Friday, April 11, 2014

A Sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday - April 2014

Read the Procession of Palms text here: Matthew 21:1-11
Read the Passion text here: Matthew 26:14-27:66


Who Is This and What Is Going On Here?
Pontius Pilate, Roman Prefect of Judea
This weekend we enter into the Passion of our Lord.  This is the most important week of the year for those who are disciples of Jesus.  For the love and commitment of God to the creation and to us, who are God’s beloved children, is put on display in ways that are both profound and overwhelming.  But at the same time it is a bit baffling because throughout his ministry and especially during the story of the passion what emerges as important, and essential for Jesus (and for God) is in direct conflict with those things that we humans have determined are essential and important for us.  This is starkly obvious when the events of the Passion and Jesus’ actions are compared and contrasted with those of various other characters in the story. 
So beginning on this weekend when we celebrate Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem and we begin to make the shift to the Passion, and then continuing through our remembrances of the events of the Passion on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday we are going to focus on comparing Jesus’ attitudes, teachings and actions with the assumptions and actions of three primary characters in the story: Pontius Pilate (Palm Sunday) – the disciple Simon Peter (Maundy Thursday) – and the disciple Judas Iscariot (Good Friday).
Pontius Pilate – the Prefect or Governor of Judea.  Not a whole lot is known about who Pilate was before and after his term as Prefect for Judea.  But there are a few things that can be said.  It appears that Pilate was from the north of Italy, a descendent of a tribe that held out against Rome for sometime early in the period of Roman expansion.  Eventually however, they were conquered and integrated into Roman life.  In order to have had a successful aristocratic life (and Pilate was a Roman aristocrat, even if he was a 2nd level aristocrat) he would have needed two things: 1. A Classical education – which he undoubtedly received; and 2. A Patron – and there is every indication that he had the patronage of a notoriously powerful and important official who was close to Emperor Tiberius.  With these two things Pilate was able to secure an appointment as an officer in the army and certainly spent several years on various campaigns as he moved up the ranks.  Just from his actions in Judea it is obvious that Pilate was always more of a military officer than a diplomat.  He must have done well because then the Emperor himself appointed him to the post of Prefect of Judea.
The job of the Prefect was like being a sub-governor, he was under the authority of the Governor of Syria, but for the first 5 years of his appointment the Governor of Syria engaged in a conflict with the Emperor and was detained in Rome until that was resolved. So Pilate was on his own and he wasted no time letting people know who was in charge.  Now as Prefect, Pilate’s job was NOT to Romanize the population, it was really more pedestrian than that.  His job was three-fold: he was to collect taxes, to secure trades routes and to keep the peace.  And the last one there was probably the most challenging part of the job.  For no matter what he did the people of Judea hated him, and it appears that the feeling was mutual.  But as brutal as he could be he still was a remarkably calculating man, who carefully nurtured his relationship with the High Priest Joseph Caiaphas and allowed the Temple officials a fair amount of autonomy.  And Pilate had another challenge – he had to keep a tight reign on his own troops, the Roman Legions under his command.  These troops would have all been from outside of Judea and they way too often got out of control and did things that sparked trouble.  Pilate at times had to harshly punish his own troops to maintain order.  You might say that being the Prefect of Judea was like learning to walk a tight rope.
