Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Review: Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert

Ever since I saw a short review of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love on Sarah Walker Cleaveland's blog, I have wanted to read it. I finally got around to it recently, and I'm so glad I finally did - an excellent, moving, thought-provoking book.

The book follows Gilbert on a year-long personal quest for - God, love, understanding, clarity, hope, etc. - through stops in Italy, India, and Indonesia. Her style is narrative story-telling, and the book reads like a novel. I found Gilbert's longing, questing to experience God and to have a sense of self-worth compelling. She doesn't write from a church-goer perspective, and I imagine her spiritual journey is similar to others who find themselves seeking God outside the boundaries of organized religion today (although I wish everyone took their spiritual journeys, in or out of the Church, as seriously as Gilbert takes hers).

Some excerpts:
"The Yogic path is about disentangling the built-in glitches of the human condition, which I'm going to over-simply define here as the heartbreaking inability to sustain contentment . . . The Yogis, however, say that human discontentment is a simple case of mistaken identity. We're miserable because we think that we are mere individuals, alone with our fears and flaws and resentments and mortality . . . We have failed to recognize our deeper divine character . . . expressed in this exasperated line from the Greek stoic philosopher Epictetus: 'You bear God within you, poor wretch, and know it not.'" (122)

"The other problem with all this swinging through the vines of though it that you are never where you are. You are always digging in the past or poking at the future, but rarely do you rest in this moment . . . If you're looking for union with the divine, this kind of backward/forward whirling is a problem. There's a reason they call God a presence - because God is right here, right now. In the present is the only place to find [God] , and now is the only time." (132)

"This is what rituals are for. We do spiritual ceremonies as human beings in order to create a safe resting place for our most complicated feelings of joy or trauma, so that we don't have to haul those feelings around with us forever, weighing us down . . . If you bring the right earnestness to your homemade ceremony, God will provide the grace. And that is why we need God." (187)

Quoting her guru: "God dwells within you, as you." (191)

"Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings." (260)

"[Zen Buddhists] say that an oak tree is brought into creation by two forces at the same time. Obviously, there is the acorn from which it all begins . . . But only a few can recognize that there is another force operating here as well - the future tree itself, which wants so badly to exist that it pulls the acorn into being, drawing the seedling forth with longing out of the void . . . In this respect . . . it is the oak tree that creates the very acorn from which it is born." (329)

It's really a beautiful book, and I definitely plan on reading some of Gilbert's other work.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Sermon for Fifth Sunday in Lent (non-lectionary)

(Sermon 3/29/09, Matthew 14:23-33, Mark 8:27-37, Matthew 26:31-35, 57, 69-75)

Peter, The Rock

Today, we finally look at a disciple about whom something is actually written, about whom we actually have significant information to go on in our study! Today, we’re looking at Simon Peter. Simon Peter became one of the most prominent leaders in the early church, along with Paul and James, the brother of Jesus. He is considered the first bishop of Rome, the first Pope of the church. And, thankfully, he appears frequently in the gospels, and in the Acts of the Apostles, more frequently than any other of the twelve. Of course, this makes sense. The gospels in our Bibles were not recorded until some 30 and more years after Jesus walked on earth. By then, Peter was already considered a great leader of the church who had been martyred for the cause, and so when retelling the story of Jesus, authors naturally highlighted stories of the most famous of the twelve. The benefit for us is that in Peter, we have the most holistic, multi-layered look at him that we have of any of the followers of Jesus.

Today we’re looking at three passages in which Peter plays a central role. First, we hear in the gospel of Matthew about the famous incident of Peter stepping out of the boat to follow Jesus and walk on the water. Jesus and the disciples have just been with the crowds, while Jesus fed the 5000+ people. The disciples get into the boat to cross the lake, and Jesus stays behind to pray. Eventually, the disciples see Jesus walking toward them on the water, but because of the situation, no doubt, they think Jesus must be a ghost. But Jesus calms their fears right away, saying, “it is I.” Peter then makes a bold gesture: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus says, “come.” So Peter gets out of the boat and begins walking on the water to Jesus. But suddenly he’s overwhelmed by what he’s doping, and he begins to sink, calling, “Lord, save me.” Jesus catches him, and says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

In Mark, we return to a passage we’ve been looking at in parts throughout Lent, a theme we’ve been focusing on. Jesus asks the disciples what people have been saying about him, who they’ve been saying he is. The disciples tell him that some think John the Baptist, others Elijah, others, another of the prophets. And Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter replies, “you are the Messiah.” But then Jesus tells them about the suffering he will undergo and Peter rebukes Jesus for saying such things. Jesus responds with his own rebuke, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” It is then that Jesus tells the crowd and his disciples that if any want to become his follower, they must deny themselves, take up the cross, and follow him.

Then finally, we come to a most-known scene with Peter, back in the gospel of Matthew. It’s a tense evening, the time following Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, after Jesus has announced that someone will betray him, after they’ve shared bread and wine together with new meaning, and after they’ve sung a hymn together. Jesus says that his flock will be scattered and that everyone will desert him. But Peter responds, “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.” Jesus tells Peter that actually on this very night he will deny Jesus three times before the cock crows. But Peter insists, “even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” But then, just verses later, Peter indeed denies ever even knowing Jesus, much less being his follower. And as Peter remembers his conversation with Jesus, he weeps bitterly in shame.

Peter seems to be such a bumbling disciple sometimes. In these three lessons, and in other appearances in the gospels, Peter always seems to be a curious blend of making great leaps of faith and commitment to following Jesus, accompanied by, sometimes in startlingly quick succession, failures, mistakes, or blunders. I can picture Peter sinking rapidly into the water after walking on it, or Peter identifying Jesus as the Christ and then having Jesus call him Satan just a few minutes later. Sometimes when I read the gospels and see Peter’s behavior, I want to shout through the pages and centuries at him to help him get a clue a little sooner in the story. Of course, we have the benefit of knowing who Jesus is and how the story unfolds, while Peter did not. But even while I find Peter’s actions sometimes laughable, I also find them comforting. Peter, one of the twelve, and in fact, the most famous of the twelve, hardly ever had a clue what Jesus was trying to tell him, and yet still managed to be a leader of the church. I think that’s good news for us! I think Peter can help us understand our own paths of discipleship.

