Sunday, February 28, 2010

Treasure (Philippians 3:17-4:1)

Boy oh boy, there is a verse here that not very many church people would take literally -- the one where Paul scolds the non-believers for whom "their god is their bellies." Considering how many church functions revolve around eating and meals, that would be a problem verse.

But of course Paul isn't being literal here, he's using a certain behavior as an example of the kind of thing he's talking about. There are people, he says, who make their physical sensations and pursuit of physical pleasure the focus of their lives. They more or less worship those things. In the Roman culture of the time, some people even had the custom of gorging themselves at a feast, going to a place called a "vomitorium" to throw up what they'd eaten, and then gorging themselves some more in order to get the most pleasure out of the taste and such of their food.

Even if we don't have that kind of practice around as much today -- although who knows what happens in some parts of southern California -- we still have people who pursue physical pleasures of all kinds and block out thoughts of spiritual concerns or even the needs of others. And there are also people who may not pursue physical pleasures like that, but who may put other kinds of experiences at the center of their lives.

That happens even in church. I have been among groups of people who, after a worship service, have said they didn't "feel God was present." I always want to ask, "Well, did you bring him?" Some folks will focus on feeling a certain way so much that they forget that the feeling itself isn't the only important thing. It can happen in relationships and, like I said, even in church. Married couples know that sometimes the promise they made to each other carries more weight than the feeling they may have right that second at whatever it is their spouses have done that irritates them so. And mature Christians understand that the purpose of worship is to glorify God much more than it is to provide an emotional high.

We can center our lives on physical pleasures, other kinds of experiences, and even other people. We know folks whose entire lives revolve around another person so much that their own lives kind of fade into the background.

These and other centerpieces we might put into our lives take the place of what Christians should have as their centerpiece, Paul says: God. When we weren't God's followers, we didn't follow God, but now that we are God's followers, then we ought to follow God. It's kind of definitional.

The problem with all of those other things is that they fade when what our spirits crave is permanence. Full bellies empty. Emotions change. And people, based on what I can see of my own track record, disappoint. God created us to have him at the center of our lives, and we Christians say our lives are not what they should be when they don't center on God. Plenty of people have pretty good lives without God, of course, but we Christians claim that the fullest and most human life is lived with God. God designed us that way.

It's an age-old problem. The story of Babel says that many years after the flood, people decided they would build a tower to take them up to Heaven. When God noticed their mighty tower, we're told he had to stoop down to see it, and he stopped construction by confusing their language. The mightiest tower they could manage was barely enough to draw God's attention.

The same lesson holds true today. Without God, neither pleasures nor emotions nor people nor anything else can satisfy our spirits at their core. But with God? The dark side of those pleasures, or the saddest or most hurtful of emotions, or the worst in people -- none of those are enough to keep us from rising up.

Without God, no tower, no matter how high, how well constructed or how mightily built, is going to lift this body up.

With God, ain't no grave gonna hold this body down.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Tempted By the Fruit of an Other (Luke 4:1-13)

(Yes, the sermon title is a play on the chorus from the Squeeze song "Tempted." I'm a child of the '80s.)

Even though the gospels don't pay any more special attention to Jesus' temptation, it's a very important part of who he is as our Messiah. Because he knows temptation from the inside, so to speak, we can find a humanity in him we can share. If he'd never been tempted, then his sinlessness wouldn't have much meaning.

But Jesus is tempted, and Luke says it happens right before he begins his public ministry, just after his baptism by John. The Holy Spirit leads him into the wilderness for a time of fasting and preparation for his work, and during that time the tempter comes.

First, he's tempted to ease his hunger by changing the stones around him into bread. No, Jesus says. We don't live only by physical nourishment, but by spiritual nourishment as well. Jesus knows that his purpose is not simply to bring a message but to be one as well. Part of his work will involve his own suffering, and if he gives in to the temptation to use his power to ease the suffering of hunger, how will anyone believe he didn't do the same to ease greater suffering later on? He will focus on fulfilling God's plan instead of fulfilling his own needs, and rely on God's provision in small and great things.

Next, he's tempted to have all the power in the world. I admit I don't fully understand this temptation. "See all the kingdoms of the world," the devil says. "I've been given power over them; worship me and I'll give it to you."

I wonder if Jesus considered saying, "Maybe if I want power over them I should ask whoever put you in charge of them in the first place?"

Obviously the devil thinks that if he offers Jesus something he really wants, then he would be tempted to worship the devil instead of God. But what is there about authority over the kingdoms of the world that could tempt Jesus? "Yeah, I know you've got that authority," he says. "I'm the one that gave it to you."

Maybe the temptation is to take that authority back and to ease the problems the world has? Whether or not the devil actually does things to hurt people, he's certainly not stopping any of them that go on -- natural disasters and human evil continue unchecked. Maybe this is an offer to let Jesus step in and solve those problems.

