Finding the Song of Our Heart

There’s a never-ending interweaving of continuity and change in the life of a healthy congregation. Our past is part of who we are—both the good and the bad. We can’t shuck it off even if we wanted to. Instead, we keep revising and reshaping our identity and our vision in response to the changes in our congregation and the larger community where we live. Such evolution is part of life.

Jesus’ image of a discerning scribe is apt. “Therefore, every scribe who has been trained as a disciple for the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings old and new things out of their treasure chest” (Matt. 13:52). This is the raw stuff that informs our vision of who we are as God’s people as well as who God is calling us to become. Jesus drew on the best in the Jewish faith tradition to shape his life and teaching. These are to old things he drew out of the treasure chest. The new thing was the way he shaped it to meet the challenges of being the people of God in first century Palestine.

The scripture from Isaiah that he read in the synagogue in Nazareth, as he launched his public ministry, was the defining vision that guided the life and action of his band of disciples (Luke 4: 16-19). We might think of it as his spiritual/social platform: (1) Good news for the poor, (2) Release of captives and recovery of sight, and (3) the year of Jubilee involving a radical sharing of resources. Such a vision is a guiding dream rather than a detailed policy blueprint. It’s the song of our heart.

When I became the pastor of our church, people sometimes asked me what my vision for our congregation was and I honestly didn’t know. I knew our larger purpose of being a people of God and followers of Jesus. This sets the table so to speak. It’s our mission but it’s hardly a vision for our church.

It’s a recipe for disaster if a new pastor attempts to import her or his own vision for a congregation. The vision emerges among us as we together wrestle with who we are and how we engage our community. In my next blog post, I’ll write more about the “song of our heart” that is emerging in our congregation.

More On Resident Aliens

Jesus’ response to the question about paying taxes to their Roman overlords can inform our discussion about how we relate to our society as his followers (Matthew 22:15-22). Galilee, the place where Jesus grew up as a Jewish boy more than two thousand years ago, was radically different from our world. Jews in Galilee were an oppressed minority living on the margins of the Roman Empire. We, in contrast, are citizens of the most powerful nation on earth.

Jews were forced to pay tribute to their Roman overlords. Taxes were oppressively high and many small farmers fell into bankruptcy when they couldn’t pay. There was an armed tax revolt in Galilee six years before the birth of Jesus. The Roman army marched in and brutally put down the uprising, crucifying the rebels on crosses strung along roads all over the region as a warning to anyone who dared resist the power of Rome.

Such popular discontent doesn’t go away when it’s crushed through military force, as we know from today. Instead, it goes underground and keeps smoldering. That was the situation during Jesus’ lifetime. The popular Jewish sentiment was that paying taxes to the Romans was unjust and violated their scriptures. Jewish elites, on the other hand, saw it as a necessary compromise.

Now along comes Jesus, a hotshot young rabbi adored by the masses and feared by the elites. The elites feel the need to clip his wings and come up with a brilliant scheme. They’ll flatter him into making a public commitment on the tax question. It’s a perfect gotcha situation. If he says he’s opposed to paying the taxes they’ll report him to the Romans who’ll arrest him for inciting rebellion. If he says he supports paying the taxes he’ll lose his popular support.

Jesus saw right through their subterfuge and turned the tables on them by asking to see a Roman coin. A significant detail to this story is that poor people generally didn’t carry Roman coins and handled financial transactions through bartering. Only rich people carried money. It’s telling that Jesus didn’t have a coin but his opponents did. He asks them whose image and inscription is on it. They tell him its Caesars and he tells them to return it to Caesar. He has completely outwitted them.

But that’s not all he says. He ends by telling them to give to God the things that are God’s. As every good Jew knows, we’re created in God’s image and we belong to God. Giving to God the things that belong to God trumps all other considerations. This gets to the heart of the matter. What does it mean to belong to God? How do my other identities and loyalties relate to my primary identity as a child of God?