I’ve always had a sort-of love hate relationship with running, although since I broke my ankle while running, I guess my relationship has perhaps been one of mutual dislike! Running and I apparently don’t get along anymore, so I’ve tried to substitute walking and hiking instead. At any rate, over the course of the last several years, I’ve tried to run or walk or hike or something, and I’ve had different locations for running and walking. At Drew, right across the street from my apartment, was a big three mile loop that I would usually run around in the mornings. Here in Franklin Lakes, I walk around the loop that connects the playing fields near the library and rec. center. But when I was living in Central New York, or when I’m home visiting, I usually go to a track at the high-school or the local School for the Deaf. There’s no special walking loop available. Walking or running on a track is a different experience than one single loop. There are no big hills there to drag me down, so I usually could motivate myself to at least get over to the track. But there's another dilemma on a track. Unlike the course at Drew or here in Franklin Lakes that was just one time around, to go three miles at a track, I have to go around the circle 12 times! Not only is it hard to keep track of the progress I'm making, since it seems that I'm getting nowhere, but it's also difficult because there's always the temptation to quit before I hit my goal: the exit from the track comes up each and every lap, offering me the chance to give up and walk home. At Drew, and here, if I want to stop part way around the loop I’m out of luck – I still have to at least walk the rest of the way home. On a track, I can give up part way as easy as can be.

By now, you might be wondering what any of this has to do with our gospel lessons, with Peter, with anything really, but I assure you there's a great connection coming up! I think we like to think of our lives and our faith journeys more like the great big loop I run at Drew or the loop here in Franklin Lakes – one big loop, certainly has hills to climb, but new ground is always being covered, there is clear progress toward the goal, and once you see the finish line, that's it, you're finished! There's no where to get on or off except the beginning and the end. But actually, I think our lives and our faith walks are much more like going around the track. We often have to cover the same ground more than once to really make any progress. And yes, like on a track, we are offered chance after chance to give up and get out. We have many chances to stumble, to get off course, to lose our way, every time we think we're making some progress. The journey can be quite frustrating, and it's easy to feel like we’re sinking like Peter sank.

But God calls us, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" Instead of one long path, beginning to end, we have chances in life to try again, to go around one more time, to enjoy our gifts and graces in different contexts and settings. We have chance to measure our progress, even within the safety of the course, and we have the task of confronting our temptations too. Imagine if the disciples' time and journeys, Peter’s time with Jesus had only been on one long path, beginning to end. He would have been no opportunities to learn from his mistakes, no chances to try again to share the good news with communities, no second chances when he let Jesus down so completely.

One of my very favorite books is Lamb: the Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore. As you might guess from the title, the book is a comedic fictional look at Jesus’ ministry from a written-out disciple. But mixed in with the jokes are some deep theological reflections. In one scene, Maggie, aka Mary Magdalene, says to Jesus and Biff: "You two are the ninnies here. You both rail on [the disciples] about their intelligence, when that doesn't have anything to do with why they're here. Have either one of you heard them preach? I have. Peter can heal the sick now. I've seen it. I've seen James make the lame walk. Faith isn't an act of intelligence, it's an act of imagination. Every time you give them a new metaphor for the kingdom, they see the metaphor, a mustard seed, a field, a garden, a vineyard, it's like pointing something out to a cat - the cat looks at your finger, not at what you're pointing at. [But] they don't need to understand it, they only need to believe, and they do. They imagine the kingdom as they need it to be, they don't need to grasp it, it's there already, they can let it be. Imagination, not intellect." (394) Maggie – or Mary – is trying to explain that the disciples are followers of Jesus not because of their great understanding and wisdom, but because of their faithfulness. Peter’s blunders may make me smile, but his show of faith, especially when you look at the whole course of his life, is no laughing matter.

Today we are celebrating Layperson of the Year Sunday, and we are honoring Jack Willer, a very special person. As I was looking over Jack’s bio and thinking about Jack, I was reminded of Jack’s reaction the day I told him he was selected to be Layperson of the Year. He seemed totally astonished, and tried to convince me that he wasn’t a worthy candidate for the honor before it finally sunk in a little bit. I think Jack was convinced there were better candidates who’d done more than he had who should be getting honored. But here’s the thing: I see the Layperson of the Year award not as an award for a person’s greatness, but for their faithfulness. And I’m not saying Jack’s not a great person – you all know how special he his! But we honor him today for his faithfulness, for his faithfulness through 55 years of membership here at FLUMC. I’m guessing that he’s had times when he’s been more active and less active, times when he felt closer to God, or closer to the congregation, times of great joy and times of struggle too. So we celebrate today not a consistent unwavering journey – none of us have that. We celebrate a life of great faithfulness all along a journey of discipleship.

Our song from Superstar this week is a duet between Peter and Mary Magdalene, “Could We Start Again, Please?” It expresses the angst that both feel as Jesus is arrested, and tried, and they feel helpless to stop it. Peter, especially, post denying the Christ he’s followed for years, wants to know, “Could We Start Again, Please?” The answer is yes, yes, yes. We can start again, and again, and again, and again. That is the gift of grace from God that we receive, that we can, indeed, always start again when we make a ridiculous mess of what God has given us and with what God has called us to do. We can always start again, because God always has faith in us. And if God can have faith in us, in you and in me, who make so many wrong turns, who fail so often, who give up so many times, who sin and hurt one another and walk away from God – if God can have faith in us to help us start again, can we not have faith in God?

Peter sank into the waters. He had Jesus calling him Satan. He denied Jesus at the very time he was most needed. What an example of faith for us! But he also stepped out of the boat, out of his safety zone. And he tried again, even after he let Jesus down so utterly. And he know who Jesus was, and had faith because of it that he could continue to follow God, even if it meant starting over again, and again, and again. Even when we know the answer to that question we’ve been exploring – Who Do You Say that I Am? – even when we let our answer change us, we, like Peter, will find that our path is not a straight line from beginning to end. But we follow a faithful God who inspires faithfulness in us, and we can always, always begin again.

Amen.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Sermon for Fourth Sunday in Lent (non-lectionary)

(Sermon 3/22/09, Luke 7:36-50, 8:1-3, Luke 10:38-42, John 12:1-7, Matthew 27:45-50, 55-61, 28:1)

Mary, Mary, Mary?

Mary Magdalene – what do we really know about Mary? Not much. In fact, we probably think we know more than we do. Mary Magdalene is mentioned only rarely in the gospels, in fact, mentioned only one time outside of accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In one passage in Luke, there is mention of the fact that Mary Magdalene had been cured from possession by demons by Jesus, and that she was traveling with him along with some other women and the Twelve as he was teaching and preaching. Other than that, Mary Magdalene is only mentioned in the context of being at the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion, helping the women with burial rites, and then, of course, most significantly, at Jesus’ resurrection, as the first witness, the first teller of the news. She’s mentioned nowhere else, despite popular beliefs. She is not the woman caught in adultery. She is not labeled a sinner. She is not a prostitute. She is not the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet. She is not the Mary who is sister to Martha and Lazarus, not the Mary who is praised for simply sitting at Jesus’ feet. All we know is that she was following Jesus, that she witnessed his crucifixion along with other women who were followers.

