sometimes look down on the church and say they won’t go because it’s full of hypocrites. The proper response, by the way, is, “No, it’s not full. There’s always room for one more.”

Jesus tells them he’s with those people because those people need him. I imagine the bluenoses need him just as much, but they don’t realize it.

Then some other folks ask why Jesus and his disciples celebrate when the bluenoses and disciples of John the Baptist fast. They have to celebrate, Jesus said. When the bridegroom is with the wedding party, then it’s got to be a wedding party. There’ll be a day for fasting and sadness, but it is not this day.

I’m curious about the responses. Not the bluenoses. I know enough of them, and from time to time I’ve acted the exact same way. I know too well what’s going on there.

Levi makes me curious. He leaves his tax-collecting booth and follows Jesus at just a word. No promises, no visions, no miracles, no sermons, and he walks away from his tax-collecting booth and never looks back. We don’t even know if he took his money with him. What prompts this response?

We don’t know for sure, but I have a guess. Remember, tax collectors were unpopular in those days – I know, not much reminder needed and not much has changed. But for religiously observant Jews, they were a real problem because they handled Roman money. Roman money had a picture of the emperor on it, which violated the commandments about graven images, and the Roman emperor was often thought to be divine, which violated a whole bunch of other laws and commandments. Right-thinking Jews might pay their taxes to the collector, but they paid him no respect and as little attention as they could manage.

Jesus may have been among the first, if not the very first religious-type person to have said anything other than, “Hope you die, you money-gouging, Caesar-loving idol-worshipping scumbag.” Could it be that Levi responded to that? That he was ready to hear a message about how he, as a sinner, needed to repent and change his ways, but this was the first time anyone had ever bothered to tell him that much?

Methodist founder John Wesley soon found himself shut out of most of the pulpits in his Church of England. He had a habit of telling the well-born and wealthy pew-warmers of its grand cathedrals that they needed Jesus just as much as did grubby commoners. And as a matter of fact, God loved those commoners just as much as he did the lords and ladies of the land. Those lords and ladies let their parish priests know that Mr. Wesley’s sermons were not conducive to either their attendance or their tithing, and so Mr. Wesley was soon a preacher without anyplace to preach.

Until, that is, he started preaching in open fields and crossroads and street corners and public squares and hillsides. Then he started drawing in all those people who worked in mines and on farms and in factories and who didn’t have much, and what they had was usually dirty and smelly and not all that impressive.

And they listened.

Factory workers who spent their week’s wages in taverns while their families scraped, begged and even stole for food started coming home after work and saving. Kids who had to work because pop’s check drowned in a whiskey glass could be sent to school because pop could pay for it now. Men and women who’d spent their lives illiterate learned to read because they were told that God wanted them to know about him, and he’d prepared a book for that purpose. Folks who didn’t think past the end of their next bender started visiting and helping others, thrown in prison or sick in hospitals or maybe shut away and lonely.

And all of this happened just because someone started proclaiming the gospel to people who hadn’t been all that welcome in the places where the gospel was preached.

I don’t mean to suggest that every person on a wrong path just needs to hear the gospel message and they’ll automatically straighten right up and change their ways. Some folks need some hard steering, and that may have to come from someplace else than us.

But today, there are people around like Levi son of Alphaeus, people who’ve been prepared by God to hear the gospel message, prepared in ways neither they nor we may understand. Let us pray that if we are the ones to bring them that message, we may have the wisdom to know it and the boldness and compassion to do so.

I bet they could use some good news.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Holy Vandalism (Mark 2:1-12)

Sometimes hosting our Lord and Savior ain’t easy.

Like here, for instance. After he’s spent some time teaching and doing great works, Jesus returns to Capernaum, which he apparently uses as a kind of home base during this part of his ministry. Perhaps someone is sponsoring his work and has taken him in as a guest, or perhaps some of the disciples pooled their funds to get a place to crash in between journeys. We’re not sure what Mark means when he says Jesus is at home, but it seems that this is a place he regularly stays.

Whatever the situation, Jesus has drawn a crowd, and they have pressed in close around the house as well as filled the inside, pretty much packed in. I’m sure the neighbors were happy. They all want to hear him.

Some guys have a friend who’s paralyzed. They bring him to see Jesus, because they’ve heard he can heal people, and they believe he can heal their friend. Trouble is, when they get to the house, the crowd is packed in too tight to let anyone through, let alone four guys carrying a fifth one.

They might turn away and decide to try again when the crowd’s a little smaller (and maybe a little nicer, too – notice how no one seems to want to move aside to let a paralyzed man get in to see the Healer). Or maybe they could raise enough of a ruckus that people would let them in, or so that Jesus would hear them and ask, “What the heck’s going on out there?”

