Judas Is An Innocent Man (John 12:1-8)

 

Fake News from the Rennaisance

It’s one of my perennial Lenten and Easter questions. Why does Judas one of history’s greatest traitors? Here’s where my well-informed readers will tell me, “He turned Jesus in for thirty pieces of silver. Judas is like Benedict Arnold.” (The words in quotes are to be read in a less than flattering voice.) Yes, you are correct. Judas ratted out our Lord and Savior. Riddle me this, Bible readers, wasn’t that the plan? Jesus was supposed to die at Passover. Clues that someone was going to betray Jesus are littered throughout John’s gospel-like seagull poop. Jesus knew betrayal was his way into the hands of both the Roman and Jewish authorities. Some scholars posit that he even planned his betrayal with Judas. Someone had to do it. Yes, if we accept the narrative which has dominated Christian tradition for two thousand years, you don’t get Easter without a Judas. So why do we beat up on Judas and turn in him to money stealing thief whose misplaced priorities only come to light just before Jesus’ final Passover?

I know why. Every good story needs a villain. John, whose lesson most of us will read this weekend, is a poetic anti-Semite who decides to make Judas his boogeyman. Count me out, John. I will not play your blame game. It all sounds like a weird setup for a scapegoat, especially when the plan calls for a scapegoat. Aren’t we better than this? I would hope so, but I know we’re not. We are only as good as the lectionary allows us to be. We’ll follow the script and go along to get along. That’s what we do. We’d instead follow John’s dialogue to the letter than consider the consequences of atonement without Judas. How will we feel morally superior and self-righteous about ourselves when he scolds Mary about the use of the perfume? Who will we hate and blame for Jesus’ death? It can’t be our fault.  We create modern day Judas’:  immigrants, racial minorities, people of different sexual orientations, and the list goes on and on.  Of course, let’s find new people who we can label as betrayers of Jesus.  Then we can keep living in our castles of denominational happiness, washed in the blood of the lamb we didn’t kill.  We never take own up to our sin.  Sound familiar?  Spoiler alert:  I call this mainline Protestantism in the United States of America.

We will say anything and find anyone to absolve ourselves of responsibility of in Jesus’ execution. Like alcoholics who have yet to hit bottom, we will blame everyone but ourselves: it is Jesus, the Romans, or the Temple authority’s guilt. No, it is not the case. Because we were afraid to die, we denied knowing the one thing we could never forget. It’s on us. We killed Jesus.  Judas is an innocent man.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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The Unraveling of Lent

Lent is unraveling. Two weeks ago, a couple of people walked about of one of my sermons.  They just got up and left. No, they weren’t late for a ferry or sick with the flu. My words made them uncomfortable. In this season of polarization, maybe these kinds of incidents are inevitable.   We are being pulled in many infinite directions.  There seems to be no end in sight.

The denomination is coming apart so why not Lent.  Easter, the season which Lent will eventually give way to, will be marked by a great schism between heaven and earth. The temple curtain will be torn in two. Life will be ripped from death. On Easter Sunday morning, the universe will give way, and the void of the empty tomb will reveal the Resurrection.

Lent is about seeing what separates us from the disciples we hope to be and the God we’re trying to serve. If we’re not careful, lent demands we come apart at the seams. We will be asked to unravel completely. This is because Easter is not a restoration or a patchwork quilt of emotions and life. Instead, the resurrection experience is a whole encounter with renewal. No one is the same after an Emmaus Road conversation. Easter doesn’t put the pieces back together. Your perspective from the inside out. This is why Lent is an unraveling. The fifth Sunday of Lent and the approach of Palm Sunday feel grim, frayed, and fraught with dismay. What did I expect?  Lent is where the rubber meets the road. Jesus is going to die, and it’s not pretty.  It’s capital punishment we’ve made into our central religious ritual.  Sunday is a long way away. It’s getting to be time for the gut check. Am I on for the entire ride?  We’ll see.

Richard Lowell Bryant

April 1st, 2019

Dear Friends:

After much deliberation and talking with a proof texter,  I have decided to become a Biblical literalist. If the Bible says it, it must be true. Here’s a brief summary of some of the literal truths I now accept: the earth is 6,000 years old,  Adam and Eve lived with Dinosaurs, two of every animal boarded and lived aboard a single boat for forty days and nights, mass murder in the name of God to conquer any piece of land is OK, slavery is divinely ordained, and much more. All of these ideas, I’ve gleaned from my new King James Bible which I read and accept as the literal word of God, much like the Quran is the word of Allah dictated to Muhammad. Hopefully, my new position will make it easier for me and my evangelical sisters and brothers to be friends with our Islamic sisters and brothers. The benefits of being literalists are too numerous to count.   We have so much in common!