I’m not exactly sure how or why these several separate women in the scriptures become merged into one. It happened very early in church history, that these several stories began to be folded into one in the Christian narrative. We see evidence that Jesus was inclusive of women in his ministry – radically inclusive for his day – he had women who followed along with the rest of the disciples, he spoke to women in circumstances that were normally considered inappropriate, and he heals women along with men, commending them for their great faith. But after the church was born, when the disciples were leading and growing congregations, women’s roles in the movement began to be suppressed and minimized. By the 6th century, the Pope, Gregory the First, preached a sermon merging the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, and Mary Magdalene, together as one person. And it was not until 1969 that the Catholic Church officially stated that the sinful woman, Mary of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene were actually three separate women. That’s well over a thousand years of assuming Mary Magdalene to be not only a sinful woman, but more particularly, a prostitute, when the scriptures simply tell us no such thing. Centuries of paintings show Mary Magdalene with bright red hair, worn long, rather than covered as would have been appropriate. Films and musicals, like my own beloved Superstar, have portrayed Mary as a prostitute. Mary Magdalene has been seen as the example of a life redeemed, a forgiven woman who turned things around.

But then, in the last several years, the tide seemed to turn – people started to get interested in Mary Magdalene again. And if I had to point to what sparked the interest, I’d point to Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code that was so popular a handful of years ago. The book suggested that through DaVinci’s artwork, you could discover the hidden secret – that Jesus really married Mary Magdalene and had a child with her, and that Mary was really the most devoted disciple, whose image had been smeared by those who were jealous of her and her power and bent on telling a certain version of Jesus’ story. Interest in Mary Magdalene exploded, even though Brown’s book was a work of fiction, and people started reading some of the Gnostic Gospels, writings that were not included in our scriptures, which also pictured Mary Magdalene as a prominent disciple, though never as Jesus’ wife.

So who is Mary Magdalene, really? Personally, though I’ve read and enjoyed both The DaVinci Code, and the Gnostic Gospels, I like to focus on what the biblical scriptures tell us, with what is really in the text before us, and understanding that, before adding other sources. So who are these Marys, exactly, and really, who end up so blurred together? Let’s look at what the scriptures actually say. First, Mary Magdalene. We see her at the tomb on Easter morning. But we’re not ready for Easter yet. The only other place Mary is mentioned is in the other text we read today: “Soon afterwards Jesus went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.” This is the only mention of Mary Magdalene other than at the cross, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. From these few verses though, we know that Mary and some other women went with Jesus and the twelve on his preaching and teaching tour. For women in his day, that is a huge and risky commitment. We know that Mary was healed by Jesus, even though we might not understand what it means to be possessed by demons. And we know that these women provided for Jesus and disciples, which suggests that they were women with some wealth and resources at their disposal to use to support Jesus’ ministry. And that is simply all the scriptures say about Mary Magdalene.

Then, there’s Mary of Bethany. We know she’s not Mary Magdalene primarily because Magdala and Bethany are two different places! Mary of Bethany is the sister of Lazarus and Martha. We see her in three significant scenes: We see her sitting and listening at Jesus’ feet while he was at her home, and while Martha prepared a meal. Martha was upset with Mary, but Jesus tells her she’s chosen the better part by listening to him. We see Mary upset with Jesus when Lazarus dies because Jesus did not arrive quickly enough to heal him. This time it is Martha who shines in her understanding of resurrection, and Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. And finally, we see Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus’ feet with costly perfume, and Judas, or in other gospels, all the disciples, being upset over her wastefulness. But Jesus commends her for her act of extravagant love.

And finally, the other woman who is often confused with these two Marys is the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus’ feet at the home of Simon the Pharisee. She and Mary of Bethany both anoint Jesus’ feet, and so the two have often been mistaken for one another, but anointing of feet was not a particularly unusual act. It probably happened to Jesus many times that aren’t even recorded. And thinking of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute also probably comes from this passage about an unnamed woman. This unnamed woman is never called a prostitute, just a sinner, but wearing her hair down, and the way Simon speaks of her being known as a sinner suggest that she may have been a prostitute. But there’s no conclusive proof. So this sinful woman anoints Jesus’ feet with ointment and her own tears. Simon is critical of Jesus for letting such a woman perform this act of devotion, but Jesus, with a parable, says that her sins are forgiven, and because her sins are so completely forgiven, the woman reacts with deeply loving behavior.

These are the three woman who have been rolled into one, but their stories are really quite unique. And there are even other Marys in the Bible – a few actually – but just mentioned by their very common name. So with their identities untangled, we then have to ask what we learn for ourselves. I think restoring Mary Magdalene’s reputation is a worthy endeavor on its own – she deserves to be remembered for what the gospels tell us she was – a follower of Jesus and the first witness of the resurrection. But what do we learn from her? As I’ve said, we’re looking, this Lent, at who we say Jesus is, and what that says about us. So who does Mary Magdalene say that he is? And who does Mary of Bethany say that he is? And who, even, does the sinful woman who anointed his feet say that he is? For each, in different ways, Jesus was quite literally their savior. Mary Magdalene is healed from something described as demon-possession. Seven demons, actually. Whatever this meant, it would have made her ritually unclean and shunned from society. Jesus saves her. Jesus forgives the sins of the unnamed woman, and takes a burden of guilt from her, and she responds with such love, such relief, such thankfulness. Mary of Bethany has her brother returned to life, and finds Jesus’ affirming her choices of discipleship in more than one situation. Jesus has saved these women. Who do they say he is? Their savior. And because they see him this way, their lives change dramatically. Where the song from Superstar I sang today resonates with me most deeply is where Mary sings: “I’ve been changed, yes, really changed. In these past few days, when I see myself, I seem like someone else.” Their lives after meeting Jesus are almost unrecognizable from the lives they led before they met, knew, and followed him.

Last week, we talked about Pontius Pilate, and his apathy. He recognized Jesus as someone important, but it didn’t matter to him more than his own power and status. Who Pilate was was more important to him than who Jesus was. He isn’t changed by who Jesus is. When we look at Mary Magdalene, and these other women, the questions are the same, and Mary, like Pilate, recognizes Jesus. But the difference, the critical difference, is in the response. Who Jesus is changes Mary Magdalene, and the others, because who Jesus is changes how they see themselves. Mary of Bethany is singled out by Jesus more than once for her sincere discipleship, and we hear more about her than most of the twelve, which tells us how significant she was. The ‘sinful’ woman has her sins forgiven and shows Jesus an act of love, ignoring the insults of a prominent Pharisee. Mary Magdalene packs up and literally follows Jesus, even supporting Jesus and the twelve financially, which would enable them to preach and teach without worrying about their resources. They know who Jesus is to them, and because of it, their lives have changed.

The question is still the same for us this week: Who do you say that Jesus is? How does who he is to you change you? Does knowing Jesus change you? Are you changeable? We’re well into our Lenten journey now, a time of preparation for Easter. And I’ve come, this Lent, to think that Lent is a time to prepare ourselves to be more changeable on Easter morning. On Easter morning, we’ll see Mary Magdalene in her most significant role yet – the very first witness to the resurrection. And on Easter morning, we’ll have to ask ourselves once and for all who Jesus is, and how it changes us.

