As Jesus continued down the road toward his eventual execution, he was approached by a religious “know it all”. You know the type. The kid who went to all of the youth groups at every church. He was super UMYF kid. He had the best t-shirts, a WWJD bracelet before anyone else, an assortment of Bible covers, and knew all of the apologetic answers to every theological question. Before long, he was a youth pastor, plugged into Young Life, and rolling in the evangelical big time. Eventually he became a United Methodist Minister. His parents were incredibly wealthy. They had so much money they could afford for him to be educated at a swanky private college as well as an expensive divinity school. When he graduated and was sent to a huge downtown church as an associate pastor they bought him a fancy Toyota hybrid. God (or his parent’s wealth) had been good to this kid. They even sent him to several third world slums to “learn more about himself” and do self-deprecating slideshows featuring himself and others bonding with befuddled natives.
Despite his innate awesomeness and his readiness to acknowledge how a good God had blessed him through accident of birth and his parent’s wisdom to choose the United Methodist Church as the place to raise him, something wasn’t right. Hence, he felt the need to go talk to Jesus directly. Jesus was outside of the denominational structure. Someone could file a complaint against him with his District Superintendent or Bishop for even speaking to Jesus. The religious hierarchy and some of the other pastors weren’t so keen on Jesus. Up to a point they would give him lip service. Jesus, though, didn’t offer long term pension security. Jesus didn’t even have a creed or mission statement. Jesus claimed to have never heard of John Wesley, John Calvin, or Jacob Arminius. Jesus didn’t care if pastors paid their temple apportionments. Despite these objections and his own fears, he decided to take the risk.
His encounter with Jesus didn’t get off to a great start. “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked. He was only being polite. Good teacher, isn’t that what you should call an honored figure? Jesus began by making the point we’re awfully loose with how we throw the term “good” around. Goodness, Jesus says, is how one refers to God. Maybe, the pastor thought, this is why Jesus is so minimalistic. Perhaps in the United Methodist Church we’re deeming too much as “good” or from “God” that’s really neither? Jesus then asked him about the commandments. Of course he knew the commandments! He’d been learning these since his first day in Vacation Bible School! He spouted these off with a precision only a top graduate of a United Methodist VBS can attain. Jesus looked at him like he was really impressed. For someone who had spent his entire life trying to impress people with how smart he was, he thought he’d made it, he was in with Jesus. The pastor thought too soon. Jesus wasn’t impressed.
Jesus said, “You did a great job but there’s one thing missing.” “What’s that?” he asked. Jesus wanted him to get rid of his most valuable possessions and follow him. “That means you must sell the car, donate the money, resign the plum appointment, and get rid of the Book of Discipline.”
The young preacher couldn’t believe his ears. He guessed he could sell the car, donate the money to the poor and ask for a smaller church but get rid of the Book of Discipline. Was Jesus crazy? The Book of Discipline is what defined his identity as a person and as a Methodist. Without a Book of Discipline how would he know how to think, live, breathe, or interact with his friends?
He couldn’t do it. He needed the book. He yearned for the book’s wisdom for without it; how would he know who Jesus wanted to be married or be ordained to the ministry? He thought for a moment, he could have asked Jesus directly but there was the matter of Jesus’ pension plan. Walking and talking directly with Jesus was far too big of a risk, especially for a United Methodist.
Last Thursday, when a shooter entered an English composition classroom at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, nine persons were executed by a lone gunman. According to various news reports and eyewitness statements given by survivors, the gunman asked his victims, “what their religions were” and “if they were Christian”. Those who answered in the affirmative were told, “they would be with their God soon enough,” said survivor Anastasia Boylan.
Christians are not a persecuted minority in our country. What we witnessed in Oregon would be typical in Syria or Nigeria. In the United States, this is not symptomatic of larger persecution toward persons claiming to be Christian of any denomination. Some might pretend it is but we must be honest. People are not regularly executed for their faith in this country.
I’ve been thinking about one question over the past few days. I wonder what it was about Christianity the shooter despised so much. What form of Christianity had he encountered which made him so angry at those who call themselves followers of Christ? No one will ever get the chance to ask him. We will never know. I cannot believe he ever encountered a community of forgiveness, grace, and love. I can believe he probably encountered so called followers of Jesus who offered mercy with guilt, grace with judgment, and love with strings attached. Clearly, the shooter had some sort of belief or understanding of God. It was a distorted, twisted image of Christianity, God, and faith taught by many. It is still believed by millions and is eating away at the Good News of Jesus like a cancerous tumor. Had anyone answered Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim would he have executed them all the same? Who knows? Or was it all about Christianity? I believe it was all about Christians.