I also believe God is as much like me as I’m like him. God confirms all my biases, suppositions, and ideas. As a literalist, I know that God loves who I love and hates everything I hate. I never get challenged. God never challenges me.  This is the best religious experience of my life. Everything fits with what I already believe. Why did it take me so long to end up here? I know why. Those stupid progressives are messing it up for everybody, encouraging people to think for themselves, making people uncomfortable with rational thought and common sense. What would the church look like if we all applied ration and reason to our faith? Who knows, we might look more like Jesus. Can you believe that guy, boiling down the entire Old Testament (613 commandants) down to one? Love your neighbor as you love yourself. That’s a prescription for societal rot and communal decay. No sir, that’s not a religion I want to be part of anymore. I want that old time, washed in the blood, word for word religion. That’s why I’m now a literalist. If the Bible says it, it’s good enough for me.

Happy April 1, 2019,

Richard Lowell Bryant

All My Friends Are Going to Be Enemies (The Prodigal McMurtry Sermon) Luke 15 and change

Jesus tells one story.  That story takes many forms, as parables and sayings, but there’s really only one story.  All you need is one good story when it’s the most important story in human history.  What we read today is the best version of Jesus’ story.  I like the version, where instead of a father and two sons; it was a man going to Jericho, robbed by thieves.  Later on, a Samaritan and two priests came to him on that road.  Jesus asked the crowd, “Who was the prodigal neighbor?”  Let me put it another way, “Who is the good Samaritan?”  They are the same question.  Yes, they are both excellent stories, but this one is the best.  The Parable of the Prodigal Son, Brother, Father, and community is Jesus’ masterpiece.

You may have noticed I called this story the parable of the “prodigal son, brother, father, and community.”  Isn’t it just the prodigal son?  No, it is not.  There is the first place we get it, the story, and Jesus, the storyteller wrong.  This story is solely not about one young man who wasted his money, time and life on booze and women.  The parable of the prodigal son is about Richard. This story is about each one of us.  If you learn nothing else this morning know this:  we are all prodigals.  No one is innocent, no one did everything right, and no one is holier than thou.  We are all prodigal sons and daughters, especially those of us who believe ourselves anything but prodigal.

We were taught to believe the term prodigal applied to one person in the parable:  the easy living son who left home.  It’s not true.  If we jump from our high horses and read the text without the baggage, we were taught to carry you’ll see it clearly.  The ill-mannered other son is as prodigal as his brother and the no questions asked father is incredibly lavish with his love.  Who’s that gracious with love and forgiveness?  What’s going on?

The parable of the prodigal son doesn’t make sense to anyone who doesn’t get Jesus’ story.  Even to those of us who do, it still seems like “Junior” got off light, considering the severity of his actions.  Why does the parable of the prodigal son rub people (even good, God-fearing Christians) the wrong way?  I mean it’s difficult to find people cheering for the little brother and not rooting for the hardworking brother.  I actually find Christians arguing against Grace.  Again, why do this?

First, it’s counterintuitive.  The ideas in the parable work run contrary to our fundamental notions of fair play and justice.   For instance, if you were presented these facts outside the Bible or religious text, what would you say?  Hell no!  You’d be all over booze breath pig boy in a heartbeat.  He’d have to work his broke but back to the farm.  That’s the American way.  It’s how we think.  Once it’s coming from the New Testament, things change, don’t they?

Secondly, the parable seems to reward the wrong person for doing the wrong things.  The person who did the responsible actions received the status quo.  People get ahead of at work or in life.  We’re unable to see the blessings around us.  Working hard is only keeping our heads above water.  People who cheat never get caught and ultimately get ahead.  You want God to be more like God in the Old Testament: punish the evildoers.  It doesn’t happen.  We live in the real world.

Exactly! The third idea is this: the parable doesn’t feel like the real world.  No one would ever do something so outlandish.  Imagine the discord in a family or community at rewarding an individual for wasting everything.

Fourth, there seems to be no upside or reward.  There are zero benefits from welcoming the younger son back.  Even the proposed beneficiary learns the wrong lesson.  What’s that?  Gaming the system is OK.  No one wants to encourage their children, either grown or adult, to cheat at life.

Those are four basic ideas that give non-Christians and a few Christians trouble accepting the underlying premise of Jesus’ masterpiece.

But I haven’t said it yet.  What is it?  What is the underlying premise of this parable, the one we all know, and the others scattered throughout the gospels?  Every story Jesus tells is about one idea:  you should love your neighbor as you love yourself.  Each parable, in one form or another, is a retelling of what we call the “Greatest Commandment’.  The story of the prodigal son is no exception.  Love and grace do not come with caveats and exceptions.  That’s the message:  Junior doesn’t believe, Older Brother needs to get over himself and see the bigger picture, and Dad is trying to show God’s love.  Everyone is everyone else’s neighbor.  That’s how the kingdom of God works, one family at a time.  You want a grand cosmic end of time battles, it’s not here.   You want dysfunctional families like those on our own island, searching for grace and love, look no further than Luke 15.  This is where the rubber meets the road.