Nah. These are guys, and this is their buddy, so they immediately figure out a different way. Can’t get in from the front, can get in from the back, can’t get in from the sides, so there’s only one answer: Dig a hole in the roof. We get to see Jesus, and we get to use tools, and we get to destroy something! These guys may have been related to the Mythbusters.

Now, roof destruction for them wasn’t the job it might be today – a roof of the average house in that place and time was probably layers of hardened mud or clay and woven mats of grass or other plants. A good pick and a couple of good shovels and the vandalism may commence. So whoever owns this house may wonder if Jesus makes such a good guest, if people are going to start hacking through his ceiling in order to get in.

But they do, and they let their friend down through this new skylight, and Jesus says to the man, “Your sins are forgiven.” This sets the cat amongst the pigeons in his listeners, who figure he ought not to be saying stuff like that. “Then we’ll do this,” Jesus says. “Get up, roll up your mat and walk.”

There are a lot of messages in this story, but one that sticks out to me is how many people involved had to find a different way to do something, and what and who tried to block their path. The friends couldn’t get to Jesus because all of the other people who wanted to hear Jesus have the way blocked.

Some of the listeners didn’t accept what Jesus really wanted to give the man, which was salvation. They didn’t accept that he had that authority, so he demonstrated what kind of authority he did have by healing the man’s paralysis as well.

In that day and time, something like paralysis was considered a sign that the person had sinned in some way, or that God just didn’t like them very much. If God liked them, they wouldn’t be paralyzed, or sick, or poor, or whatever. So the detractors are telling Jesus, “You aren’t authorized to forgive sins. See? You say he’s forgiven, but he’s still laying there on that mat.”

Jesus response may mean something like this: “You think it’d be a bigger deal if I healed his paralysis than if I offered him salvation? OK, then, I’ll heal his paralysis. Get up, buddy.” He may or may not have added that the first thing the guy could do now would be to help his friends repair the roof. Mark is silent on that detail.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to get our heads around the ways that God can work and trying to understand them. But sometimes we get ourselves fixed in those ways and by doing so we can get in the way of people who are trying to find their way to God.

Jesus will act, and he will do what most needs to be done, whether it fits within our frame of reference or not. After all, the very concepts of forgiveness and grace sometimes fall outside our usual reference system of fairness, justice and getting what you’ve got coming. Set in the context of that major paradigm shift, the different and possibly weird places his desire to reach out to everyone may take him seem a little less strange.

But they remain good news.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Obligations, Contexts and Such (First Corinthians 9:16-23)

In the same way we can sometimes figure out the other half of a phone conversation based on the part we can hear, we can sometimes figure out what was in the letters to which Paul responded. Perhaps they have said something about how they are still sharing the gospel even in the midst of their squabbling and troubles.

And Paul replies (I paraphrase): “What do you want, a cookie? That’s what we’re supposed to do!” Of course, I don’t know that Paul would actually have quoted Chris Rock, but the idea is the same. Sharing the gospel is not an extra or an add-on for Christians. It is part and parcel of our lives and an obligation we all have.

The obligation doesn’t stem from a rule that we get in trouble if we disobey. God gave us salvation as a gift, and there’s no quid pro quo where we have to do a favor for him in order to keep it. Sharing the gospel is a part of living a life rooted in God’s saving grace. Eating is this kind of obligation. There are no real rules about it, except keeping your elbows off the table, but we all find ourselves pretty much obligated to eat.

So does that mean we need to confront every person we see with some variation on, “If you died tonight, do you know where you’d spend eternity?” Must we flex our pointing fingers, practice making “sin” a three-syllable word and learn how to describe the torments of hell in graphic and horrifying terms?

No, not unless you really want to. Paul continues, describing how he has shared the gospel with different groups of people. When he says things like, “to the Jews, I became as a Jew,” he doesn’t mean he pretended to be something he wasn’t so he could fool people into agreeing with him. He means he shared the gospel with people in the context of their lives and cultures.

To his fellow Jews and to people who observed the law of Moses, Paul could speak about the gospel message and about Christ’s work in terms of the history of Israel.

He could refer to the story of the Exodus, to the prophets and the exile to Babylon because his listeners would know those stories. But people who weren’t “under the law” literally wouldn’t know Abraham from Adam, so he would use what they understood to explain the same message. When he spoke at the Aeropagus, for example, he talked about the “Unknown God” of the Athenians. Elsewhere, he quotes Greek poetry in speaking to Greek people.

So we too must share the gospel in different ways according to the context of the people with whom we’re talking. And remember, context can also take into account the different groups of people we interact with in the course of a day. At work, we may be the boss. At home, we may not. In school, we may be the quiet one. At home, we may not. As a restaurant customer, we receive deferential treatment from the wait staff. Elsewhere, we may not. How do we share the gospel within these different contexts?

Well, I can’t answer for you, because I’m not in those contexts with you. But as my understanding of what it means to share the gospel has developed, so has a different understanding of how I do that within all of the different contexts of my life.