Christians are not bad people. We are also incredibly flawed and sinful human beings. Though as a faith tradition, we have a serious image problem in this country and around the world. We say and do stupid things inconsistent with the words and teachings of man who founded our faith. Take this recent Facebook post from the Lieutenant Governor of Tennessee; offered in the wake of the Oregon shooting. To those with indifference or even hatred toward organized religion, what message does this send about the priorities of the followers of Jesus?
Shouldn’t people interested in getting serious about their faith turn to the Bible? This (from a public official) says Christians (the dominant religious tradition in America) are not who Jesus proclaimed us to be. An inherent conflict has been created, is Jesus a gun toting American or a peace loving Rabbi from 1st century Palestine?
This places little confidence in scripture’s ability to speak for itself. The idea that serious Christianity is equated with handgun ownership is a horrific distortion of Jesus’ teachings. Somewhere, our priorities went wrong. We thought we found Jesus and we only found ourselves. Where do we find a relationship between Jesus, a man who never a carried a weapon and our world today? They are not found in the Bible. Would arming ourselves with the Sermon on the Mount be a better place to begin?
When one reads something like Lieutenant Governor Ramsey’s post, one understands how easy it might be for someone to get the wrong idea about their friendly neighbor who is a Christian.
None of this is a justification for this tragedy. The church has an image problem and it didn’t begin with the crusades. People held distorted views of Christians and the church before last Thursday in Umpqua. The church’s image crisis begins anew every Sunday morning when we ignore Jesus’ words, do more judging than listening, and decide our version of the truth is the only way to avoid a place some can’t let go of called “Hell”.
1. I’m living in a community (one of many on the east coast of the US) facing a hurricane. Hurricanes are natural disasters. This means they grow out of and are formed from nature. Despite our best attempts and growing scientific knowledge we cannot control natural disasters. We may attempt to manipulate nature yet we cannot control it. No matter how many generators we buy, boats we own, or rain boots we buy; we aren’t controlling the uncontrollable. We may feel like we have control but this is a delusion.
2. In order to find clarity in an environment where we have little to no power, we need an extraordinary mindset. A mindset which focuses on acceptance. The mindset of focus and acceptance is not an ideology of limits but a belief in the opportunities presented by a limitless universe. What do we do with what we’ve been given by nature on our doorstep? Will we be overwhelmed, empowered, or washed away?
3. Every storm in unique. Every storm in our lives is unique. Whether it’s named Joaquin or Katrina or Category 2 or 4; every storm is different. We all experience storms differently. Some people downplay fear and emotion. Others get anxious and scared. Treat all fear as real. Don’t downplay someone’s experience because your own life has been down a different road. Value all storms. Storms are different all the way around. Respect different reactions.
4. During a disaster, take time to build community. If you haven’t met your neighbors now would be a good time to do so. Let nature pull you closer together.
5. We have a choice whether to be wrapped up in hurricane hysteria. Even when the winds are blowing and doom appears imminent. The choice is ours. What choice will you make? To help others, to make the most of what opportunities arrive, to listen to others, or build a personal mythology of fear?
Christianity faces a strong temptation to say suffering is good and redemptive. This idea is part and parcel of our culture and our religious tradition. I think before beginning any reflection on the book of Job it’s important to state, I don’t believe this is correct. As I start down the “Job” road, I’ll say again there is no intrinsic goodness to suffering, grief, and loss. To try and make our square pain fit the round hole of some divine plan is a task bound to meet in failure and disappointment. If we attempt to understanding human sufferings on the basis of an ancient near eastern fable, a man-made attempt to explain why bad things happen to good people, we will walk away more confused than when we began. Before we begin, we must realize Job is not a real person. If Job is not real, then a wager making Satan and a wager taking God are not real. Three elements of the story are real. Job’s pain, loss, and suffering are real. Secondly, a real question is raised. Is God on our side? Thirdly, there is no value redemptive value in suffering.
Suffering may not be good or redemptive, but it is real and as we see in Job, suffering originates somewhere within God’s identity. Suffering exists within and beyond God. This is what we observe in the opening chapters of Job. Like a 16th century drama, suffering appears as a major, yet unseen character who will define the essence, being, and actions of every character walking across the stage. In the dramatic dance of heavenly figures, where human morality is nothing more than a wager between the cosmic forces of good and evil, Job’s suffering arises in the amoral debate between good and evil.