This week, I keep returning to a question posed by Lovett Weems, a church leadership guru, at one of our past District Days. He asked us, “if your church disappeared today, who, besides its members, would miss it? Who would notice it was gone?” He wasn’t talking about who would miss the physical structure, of course, but was asking what noticeable impact that church had on the community that would be missed. Who would miss this church, besides us, if it was gone, because of the difference we make? How would your discipleship be missed if you weren’t around? In other words, what changes are visible in our lives and in the life of the community because of who we say Jesus is and what that means we are called to do? Are you changeable? Are we changeable?

Jesus saved them. And it changed their lives. Amen.

Monday, March 23, 2009

District Resource Day: Vance Ross

Last week I attended a District Resource Day with Vance Ross, deputy general secretary of GBOD. His topic was Pastoral Leadership for the Evangelical Task.

Honestly, it took me a while to warm up to Ross' presentation. I attribute this, though, to the fact that we didn't have a projector for his presentation right away - it arrived about 20 minutes after he started. So he was forced to 'wing it' a bit more at the start. Once everything was set up and on task, I really enjoyed his presentation. Here are my mostly un-edited notes:

***

Easier to talk about who Jesus is than what he said and what he did. Jesus isn’t the good news message alone – it is the coming kingdom that is the message.

Evangelism is our code-word for growing numerically, when it should have a bigger meaning than that.

Trying to observe, methodically, the Sabbath.

8 Necessities for Leadership:

Call – Our own, calling others (remembering God’s call on your life)

Confidence (being able to get it done), Character, Chemistry (being able to work with others) (Hybels)

Courage – Quoting – “courage is fear that is said as prayers”

Competence

Caring – actually have to love people!

***
You can’t lead where you don’t go.

Deep spirituality is critical to the evangelical task because “this is about faith which is necessarily beyond the rational.”

When losing, go back to basics

Only organization that exists for non-members. This church is not made for you, but for others.

How do we initiate connections, and how do we expect our people to do it if we don’t?

Mission Statement – biblical, specific, transferable, measurable, and UTILIZED:

  • Teach mission statement in worship regularly. Teach it in new member classes and refresher classes.
  • All meetings.
  • On walls of classrooms, hallways, conference rooms, etc.

Connection to God is center of life corporately and individually. Must know why we do what we do. God is the source of transformation and reconciliation.

Hospitality culture receives ‘other’ with joy

  • “It is inhospitable to be cheap.” Your church is not hurt by being generous. Inhospitable to try to get off cheap and easy.
  • Sustain hospitality 5 minutes, welcome in worship, greeters and ushers, fellowship time before and after worship, fellowship meals

Canon – setting the bar – “because I can’t get over it, doesn’t mean we lower it.” We get in shape, and get over it.

Just as I am doesn’t mean “just as I’ll stay.”

Targeting Culture. God places your church in a particular and peculiar context. Some people church is more likely to reach than others. Ok to start by picking the low-hanging fruit, and then reach a little higher.

Congregational growth is comprehensive

Look at the entire church’s life in evangelism

Concern for Physical Needs and Justice Needs of congregation – Cornell West, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

“You tell me who Jesus locks out.”

One side needs of community, other side how we respond. And then, how it connects to Kingdom of God, otherwise we’re just a social service agency.

Empower Laity to Verbalize – Three Levels (Michael Green)

  • 1. Invite them to come to church.
  • 2. Share your story.
  • 3. Invite them to have relationship with God in JC.

Our vision: is God’s preferred future for our particular context. (I like this.)Our goal is to set the proper environment for this future to take place.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Happy Anniversary to Me....

Today is my five year anniversary of blogging! (Ok, it's actually 1:02am as I'm writing this, so the anniversary was technically yesterday...) It is hard for me to believe I've been blogging for so long. It took my blog a while to get rolling. About six months in, I posted a plea searching for other UMC bloggers, since I couldn't find many. In the responses, I got linked up with some now-defunct blogs, but also Jay Voorhees, Questing Parson, and Shane Raynor.

Over the years, I've had the chance to meet many of my blogging friends in person, and sometimes I forget I first 'met' them online. I think we've built a nice community over the years, haven't we?

My passion for blogging has waxed and waned... I started out slowly, and picked up to blogging quite frequently (although never daily.) For a while it seemed I couldn't attend an event without thinking about how I would blog it later, and I was a compulsive checker of my stats. Lately, though, I've had to struggle a bit to keep the blog going. I'm not even sure why, exactly. I've considered stopping altogether, but can't quite seem to let it go. So I just blog when I feel so inspired, and hope there's still a few folks around to read it. I guess maybe that's a good enough balance for now! Thanks for being one of my readers ;)

Monday, March 16, 2009

Dan Dick: United Methodeviations

I have a problem with Dan Dick's blog, United Methodeviations: his posts have too much content for me to process. I am constantly bookmarking his posts because they are harder to take in with a quick scan (like I give most of the blogs I read). So I bookmark his posts, and try to get back to them later, ending up with a situation like my current one where I have 11 of his posts bookmarked that I still want to read more carefully. If you aren't reading his blog yet, you really should be. In an effort to actually read his posts more carefully and share them with you, here's a summary of some of the posts I've bookmarked:

Show Me the Money Mission - talks about giving being up during the recession in congregations that are mission focused rather than self-focused. "Too many churches focus on giving to the exclusion of generosity, ignoring the fact that you can alter a person’s giving patterns (behavior modification) without helping them to become a generous person."

Theology of Worship? - questions what theology undergirds what we do in worship. Not as in liberal or conservative theology, but what it is we think worship is about. "I am not advocating a particular theology that all United Methodist congregations should subscribe to. I am reporting that the congregations experiencing the most vital, vibrant, transformational and meaningful worship (as reported by the worshipers, not the worship leaders) are those where the leaders can articulate a clear, precise, deeply spiritual, and widely shared answer to the question “what are the underlying beliefs and motivations about God and the worship of God that shape and inform what you offer as leaders?”"

Mediocrity Not a Goal and Blasphemediocrity - why do we settle for (and sometimes even only strive for) mediocre in the church? "I have a fat folder of notes, e-mails, and letters from former lay leaders, pastors, council chairs, trustees, choir directors, children’s coordinators, teachers, and team/committee chairs explaining their decision to leave their church and go elsewhere — some choosing to leave altogether. The most common thread is this — the church has broken their heart by failing to be Christian. As one powerful letter puts it: 'I am not mad. I’m crushed. I am not leaving the church because it is doing bad things. I am leaving it because it isn’t doing any good things."