Which brings us to this day, the beginning of the week of Passover. And on this day the Governor would be making one of his few trips to Jerusalem.  Normally he lived in the coastal seaside resort city of Caesarea where he had a beautiful seaside residence.  Kind of like living on a beautiful resort on the Florida coast.  No wonder he hated coming to Jerusalem, not to mention that the city was also the center of anti-Roman hate and trouble.  Everything came together in Jerusalem.  And, no surprise, when he came he brought all of his legions.  He dare not travel alone or with only a small guard.  He would have entered into the city on that Sunday with the full strength of the Roman garrison from Caesarea.  All of the troops would have been mounted on horseback; with banners waving and standards held high; they would have put on a show of force.  For his part it is well known that Pilate preferred to dress in his military uniform, with full battle armor.  This tall and strong Roman official in the prime of his life would have been a formidable sight as he entered into Jerusalem mounted on his steed surrounded by his troops.  The armor of these troops would have glistened in the sunlight, the sound of the horses hoofs would have been deafening. I suspect there was little cheering, but people probably lined the streets, and looked out of the windows in silence and fear as they watched this show of force  For this entrance would have left no question about where the power lay and who was in charge: Pax Romana = The Peace of Rome = might makes right = Peace established by violence or the threat of violence. Do not cross us!
On the other side of the city another entrance was taking place at roughly the same time as the Governor’s entrance.  A Rabbi, a teacher from the Galilee had arrived and his followers and disciples had cut off some palm branches and were spreading their garments on the road encouraging the bewildered locals to join in the cheering and celebration.  Hosanna in the Highest they cried – Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.  The contrast with the other procession could not be greater – Jesus is mounted on a donkey, there is no armor or weapons, there is cheering and celebration at least from the group of Jesus’ disciples and followers in contrast to the fearful silence of the other.  But Jesus also brings the promise of peace: Shalom – perfect well-being – unity with God and within God’s human family brought together in love.  Peace, not through force or threat or violence – but through love and grace.
From there the events escalate and eventually these two world collide as Jesus is eventually early Friday morning brought before this Roman Governor.  Jesus – who’s name means God’s saves face to face with a man named Pilate, a name which mean one who is master of the lethal weapon the javelin; The power and strength of the Empire facing off against the powerlessness and weakness of the Kingdom of Heaven. Despite the efforts of many in the early centuries of the church to exonerate Pilate and make him into someone who has his hands tied and essentially is tricked into condemning Jesus, make no mistake Pilate was the power and he would not have balked at condemning yet another peasant rabble-rouser to crucifixion.  No matter how much the situation is set up by the Sanhedrin or how much Pilate might have been intrigued by this Rabbi Jesus (and the Gospels differ in their accounts of all of this) – make no mistake - the final word is with Pilate and he would not have waffled – this was after all, his job.  Indeed he had been there, done that many times before.
See these two men standing in that judgment hall eye to eye.  Pilate in his military uniform and Jesus who is almost stripped naked.  Pilate is the opposite of everything Jesus stands for: power, wealth, prestige and position were attained and maintained by Roman violence, and by the subjugation and humiliation of others.  Power was the primary value.  But not for Jesus – Jesus stood for love and grace – forgiveness – acceptance of all – peace – non-violence.  Pilate represented strength – power through strength; Jesus embodied weakness – perfect strength comes through weakness.  Jesus’s teachings would have been impossible for Pilate to comprehend, no wonder his famous question is remembered today: “What is truth?”
The truth as embodied by Jesus is no less perplexing to us today – for the truth of Jesus is found in the weakness of the cross.  For in the cross we see perfect and overwhelming love; in the cross we see complete unconditional forgiveness; in the cross we see Jesus’ arms stretched wide open to receive us – all of us - in love and grace; in the cross we are restored to unity with God and with each other; in the cross we have peace/shalom; in the cross is our calling to live lives which reflect this love and grace; to embrace weakness and non-violence; to give up the pursuit of power and status and wealth; to open our hearts and lives to all people!
In the cross is abundant life!
In the name of the Father, the Son+ and the Holy Spirit.