But again, Jesus knows that root problem for people isn't the world and the things that go on in it as much as it is their separation from God that stems from their sin. To step in and start playing with natural laws so that nothing bad ever happens and playing with people's wills so that they never do evil won't address that separation. Unless he deals with that problem, solving the others will ultimately mean nothing.

For his third temptation, the devil dares Jesus to jump down from the top of the temple, this time quoting scripture himself to suit his purpose. A prophecy of the messiah says that the angels themselves will keep Jesus from any harm, even protecting him from a hard landing when he hits the ground.

But Jesus knows that to do something like that just for show would reduce his ministry to one of magic tricks and showmanship. People would flock to see him, but only to gawk at whatever trick he might do next. John records Jesus' own question to the people who followed him after the loaves and fishes: Are you here to see me or are you here for the free food? Playing Super-Jesus, who leaps from tall buildings without a single wound, would create an even worse misunderstanding.

The temptations, of course, don't end there. I suspect they remain throughout Jesus' ministry, and Luke even says the devil only went away "until an opportune time."

Each temptation plays a variation on the same theme: Don't do it like God has called you to do it, do it the way that looks best to you because you know better than God does about your life. Which is pretty much the same temptation set before the man and woman in the garden, and really not all that different from every other temptation Mr. Have I Got a Deal For You has ever tried.

I believe each of these temptations, as well as whatever others the devil may have cared to try, really did tempt Jesus. There really was a part of him that wanted to do things his own way, the easy way. He was really hungry after forty days, and he really cared about the suffering of the people who hurt in this world and he really would have liked to have grabbed people's attention to listen to what he had to say. And he felt all of these things even though he knew they would be the wrong choices to make.

But he did know they were the wrong choices, and he did know what God planned for him to do. Whether his human nature fully understood every detail of God's plan or not, he knew that departing from it would get in the way of God's purpose rather than accomplishing it.

Like Jesus, we face the same temptation to believe that what we can do on our own will be better for us and maybe for others as well, than what we can do under God's direction. Unlike Jesus, we don't have the divine intimate knowledge of that plan. We fail where he succeeded.

But because he succeeded, our failure is forgiven. Which sounds like good news to me.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Pay Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain (Exodus 34:29-35)

Oh those wacky Israelites!

They're free after 400 years of slavery, on their own instead of sweating in the Egyptian brick pits, high and dry while the chariots of the land's mightiest king rot at the bottom of the Red Sea. They're led around by a pillar of cloud by day, and watched over by a pillar of fire by night. They're at the base of Mt. Sinai, which is topped by a permanent crown of cloud, thunder, lightning and fire.

And they're so scared of an 80-year-old man they make him cover his face.

We're told that the reason they're scared is that after Moses talked with God, his face shined. This tells me two things: One, that we human beings are indeed made in God's image and that encounters with the God who made us will be visible. Maybe not the same way Moses' was, but in some way people can see.

The second is that people will go to any lengths, sometimes absurd lengths, to keep up an illusion that God's not present. OK, Israelites, Moses has covered his face so you can't see it shine. Now you just see a veil and you don't have to see the reflected presence of God in him. You just see a veil. And why is that veil there again? To cover up what? And what does that shining face tell us?

What were they going to do? Look at the ground the whole time so they wouldn't have to look at the thunder and fire atop Sinai, or the pillar of cloud and fire that marked their way? No wonder they wandered in the wilderness; they spent forty years staring at their feet!

We can see the same thing today in different places. There are people won't capitalize the word "God" when it refers to the God that Christians and Jews worship. That God, they say, is no more real than any other god so there's no reason to single it out with a capital letter. What's the fuss over that word? Well, it's the same as any other imaginary supernatural being so it shouldn't be treated any differently when it's written. No special treatment -- other than insisting on no special treatment, that is.

Or you might have seen years written with the letters "C.E." instead of "A.D." after them. A.D. is an abbreviation for the Latin Anno Domini, which is "Year of the Lord" in English. C.E. stands for Common Era, and that way people who might not be Christians don't have to use a phrase that acknowledges the Christian messiah when they write dates. The old "B.C.," which meant Before Christ, is now "B.C.E.," which means "Before Common Era." That way is less likely to offend people because all of the religious symbolism is removed.

I'm definitely in favor of not offending people. But lest we forget, we start the count of years the way we do because of when early Christians said Jesus was born. So even without the letters, the numbers themselves are connected to the birth of the Christian messiah.

OK, those are folks who may or may not be Christians so we can understand why they wouldn't care about acknowledging God's presence. But what about us believers? Do we do the same? If you think it's impossible look at the Israelites here. God is present with them every day, even manifest in a kind of physical form, and they're trying to shut those signs away. Our ways may be different, but if I can generalize from my own experience, they're real enough. We can and do avoid signs of God's presence, sometimes actively.

I don't know if I understand all of the "why's" involved with that, but I think some of them may have to do with the fact that God's presence requires us to respond somehow, and we don't get to make "maybe" our response. We have to commit to the idea that God's real and decide whether or not that will matter in our lives. If it does, we will live one way, and if it doesn't, we will live a different way.

