Blinded by our expectations?

One of the most consistent  things about our interactions with Jesus is our failure to recognize who he is. We too often are caught unaware and when it’s too late we sing a sad refrain with Mahalia Jackson, “Sweet little Jesus boy, we didn’t know who you was!”  From his birth in a barn to his hanging out with sinners, to his  refusal to defend himself in the garden or before Pilate, Jesus refuses to show up how and where we expect him to. His entry into Jerusalem  is not in a stretch limo  befitting a king but in a beat up old Volkswagen beetle. The crowds who shout “Hosanna!” on Sunday change their tune to “Crucify him!” only five days later because he isn’t the conquering hero they were expecting.

Those expectations are understandable for people who were oppressed and dying for liberation.   We might guess  those strangers who lined the streets of Jerusalem had not spent time with Jesus. Their failure to recognize who he really is may be understandable.   But what about those disciples who are closest to him who had spent three years listening to his teaching and watching the way he healed the sick and comforted those who were excluded by society?   They too deny and betray and hide when their expectations are not met.  Have they never heard the words of Isaiah who tells us that the Messiah will not be a worldly ruler but a suffering servant?  (Isaiah 52:13-53:12).  Or like us have they chosen only to hear and believe what they want?  We are expecting Rambo and we get Gandhi instead!

Even Mary Magdalene who stood by Jesus at the foot of the cross and was one of the first to go to the tomb doesn’t recognize Jesus on Easter morning!   This woman who was one of the most devoted and loyal disciples  mistakes Jesus for a gardener!  (John 20:11-18).  How could someone who owed so much  to Jesus fail to recognize him at this most triumphant moment?  Is it not because of her expectations?  She went to the tomb to minister to a corpse and instead is the very first to encounter the resurrected Christ!

How often do we fail to recognize Christ in our midst, in the least of God’s children around us? Whom do we expect to encounter  when we go to the tomb this Sunday? Will we recognize the risen Christ?  What we know from past experience is that he probably won’t appear the way we expect him to. So let’s go with eyes and hearts wide open  to see what our amazing God is up to this Easter!

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Not With Swords, Matthew 26:52

Tuesday of Holy Week 2016 and we awake again to news of unspeakable violence – this time in Brussels. My heart breaks for the victims, of course, but it also aches for all of us who now suffer from a new wave of fear, anger and despair. The death toll will be much higher than whatever the final gruesome body count is in Belgium because fear and anger will spawn new and very natural responses of revenge. Violence begets violence. We know, but we seem powerless to respond in any other way. I get that, but I also know that if we continue down that wide well-traveled road the only destination is more destruction.

If we demand an eye for an eye, blood for blood, it will not make us safer. We have the power as some have suggested to bomb the enemy into oblivion and in doing so we would lose our soul. Terrorism would win and it would be reborn somewhere else while we waste our resources on more instruments of death instead of spending our time and money and energy on education and humanitarian efforts that make for peace and understanding.
I would suggest we use this latest attack as a motivation to take the passion of Holy Week more seriously. Let’s ask the hard questions about what Jesus’ death and resurrection really mean in a world gone mad in 2016. Is it more than an ancient story we re-enact in bad bathrobe dramas? Is it more than jumping easily from Palm Sunday to Easter morning because the middle part of the story is too hard to swallow?

I believe that the popular substitutionary atonement theology of the cross is largely to blame for our failure to apply the hard parts of the Gospel to our lives. The abridged version of that theology says that Christ died in our place as a substitute for our sins in order to offer eternal salvation to everyone who accepts Christ as his or her Savior. There are several problems with that theology, but the basic one is that it lets us off the hook too easily so we don’t have to take the hard truths of Jesus’ teaching seriously. It makes the cross something Jesus did once and for all, but that Gospel ignores the fact that the Scriptures tell us multiple times that Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me” (Matt. 10:38, 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). Luke even adds we have to do it “daily.”