How Deep the Well - one of my favorite posts, about clergy wholeness/wellness. Pastors and parishioners should really take a look at this one. "How deep is the well from which we draw? If we are not being fed on a regular basis, what makes us think we have anything of value with which to nourish others? If we are not drawing from a renewing, sustaining source, why are we so surprised when we “burn-out?” The correlation is strong and, unless we as Christian leaders reorient our priorities, the message is clear. If we do not cultivate a vital prayer life, dedicate ourselves to an intensive study of scripture and spiritual teaching, participate in worship as a fully engaged member of a congregation, commit to regular and intentional self-care — physically, emotionally, and intellectually – and nurture and protect key relationships we will not be the people God needs to lead God’s people."

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sermon for Third Sunday in Lent (non-lectionary)

(Sermon 3/15/09, Matthew 27:1-2, 11-26)

Pontius Pilate

It is strange that while the twelve spent three years of their lives with Jesus, we know so very little about them, while Pontius Pilate, the focus of the message today, spent just a short time with Jesus on one day, and yet we hear more from Pilate than we do half the disciples. We still don’t know a lot about Pilate’s background – there are some conflicting stories over where he was born and what family he was part of – and we don’t know much about his life before he appears in the gospels. But we know that he was a prefect in Judea, and that prefects had certain duties – mostly military oversight and collecting taxes, but also judicial responsibility in some local affairs. During big religious festivals like the Passover, Pilate would be expected to be in Jerusalem, to make sure things were kept under control. And we know that he served as prefect in Judea from 26-36 AD, recalled to Rome perhaps just a year or two after Jesus’ trial. (1)

In the gospels, Pontius Pilate appears only in the trial of Jesus and surrounding events. His name is occasionally mentions in Acts and in the writings of Paul, but only in reference to Jesus being tried before him. But in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial, we get the same general story – we see a Pilate who seems to be struggling between a feeling that Jesus is innocent of the crimes he’s accused of, and a Pilate who is concerned about the crowds and potential mob rule, wanting to please the people to keep them under control. Jesus has been arrested, and already been interviewed by the chief priests. But Pilate had authority over certain matters – in fact, even the high priest was named by the Roman government (1) – and the religious leaders wanted Pilate to condemn Jesus. In Matthew’s account, on which we focus today, Pilate interviews Jesus, asking him if he is the King of the Jews, a claim with political overtones that would threaten both the Jewish religious leaders and the Roman authorities. But Jesus keeps silent, despite the questioning.

Pilate then offers to release a prisoner – Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus “who is called the Messiah.” At this point, we read some commentary from Matthew: Pilate thinks Jesus has been handed over to him because the religious leaders are jealous of his authority and popularity with the people, and also, his wife warned him to have nothing to do with “that innocent man” Jesus, because of a nightmare she had about him. Pilate seems to want to find a way to set Jesus free without having to actually come out and make the decision. The crowds shout for the release of Barabbas and begin to chant for Jesus’ death – “Let him be crucified! Let him be crucified!” We read that Pilate was overwhelmed by the crowd’s response, feeling he had no choice but to give in: “So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that I riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’” Then Pilate releases Barabbas, as the people requested, has Jesus flogged – we’re not even sure why – and hands him over to be crucified.

I have a lot of questions about Pilate. What do we make of Pilate and his actions? Did he just get caught up in something that was out of his control? Is it true what he thought? If he hadn’t allowed Jesus to be put to death, would there really have been a riot that the Roman soldiers could not control? Would Jesus have just been put to death another way by the angry crowds? Can you just wash your hands of a situation and really be free from responsibility? Can Pilate simply declare himself innocent? Who, ultimately, is responsible for Jesus’ death? Could Pilate have taken a stronger stand? Wasn’t he in charge?

I’ve said that this Lent we’re focusing on who people say that Jesus is, and how who they say Jesus is changes who they are themselves, or how who they are changes who they say Jesus is! So if we take these somewhat jumbled questions, and apply them to Pilate, what do we come out with? Who does Pilate say that Jesus is? Surely, we don’t have a lot to go on. But we start to gather a sense even from this scene in Matthew that Pilate catches a glimpse of who Jesus is. He has a feeling that Jesus is something different. He can see that the religious leaders are jealous of Jesus. He knows that his wife has had a strange dream about Jesus and pronounced him innocent. He sees that Jesus is unwilling to argue with him over accusations and frantically defend himself. He is reluctant to condemn Jesus, and anxious not to be held responsible for what will happen to Jesus. When we take all these pieces, these clues, and put them together, it seems that Pilate, if not ready to call Jesus the Messiah exactly, knew that there was something about Jesus . . .

But for Pilate, ultimately, who he is is much more important to him than who Jesus is. Pilate is a prefect of the Roman Empire. What Pilate wants most is to escape blame, from Rome, from the Jews, no matter who Jesus turns out to be. He wants to have no responsibility for the situation before him, which is ironic for someone who wants desperately to keep their role of responsibility and authority. Pilate might believe there’s something more to Jesus – but ultimately, it doesn’t make a difference to him, because who he is, what he wants – his power, his control, his position – all of that is more important to him.

As always, what we learn here, what we learn about Pilate is only meaningful if we can see ourselves in his place. So, I have to ask – are there things that you believe, but your believing doesn’t make a difference to you, make a difference in how you live your life? Let me give you an example of what I mean. You all know that I’ve been a vegetarian for many years. But if I took what I believed, my reasons for being a vegetarian, and followed them to their conclusion, I know I would really need to become a vegan – to eat no animal products at all. I believe that a vegan diet would be the best one, the one that best fits what I believe. But I’m still not a vegan, and have no immediate plans to become one. I have to admit that although I believe a vegan diet would be more ‘right’, it hasn’t made me stop eating cheese pizza. What I believe about a vegan diet is apparently not important enough to make a difference in the way I live. That’s just a minor example of what I mean.

But what about our faith journeys? What about discipleship? What I want to know is this: What do you believe about Jesus? Who do you think that he is? And what difference has that made in the way that you live? Or, like Pontius Pilate, are there too many things about who we are and what we want for ourselves for us to actually let what we believe about Jesus change our lives?

This week one of my colleagues posed a question on his blog: “What is the most destructive force in a congregation?” He listed multiple-choice responses, including unresolved conflict, which had the most votes, followed by power struggles, narrow-mindedness, gossip, and keeping secrets. But I selected the ‘other’ option and added in my own response: apathy. The church is at risk when people don’t translate what they believe into how they live as individuals and as a congregation. To me, what is most destructive to churches is just this dilemma that we see in Pontius Pilate. We believe something, but what we believe doesn’t necessarily change anything. If we consider what we believe as I congregation, I trust that generally we believe in God, believe in Jesus, believe that Jesus set an example for us, believe that we’re meant to be disciples, believe that God loves us, and so on. We might come down differently on exactly what those beliefs mean in detail, but at the core, I think we’re on the same page. Where we need to ask ourselves the hard questions, where we need to do some soul-searching is when we ask ourselves: what difference does what we believe make?