The possibility of suffering comes from the potential of removing Job’s tangible economic assets and thus causing him to spiritually blame (curse) God for their removal. This is not an abstract discussion. There is a clear belief, on the part of the adversary, that if Job’s possessions are removed, if his quality of life begins to suffer, Job will doubt his allegiance to God. The adversary probably makes this approach because it’s worked numerous times in the past. This tells us that even in the distant an ancient past, people held a belief, “that the more stuff I have, God must really love me more than other people.” His logic is pretty sound here. He’s seen people say this kind of thing. I’ve heard people say these words. If you believe you got your blessings from God and your entire relationship with is a quid pro quo, then by removing the stuff (the tangible blessings) you’ll come to believe the blessings are gone and you’ll have no need for God. I’m going to be with you as long as I get what I need and when you stop getting what you need. Of course you’ll turn on the hand that was doing the feeding. This is the adversary’s basic logic in beginning to test Job.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The adversary’s logic is easy. It’s not the problem. The problem is God. Why would God propose such an outlandish idea in the first place? It’s not the kind of thing one associates with a loving God. The Golden Rule tells us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. How does the Golden Rule apply to the 1st chapter of Job? Make a side bet with Satan on how you can screw up one man’s life and then force us all to use it as a template for suffering for all eternity? I think it’s a fair question. Is it so we can get to the narcissistic speech about creation at the end of the book and have nothing ultimately resolved about why it’s important to show God unnecessarily ruining a man’s life? Again, this is a fair question.
Why would God set Job up with the possibility of failure? Why put Job in a place of unbearable pain? If I could answer that question, I would know why the doors of Auschwitz were opened. I would know why pediatric cancer centers remain full. I would know why madmen fly Germanwings Airbuses into the French Alps. Why would a good God allow an innocent, faithful man from Uz to suffer for no good reason? Yes, it’s the theodicy question. Why does God permit evil and suffering, but more importantly, in Job, how do we understand suffering and pain coming directly from God’s actions? God isn’t just permitting Job’s suffering; it’s essentially God’s idea.
This is the second real question raised by the author of Job. If making humanity suffer is God’s idea, is God on our side? I’m reminded of Psalm 124. Think of how bad things were, even with the Lord on our side. The Psalmist goes on to ask, “Think of how bad they could have been, despite how bad they were, knowing that we had the lord on our side.” For Job and the Psalmist, simply being alive is the only difference “having the Lord on your side” made. The only way you know God was on your side is that you’re alive. Was God not on the side of the people who died in Psalm 124’s battle or Job’s sons and daughters? Is that any different from the bargain the adversary wants to make, the “as long as I got mine I’m on God’s team” deal? In Job, is God on our side?
Job has been misinformed about the nature of God. The God Job thought he was worshipping will turn the circumstances of Job’s suffering into something ultimately wrong with Job. Perhaps this is because God realizes gamble he made with Job’s life was wrong. I would love to see God apologize and make right with Job without the final scenes of passive aggressive rage. It will become clear, much later in the book, that Job can’t appreciate the death of his children or any of his suffering because he didn’t create the Earth. Because he doesn’t have the cosmic context of the creator, his pain is really meaningless. And who brought this on Job in the first place? How hard would it have been for God to say, “I’m sorry, this whole thing was a mess. You’re faithful and we don’t need stupid bets with Satan to make a dumb point in the first place.”
Job forces readers to ask hard questions about the nature of suffering, pain, evil, and what redemptive value can be gained by experiencing such situations. When things go bad, where are we and where is God? If Job is all we have to go on, I hope God and I are in two different places. His is a vicious cycle of death, suffering, and guilt I would hope to avoid.
Jesus would be a horrible Christian. Aside from the fact he was a 1st century Palestinian Jew, by today’s standards Jesus wouldn’t be “church” material. I doubt he could become an ordained a United Methodist Minister. His lack of experience as a youth pastor and his online rabbinical ordination surely would have disqualified him.
This passage from Mark 9 illustrates how poorly Jesus would have fit in with contemporary Christians. The disciples have come to Jesus with a complaint. “We’ve seen others doing things in your name, people casting out demons. But here’s the things Jesus. We don’t know the guy. He doesn’t hang around with us. He seems to be someone who’s simply heard about you and is now off doing is own thing.” Speaking like good church bureaucrats and keepers of the institutional flame, the disciples want to know why this man is doing Jesus-y things without going through the board of ordained ministry, our conference system, or a litmus test of theological orthodoxy. Maybe he bought his ordination over the internet? Who knows?
