Category: luke

Zacchaeus and the Multiverse – Lent 5

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Narrative Lectionary Reflection

April 2, 2017

Luke 18:31-19:10

If you read or watch enough science fiction or comic books, you will run into the multiverse.  It’s the belief or theory that there isn’t one universe, but hundreds or thousands of different universes all taking place at the same time.  There is the famous thought experiment by Erwin Schrodinger where he talks about a cat being placed in a box with a small amount of a radioactive substance, a hammer and cyanide.  Without going into the whole theory, as long as the box is closed, we don’t know if the cat is alive or was killed by the poison.  In theory, the cat could be both alive and dead at the same time. This experiment has been used to explain multiverses because you can be a famous singer in one universe or a serial killer in another one all at the same time. There is that famous episode in Star Trek where Kirk is transported to mirror universe where the peaceful Federation is now the Terran Empire.  Characters who were good in the main universe were sadistic in this new one.  And of course, there is Spock who in the mirror universe is sort of evil and you can tell because he now has a goatee.

I’ve thought about multiverses in thinking about a tension in today’s text.  There are two different understandings when it comes to the tax collector named Zacchaeus.

For years, Zacchaeus was the short guy who had dinner with Jesus and gave money to the poor.  It’s a classic story of redemption, of a “bad guy” who became good.  But in recent years, it has been revealed that there is some tension when it comes to the verb tense in verse 8.  Verse 8 reads:“Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”

This passage in the original Greek is in a present tense.  It could mean that Zacchaeus was already giving his money to the poor.  But the present tense could also be indicating a future action meaning he will do this.  This is how pastor Dan Clendenin explains it:

Even though the verbs are in the present tense, the typical way of reading of this story follows scholars like Robert Stein and translations like the NRSV and NIV. They render the present tense verbs as a “futuristic present.” That is, Zacchaeus the sinner repents and vows that henceforth he’ll make restitution.

           The second option follows commentators like Joseph Fitzmyer and translations like the KJV and RSV. They render the verbs as a “progressive present tense.” In this reading, Zacchaeus is a hidden saint about whom people have made all sorts of false assumptions about his corruption. And so he defends himself: “Lord, I always give half of my wealth to the poor, and whenever I discover any fraud or discrepancy I always make a fourfold restitution.”

So which one is it?  Is it the story of corrupt rich man that pledges to do right?  Or is it a story of affirmation, of Jesus blessing Zacchaeus for the work that he is doing?

I’m beginning to wonder if it is both; that like Schrodinger’s cat, Zacchaeus is in a superpositions state: both sinner and saint.

Having gone to a Lutheran seminary, I remember learning how Martin Luther believed that Christians are both sinner and saint.  In Luther’s mind a saint was a forgiven sinner, and we were always both forgiven and still imperfect on this side of heaven.

I don’t know if Zaccheus had already been making amends or would promise to do it.  What I do know if that he was both sinner and saint, one that was part of a corrupt system and trying to atone.  Jesus called this flawed man a “son of Abraham” one that belong in God’s kingdom.

The good news is that we aren’t that different from ol’ Zach.  We are sinners and we can’t hide that fact.  But in Christ we are forgiven, we are redeemed by Christ and sent to act with justice and grace toward others.

And you don’t need the multiverse to understand that.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.

The Good One- Lent 3

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Narrative Lectionary Reflection

March 19, 2017

Luke 15:1-32

 

 

 

 

JESUS MAFA. Prodigal Son, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54662 [retrieved March 15, 2017].
Being an only child, it’s not easy to understand the sibling dynamics taking place in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  That said, I do have sympathy for the older brother.  He was the good one.  He followed the rules. He stayed at his father’s side.  He did everything right.

I understand this because I’ve always been the Good One.  I was always the kid that people would say is so well-behaved and mature. I was the kid that didn’t rebel.

So, I can understand why the older brother is livid at how his father is treating his younger brother who humiliated his father by taking his inheritance early and then going off to spend it all.  Why should he be welcomed with open arms after what he did to the father?

In the wake of the 2008 housing crisis, there was debate on whether or not to bail out homeowners who were in danger of losing their home.  Some believed that they should and others were dead set against.  They brought houses with questionable loans and bought more house than they had money.  Because of this, some said that it was the homeowner’s fault for being foolish with their money. Let them suffer the consequences.