Every Saturday, one of my pastor friends and I chat on the phone and talk about our sermons for Sunday. I can proudly tell you that by the time we talk, my sermon is always done, but hers hardly ever is. Last weekend, she was preaching on the text that I’ve been mentioning throughout Lent: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” She was struggling with how to explain what the cross was that we had to bear. What is it we are taking up? I said to her that I think most of us know exactly what the cross is for us, and it is different for each person. Taking up the cross means taking a risk to follow Jesus, and what we must risk is different for each one of us. But in our heart of hearts, when we think about taking risks for God, I think we each know what is holding us back. You know if it is doing mission work in Africa or doing mission work in Paterson. You probably know if it’s working with children or working to fight hunger or working with the elderly. You know if it’s giving more, or spending more time here, or spending more time praying. Maybe it isn’t true for all of us, but I think most of us have an idea of what risks God is calling us to take, because we feel those nudges, we have those things in the back of our mind that we think we can never do. It’s not that we don’t know what our crosses are. It’s that we’re not sure we’re ready to bear the cost, to take that risk yet. What is it that you are afraid to risk? I’m guessing, that with a little introspection, it wouldn’t take you long to answer that question.

In our discipleship, in our faith journey, we get into trouble when the cost of following Jesus is always more than we are willing to pay, and when what it costs us is always a bigger concern than acting on what we believe. When we believe, but still fail to act, that’s apathy. When we believe, but still fail to act, that’s of more concern than those who don’t know what they believe yet. For Pontius Pilate, the cost to himself was his primary concern. He knew Jesus shouldn’t be condemned to death. But the cost Pilate would bear was too much. What he was willing to risk, willing to ‘spend’ on what he believed was nothing. What are you willing to spend? What will you risk? What is that task to which God is calling you that nags at the back of your mind, the corners of your heart? What do you believe about God? And so what? How has it changed you? Who do you say that Jesus is? And how will your answer change your life?

Amen.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Festival of Homiletics: Who's Going?

In just over two months is one of my favorite continuing-ed events: The Festival of Homiletics. This year it is taking place in Atlanta, Georgia, and has such a fabulous list of speakers, including (my favorites): Desmond Tutu, Barbara Brown Taylor, Grace Imathiu, Brian McLaren, Fred Craddock, Will Willimon, and Adam Hamilton.

The festival is a really fabulous week of preaching and lectures, interspersed with some great music in the evenings. I couldn't attend last year because of General Conference, and I'm looking forward to getting back this year. Who else is going? Methoblogger meetup?

Sermon for Second Sunday in Lent (non-lectionary)

(Sermon 3/8/09, Matthew 26:47-56, John 6:1-15)

Simon, The Zealot

Last week when we talked about Judas Iscariot, I mentioned how very little we knew about someone who was so notorious. He was the betrayer of Jesus, but we know hardly anything else about him at all. Well, this week, as we continue looking at characters from the passion story, things get worse, in that regard, not better. Simon, called the Zealot, was another of the twelve disciples. He is not mentioned outside of the list of the twelve disciples at any time, never named specifically in some incident, event, or scene. He’s one of the twelve, and as important as that is, we know nothing about him from the biblical scriptures. There are some writings about him outside the scriptures, and some stories that were built up about Simon over time. For example, the twelve disciples all have a ‘symbol’ that goes with them, and Simon’s is the saw, because he is said to have met his death, his martyrdom, by the saw. But we don’t know much, other than that this word, this loaded word is attached to his name in some of the gospel of Luke – Simon, The Zealot.

The word Zealot has some very specific connotations in first century Israel. Like there are denominations in the same faith tradition of Christianity, there were denominations of sorts in Judaism – sects, or schools of thoughts. We encounter all of them in the gospels, to various degrees. The Pharisees we see most often – the teachers and scholars of the law, who advocated for strict adherence to hundreds of commandments – the group with whom Jesus was most often in conflict. Then there were the Sadducees – the priestly class, who did not believe in resurrection after death, and who appear less frequently, arguing with Jesus, but who also try to trap him theologically. And there were the Essenes. We don’t see much of them in the gospels, but we catch a glimpse in Jesus’ cousin and forerunner, John the Baptist. The Essenes were an ascetic group who lived on the fringes of society. They lived on the outskirts, shunned the comforts of life, and tried to follow a spiritual path, living in community with one another. And then, there’s a fourth group. The Zealots.

The Zealots were a group that really formed cohesively in the years between Jesus’ resurrection and the destroying of the temple by Roman forces in 70 AD. The Zealots were Jews in political movement who sought to overthrow the occupying Roman government by force. They wanted, essentially, to still up rebellion and revolution, and get people to join them in their cause against Rome. They hated that Israel was occupied Rome and considered it, like most Jews did, a desecration of their faith, not to mention oppression of their right to be a self-governing people. But unlike most citizens, the Zealots wanted to take action, to fight, to use violent force to win back freedom. They were successful for a brief time – they led the Jewish Revolt of 66 and regained Jerusalem. But in 70, Rome regained the land and the temple was destroyed.

But in Jesus day, in the 30s when Simon was a disciple, the Zealots weren’t a cohesive group. To call someone a Zealot was more to label them with ideals – they wanted Rome to be overthrown, supported an aggressive response to occupation, but weren’t at the point of organization to lead a revolution. They were zealous – a word that means “ardent or passionate in pursuit” – zealous on behalf of God, and ready to use whatever means possible to bring about God’s kingdom on earth. We have to make some assumptions about Simon, since virtually nothing is given to us in the scriptures texts, but we can gather this: that Simon was zealous – passionate – on God’s behalf – for the bringing about of the kingdom of God, by whatever means necessary. It is this sentiment that is captured in our song “Simon Zealotes” from Jesus Christ Superstar. In the musical, a crowd gathers to dance with joy and to encourage Jesus to take action, to lead a revolution. Simon sings, “Christ, what more do you need to convince that you’ve made it, and you’re easily as strong as the filth from Rome, who rape our country, and who’ve terrorized our people for so long. There must be over fifty thousand, screaming love and more for you. And every one of fifty thousand would do whatever you asked them to. Keep them yelling their devotion, but add a touch of hate at Rome. You will rise to a greater power. We will win ourselves a home. You'll get the power and the glory for ever and ever and ever.”