We American Christians tend to view Jesus’ answer as splitting the difference. We do what our American citizenship asks of us in our public life and we go to church and worship God in our private life. Jesus’ Jewish audience would never have understood his words in that way. They knew their whole life belonged to God.

Getting into Trouble

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John Ruth, the quintessential churchman, has said, “If your convictions don’t ever get you in trouble, they’re not worth much.”

Some of us are more temperamentally inclined to get into trouble. We enjoy being combative and pushing the social boundaries. Or we may have strong convictions about certain things and those convictions can run roughshod over relationships with others. I know it’s going to be a tough meeting when someone begins by saying, “I have strong convictions.”

Others of us are inherently people pleasers. We want to know where others stand before we make any kind of personal commitment. Another way to say it is that we’re politically astute. Or perhaps we’re just naturally kind and pastoral. We pastors seem to be especially inclined to try to please everyone. Developing empathy and cultivating listening skills are certainly virtues but there are also times when we need to speak and live out our convictions in ways that will get us into trouble.

A good pastor friend told me about the different lessons she learned from both sides of her extended family. On one side there’s a long lineage of church leaders who, we might say, are politically astute. They taught her that you need to be very careful to not rock the boat lest you get thrown overboard.

The other side of the family was more inclined to live their convictions and letting the chips fall where they may. Her grandfather was the pastor of a small mission church in a black community in Virginia during segregation. Church polity, at the time, was that blacks and whites were not allowed to take communion together. This distressed her grandmother so much that she abruptly got up during a communion service and walked out the door. She and her husband later told the church hierarchy that they refused to abide by the segregated polity. Because of their stance, her husband had to give up his pastoral position. For them, rocking the boat in this situation was part of what it meant to follow Jesus.

Jesus tells us to expect such confrontation as his followers. “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Sheep, wolves, snakes, doves—these images convey the sense that this will not be a relaxed Sunday afternoon stroll in the park. If Jesus was maligned as the prince of devils how much more will we be maligned as his followers (Matthew 10:24-25)? He certainly rocked some boats and earned the wrath of some powerful people. It’s a holy calling.

Practice Resurrection

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Doubt is pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother. — Kahlil Gibran

To understand the doubt among Jesus disciples, when confronted by accounts of his resurrection, we need to enter into the pain they had experienced. Theirs was not a feel good faith. According to the Gospel of Luke, one evening as they gathered for dinner they were talking about the persistent rumors when Jesus suddenly appeared in their midst and gave his familiar greeting, “Peace be with you.” They were terrified! (24:36-49).

The disciples thought it was a ghost. Being visited by a ghost was not a happy event in the ancient world. “No, no,” Jesus said, “Why are you afraid?” Look at the marks on my hands and feet. It’s me. Their imaginations had to be working overtime. They were trauma victims struggling to put their lives back together after going through a horrific week of state sponsored torture. The last thing they needed was to be visited by that ghost.

Jesus gently coaxed them to a still incomprehensible conclusion. He didn’t explain resurrection, but encouraged them to discover it for themselves. Luke’s tells us that the disciples “in their joy . . . were still disbelieving and still wondering.” They wanted to hope but there were too many unanswered questions. They were so afraid of getting it wrong again. I can empathize because I have my own questions. Such things don’t happen in my world either.

When you’re dead, you’re dead. We all know that. The more sophisticated the arguments explaining the resurrection are the more questions they raise. So I won’t do that. But, like those first disciples, I feel hope burning inside me. Death cannot have the last word. If it did the militarists and capitalists would be right and I will never submit to such a world.

So Jesus turned to the scriptures to help his disciples see what God’s up to. He talked about Gods’ plan for creation, about the covenant with Abraham and Sarah, about the exodus from Egypt, about Ezekiel’s vision of a valley of dry bones coming back to life, and about Isaiah’s depiction of a suffering servant. Slowly, their minds began to unlock. Perhaps the rejection and humiliation of the crucifixion wasn’t a dead-end after all. Could it be part of God’s plan–the final steps into the plight of broken humanity? The wheels begin to turn. What would it mean to believe, to practice resurrection?