Friday, April 4, 2014

Reflections on the text - Lent 5A – John 11:1-45

Read the text here: John 11:1-45


Not What I was Expecting!
How often do we ask questions where we already know the answer we expect?  I think quite often.  Occasionally someone will call the house and ask if I would like to take a “non-partisan” poll.  Usually I say no, but occasionally I have agreed.  So then the questions start and within the first couple questions you can tell this is not a “non-partisan” poll.  The questions, in fact, are designed to elicit specific answers and there is no space for an alternative perspective.  I know what I want to hear – end of discussion!  It is perhaps one reason why I have no respect for the polls to which everyone on television and in politics is always referring.  But we do the same for faith issues too, don’t we?  How often have you asked a question expecting a certain answer?  How often have you asked a question with the express purpose of making a point? 
Throughout the season of Lent we have experienced this same phenomenon in the Gospel texts from John.  Lent II – Nicodemus visits Jesus to question him, but gets more than he bargains for – “How can these things be?”  he asks in frustration when Jesus is not giving him what he expects. Lent III – The Samaritan woman asks Jesus where God is to be found and consequently where true worship of God is to be conducted – in Jerusalem or Mt. Gerezim?  She knows what Jesus will say, after all he is a Judean!  Lent IV – The disciples point to a blind beggar and ask Jesus whose sin is the consequence for this poor man’s condition – the man’s or his parents? After all, that is what everyone understood – bad things happen for a reason, and that reason is someone is a sinner!  But in each of these instances Jesus does not give the expected answer.  In fact, Jesus turns the questions upside down and completely changes course.  “You must be born again!” Jesus tells Nicodemus.  “Neither in Jerusalem or on Mt. Gerezim, God is worshiped in Spirit and truth here and everywhere!” Jesus tells the Samaritan woman.  And not content to simply dismiss the disciple’s small-minded question Jesus shows his contempt for popular wisdom by actually reaching out and healing the blind man!   Talk about turning things upside down!
This brings us to Lent V – and the Raising of Lazarus.  Jesus gets the message that his friend Lazarus is ill but instead of leaving immediately he “tarries” and by the time he arrives in Bethany, Lazarus is not only dead, but already buried – 4 days ago!  And he is greeted Martha: “If you had been here my brother would not have died!”  This outburst is filled with anger and hurt, but Jesus responds by simply telling Martha that her brother will rise again.  Well, yes of course, way off in the future on the last day, right? She replies.  That is when we will all rise again, but it doesn’t really help this situation now!  And it is at this point that we get the twist from Jesus.  Martha, and we the readers, are assuming that Jesus is pointing Martha and Mary towards hope in the future resurrection, to a heavenly time way off in the distant future.  After all what else can we say at this point, right?  Lazarus is dead now, and there is nothing to be done.  But this is not what Jesus is saying: “I am the resurrection AND the life!” He says!  This is not an exclusively heaven-focused faith at all – there are implications NOW for life – for your life Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ life, and your life too – dear reader!
This is the challenge of this story: the Gospel is not only about a future, distant heaven; in fact, the Gospel is not primarily about going to heaven at all.  The Gospel is about living life in the Kingdom HERE and NOW in the midst of our everyday lives.  “…The promises of God we announce are not only about life eternal with God or even about God’s forgiveness at the last day. Rather, the Gospel should make a difference now, make things possible now, open up opportunities and options now, transform relationships now. The promises of God are present tense, not just future.
So then, what difference does the Gospel make in your lives here and now?  Death is not the last word – Jesus brings life: a full and complete life – eternal life that begins now.  So what difference does this make in your lives here and now?  For Lazarus it meant being restored to the community and his family; for Mary and Martha it meant having the relationship with their brother restored; for the others who witnessed this event it meant a restoration of relationship and a new calling!  Do you notice the theme of the restoration of relationship?  Yet again this is central to the proclamation of the Gospel.  The Gospel is about the restoration of relationship – with each other and with God.
But there is also a calling included in this text.  Jesus tells the community to unbind Lazarus and to let him go.  The community is called upon to participate in this action of God’s.  Restoring life and breath was God’s work through Jesus, but it would have been kind of a useless exercise if Lazarus had been left to languish in the cave swaddled in his linen shroud.  Other hands were needed to continue and complete the work. 
And those hands are ours.  Like the other stories we have heard this Lent this story comes back around and looks squarely at each of us demanding we consider this important question: what difference does it make?!?  What difference does it make in your life here and now that Jesus is not only the resurrection but also the life?  That Jesus has come so that we might have life and have it abundantly?  That we are called to make a difference, to open the tombs of those who are trapped in darkness; to unbind those who are tied up in the shrouds of hardship, poverty, hunger, loss, illness and so on; to free those who are imprisoned by addictions and obsessions and all kinds of other death inducing situations?  To what response is Jesus calling you?  What does you're here and now eternal and abundant life look like?  
 