Jesus doesn’t need or want worshippers or Sunday only Christians, he wants followers; and that means just what it says—imitating how he lived and practicing what he taught. And here’s the intersection between Brussels and Gethsemane that we don’t want to hear. Matthew (26: 47-56) tells us that when they came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane on Thursday night “one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. ‘Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him, ‘for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.’” He doesn’t invoke the second amendment or argue for peace through strength. He says, “My way is not the way of the world. The way of the sword has never brought peace and it never will because one cannot bring life through the instruments of death.”

We don’t want to hear it because we’re afraid, but we must grow some ears that can hear Christ’s truth before it is too late and the way of the sword continues to fester and spread like a plague. Doing the right thing is easy for most of us when there is little to lose by doing so. Jesus followers do it when it’s seemingly impossible and impractical according to the ways of the world. Real Jesus followers make hard choices when everyone around them and their own instincts insist on the way of the sword.

It comes down to practicing what Jesus preached even when it’s unbelievably difficult. For example, in both the Sermon on the Mount and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain Jesus says we are not to resist evil but to turn the other cheek when someone strikes us (Matt. 5:39; Luke 6:29). It’s very easy to say that in a safe sermon by the seashore or from a comfortable pulpit. I’ve preached and taught those words hundreds of times, but how often have I lived them when the going got really rough? Jesus does. As he is about to be arrested and most certainly executed, he lives what he taught. With his earthly life on the line he is true to the eternal truth he came to show us and says, “Put away your sword.”

That’s the Gospel, the good news, during this Holy Week when the sword seems to be winning. Is cheek turning and pacifism practical? Will it work against a hurricane of hate? We don’t know because it has never really been tried on any global scale. A few martyrs have followed Jesus’ example, and they inspire us from afar. But Brussels is real life here and now, and if we let the way of the sword prevail again, if we let fear and anger triumph over peace and love, even for our enemies, then terror wins and Jesus loses.

I don’t pretend to have the faith I need to lay down my life for my faith. But I wrestle with these hard truths from Holy Week because I still believe deep in my soul that it is the way and the truth and the life. The way of the sword has been tried forever in human history, and it has failed to bring about a lasting peace. Jesus followers are called to wrestle with both the words and example of Christ who is still saying to us during this Holy Week “Put away your sword.”

I don’t have the answers, but we who call ourselves Christians must wrestle with the questions. We desperately need meaningful dialogue on this topic. Please share any thoughts or suggestions or questions you have about what peacemaking looks like on a personal or global scale for you.

“A Borrower and a Lender Be,” A Holy Week Sermon on Matthew 21:1-13

Suppose you went out to get in your car at the mall or after church next Sunday or even in your driveway and a couple of strangers were looking it over. When you ask them what they’re doing they say, “Please give us your keys.” I’m guessing the first question you would ask is, “Why?” And when they say, “Because the Lord has need of it,” would you just hand over the keys or would you more likely call the cops?

That’s what the Gospels tell us Jesus did to “borrow” a donkey in preparation for his Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem. We are so familiar with the Holy Week narratives that we often fail to grasp the radical nature of what this story tells us about Jesus and what got him crucified. John Robert McFarland grabbed my attention on this matter in an article in The Christian Century way back in 1990 entitled “Go Steal Me a Donkey.”

This is not Sweet Little Jesus holding lambs and children in his arms. Healing the sick and loving people don’t get you crucified, but challenging the political and economic foundations that society is built upon will get one in a lot of hot water immediately. These verses from Matthew 21 are bookended by donkey stealing and Jesus physically turning over tables in the temple and driving the money changers out because they have claimed what belongs to God for their own purposes. This Jesus is not a wimp. He is one with the courage to challenge anyone and anything that is contrary to God’s wills and to pay the price for his convictions.