Jesus’ answer gives him away. It’s what tells me he wouldn’t be a good Christian or United Methodist. Jesus says, “Don’t stop him.” The United Methodist Church would have stopped the anonymous man. To preserve the integrity of the Book of Discipline, letters charging him with any number offenses would be sent to his district rabbi in Capernaum. He’s diluting the integrity of his own faith tradition by not upholding the sanctity of his own ministerial practice and tradition. It gets worse. Not only does Jesus want the disciples to refrain from hindering this man, he reminds them, “whoever isn’t against us is for us.” The apathetic masses, Jesus says, those millions who don’t go to church and don’t care about church or possibly do church in a different way are actually for us. How can those who are indifferent to us do any tangible good (for the kingdom) in the long run? People who aren’t against us may be for us, yet they don’t pay our apportionments or paint our sanctuaries. Now I’m certain Jesus would not make a good United Methodist.
Just when you think it can’t get any worse, Jesus makes a series of declarations concerning the mutilation of the human body. If you don’t know who said these statements, were you not aware I was reading the words of Jesus, you might believe these words came from someone describing the practices of Sharia law in distant Islamic country. In defending the actions of those who believe in him (beyond the traditional center of power) to be left alone, unmolested and unhindered by his team of “orthodox” disciples, Jesus says its best you let people who believe in Jesus “be”. We should let them “be” instead of forcing them to trip and fall in humiliation.
Here’s where Jesus takes a turn which might make those who stir up hatred against Islam and Muslim Americans a bit anxious. He calls for extremely severe punishments, similar to some in Sharia law, for those who “cause these little one who believe in me to trip and fall into sin.” First, he says, it’s better to have a stone hung around your neck and be dropped in a lake than to “cause someone to fall”. It’s better to be tortured to death by drowning than make the mistake the disciples just made. If Jesus wanted an extreme example to illustrate his point; I think he’s found one. Those words sound more like a radical ISIS imam than the Jesus we’ve come to know and love. What kind of Christian is Jesus after all?
Jesus doesn’t stop there. In an attempt to illustrate this example, Jesus tells a story about amputation. “If your hand causes you to fall into sin, chop it off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled than to go away with two hands into the fire of hell, which can’t be put out.” Again, if you didn’t know Jesus was speaking, who would you think I was quoting; the Holy Quran or the sections from the Holy Bible? I’m willing to guess not a Christian and certainly not the founder of Christianity.
Amputation is one of the punishments triggered by Hudud crimes. In Sharia law, Hudud crimes are crimes against God and certain punishments are mandatory for specific crimes. Amputation is usually reserved for robbery or theft. Is Jesus describing amputation as punishment for “robbing” someone of their joy, ability, or opportunity to witness? Even if this is an example of extreme hyperbole, how Christian does Jesus sound? How Christian would I be if I suggested such an option?
The amputation imagery doesn’t stop with the hand. Jesus moves on to the foot. If your foot causes you to sin, it’s better to cut your foot off than walk into hell with two feet. Personally, I think Hell would be equally loathsome as a one-handed, one-footed amputee. I believe the handicap facilities in Hell probably mirror those of Soviet-era train stations. Long story short, I don’t want to go to hell handicapped or with all my limbs.
In the words late TV pitchman Billy Mays, “But wait, there’s more!” Why go to Hell with just one hand and one foot when you can also go with one eye. “If your eye causes you to sin,” Jesus says, “tear it out because it’s better for you to enter God’s kingdom with one eye than be thrown into hell with two.”
Who is this guy talking about an orgy of self-mutilation? I’m having trouble recognizing Jesus amidst the blood and gore. He certainly doesn’t sound like a Methodist or Christian. I’ve never been told it’s better to have a mutilated body in heaven than be physically fit when I arrive in Hell. Has someone kidnapped my Jesus?
All of this because the disciples wanted to know, “how do we handle people who are different from us?” Does it take a journey through maiming our bodies for us to answer what should be a simple question? Too many of us are the walking dead, wandering wounded, and amputated spiritually. We’ve accepted the flawed premise. The simple questions are too hard to answer. So to guarantee my procession to an afterlife, I will live a spiritually mutilated existence. I would rather hobble on one leg, with one hand, and be blind in one eye than recognize the simplicity of Jesus’ message. It’s easier for us to hurt ourselves than to follow Jesus’ ordinary requests.
No, Jesus doesn’t sound like a Christian, Methodist, Catholic or anything else. He sounds like a Jesus. He’s none of those things. We can’t tell who he is because we’re in too much pain to listen. Shouldn’t we stop amputating and start living?