Monday, March 31, 2014

More on the movies...

My reviews and thoughts of several films which are either currently in the theaters - or are coming soon is below - you can scroll down to find it.  The movies include - "Heaven Is For Real," "Noah," "God's Not Dead" and "Son of God."

In the meantime there have been a number of other articles written about "Noah" and "God's Not Dead" and I want to share the links.  On the basis of these many reviews I might be inclined to see "Noah," - but "God's Not Dead" is still the stupidest and most terribly anti-Gospel film that has hit the theaters in years.  Christians should stay away from that film - if only that we don't want to encourage any more of this idiocy to be created.

So here are some other reviews:

God's Not Dead:
http://lutheranconfessions.blogspot.com/2014/03/god-is-dead-but-can-we-talk-about-him.html

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/logical-take/201403/god-s-not-dead-neither-is-philosophy?quicktabs_5=0


Noah:
http://lutheranconfessions.blogspot.com/2014/03/watching-noah.html

http://sojo.net/blogs/2014/03/27/noah-deeply-passionately-biblical

http://theunexpectedpastor.wordpress.com/2014/03/31/noah-the-film-a-rant-a-review-and-a-recommendation/

http://biblestudyandthechristianlife.com/noah-review-a-theological-void-washes-away-the-heaviness-of-the-flood/

http://insidenancysnoodle.blogspot.com/2014/03/noah-what-i-liked-what-i-didnt.html

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Reflections from the Pastor on John 9

Read the text here: John 9

Defined by our Weakness
Throughout Lent we have focused on relationship – our relationships with God and with each other.  These relationships are central to our lives.  No matter how much we want to believe that we don’t need anyone else and that we can do it on our own, this is simply not true.  We need God and we need others.  We were created to be in relationship with God and others and in Baptism we are given the gift of community. The brokenness of our relationships is created by our self-centeredness, our false self of individualism. But God strives to restore these relationships for us.  Ultimately through Jesus, God is constantly at work healing and restoring the brokenness in our lives.
Throughout Lent we have focused on the central stories in the Gospel of John. So far we have met Nicodemus and the Woman and the Well, both of whom do not believe they are lost or broken, but through Jesus begin not only to see the possibility of being restored to relationship, but (at least in the case of the woman) embrace this immediately.  In both of these stories we see how our own self-perception and our preconceptions can get in the way of Jesus reaching out to us.  Today we meet the man born blind and in this healing story we see how Jesus restores this man to relationship with God, but also how hard it is to overcome how we are defined by others and how we define ourselves.
One of the things that has always struck me about this story is how after he is healed instead of celebrating, many of his “friends” and acquaintances do not even recognize him.  Indeed, after all of these centuries even we continue to refer to this man as “the man born blind.”  This man is identified by his weakness, by his disability.  And those who knew him cannot even recognize him without it.  They think it might be him, it kind of looks like him. But they can’t be sure because now that the disability, the blindness is healed. They simply don’t know who this guy is anymore.  Even his parents aren’t sure what to say.
I’m not sure that this is all that peculiar.  “How often, I wonder, do we define those around us in terms of their shortcomings, challenges, or perceived deficits. That woman is unemployed, we may say, or this man is divorced. She’s a single mom; he’s a high school dropout. He’s a failure; she’s an alcoholic. She has cancer. He’s depressed.  Nor is this practice limited to others. We often do the same to ourselves, allowing past setbacks, disappointments, or failures to shape how we see ourselves. We seem to have such a penchant for defining others -- and ourselves -- in terms of problems rather than possibilities that we aren’t sure what to do when the situation changes. And so the friends of the man born blind have defined him -- and even their relationships with him -- so fully in terms of his disability that they can’t recognize him when he regains his sight.”
By the end of the story this man who has had sight restored and who has been healed is expelled from the synagogue.  He is cut off from his family and community completely.  Why, because those around him refuse to see beyond his blindness and for them, without the blindness this man no longer has an identity.  And what about us?  How often do we struggle with this exact same issue?  How often are we more like the family and friends or the authorities in this story – defining a human being by something external, or something in that person’s past, or a failing or a disability and refusing to see the gift of the whole and restored person within?
In Baptism, God, through Christ claims us as God’s own child, we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit and the gift of the name of Christ.  In baptism we are given the gift of wholeness and the promise that no matter what God will always work to restore us to that wholeness.  No matter where we wander, what our troubles and mistakes, no matter our preconceptions and prejudices and those of others around us, no matter how hostile we get towards God – God loves and accepts us for who we are anyway - unconditionally.  And at the same time God calls upon us to open our hearts to others around us.  And to begin to work to see others not as “them,” or “those people,” “or that failure,” but as fellow Children of God who are also called and beloved by God and with whom called has called us to be in community.