Tax day in the US fell within Holy Week this year, and that makes looking at Jesus’ theology of economics even more real. In “Go Steal Me a Donkey” McFarland points out that both socialists and capitalists claim Jesus, but he isn’t either. The former believe in collective ownership of property and the latter in individual ownership. Jesus believes everything belongs to God. In the very next chapter of Matthew (22:15-22) the Pharisees challenge Jesus on the tax issue. They try to trap him with a question about whether it is legal to pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus gives a clever politically correct answer. He says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” That sounds like a safe answer, but Jesus’ actions tell us he knows the bottom line on his 1040 for the IRS would be a big fat zero.

Would he get audited? You bet, but he would do it anyway. Why would he do that knowing the trouble it would cause? Because he knows everything belongs to God, including donkeys and upper rooms in which to celebrate the Passover. Jesus borrows what he needs because it all belongs to God. There’s an old adage about borrowing that is so familiar we often think it should be in the Bible. But “neither a borrower nor a lender be” is not biblical. It actually comes from Polonius in “Hamlet,” not Jesus. In fact, what Jesus says about borrowing and lending is a direct contraction of Shakespeare. “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (Matt. 5:42). “If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again” (Luke 6:34).

Jesus borrows: a manger for a cradle, boats to teach in, houses to heal in, and a tomb to be buried in. He doesn’t ask for what he needs, he commands. When he borrows his disciples, he says, “Come, follow me, Now!” No time to bury the dead. Do they leave their families and their livelihood in exchange for some promise of great wealth and fame? No, he says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” When he borrows Peter and Andrew from their fishing nets, when James and John leave their father Zebedee in his boat, when Levi leaves the tax office, do you think Jesus plans on returning them? When you borrow a cup of sugar to bake a cake, do take the sugar out of the cake and return it? I hope we don’t return a used Kleenex after we “borrow” it! When Jesus claims us followers and disciples, there’s no turning back. It’s for keeps, because everything, including you and me, belongs to God–always has, always will.

That’s the bad news. What we think is ours isn’t. We are just stewards and caretakers of what belongs to God, and what’s worse is that selfishly trying to cling to what is “ours” will keep us out of the Kingdom of God. That’s why Jesus says it is harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. It’s why Pope Francis is cracking down on Bishops who build multi-million dollar mansions for themselves while millions starve.

But here’s the good news. We can borrow freely from God whatever we need in life. God gives us Jesus as an example of what that ultimate borrowing of things that really matter in life looks like; and Holy Week is the best example ever of how that works. We see it demonstrated throughout Jesus’ ministry, but it is concentrated in those final days of his life between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. We’ve seen it when Jesus is napping in the boat during a storm. His disciples are freaking out, but Jesus is sound asleep because he has borrowed the peace of God. When those same disciples try to talk him into homesteading on the mountain of Transfiguration where it’s safe and comfortable, Jesus borrows the courage from God to set his face toward Jerusalem and the cross; and he never looks back.

When he is confronted with physical violence and arrest in Jerusalem, he borrows the peace of God again not to resist violence with more violence. His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is not for his own safety and comfort, but he borrows integrity and obedience from God as he prays “Not my will but your will be done.” And then on that dark Friday afternoon, the supreme gift of grace is borrowed again when he says, “Father forgive them” to the men who have nailed him to that cruel cross. Jesus doesn’t say, “I forgive you,” and that’s significant. In mortal agony from those wounds, I believe it was humanly impossible for that amazing compassion to come from Jesus himself, just as it is often impossible for us to forgive those who hurt us badly. Jesus couldn’t forgive them, but he knew someone who could–and that he was free to borrow that strength and grace from his God.

We know that source of grace as well, and we are invited to borrow from that eternal God whenever and wherever we want with no interest and no expectation to repay the debt. The borrowing Messiah of Holy Week teaches us that when we are free of possessions that possess us, when we are free of fears and insecurities from the cares of trying to control our own lives, then we are free to live and free to die. Because we know everything belongs to God, including us, now and forever. Holy Week and Easter invite us again to borrow the gift of grace, the gift of new life.

Adapted from a sermon preached at New Life United Methodist Church, Columbus, OH, Palm Sunday 2014.