In the musical, Jesus responds that Simon and the crowds don’t understand what true power is, or what true glory is. And though we don’t have scripture passages that tell us more than Simon’s name and that he was a Zealot, we have these two gospel lessons today that echo Simon’s song and Jesus’ response. First, we read the passage of the feeding of the 5000. Jesus has been preaching, teaching, and healing in a large crowd of people who’ve been following Jesus and the disciples around the countryside. And rather then sending them on long treks back home, Jesus wants the disciples to provide them food. When the disciples seem clueless, Jesus gathers 5 loaves and 2 fish from a small boy, blesses it, and hands it out. Everyone finds they have enough to eat. But whatever miracle took place here isn’t our focus today – it’s on how the crowds responded to Jesus. He fed them, and the people suddenly started calling Jesus a prophet. We read, “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” Jesus has to flee the scene because they want to make him king, this man who can provide for their physical needs – heal them and feed them. They want him to be king – but Jesus knows they’re missing the point, and tries, after they still follow him, to show them a different way.

And then, in our gospel lesson from Matthew, we continue in the passion story where we left off last week. Judas betrays Jesus into the hands of the chief priests and elders. And when they move to arrest Jesus, one of the disciples draws a sword – maybe we can even imagine it is Simon, the Zealot – and strikes the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. The disciples are ready for a fight, a confrontation, in which they will defend Jesus using necessary force. But Jesus says, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen this way?” Again, Jesus tries to show even his disciples another way, when they would be ready to fight, to force, and to crown Jesus king on earth.

Do we understand this compulsion the people had to make Jesus king? Can we relate to the feelings of Simon or other Zealots who wanted to use any means necessary to get Rome out of power, out of their sacred and holy lands, out of control of their lives? Can we put ourselves in a first century mindset for a minute? Jesus keeps talking about the kingdom of God being at hand. And here he is, healing people from disease and sickness, providing food for hungry people, and teaching with a wisdom and authority that not even the religious leaders of the day seem to have. Wouldn’t you want Jesus to be the king? And really, what would have been so wrong with that? After all, the golden days of Israel, the good old days that everyone would have talked about were days when a good king ruled over mighty Israel – the days of King David. And isn’t Jesus even from the House of David? Who better to be made king? Finally, things can be restored, the holiness that once was can be regained, things can be right for God’s people again. If you start to think about it this way, doesn’t it make sense for Jesus to be made king? If God wants God’s kingdom on earth, isn’t Jesus-as-king a good way to make it so?

Understanding the first century mindset is the first step. The next is to ask ourselves if we’re really so different today. Maybe we don’t think we’d want Jesus to be our king. But I wonder if things have really changed so much. Aren’t we in fact in desperate need to fix our mess? To overhaul the crises we are currently facing as a nation? If we could find a leader who could end wars, bolster the economy, give us jobs, bail out companies, save our homes, fix the environment, give food to the hungry, educate the children, and keep us the nations of nations, wouldn’t we elect that person? In fact, isn’t that what we expect, in some way, our president to do? And don’t we think about the good old days? I’ve heard a lot of talk lately about former presidencies, and the way things used to be. And we certainly have those conversations in the church, don’t we? About the golden era, when the pews were full? Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone who could just fix things? Make it right? And what would we do, what would be willing to do, to make such a thing possible? If we thought we had a person who could make things right, what wouldn’t we do to get that person into the position of power? Maybe we’re not in first century Jerusalem. Maybe we don’t have a party of Zealots anymore. But maybe we can understand exactly why the people would want Jesus to be king.

So maybe the better question is this: why didn’t Jesus want to be king? Why didn’t Jesus use the Zealots to take control? Why didn’t Jesus ask God to command legions of angels for him? If Jesus is the Savior, why didn’t God put him in place to fix the mess we’ve been making of things? Wouldn’t that have been simple than trying to get this whole kingdom of God thing to spread by word of mouth through faulty disciples who deny and betray Jesus at every turn? Why leave so much up to us? How is Jesus saving us, exactly, if things are still so bad, and if we still have no one in charge who can make it better?

As I was pondering these questions this week, I kept thinking of passages I read in Brian McLaren’s The Secret Message of Jesus, the book we read together as an Administrative Council last year. McLaren writes, “Violent revolutions . . . aren’t revolutionary. Noisy regime changes are utterly predicable – brought about by displays of power and hollow promises and indomitable wealth . . . what is the alternative? We really must consider this question. Could the kingdom of God come with bigger weapons, sharper swords, more clever political organizing? . . . Perhaps the kingdom of God could come with flawless, relentless, irresistible logic – a juggernaut of steamroller counterarguments to flatten every objection. Or would that . . . [reduce] the kingdom of God to a kingdom of coercive stridency? What if the only way for the kingdom of God to come in its true form . . . is through weakness and vulnerability, sacrifice and love? What if it can conquer only by first being conquered? What if being conquered is absolutely necessary to expose . . . these principalities and powers, these human ideologies and counterkingdoms . . . what if the kingdom of God must in these ways fail in order to succeed?” (32, 69, 70)

Hopefully, we’ve understood that Jesus has said God’s kingdom is coming, and is in fact here already, near, at hand, among us. But sometimes when we look around us, and see the way things are, we find it hard to believe that God’s kingdom is really here. And so we start wondering what we can do to move things along. I can admire Simon and the Zealots because of what they were willing to do to bring God’s kingdom about: they’d do anything. But what Jesus tries to tell us over and over is that the coming of God’s kingdom requires of us something that is both simpler and harder at once: Those who want to be first must be last. Those who want to save their life must lose it. Strength is in weakness. To be exalted is to let yourself be humbled. And if those messages are too hard to understand, Jesus showed us: From death comes true life. If any want to be my disciples, he said, let them deny themselves, take up the cross, and follow me.

Neither you Simon, nor the fifty thousand, nor the Romans, nor the Jews, nor Judas, nor the twelve, nor the priests, nor the scribes, nor doomed Jerusalem itself understand what power is, understand what glory is, understand at all . . . to conquer death, you only have to die.”

Amen.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Sermon for First Sunday in Lent (non-lectionary)

(Sermon 3/1/09, Matthew 26:6-50, 27:3-10)

Judas, Who Later Betrayed Him

Judas, you might say, has always been my favorite disciple. Maybe ‘favorite’ isn’t quite the right word for it. Judas has always been the disciple by whom I’ve been most intrigued. I’ve spent the most time studying him. The most time pondering who he is, why he did what he did, what his role was in the passion story. I’ve been fascinated by Judas. And I have to admit that it started with a crush. When I first went to see Jesus Christ Superstar in seventh grade, I developed a big crush on the actor who was playing Judas. He played the role for the next three years, and when I would go see the production, I would focus mostly on Judas! And so even though my crush was on the actor, I became really intrigued by the character. Jesus Christ Superstar is told from Judas’ perspective, in a sense. It is his story of Jesus’ last week, his relationship with Jesus that is central to the musical. And, in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s interpretation, Judas, in the end, even after his suicide – well, his story continues.