I tended to side with the later argument. Why?  Because I was the Good One. Fools should suffer their fate.

This all explains why this story is so necessary.  Jesus told this story to a crowd including a number of Pharisees that Jesus heard grumbling because he shared meals with sinners and tax collectors.  Jesus hits these leaders, who were the Good Ones, right where it hurts in this parable.  We see the older son seething in anger.  The father comes out to meet his “faithful” son, in the same way that he came to greet his youngest son.  In each case we see a father full of love for his sons, even though they don’t really deserve it.

This story is a study in grace, and what we learn from it is how “scandalous” grace is.  The father receives the younger son with open arms and has a party.  He did this because his son that he feared would never come back has arrived.  This sort of lavish joy is almost embarrassing and certainly not deserved.  But that’s how God is when a sinner comes home.  God meets them with open arms.

But God also greets the older sons, the Good Ones who in the end aren’t so good.  He reminds them that they are loved with this same grace.  The older son probably did the hard work to please his father.  But the father didn’t care about that.  He loved this son, even when he was acting like a jerk.

Did the older son ever “get it?”  We will never know.  I would like to think he did, that he was willing to stop trying to please his father and just enjoy life knowing he is loved by his father all the time.

And maybe he will understand that being a Good One isn’t about doing the right things, but knowing you are loved with an endless love.

 

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.

One Last Time – Lent 2

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Narrative Lectionary Reflection

March 12, 2017

Luke 13:1-9, 31-35

 

 

 

Interstate 35W Bridge Collapse, Minneapolis, MN, August 2007.

A man leaves home to head into the Big City and work in one the cities tallest buildings.  But it was September 11, and the man’s family never saw their husband and father again.

A woman calls home to tell her husband and daughters that she is leaving work and will be home for dinner.  She leaves downtown and heads on the freeway during rush hour.  She wades though traffic as it crawls across a bridge over the Mississippi River.  Out of nowhere, the bridge collapses and the woman never comes home.

A man drops off his husband at his workplace.  The man heads home and a few hours later sees a breaking news report of a mass shooting at his husband’s place of work.  He calls his spouse over and over, and no one ever picks up the phone.   After a frantic day and night of trying  going to hospitals to find his partner, he gets a phone call.  What he feared has come true; his husband was dead by shooter.

 

Why do these things happen?  Why did this person die and not this other one?

These are some of the questions people have as they hear about a tragedy that took place in Galilee.  Pilate, the governor of the area, killed Galileans as they were making sacrifices.  It was a sacrilege.

This shocking event made people wonder: did these people do something, did they sin, in order for this to happen.

 

This was the prevailing belief among many in Jesus’ time. If you did something wrong, then bad things will happen to you.

But Jesus doesn’t agree.  He asks if the Galileans who perished at Pilate’s hand were more sinful than others. What about those who died when a building collapse killing 18 people? Were they more sinful than others?

Jesus never answers that question but instead tells them to change their hearts and minds while there is time.

Jesus isn’t interested in asking why bad things happen.  Jesus is interested in repentance, turning around, devoting our lives to Jesus.  We only have so much time. How will we be present to God and others?

There is an old Simpson’s episode called “One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish.” In this episode the family goes to a local Japanese restuarant in Springfield.  Homer eats a fish that was possibly poisonous and could kill him in a day.  When he realizes that he only has one day left to live, he creates a list of things he needed to do before the day ends.  He has a man-to-man talk with Bart. He listens to Lisa play her sax.  He borrows a camera and tapes a message to baby Maggie.  He reconciles with his father and spends one last time together with his wife Marge.  

During the night, he gets up and decides to sit a chair in the living room rather than die next to Marge.  He listens to the tape and falls asleep.  The next morning, Marge comes into the living room seeing Homer slumped in his chair.  Fearing the worst, she walks towards him and realizes that he is alive.  Homer and Marge rejoice that he has been spared from death.

We only have so much time.  How will we live? Will we live lives of gratitude, knowing we are forgiven and express that gratitude in love towards others?

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.

Thanks. I Needed That. – Epiphany 7

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Narrative Lectionary Reflection

February 19, 2017

Luke 7:36-50

 

 

In the early 1970s, there was a brand of aftershave that made a commercial that had a hand slap a man.  He would feel his face and then say, “Thanks. I need that.”