Loving our neighbors is the idea Jesus keeps pushing us towards.  Anytime we meet Jesus, we are hearing these words, in one form or another.  Jesus keeps sharing and insisting upon neighbors loving neighbors and grace being given to booze breath pig boys like the one in the story until it got him killed.  They killed him for being what we are not.  The cross is the ultimate exposition of everything we wouldn’t do (hear a whole sermon, welcome back our family members from hell and gone, go to a celebration party, and embrace the counterintuitive at the heart of the kingdom of God) but Jesus did.

As I mentioned a moment ago, when these words come from the Bible, it changes how we respond to the counterintuitive nature of what Jesus asks.  We hear these ideas coming from anywhere else; we feel angry, defensive, and self-righteous.  When we realize Jesus is the one who does what the father did, forgives without question each and every day, do we start to understand how wrong we’ve been for judging the younger son or seeing the other son’s point of view?

The irony is, if you asked most people, and didn’t tell them where the story came from, “What’s the Christian thing to do in the story?”  They’d probably tell you it’s to cut the kid off and send him to rehab.  They’d also tell you the son that stayed at home was a model, church-going citizen.  What would Jesus say to that answer?  Have you listened to nothing I’ve said? That’s the least Christian response.  It’s a way of responding and living which ignores the reality of the cross and the importance of the resurrection.

What most people think of as “THE” Christian way to respond to the parable of the prodigals is the inverse of Jesus’ vision for the kingdom of God.  The Kingdom of God isn’t every person for themselves.  It is to love your neighbor as you love yourself in every context and situation.  That is how Jesus lived.

When it comes to Good Friday, we’re all waiting by the same cross.  Maybe we’ve crossed our Christian wires.  There is still time.  Between now and Easter, let’s start pulling them apart.

Somewhere in Centerfield,

Richard Lowell Bryant

Six Questions for Post General Conference United Methodism

1. Why now, after the general conference, are there a plethora of well-meaning plans and proposals to create a progressive United Methodist Church?  That’s like filling out your NCAA bracket after the tournament begins.  We needed it last weekend.

2. Shouldn’t this have been done over the past two years?

3. We knew what was going to happen at the General Conference. Why is anyone acting surprised, shocked, or amazed that bigotry won?

4. Did anyone really believe the delegates from Africa or the former Soviet Union would vote for the One Church Plan? If you did, you live in a fantasy world. We saw this coming and we (as progressives) were unprepared. We act shocked at something we knew would occur at least one year ago.  Would you invite delegate from Brunei and expect them to vote for a pro-LGBT plan?  No. Yesterday, the tiny Sultanate adopted the death penalty for persons convicted of participating in same-sex relationships.  Their version of Sharia law is the Traditional Plan on steroids.  Many of the African countries where Methodism is so strong have similar laws.  Yet, we’re “disturbed” at the outcome of the General Conference vote?

5. Do we have ourselves to blame? Somewhat, we are at fault. We can look forward to more meetings and more money being spent to determine a “way out” while our clergy and congregations live in limbo.  Talk about hell on earth.

6. What’s next? PowerPoint presentations, songs, proposals, and stasis. Someone has to take the step. Methodism as we knew it is over.

Richard Lowell Bryant

The Opening Day of Baseball Season

Today is opening day and something ought to be right with the world. No, all is not right, but something is different about today than yesterday and the day before. That something is baseball.

Baseball is everything yesterday was not and tomorrow will be. How is this? It happens because baseball lives in the present, with every at-bat, a pitch is thrown, and a catch lands in an outfielder’s glove. If we blink, we miss it. Look away for a second and our lives are changed. When the umpire says, “Play ball,” we don’t want to forget a thing. Baseball is both a game of experience and memory.

Once you take your seat at the game, whether in a major league park or the dusty benches of a little league (or school game), you join the team. You may be related to no one on the field, hail from a distant land, or just enjoy the taste of hotdogs. For one reason or another, you are there to cheer, laugh, cry, and embrace the anger of arbitrary rulings.  Eventually, someone will be called out.  A decision will be contested by a coach, a manager, a team, or even a parent.  This is part of the glory of baseball.  Everyone present is able to witness justice unfold.

There are no decisions punted to higher baseball authorities. There are no four-page summaries on who stole third base. The umpire makes the call. The kid from up the street is safe, or he is out. The decision stands. No one is bitter or angry. Everyone gets up, goes on, and continues play. There are no vendettas in baseball. You’ll find, no hearings, no interviews with the press, or appeals to higher umpire authorities. The game goes on as it has for over a century. This is why today is not like yesterday. Everyone understands the rules. Unless you get conked on the head by a foul ball, most people have fun, and the generational gift of baseball keeps on giving.

From somewhere in centerfield,

 

 

 

Richard Bryant