How would it reorient our lives, our families, and our communities? Jesus challenges his followers to be witnesses to such a brave new world bubbling up in the midst of our cruel and tired old world. We’re witnesses to the fact that we can live as free people. No matter what happens to us–death will not have the final word.

Like those first disciples, we have not arrived and are far from perfect. Still, I see signs of resurrection in our love and care for each other. I see them in our resistance to the powers of death, greed, and violence. We resist being egocentric and self-consumed to the hurt of other people. We strive for healthy, life-giving sexual relationships. We’re deeply committed to our spouses, our children, our families.

I see resurrection in our care for the broken parts and hurting places in our lives. I see resurrection in the tough love that sometimes says this is all we can give right now. There’s wisdom in recognizing that only God can fill some of our deepest needs. I see resurrection when we don’t give in to the compulsion of thinking we need to fix everything.

I see the victory of God when we resist consumerism. We all draw those boundaries at slightly different places but draw them we must. We can’t develop an appropriate relationship to things when we consume indiscriminately simply because we can. Kristen Grant says we’re witnesses to the resurrection when we can invite someone to look into our homes, our families, our friendships, our work, our checkbook, our daytimes—and find Jesus there (Christian Century, April 19, 2003: 19).

Palm Sunday as Street Theatre

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Was Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday a form of street theatre? Some biblical scholars think so. After his phenomenally successful campaign in Galilee, Jesus made the fateful but calculated decision to travel to Jerusalem to confront the religious and political elites in that ancient temple city. Luke’s Gospel reports that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51). The crowds kept growing as he got closer and closer. And the governing elites hatched draconian plots to stop him, even if it meant killing him. The tension was palpable.

Jerusalem was an occupied city with a long history of revolt. A priestly Jewish family, known as the Maccabees, had successfully rebelled against the Persians and ruled for a hundred years before losing power to the Romans about thirty years before Jesus’ birth. There had been several unsuccessful attempts to throw off the Roman yoke in the following decades. A garrison of Roman soldiers now overlooked the temple area. Bible scholar Marcus Borg says that, in order to make a show of force during Passover, the Roman governor Pilate led a procession of troops into the city from the West, accompanied by all the trappings of imperial power (Jesus a New Vision, 174).

The staging area for Jesus’ procession, according to the Gospel of Mark, was to the East of the city near the Mount of Olives. The symbolism of this location is striking. Listen to Zechariah 14: 2-4. “I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city shall be taken and the houses plundered. . . . Then will Yahweh go forth and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives.”

Furthermore, palm branches where a nationalist Maccabean symbol. New Testament scholar Ched Myers notes that Jesus’ procession recalls the earlier military entry of the triumphant rebel leader Simon Maccabaeus into Jerusalem with people waving palm branches and singing victory songs (Binding the Strong Man, 294). What’s going on here? Was Jesus a violent revolutionary? Remember, Pilate had him crucified between two criminals on the charge of sedition. Roman authorities used the word “criminal” as a demeaning caricature of a “freedom fighter.”

Jesus was a revolutionary but not a violent one. He was a peace revolutionary. Ched Myers notes that over half of the episode in Mark’s Gospel is devoted to instructions to securing a donkey and preparing for the procession. This indicates that it was deliberately planned and choreographed as “street theatre” (Binding the Strong Man, 295). Jesus and his followers were making a bold statement about an alternative world coming. They were also celebrating and having fun with a purpose.

Ched thinks the procession may have been intended as a satire on Jewish military liberators. And if we consider Marcus Borg’s historical observation that Pilate was leading Roman soldiers from the other side of the city with their imperial insignia flying, it may also have been a satire on such an imperial show of force. While Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem certainly included elements of satire, it also conveyed a positive peace message. Luke’s Gospel says that Jesus wept as he came near the city and proclaimed, “If you, even you, had only recognized the things that make for peace!” (19: 42). An opportunity had been missed and Jesus saw war clouds hanging over the city.