It was an interesting commercial, mostly because I don’t think anything like it could be made today at all.  It’s seem a little weird that the basis of this TV ad is having a hand slap an actor rather hard.  That actor had to have one sore cheek after a day of filming.

The ad had an affect- on me.  I was only about three or four at the time.  I remember that my mother punished me for something and my response to her was, “Thanks. I needed that.”

photo credit: http://wayneforte.com/picture/anointing-his-feet-2/
photo credit: http://wayneforte.com/picture/anointing-his-feet-2/

That phrase is in my mind when I think about this unnamed woman who crashes Simon’s dinner party.  Her need was different from mine and she expressed it in a way that showed she really needed this and was willing to do what it took to get what she needed.

This woman was deemed a “sinner.” We don’t know what made her a sinner, but whatever it was, the people in town knew.  She came into the room probably feeling the hot stares of the dinner guests and Simon.  But she makes a beeline to Jesus and begins washing his feet with her hair and tears. She then opens a jar of oil and begins annointing Jesus’ feet.  It is a passionate scene.

What this woman wanted is forgiveness.  She had lived with shame for a long time and she sees Jesus, the one that parties with tax collectors and sinners, as one that would forgive her.  She could even feel that she was forgiven already.  So she shows her love, her gratitude in this embarassing and “shameful” way.

 

It would be easy to place myself in the role of the woman, but too often I am like Simon, probably a well-meaning man, but someone who is so well-versed in the faith that I can tend to not be hungry for forgiveness and have a joy that bursts out in thankfulness to the Messiah.  I’ve been in the faith long enough to think that I’m not in need of anything. We don’t want to admit our own sin and the need to be forgiven.

But I need Jesus and so do you.  We all are sinners and we are in need of forgiveness.  We need to know that Jesus has forgiven us.  We need to feel that sense of gratitude that propels us to serve God and our sisters and brothers.

“Thanks, I needed that.”  Because I do need it and so do you.  And so do we all.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.

Me and the Mona Lisa- Epiphany 6

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Narrative Lectionary Reflection

February 12, 2017

Luke 7:18-35

 

It’s been nearly 20 years since I took my first trip abroad.  I spent two weeks trekking Spain, France and the UK seeing all the stops that one is supposed to do when in Europe.

One evening, while in Paris, I went to the Louvre.  I was interested in seeing the Leonardo daVinci’s famous Mona Lisa.  This has to be the most well-known painting in the world.  It is talked about so much that you start to think this is a grand painting in size.  So you enter the room where it is located.  A crowd is gathered it around it and it is the only painting that is encased in a plastic box to protect it from the masses.

If you were expecting a painting that might fill the gallery wall, your expectations would be dashed pretty quickly.  It’s maybe a bit larger than the a regular size iPad.

None of this takes away from its beauty.  But the real thing is not always what we expect.

Which is probably what John the Baptist was thinking in today’s text.  He’s sitting in jail and hearing from his disciples that Jesus is healing the servant of a Roman centurion and raising a widow’s son from the dead Our faith is always about God and people.

This probably wasn’t what John was expecting.  He was preaching about fires and threshing floor and separating wheat from chaff.  John was hardcore, and he expect the one he was preparing the way for was going to kick the Romans out and put those Pharsiees in their place.

But then the real Jesus shows up and it’s not what he expected. So he asks Jesus that question,”Are you the one who is coming, or should we look for someone else?”

Jesus’ response is interesting because he doesn’t directly answer John.  Instead he tells John what he’s done: “Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled now walk. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. And good news is preached to the poor.”

Jesus tells John the Baptist what he’s done instead of saying who he is.  John learns who Jesus is through what he has done.  John is to witness what Jesus has done.

Who is Jesus to you?  What do we expect from Jesus?  Maybe we expect Jesus to prevent hunger or keep kids from dying in wars or stop terrorist attacks.  We have an imaginary God that  does what we expect and then we have a real God that is not doing what we expect at all.

We will be disappointed at times that God isn’t all that we wanted.  But remember what Jesus said: the blind can see.  The dead are raised.  The poor have good news. Remember what God has done in your life and in the life of others.

Jesus never lives up to our expectations.  But the Jesus we get, the real one is far more wonderful than anything we could have expected.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.