Committing to a changed life is scary -- it may divide us from friends, or even family members. We may be called to set aside things we now like doing for things we might not like to do so much. When we acknowledge Christ as Lord, we submit our will to another's will. And we don't much like that either.

But our attempts to cover up or veil the reality of God's existence and of the decision that existence requires won't succeed. They can't. We can pretend there's no gravity, but we will fall down if we trip just the same. We can pretend there are no speed limits, but the polite men and women driving the cars with all the flashy things will still write us tickets.

And we can pretend there is no God. In the Wizard of Oz scene the title refers to, Dorothy and her friends find out the Wizard is a fake, and the huge floating head that's terrified them so is some kind of projection, run by a harmless little man. The man, once discovered, tries to bluff his way though, ordering them through his giant projected head to "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain." They should just keep pretending that the illusion is real.

But the man behind the veil at the foot of Mt. Sinai was talking with God. And all around us are signs that the same God wants to talk with us. At some point, we too have to decide to set aside our illusion and deal with the reality of our creator.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Reliable (First Corinthians 15:1-11)

To me it's always been a little bit ironic (I really do think) that this passage creates the same problem for me that Paul intends for it to solve for the Corinthians.

In these earliest days of the church, Christian people didn't have many of the sources of authority that we do. They have probably two, maybe three gospels to study, but no New Testament -- after all, the NT is going to include Paul's letter, which makes it tough for one to be around yet. If they're not Jewish, they don't have a familiarity with what we call the Old Testament, at least not to the degree that Paul does.

So when they come into the society of the early Roman Empire with their weird one-God and-his-Son-the-Messiah-and-a-kind-of-Spirit story, people who lean on religions with hundreds and maybe thousands of years of history of their own might be unimpressed. They might ask the questions my journalism professors always said should follow every statement that we didn't see or hear for ourselves. "Who says? Who are they? How do they know?"

Well, Paul tells the Corinthian church, here are some people who know that Jesus was crucified but he rose from the dead. They saw him! Then there's a list: Peter and the inner circle of disciples, a big group of about 500 people, then James and some other apostles, and so on. Down to Paul, who describes himself "as one untimely born" because he encountered the risen Christ after his ascension. If you don't want to believe Paul when he says Christ is risen, you can go talk to a bunch of people who saw him. They can't all be wrong.

And, I imagine, this may settle the issue for many of the Corinthians. At least, based on what Paul writes to them later, the issue doesn't seem to come up again.

Of course, for you and me, living today, Paul's words don't solve the problem at all. "Christ is risen!" is a fantastic claim. A man, dead on a cross, in a tomb for three days, rises and appears to his friends. Many people today refuse to believe it because, they point out, dead people don't get up. "After death" experiences almost always involve times of just minutes, not whole days, and we can bet nobody in first-century Judea had a defibrillator handy to kick-start Jesus' heart after he was in the tomb.

Since dead people don't rise, then Jesus didn't rise, they say, unless he wasn't really dead. And if he wasn't really dead, then what's the big deal about him anyway?

But we can't go see Paul's list of witnesses. None of them live today, nineteen hundred plus years later. And we can't get the kind of eyewitness testimony that he offers to his questioners. It doesn't seem fair, does it? It would seem, if things like eyewitness testimony that can support proof Jesus was who he said he was were so important, God would have provided the same kind of authorities for us to lean on as he did Paul and the early church. But he didn't.

Or did he?

Remember my journalism professors' questions? "Who says? Who are they? How do they know?" It was all part of an attitude of skepticism that was supposed to make us verify everything as much as possible and take nothing for granted. They also said, "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." If we'd been living in Paul's time, and we'd had the chance to question those eyewitnesses, the most we could have learned is that they all saw someone they knew to be the risen Christ. We could judge their credibility, of course. If a fellow who said he saw the risen Christ also said he was Emperor of Rome, we would wonder. But if a woman said she saw the risen Christ and she didn't make other wild claims, she's more credible.

Either way, though, whether or not we believe them is a decision we have to make. There's no proof, not of the kind we think of as certainty like DNA evidence or something. There's only testimony. There's only witness. And in the end, there's only faith -- a deliberate choice to see things a certain way and live like that way is real.

That way has to make some sense, of course. It's got to have some consistency, even if every little thing doesn't match up with every other little thing. It can't just be whatever someone dreams up.

Look, nobody's ever proved the reality of God to me. Nobody ever will. Folks can fuss about that, but mathematician Kurt Godel's incompleteness theorem suggests nobody can ever prove two plus two equals four either. We can believe it does, and we operate as if it does, because that's the way things usually work and because the world makes sense when we do.

Which poses the question for us Christians: Will we invest more time in trying to prove the gospel or in trying to live it? We're unlikely to succeed at either, but I have faith that the effort I put into the latter of those will be do more good than whatever I might try to do for the former.