Monday, March 24, 2014

A Pastor at the Movies - Reflections of the current crop of (so-called) "Christian" movies.


I don’t often go to the movies, but when “Son of God” was announced I decided that I should see it, just out of curiosity.  So my afternoon at the movies began, as is usually the case with a set of 5 trailers for movies that would be in the theaters soon.  These trailers were obviously carefully chosen to appeal to the kind of audience that the distributor (or theater) thought would be at “Son of God.”  I found these trailers to be almost as interesting as the feature film itself and feel compelled to share some thoughts.  Please bear in mind that I have not seen these entire films – these comments are based only on the trailers.
1.Heaven Is For Real.  This is a film version of the book that has been very popular.  I have not read the book but I know many who have and they have enjoyed it. Since I have not read the book I have no way of knowing how closely the movie follows the book, but I hope that the movie has branched off from the book for I found the trailer to be very melodramatic and emotionally manipulative.  The plot following the boys recovery seems to me to be a typical formula used in countless films: some unexpected person (the child in this case) has discovered a great truth and everyone then conspires to keep that truth from being shared, except for a few brave souls who are defend the child at all costs until in the end the “truth” is victorious.  Theologically my concern is the over-emphasis on heaven, as if getting to heaven is the only thing that Christianity is concerned about.  It is not.  Jesus in Gospels is quite clear in proclaiming that the Kingdom of Heaven (Kingdom of God) is come into our midst NOW in Jesus.  It is not off in the future – it is NOW.  Also, the disciples discover in Acts 1 that there is work to be done NOW – the work of the kingdom.  In fact, it is a grave theological error to focus exclusively on heaven at the expense of being responsible disciples now.  One of the characters in the trailer actually raises this point – something to the effect “what about living life now.”  They cut off the response, but in my view that is a good question – and a question that really stands at the heart of the Gospel.

2.Noah.  I am not going to say much about this.  The trailer made it look like a kind of fun action movie, which bears little to no relation to the story in the bible except for some of the character names.  Which I think is fine.  How else can you have a feature length movie based on this story, there really is not a whole lot of detail to the narrative.  All of the hand wringing and complaining by certain elements of Evangelical Christianity I think are downright silly.  From the trailer my one theological concern with this film is this: In the biblical story the focus is on God’s promise, as symbolized by the rainbow at the conclusion of the story.  But the film seems to spend a lot of time on the destruction and death of those who are “left behind.”  This misses the point. 

3.God’s Not Dead.  OK – I have saved the most obnoxious and most offensive film for last (the remaining two trailers  out of the 5 were for cartoon films which were pretty inoffensive).   The plot of this film was pretty clear – a faithful Evangelical Christian boy (of course) goes off to college where he is not only challenged but also victimized by his atheist/agnostic philosophy professor.  But eventually the boy, of course, wins the day.  Where do I start!
Even Christianity Today, a relatively conservative Christian mainstream magazine, stated that this film is “Evangelical Pornography.”  I could not agree more.  At the root of this film is a belief that a particular group of Christians are being attacked and persecuted for their beliefs by godless unbelievers.  This film is designed, I suppose, to encourage and give this this group a sense of victory and encouragement.  Along with the film churches can get all kinds of materials to help in their campaign against the godless.
Well, I am a Christian and I am a Pastor, and I have a deep sense of spirituality and this film not only does NOT speak for me – I am personally thoroughly and completely offended by it.  Why?
A.     First of all, since when do Christians of any kind think they deserve to get special treatment?  The history of Christianity is a story of Christians flourishing in the midst of official indifference and even persecution. That would be an interesting story to tell – but that is not the story that is told here.