Ernie’s Sabbath- Epiphany 4

Ernie’s Sabbath- Epiphany 4

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Narrative Lectionary Reflection

January 29, 2017

Luke 6:1-11

kytt8l5jlds-zach-bettenErnie is someone you couldn’t forget.

Ernie attended a church that I served at in Minneapolis.  He has some intellectual disabilities which means that he doesn’t really have a sense of when to speak and when to keep quiet.  It was not unusual for him to speak up in a loud voice during worship about a certain issue.  Ernie just didn’t do quiet.

The interesting thing was that the congregation was not bothered by Ernie’s frequent outbursts.  In the nearly five years I served at this church, I never once saw anyone make a face at Ernie for speaking out of turn.  Everyone acted as if this was just a normal part of the worship experience, because in reality it was a normal part of worship.  Ernie was part of the liturgy of this congregation and there was always room for whatever he was going to say.

Worship is a serious thing, but sometimes it can become a performance that seeks total perfection.  In some places, Ernie would not be tolerated because he interuppted the service.  This church took worship seriously as well, but it didn’t take it so seriously that it forgot the people who were a part of the worship experience.

In Luke 6, Jesus has two encounters over two Sabbaths with the Pharisees.  The first encounter was when some of Jesus disciples picked off the heads of wheat, rolled them and then ate them.  The Pharisees (who I guess were taking part in massive dragnet of Galilean wheatfields) asked Jesus why he was allowing this violation of the Sabbath.  Jesus responds telling them about the time when David and his fighters were in need of food and all that was around was the bread of the Presence, a ceremonial bread.  David broke a law, but it was for an important reason, to allow fighters to eat.  For Jesus, the Sabbath was made for humanity and not the other way around.

On another Sabbath, Jesus sees the Pharisees in the audience and Jesus heals a man with withered hand.  He heals the man, which might have again been seen as a violation of the law.  But for Jesus what mattered at that moment was healing this man.

Jesus wasn’t dismissing Sabbath.  He was a Jew, after all.  But he was upset when adherance to the law trumped serving God and their neighbor.

Going back to Ernie, of course you want to have an orderly worship service.  But it doesn’t have to come at the expense of welcoming Ernie to worship God.

Our faith is always about God and people.  When we start to worry about other things like making sure we do all the right things in our faith, we start to lose the whole meaning of the faith we proclaim.

Ernie could be hard to deal with at times, but I am glad for having known him.  He helps me not to take things so seriously and reminds me what this whole God thing is all about people and God.  

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.

There’s Only You and Me and We Just Disagree- Epiphany 2

There’s Only You and Me and We Just Disagree- Epiphany 2

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Narrative Lectionary Reflection
January 15, 2017
Luke 4:14-30

So let’s leave it alone ’cause we can’t see eye to eye
There ain’t no good guy, there ain’t no bad guy
There’s only you and me and we just disagree

-Dave Mason, We Just Disagree

elephantdonkey

It was about 20 years ago, that I attended a large Baptist church in Washington, DC. The church was an odd mix, or at least it would be odd today. Evangelicals and liberals were somehow able to worship together, along side a healthy dose of members from Latin America and Asia.

The church decided at some point to hire a pastor to the join the good-sized multi-pastor staff. The person chosen was a woman with great pastoral care skills. At the time, there was a bit of controversy because she was pro-gay and some of the evangelicals in the church weren’t crazy about that.

I was at a meeting where a member of the congregation stood up. She was one of the evangelical members of the congregation and she had what could be considered a “traditional” understanding on homosexuality, but she spoke in favor of calling the pastor. You see, the pastor had been involved with congregation for a few years and the two had gotten to know each other. “We don’t agree,” I recall this woman saying when talking about the issue they didn’t see eye-to-eye on. But this woman was a good friend and she saw her as the right person for the job.

What’s so interesting about this story is that I don’t think it could happen today. Churches like the one in DC really don’t exist anymore. Evangelicals and liberals have sorted themselves into different churches and don’t really know each other. Which only makes it easier to highlight differences and demonize each other.

In Luke 4, Jesus comes back home to Nazareth and go to the local synagogue.  He reads from Isaiah 61:1-2, which is an inspiring text.  The people love this, a local boy made good. 