Does the gospel message amount to nothing else but salvation from sin? Is it just fire insurance? Or is it a response to God’s offer of restored relationship with him? The former is a one-time deal, the latter involves a lifetime and lifelong change.

If I’m following God because I believe that doing so is the most authentic, the most purposeful and the most fulfilling way to live life as a human being, then I am changing my life to align it with what God asks of me. Or I ought to be, anyway.

How do I share that within the different contexts of my life? I guess it would come from being a God-following person within those contexts. Sometimes that will ask for my spoken testimony and sometimes it will ask for my silence. Sometimes it will ask for my action and sometimes it will ask for my stillness. But whatever it asks is in light of my assumed obligation to live out the life God calls me to and share both that life and God with those people I may meet.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Blown Up or Grown Up? (First Corinthians 8:1-13)

Boy, I wish I had a nickel for every time someone asked me what we should do about food sacrificed to idols. I’d probably have…a dime, maybe, depending on how much change was already in my pocket.

Of course, although that’s the issue that the Corinthian church has probably written to Paul and asked about, there’s a more serious matter underlying it. That matter, which Paul wants to address, does have something to do with us and can teach us something very important about living life among Christians with whom we from time to time disagree.

First, the surface issue. Corinth was a busy city with people from all over the Roman Empire, and the kind of religious mix you’d expect a city like that to have. It was probably one of the first places where a Christian church had to deal with people from so many religious backgrounds.

Some of those converts had practiced religions that used animal sacrifice. There were probably many different varieties of sacrificial rites, but some followed the pattern of burning up or devoting a part of a meat animal and then using the rest somehow. The ancient Israelites often followed this pattern. Some of what a person brought to the Temple was burned up on an altar and devoted to God. The rest might be used for a feast to celebrate God’s work, held at the Temple with God as a ceremonial guest. Or it might be prepared and given to the poor, or used by the Temple priests, who had no lands, crops or animals of their own.

In the same way, some of Corinth’s religious folks had meat left over after the proper sacrifice was made. Depending on the religion, the meat might be sold to a butcher shop to be sold to people, or it might be used as a part of a meal. For many Christians, such use was a non-issue. The idols weren’t real, the gods they represented weren’t real, so please pass the salt and I’ll have another slice, thank you.

But other Christians, who might have converted from following the very idol that the meat had been sacrificed to, did have problems with eating it. They had spent many years believing that the idol was a real god, and to them anything that went back to the old ways carried a spiritual taint.

This being a church, naturally the two sides fought about it, and when they couldn’t come to an agreement – by which I mean neither side could win the argument or run off their opponents – they wrote a letter to Paul. Judging by the number of things Paul talks about in the two letters we have of those he wrote back, they must have done this a lot. I bet Paul even had a special Corinthian headache whenever he saw a letter from them.

Paul doesn’t really pick sides, because both of them have a point and he can see either way being right. Yes, he says, the idols are meaningless, so who cares who the cook prayed to when he fixed the meal? You should care more about who you pray to before you eat it. But on the other hand, some people’s experiences give them a different view of the spiritual reality involved, so they see such meat as tainted by the idolatrous ceremonies in which it’s been a part.

He also doesn’t pick sides because he knows that wherever this thing started, what it’s turned into is a fight about who’s a better Christian, which is a fight with no winners, either inside our outside the faith. The people who don’t eat their meat (and who therefore can’t have any pudding, if you recall your “Another Brick in the Wall”) feel they’re better because they don’t eat spiritually tainted meat. The people who eat the meat basically look at the others and say, “Sissies! If you didn’t have your weak little girly-man spaghetti-arm faith, you could eat the meat anytime you wanted to.”

But Paul says both groups need to understand that the only truly Christian way to deal with each other is out of love. He himself, he says, knows idols are just wood or stone or metal. But he’d give up meat altogether if it would keep others from stumbling in their faith.

What each side “knows” about eating meat sacrifice to idols – that it’s completely harmless according to one group and it’s spiritually perilous according to the other – has brought them to puff themselves up over their fellow believers. Instead they should, through their love of each other, be seeking ways to build each other up.

The group that knows the meat is just meat should maybe be figuring out how they can live their lives so that their brothers and sisters aren’t made uncomfortable by that understanding. The group that knows the meat is spiritually impure or unclean should try to conduct themselves so their brothers and sisters don’t feel like they’re being accused of a crime when they sit down to the table.

Whatever they decide, they need to do it with one rule at the front – what they do needs to not get in the way of the work of the gospel in someone’s life. It needs to be a way to help them grow in their faith, not be puffed up by supposed knowledge or put down for lack of it.

Because although I’m no absolute authority, I’m pretty sure that being called “unclean!” or being told I’m a spiritual sissy isn’t part of the good news.