Rare book rooms and bookstores have the unique ability to tell the story of the peoples and cultures which created the books holding the knowledge they offer. It is as if they carry a wonderful secret. It’s not your typical secret. A secret no one is supposed to know. It is a secret, which if you reach for the book, can be yours. Once you read that book you become a guardian of its knowledge. You’ve been given a choice. I can hold onto this knowledge or I can share it at the right time and place.
You and I are privy to the “Messianic Secret”. That’s simply a fancy way of saying, “we know who Jesus is and what his ultimate reality will look like; to a degree.” This idea of a “secret”,Jesus’ true purpose an intent being hidden from most of the people Jesus encounters is one of the three dominant themes in the gospel of Mark. First, Jesus is proclaiming the kingdom of God. Second, he’s healing everybody in sight. Third, he’s got this secret about his identity and role as the Messiah. Those first two are easy to grasp. The third, we get but we don’t understand. Why would Jesus want to keep anything secret? Isn’t this the “Good News” we’re talking about? Why is Jesus so reluctant to spread the news about his impending death and resurrection? Doesn’t this run contrary to the idea of evangelism and witnessing? Like Jesus’ early followers, when first presented with this information, we don’t understand this “kind of talk” and were “afraid to ask him” about it. What are we missing? Obviously this plan makes sense to Jesus but runs so contrary to our own ideas of how to do things.
Jesus is aware that the content of his message of disturbing and unsettling. The ideas of death and resurrection aren’t concepts most people are comfortable confronting in their own lives. We are afraid of death. Violent death is drives our modern media. Jesus is talking about his own violent death at the hands of the legal authorities. Jesus is saying, “I’m going to be killed by the police”. That would make me uncomfortable.
When we do speak of death, we do it metaphorically. “He scared me to death!” “You’ll be the death of me!” Jesus’ move to the literal, a description of his own death at the hands of the authorities, confounds and confuses his disciples. Why would anyone be upfront about something so tragic? It’s a human tendency to look beyond such statements. We change the channel. We see this in the way our world confronts suicide and mental illness today. Statements like, “who knew he was so unhappy?” are all too common. Or, “we didn’t realize “that’s what he meant”. It’s much easier to ignore the references to death and move on. We pretend they didn’t occur and hope for the best down the road.
Jesus also knows this part of his message might impede his ministry. He knows about our aversion to confronting the reality of death. It’s possible, Jesus realizes, if people get too focused on “the Messianic secret” they might miss the big picture of the kingdom of God. Hence, you can’t let what’s going to occur at the end of the story dominate the overall message: Jesus is proclaiming God’s new way of doing business with humanity in the here and now. Nothing should get in the way of hearing and seeing the kingdom of God unfolding in the world. This “Messianic Secret” is what will make the unfolding Kingdom of God a permanent reality. The message is about how God is healing and changing lives in village after village. The message is about how God is out of the temple and come down to the dusty roads of the Galilee.
Are we like the finder of a rare book, trying to release knowledge into the world at the right time and place. Is the world ready for the information you’ve acquired? You need to be aware of your audience. If you’re not aware of others, you can’t share your words with anyone. An awareness of the world around you is central; if you want to take the knowledge of the kingdom of God and share it with others.
As the disciples approach Capernaum, they have lost all awareness of others. The world around them has faded out of views. They are arguing amongst themselves. When they are arguing with each other, how aware can they be of anyone else? They can’t. They are wrapped up in their own ideas of power and glory. Heaven is for no one else but them.
The disciples inwardly focused discussion on themselves renders them unable to respond to Jesus. Their own needs have left them unable to respond to Jesus. Have our own needs left us in a place where we’ve been deaf to Jesus’ call?
Jesus uses their argument to make a point about the message not about the secret. In this topsy-turvy kingdom which God is creating what we call first (by this he means given place of honor by virtue of money, power, birth, race) will to become last. And those who have historically been last (and by this he means neglected, forgotten, abused, rejected, humiliated) will be allowed to become first. In order to make this example, he asks a child to come and stand among them.
Small children were considered an economic liability, an extra mouth to feed. They were more likely to develop illness and die. Children had no rights in 1st Century society. Essentially, they were slaves. Jesus wasn’t being “cute” or trying to make a point about children. In this instance, a child was the “least” of these and standing in for all of those who had absolutely nothing.
The least, Jesus says, embody God. If you welcome what you see in the least you’re welcoming the physical and spiritual embodiment of God. This requires an awareness of the world around you and then all of a sudden you realize you are participating in the unfolding kingdom of God. You see God embodied in the most unlikely and unexpected of places. Our challenge is to start looking for God at work. Look outward, be aware, and prepare to be surprised.