But Jesus knew what was going on in the hearts, so he decides to tell some more stories.  One is a story from I Kings 17 where the great prophet Elijah helped feed a non-Jewish woman and her son in the town of Zarapath during a famine.  The famine struck Jewish widows as hard as non-Jewish widows, but this was where God led Elijah.  Jesus then goes to 2 Kings 5 and tells the story of the prophet Elisha healing Naaman, a Syrian (not Jewish) general, from leporesy.  He was healed even though there were many in Israel that suffered from the skin problems.

This did not go well with the crowd.  The mood went from pride to a homocidal rage.  The pushed Jesus towards a cliff in order to throw him off, but Jesus was able to slip away.

Sometimes we can mouth the words that Jesus loves everybody, but in our heart of hearts, they are just that: words.  Deep down, we want God to provide for us, but not for that evangelical Christian.  We want to be showered with blessings, but we don’t want that liberal Christian getting anything from God.  We want to be God’s special people and we want those that disagree with us to go to hell.

But God doesn’t work that way.  When it is said that God so loved the world, it really means God so loved the world; as in everybody. Instead of welcoming people into God’s realm, we start to act like the holy bouncers deciding who is on the special list and who isn’t.

Jesus had a good way of holding up a mirror to people who thought they were good people and showing them who they really are.  Maybe if we were living in first century Palestine and Jesus showed us how we fall short, we might to join in throwing Jesus off a cliff.

When Martin Luther King Jr. was working for racial justice in the American South, many whites were willing to support him.  Maybe because they didn’t like the South and thought it backwards.  But when King started to take his campaign to the North, starting with Chicago in the 1966, many whites were turned off.  He had chosen to show a mirror to White Northerners and what they saw wasn’t pretty.

But the thing is, as much as this passage shows that people are not so pure, it also shows that God is loving of us, all of us even when we act like jerks. 

The two women in Washington, DC were able to get beyond boundaries to love and support each other.  In our modern age which seems more and more divided by class, race and ideology, we need to place our trust in a God that loves us all and pray that God give us a heart big enough to love “those people” as well.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.

The Buzzcut- Baptism of Jesus

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Narrative Lectionary Reflection
January 8, 2017
Luke 3:1-22

hairdresser-1684815_640-1From the time I was about seven until maybe I was old enough to drive, my Dad would get me up at about 6am on a Saturday morning once a month to get to the barber shop before they opened around 7:30 or so. A line would form and Dad wanted to be among the first.

I hated doing this, especially during the cold, Michigan winters. Saturdays were for sleeping in and not trying to get to the barber shop before the other guy. However, we did it and maybe as a token of my patience, Dad would take me to breakfast where I would have pancakes.

I always got the same haircut; short, but not too close. For years, Dad would tell the barber what I wanted. I think when I got around 11 or 12, I started telling the barber what I wanted. Well, one Saturday, when I was about 13, I told the barber I wanted it cut short. So he went to work and I sat not paying attention. When he was done and spun me around, I was shocked; he had cut my hair really short. I mean were talking the next step was looking like Kojack. Now, these days, that is my standard haircut, but back then it wasn’t and I thought I looked horrible. I remember just crying like crazy. Here it was, I wanted a little off the top; and I what I got was a buzzcut.

This got me thinking about today’s passage; some people wanted a little off the top and John the Baptist was preaching a total buzzcut.

John the Baptist is not anyone’s favorite Biblical character. He’s rude and can’t say anything nice and he certainly lives up to that in today’s gospel, if you can it that. The passage opens with the crowds who were listening to John. Many in the crowd decided to come forward to be baptized. I’ve learned that baptism is about being reminded of God’s love for us, but I don’t think John was sitting in on my seminary class, because he calls those coming forward a “brood of vipers.” He tells them to produce fruit in keeping with repentance and to not rely on religious or family ties for salvation. He talks about an ax that is getting ready to cut down poor producing trees and throw them into the fire.

When was the last time you saw a preacher say that at a baptism? If they did, I can bet they didn’t stay in the pulpit very long.

There was a time when I would have said that poor John was off his rocker. He was preaching a message of hell and damnation, a message of what my Lutheran friends like to say, “works-righteousness.” On the other hand, Jesus preached a message of grace. But these days, John was preaching a message of salvation and grace, but he reminds us this grace isn’t cheap, but costly. John, like Jesus, was concerned with how we live. Yes, we are saved by grace not by works, but the eveidence of our faith relies on how we live. The best testimony of being a follower of Christ, is how we live our lives. Do we live them in the same way Jesus did, welcoming all, forgiving others and helping those in need?