The national symbolism of the procession is especially evident in John’s Gospel, which is the only Gospel that mentions the palm branches. The crowds shout “Hosanna” meaning “God save us” and proclaim Jesus to be the “King of Israel!” But what kind of king is being portrayed? Jesus is riding on a lowly donkey rather than on a war-horse. This is specifically emphasized by the reference to the book of Zechariah, “Look your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.”

Marcus Borg says that Jesus’ entry was a “planned political demonstration, an appeal to Jerusalem to follow the path of peace, even as it proclaimed that his movement was the peace party in a generation headed for war. It also implied that the alternative of peace was still open” (Jesus a New Vision, 174). Jesus “street theatre” portrayed a radical upside-down kingdom that was immensely appealing to common people but alarming to the custodians of the social and religious status-quo.

Born Again

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Would you introduce yourself to your neighbors as a “born again” Christian? Why or why not? Many associate “born again” Christians with an intolerant, fundamentalist religious-political agenda. The millennial generation—young people born after 1980—are especially turned off. Consequently many of us we find it increasingly awkward to admit we’re Christians and, when we do, we emphatically say that we’re not that kind of Christian.

Another problem with the phrase “born again” is that it’s usually linked with a severe theology that emphasizes human sinfulness and God’s anger with sin. Consequently, all of us are condemned to hell. The answer to this predicament is that God offered Jesus to die on the cross in our place. We’re saved by believing in Jesus who is the perfect sacrifice for our sin. Again, young millennials are especially turned off.

Our reaction to this kind of Christianity pushes us toward the equally problematic persuasion that it doesn’t matter what we believe as long as we find happiness and try to be nice. This week a Facebook friend posted a phrase from H. Richard Niebuhr, a twentieth century American theologian, “A God without wrath brought men (sic) without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

Following the quote, he wrote, “This analysis of certain trends within American Christianity remains spot-on.” I wrote back that it’s a terrible quote but others agreed that it was “spot-on” and we got into a big Facebook argument. A theology professor liked it because his said, “It aptly describes the theology of many of his first-year college students who think Jesus is Barney and that we should all be happy and try to be nice to each other.”

If we reverse that Niebuhr quote we get something like this, “An angry God condemns sinful people to hell but then offered up his only Son to die in our place.” It may be a perverse kind of good news but it’s seriously deficient. It cannot inspire and undergird a community of faith that seeks to live in Jesus’ way of peace and reconciliation. I fired back that if I had to choose between such theology and the Barney version of being happy and nice, I’d go with Barney.

Thankfully, we have more life-giving options. To paraphrase Norman Kraus, one of my favorite theologians, God sending Jesus was an act of love. To enter into the qualitatively new life which God offers in Jesus, one must put complete confidence in Jesus who is the paradigm of God’s love” (Jesus Christ Our Lord, 142).

When Jesus used “born again” language in his conversation with Nicodemus he was attempting to pierce through Nicodemus’ spiritual obliviousness (John 3-21). Nicodemus didn’t get it and took Jesus literally. Jesus explained that it’s like the blowing wind; it has a hidden, mysterious quality.

Jesus further explains in what may be the best known verses in the Bible, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). The core premise is God’s love. God loves me, God loves you, God loves my town, and God loves the neighbor I despise. Jesus’ life and ministry demonstrated the nature of God as suffering love.

Furthermore, there’s a great mystery of evil in our world. By giving himself on the cross, Jesus won a decisive victory over those forces of evil that seek to hold our world captive to their designs. Ironically, they include the God and country, socially intolerant, religious-political agendas that many so-called “born again” Christians support. When we give our hearts and minds to Jesus, we share in his victory over these forces.

Norman Kraus says it like this, “Christ did not come to condemn but to give eternal life. He did not disassociate himself from us and point an accusing finger, but he identified with us and saved us from perishing. His only judgment was that like the entrance of light he exposed the true nature of human evil and forced a decision” (Jesus Christ Our Lord, 226).