One question became central for me to answer. As we heard in our gospel reading today, Judas committed suicide, hung himself, out of guilt for his actions, for betraying Jesus and putting him into the hands of his enemies. I had been taught that suicide was a sin that condemned someone to hell. An unforgiveable sin. But the way Judas was portrayed in Superstar made me wonder. Right there, in our text today from Matthew, we read this: “When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented.” Judas repented. That word, the word used here – it’s the same word for repentance that Jesus and John the Baptist use when the first preach their message: Repent! If Judas repented, how could he be condemned to eternal punishment? And what’s more: In the gospel of John, Jesus talks about Judas’ betrayal being part of the plan. If Judas had to betray Jesus in order for Jesus to go through the suffering and death and resurrection, how can Judas be held accountable for his actions? Was he acting as part of his own free will, making his own choices, or was he predestined to betray Jesus? And if he was predestined, can he be judged for his actions?

I presented all of these questions to my Sunday School teacher at the time. Her answer to me was simple: Judas committed suicide, so Judas went to hell. I was not satisfied with her answer. I was just sure there had to be more to it. So I wrote a letter to a publication that used to exist called Youth! Magazine – it was just for United Methodist Youth, and I loved it. They had a column for questions like mine, and I hoped for an answer. My question never got printed, but the editor of the magazine wrote me back a long, wonderful letter, that I wish I could still find. In it, he said what I have come to believe is true – basically sharing with me a message from Romans 8 – nothing in life or in death can separate us from God’s love. He said God’s grace was so amazing that he was unwilling to put any kind of limits on God’s love, even for, or perhaps especially for – Judas. Needless to say, I found his letter very comforting. My Sunday School teacher, on the other hand, was not so excited to be so contradicted! And as I mentioned on Wednesday, my fascination with Judas carried me all the way through college, when I wrote my senior religion paper on the characterizations of Jesus and Judas in fiction.

So now you know why I’m so intrigued by Judas. But my questions haven’t changed much: Who is he? Why did he do what he did? The truth is, like many of Jesus’ disciples, we don’t know very much about Judas at all. We don’t know his family background, we don’t know what he did, we don’t know where he came from. I’ve read many different theories, but of course, most are conjecture, imaginings, really, rather than fact-based theories. And since we know so little about Judas, we also don’t know very much about his motivations for betraying Jesus. Only the gospel of John mentions that Judas is treasurer for the group of disciples, and suggests that greed for the payment of silver is the motivation for betrayal. But the other gospels never mention anything like this at all. As in our gospel reading for today, Matthew, Mark, and Luke segway with new interlude into mentioning that Judas was looking for an opportunity to betray Jesus. Things get confusing, for me, to understand logically. Why would the religious leaders even need Judas to betray Jesus? They knew where Jesus was, and showed up to hear him preach and teach all the time. It wasn’t as though Jesus was in hiding and Judas led them to a secret location. We can’t imagine that 30 coins alone would have tempted Judas to betray Jesus – even though it was a hefty sum, it wasn’t enough make him set for life, a year, or even half year actually. What motivates Judas? I wonder, very much. But what we know for sure is that almost every time Judas is mentioned in the scriptures, he is called, “Judas, who later betrayed him.” We know that from Mark, the earliest gospel, to John, the latest written, Judas is increasingly portrayed as villainous and evil. And I can tell you that while Judas was always known for his betrayal, it was a few centuries after the birth of the church that Judas began to be seen as the sole disciple responsible for Jesus’ death. In fact, over time, Judas began to be a symbol for all Jews who didn’t accept Christ, and was a figure used by anti-Semites in their hatred of Jews. Judas, who later betrayed him.

Imagine if your whole life, you were called by a name that was based on one event, one action. Beth, you know, Beth who preached that awful sermon? Russell, who messed up the offertory. Joe, who couldn’t hold down a job. Marge, who really screwed up her kids. Bob, who caused that car accident. What if, your whole life, you had to carry descriptors of your mistakes, even your worst ones, as part of your name? Judas, who later betrayed him. What does it mean to betray someone? In the case of Judas, the definition of his actions which I found to best fit was this: "To prove faithless or treacherous to, as to a trust or one who trusts; to be false to; to deceive; as, to betray a person or a cause." (1) That fits, doesn’t it? Whatever Judas’ motives were, I think we can accurately say he proved faithless to Jesus. Why ever it was, whatever caused it, Judas ultimately did not have faith in Jesus. That’s the take of the song we heard today – a Judas who is having serious doubts about the path Jesus is going down, a Judas who thinks Jesus is out of control, a Judas who doesn’t see, doesn’t trust, the direction of Jesus’ ministry, and acts to stop Jesus.

What does it all mean for us? What difference does Judas’ betrayal mean for us? To me, in some ways, Judas is important in just the same way understanding every other text in the scriptures is important. We draw closer to God through understanding, and we understand by putting ourselves into the text, seeing ourselves in the story. Can we see ourselves in Judas, who later betrayed him? My biggest problem with how we’ve remembered Judas in the Christian Church is that by seeing him as so evil, we fail to see ourselves in him. Vilifying him makes us feel better. At least we’re not Judas, right? At least we’re better than Judas, the greedy traitor.

And yet, if we think of the definition of betrayal again, we have some hard questions to answer. To betray is to prove faithless to. Can you say honestly that you’ve never proven yourselves faithless to Jesus? We may find it hard to believe that after spending three years as a disciple following Christ from place to place that we'd then turn Jesus over to men we knew were trying to kill him. On the other hand, we may not find it so hard to think of ways that we betray Jesus, perhaps even on a daily basis. If to betray means to prove faithless, then we are indeed very much like Judas. Judas, for whatever reason, did not have faith enough to believe in the path Jesus was following. Do we have enough faith? Maybe, sometimes, more often than we want to admit, we don't have faith enough to believe that God has called us for plans beyond our imagination. We don't have faith enough to invest ourselves, our money, our time, and our gifts into God's care. We don't have faith enough to believe that God gives us grace, a gift there for the taking, without our needing to do something to earn it. We don’t have enough faith to actually follow Jesus instead of our plans for ourselves. And our lack of faith betrays Jesus as surely as Judas did.

But if we can let Judas be redeemed, if we can let Judas be more than the one who later betrayed him, if we can believe, like that magazine editor did, that God’s unconditional love is truly unconditional, than perhaps we can help Judas move beyond, as we move beyond. If we can see ourselves in Judas, if we can admit that our actions often betray the Jesus we claim to follow, then we too, like Judas, can repent. But we can also move beyond. Judas couldn’t move beyond what he’d done, and neither could those who would tell his story. I can’t imagine the grief and guilt he must have felt. And I wonder what might have happened, if Judas had chosen another path, if reconciliation might have been possible in his life on earth, as I believe it is always and everywhere possible with God. We are blessed always with the chance – the hope and promise really, that we can move beyond. We aren’t defined by our sins, but by God’s love and forgiveness. Beth, whose sermon made me think. Russell, whose music touched my soul. Joe, whose life God changed. Marge, who is really wonderful with children. Bob, who God loves. You, who proved yourself faithful to God’s love. Amen.