I think if John was around today, he might call many of us snakes as well. There are too many people, especially Christians, who will shout loudly that they are religious, holy people and yet their actions say sharply otherwise.

There are a lot of people out there who think that to be a Christian means accepting certain truths; Jesus is God’s Son, Jesus died and rose again, Jesus is coming soon. If you believe that, then you are all set. But John seems to be saying that’s not enough. Of course Christians must believe in all of this, but if those beliefs aren’t lived on in our daily lives, are they real to others? If we say we believe in Christ, and yet ignore the poor, or turn people away because they are different, will people really believe us?

Christianity isn’t just about accepting certain beliefs; it’s also about living as a Christian. John the Baptist told those in the crowd to share with those who have none, don’t extort and don’t overtax the populace. He was telling people that if they were coming to be baptized; they need to live lives of repentance and not do this just for show.

On an Advent night a decade ago, I heard a memorable passage from the slain Archbishop Oscar Romero. He summed up nicely what Advent and by extension what following Jesus is all about:

Advent should admonish us to discover in each brother or sister that we greet, in each friend whose hand we shake, in each beggar who asks for bread, in each worker who wants to use the right to join a union, in each peasant who looks for work in the coffee groves, the face of Christ. Then it would not be possible to rob them, to cheat them, to deny them their rights. They are Christ, and whatever is done to them Christ will take as done to himself. This is what Advent is:

Christ living among us.

God isn’t interested in shaving a little off the top. God wants us changed, to live lives for others.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.

Family Values and the Resurrection – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 25C

Family Values and the Resurrection – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 25C

November 6, 2016

Luke 20:27-38 Common English Bible (CEB)

27 Some Sadducees, who deny that there’s a resurrection, came to Jesus and asked, 28 “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies leaving a widow but no children, the brother must marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first man married a woman and then died childless. 30 The second 31 and then the third brother married her. Eventually all seven married her, and they all died without leaving any children. 32 Finally, the woman died too. 33 In the resurrection, whose wife will she be? All seven were married to her.”                 34 Jesus said to them, “People who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage. 35  But those who are considered worthy to participate in that age, that is, in the age of the resurrection from the dead, won’t marry nor will they be given in marriage. 36 They can no longer die, because they are like angels and are God’s children since they share in the resurrection. 37 Even Moses demonstrated that the dead are raised—in the passage about the burning bush, when he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38 He isn’t the God of the dead but of the living. To him they are all alive.”

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20161016_105852Jesus often found himself in the cross-hairs of contemporary debates. Although he had tangled with Pharisees earlier in Luke’s story, now that he has arrived in Jerusalem, he faces a different group of questioners—Sadducees. When this encounter takes place, Jesus has already entered the city in triumph (Luke 19:28-40). He has cleansed the Temple. He has been facing a variety of questions about his authority. The Sadducees formed one of several Jewish religious parties in first century Palestine. You might call them the religious conservatives, because they sought to protect older theologies, including understandings of the afterlife. They were also aristocratic, who were the source of the priesthood. Their primary rivals at the time of Jesus were the Pharisees, who like Jesus embraced the doctrine of the resurrection.

In this encounter, this group Sadducees try to test Jesus. In fact, they seem eager to mock him. They probably had motive to embarrass him, since Jesus had earlier visited the Temple and turned over a few tables and freed some animals. We call this the cleansing of the Temple, but the priests and their allies among the Sadducees would have been rather irate at the way this upstart from Galilee messed with their Temple.  So, why not ask a question that could embarrass. That had to do with marriage and resurrection.

The question they posed was this. Given the ancient practice of levirate marriage, which required that if a man died without leaving an heir, it was up to his younger brothers to fulfill that obligation by marrying his widow and hopefully producing a child, what would happen if none of seven brothers provided an heir. Who would the wife belong to in the resurrection.  The point of levirate marriage was the eternal value of one’s legacy—that is one’s male line (in a patrilineal society). Things could get messy as is seen in the story of Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38).