A common belief is that it’s about spending eternity with God after we die. Of course it is but we need to reel that back a bit. When we make a decision for Jesus we join in his victory over the forces of evil right here, right now. It can still be a long and difficult road but we have entered into a new and different world. We’re empowered to live lives that reflect God’s love and the healing power of God’s Spirit working in and through us. In other words, we’re “born again.”

The Way of Jesus

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Last week I recognized a parallel between the twenty-two students who received Student Peace Awards of Fairfax County and the way of Jesus. I need to be circumspect. The students are from various religious backgrounds and many were likely not involved in peacebuilding as part of a commitment to following the way of Jesus. What I’m saying is much more modest. I see a parallel between the student peacebuilding efforts and Jesus’ response to the social and spiritual needs of ordinary people.

Those of us engaged in peacebuilding soon learn how excruciatingly difficult it can be. That difficulty encompasses our personal spiritual journey. We need to be able to see the vision of just and peaceable communities then, in our effort to live into that vision, we run headlong into our fears, desires, and ambitions that easily trip us up. We experience the resistance of significant others, often including peers and family members.

We can see this struggle being played out in Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4: 1-11). His powerful spiritual vision of being a much-loved child of God was immediately followed by an excruciatingly difficult time of testing in the desert similar to the vision quest of other spiritual-social pioneers in human history. It was most likely an actual fast but the biblical language is a metaphorical account of being tested alone in the desert beyond the ordinary reality provided by culture and human interchange.

This trial is aptly expressed in the American folksong “Lonesome Valley:”

Jesus walked this lonesome valley,
he had to walk it by himself.
Oh, nobody else can walk it for him,
he had to walk it by himself.

The version sung by Woody Guthrie includes this verse, which ties the experience of Jesus to our spiritual journey:

There’s a road that’ll take you to glory,
through a valley not far away.
Nobody here can go there for you;
they can only point the way.

The story of Jesus being tempted by Satan can trip us up. The biblical meaning of Satan is “adversary.” Medieval images of a gruesome devil with a forked tail and a pitchfork are misleading. The way we’re temped is through our personal desires, fears, and ambitions.

Biblical scholar Laurel Cobb writes, “Satan appears in the role of adversary, forcing Jesus to face terribly tough questions and make life-and-death decisions. Jesus could be asking himself what God is asking of him, as God’s beloved son. In the face of Roman terror and oppression, what will it mean to follow in the footsteps of Isaiah [the ancient Hebrew prophet of peace]? (Mark & Empire, 45-46).

These same temptations would reappear at different times during Jesus’ public ministry. The temptation to turn stones into bread goes beyond Jesus’ own hunger. It’s about being a messiah who feeds the hungry masses who then crown him as king. This is exactly what the people tried to do after he fed the multitudes (John 6:15).

The temptation to throw himself from the temple is more ambiguous. It most likely is that of being a religious miracle worker to prove that he is the son of God. Again, Jesus was often asked to prove he was the messiah through giving a miraculous sign. He always refused (Mark 8:11-13).

Finally, Satan promised Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if he would only bow down and worship him. This is clearly a sociopolitical temptation, “Be a warrior king like all the other great kings in history and lead an armed rebellion against the hated Roman occupiers.” This temptation followed Jesus right to the cross. It was at the heart of his struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-42).

By overcoming these tests Jesus blazed a new way of being a child of God. There are clear precedents of this way in Israel’s history be we see it most clearly in the life and ministry of Jesus. This is the “way” if we would trust God, live as children of God, and follow Jesus. It may seem so heroic and beyond our reach but it’s not. It’s actually easier for ordinary people.

Jesus’ first disciples called themselves “followers of the way.” The saw the vision of Jesus, they trusted God, and they began to put this way into practice in their personal lives and in their communities of faith springing up in the Mediterranean world. What an adventure!