We no longer practice levirate marriage, but many of the concerns that gave birth to that practice remain with us. We seem to have a need to perpetuate the family tree.  My father, for instance, was quite interested in our family’s ancestry. He was also concerned about his legacy. He had produced two sons, but what might happen after that. He was pleased when Cheryl and I produced a male child. For at least one more generation the Cornwall name would continue.  Of course, my cousin David, the son of my father’s older brother, also produced a male heir. I don’t know if my uncle’s line has continued beyond David’s son, and as for my father’s, well only time will tell. Legacies are important, except that Jesus doesn’t agree.

So, the question posed to Jesus, a question meant to show the ridiculous nature of the doctrine of resurrection, concerned the status of a wife given two seven brothers through levirate marriage. In the resurrection (if there’s such a thing), who did she belong to if no child was ever produced?  That seemed like an unanswerable question, except that Jesus turned the question on its head.  What if in the resurrection there isn’t marriage and family? If that’s true, then the question of who one belongs to is a moot point. It doesn’t matter if there is no marriage or giving in marriage in the heavenly realm. In the next life, we’ll all be like angels!

Point well taken, Jesus wins the argument. Resurrection still stands. But, what about family values. How does Jesus’ answer affect the way we view marriage and family? It is common in weddings to pledge one’s covenant loyalty to the other “until death do us part.” That would seem to suggest that we understand the bond to hold as long as we “both shall live.” As for the next life, who knows? We say the words, but as life goes on and family takes hold, the hope emerges that this bond forged in life will continue in the next life. When we gather at funerals we envision being reconnected with our loved ones. We picture taking up where things were left off. Second marriages and blended families don’t factor into the equation. We don’t worry about the intricacies; we just want to take up life again. That is one of the reasons why Mormon theology of marriage consecrated in the Temples is so attractive. It also answers the question of to whom one is married in the resurrection. It’s the one to whom one is sealed in the Temple, and as far as I know that can take place only once. Alas, for the rest of us, we don’t have the theological legacy to stand on. What we have is this message from Jesus.

I take up this passage in my book Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016). I made this passage the concluding chapter in the book, which I titled “Beyond Marriage and Family.” I address the question of security. If you have security in this life, as the members of the Sadducees party like had, then there’s less need for an afterlife. Having those heirs. That’s good enough. But, if you don’t feel secure in this life, then perhaps the next will provide it.

In our modern context questions raised about the resurrection are different from the first century. They’re mostly intellectual ones. Since we can’t prove the existence of an afterlife, then why bother with believing in one.  If we do believe in the resurrection, the question of to whom we’re married in heaven probably doesn’t even come to mind. Yet, at least on an emotional level, a good majority of Christians expect to take up life as usual in the heavenly realm. We want to believe we’ll be reunited. But Jesus sets that aside, which is a good reminder that while family is important, it’s not ultimate.

On the matter of resurrection, which is the real issue at hand.  Jesus affirms it, and he backs up this affirmation with a bit of scripture. He notes that when God appeared to Moses at the burning bush, God revealed God’s self as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exodus 3:6). According to Luke’s Jesus, that meant that these three Patriarchs still lived, and therefore God is the God of the living and not the dead. Death has lost its sting. Death is not victorious, because Jesus has conquered death through the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:54-55). That is what is ultimate!

bobcornwallRobert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan and is the author of a number of books including Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016) and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015).

Righteous Humility – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 23C

Righteous Humility – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 23C

October 23, 2016

 

Luke 18:9-14 New Revised Standard Version(NRSV)

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

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What does it mean to be righteous? Does it mean that you are religiously devout and follow all the protocols of the faith to the letter? Or does it involve humble submission to God? These are questions that emerge from this parable. It’s one encounter and one more parable that redefines what God is looking for from us. The characters in the parable stand as far apart as is possible in ancient Jewish culture. The Pharisees were upstanding religious leaders; tax collectors were not only collaborators with the Romans they often robbed from their own people to benefit Rome and themselves. The Pharisees were respected; tax collectors were reviled. It should be noted that both Pharisees and tax collectors tended to be wealthy. We know where the tax collectors got their wealth. It’s less clear how a Pharisee got his wealth, though perhaps it was inherited wealth.

5445613926_85169104aa Two people from opposite ends of the social spectrum, even if not from different economic ones, come to pray, and their attitude to God and to each other are worlds apart. When we read about the Pharisees as Christians we must always acknowledge the possibility of anti-Jewish sentiment creeping in. The Gospel writers have a tendency to portray them in bad light, and we needn’t embrace that sentiment. At the same time the Pharisee in this story does exhibit the self-righteous tendencies that can afflict many a religious person. And here is the question for us—while we judge on the basis of outward things, God isn’t bound by our judgments or even our criteria. That seems to be the message of this parable.

Self-righteousness isn’t simply a religious sentiment. It emerges in a variety of contexts when we feel morally superior to those who do not follow our lead. We see this in our political stylings. We see this in the myth of American exceptionalism, where in the name of patriotism Americans (and I’m an American) feel superior to other nations, and this can lead us to a place where we are blind to our own faults. We believe that we can do no wrong. The Pharisee in this parable exhibits these tendencies. He looks down the line and compares himself with the tax collector and feels good about his superior morality and spirituality. He can take pride in his fasting and his tithing. He’s not like those “other people,” who are “thieves, rogues, adulterers,” and of course tax collectors. He is righteous and he wears it on his sleeve! Does this describe you? Or me?

In contrast to the Pharisee who is satisfied with his spiritual place, the tax collector seems contrite. He’s self-aware. He understands that he has fallen short of God’s best. He might even look across to the Pharisee and envy his uprightness. He can only wish that he was in the other’s shoes, but he’s not. He knows that despite his wealth, the people around him despise him. Not only that, but he feels as if God has similar feelings toward him. Thus, he comes to the altar in a spirit of repentance. He wants to change things. While God receives the tax collector with grace and mercy, there is the expectation of change.

It is probably helpful to take note of the encounter that will follow in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus will encounter a tax collector, one named Zacchaeus, and Zacchaeus gives evidence of his changed heart. In a reading that will appear a week from now on the 24th Sunday after Pentecost in the year C, Zacchaeus will search out Jesus, and will give evidence of a changed heart (Luke 19:1-10). Of course, that is next week’s reflection!

Before we get to Zacchaeus, we need to address the vision of God with regard to the “righteous” and the “humble.” The Pharisee represents self-satisfied self-righteous moralism. He’s got the religious system down. He knows how to play the game—something many of us have learned over time. But in his air of superiority he forgets who God is. The tax collector on the other hand may not have the same theological pedigree but he seems to better understand God’s nature.

Miguel de la Torre reminds us as well that those who are marginalized, and this tax collector probably made the decision to collude with the Romans because he knew that it was one of the few ways to survive, make decisions that enable survival not morality. We make those kinds of decisions, that may appear unrighteous, but are the result of systems that oppress. So he writes: The salvific message of the gospel that the publicans of the world, the pimps and prostitutes of today, need to hear is that they are precious and are due dignity because they are created in the very image of God. Jesus understood that part of his liberating message was to humble the proud and uplift the lowly” [Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, 2:136]. So the message of today isn’t really about the humble prayer of the tax collector (publican), but the superior airs of the self-righteous religious person.

 

The question becomes, how do we who are religious and hopefully seek to do what is right, that is achieve righteousness, respond to our neighbors who find themselves marginalized by systems beyond their control. Sometimes elections reveal voices of people who feel unheard, and while we may not like what we hear, there is something important revealed by their cries. In our day there are numerous voices that aren’t getting heard. That may have something to do with the attack on the “elites,” and if I’m honest I live among the elites. The reason populist demagogues get a hearing is that they tap into feelings of abandonment on the part of those with power. So, while I may not like to admit that I live within the world of the elites, due to education and privileges accorded to me due to religion, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, I can be deaf to the cries of my neighbors.  The good news is that God is not deaf.

The difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector is that the tax collector has come to recognize his need for grace. He hasn’t let exceptionalism take hold. He’s ready to receive God’s blessing. Are we? How is this expressed? Could it be in the way in which we treat one another?  Could it be that it starts with recognizing our need for God? As Cynthia Hale puts it:

Admission of human weakness and failure is taboo in our culture. It is not cool to admit your mistakes or you need help. This admission gets the attention of God, though, and it is God’s attention and approval that we need and want. [Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, 2:138].

Righteousness isn’t the same as “morality.” That is, it’s not about fulfilling our moral and religious obligations. Righteousness is rooted in justice. It has to do not with right observance, but right relationships that begin with God and spread outward. By recognizing this truth, we put ourselves in a position to be justified.

bobcornwallRobert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan and is the author of a number of books including Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016) and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015).