B.     However, there is NO persecution going on in the USA in the 21st century of Christians.  There is persecution – real persecution in other places in the world and the fake persecution that these Evangelicals and Fox News have dreamed up do a profound disservice to those who are suffering from real persecution.  This fake persecution is related to the idiocy that we have to endure each year in December – the so-called “War on Christmas” – which is simply manufactured.  The fact is that Christianity enjoys a unique and privileged status in our country.  Note, for example the tax exemptions that churches enjoy. Since when do those who are persecuted get to enjoy a tax exemption? Instead of the whining and complaining I think it is time for Christians to start behaving with a little humility and respect for others.

C.     The idea that any questioning of the faith is always hostile is really sad, and really misguided.  It seems to me that we should celebrate any opportunity we have to learn and to grow.  When I have my faith challenged it is an opportunity for me to grow and learn – not a threat.  If such a challenge upsets my weak and un-examined faith – then so be it.  Weak and unexamined faith will never grow into a mature faith unless it is challenged and debated.  This challenge I believe is a gift from God to help us grow in our faith.

D.    Why are we even debating the issue of God’s existence?  I believe God exists, but I also believe God is far beyond my own ability to completely comprehend.  My experience of God, my experience of Jesus is beyond my ability to even describe it.  And my experience is not going to be the same as anyone else’s.  It is the height of arrogance to suggest otherwise. Those who feel that they need to fight this fight seem to me to have a very narrow and immature view of God – which, curiously enough, is a view of God that is often shared by those who have rejected God.  God does not need to be defended by any of us.

E.     I had the opportunity to teach history on the university level as an adjunct professor for 17 years and I can tell you that the character of the philosophy professor is someone who does not exist.  In this film he is a sipher, a product of someone’s stereotype that has no roots in reality.  Any university teacher who behaves like this guy would find his teaching career shortened substantially.  Let’s see – from the trailer – he uses his class to promote his own agenda to the exclusion of the curriculum; he doesn’t even seem to understand the philosophical foundation of the “God is Dead” philosophical strain which appears in Nietsche and Hegel and runs through the 20th century reappearing especially in the 60’s – it is worth, by the way, exploring this strain of philosophy, but he doesn’t do that; he gets so agitated by being challenged that he physically accosts the student (there is instantaneous dismissal right there).

F.     Negative racial stereotyping of the Muslim characters – this is really disgusting and indefensible.

G.     I have heard this nonsense before.  Last summer I had the distinct displeasure of having to sit through a sermon by a preacher who told not one, not 2, but 3 of these stupid stories about the clever Christian student besting his unbelieving teacher. Does this kind of thing make you feel good?  Great!  Well, it offends me – because it tells me you are afraid of knowledge and learning and the only way you have to shore up your weak and unexamined faith is to belittle those who value knowledge and learning.  And I happen to believe that all knowledge and learning come from God.  So, this whole approach is all about you – it is not about God.  It is about you and your insecurity.

H.    Finally, I hate to point this out since it really should be obvious – but we Christians believe that God is crucified in Jesus.  And there on the cross God enters into death.  This is one of the most profound proclamations of the Gospel.  And then Jesus is raised, resurrected (not resuscitated) on the 3rd day.  God died in Jesus – so that we might have life – so that we might do the work that God has called us to do – which is reaching out and caring for others by feeding and clothing and visiting and loving.  We are thus freed from the prison of insecurity and uncertainty and fear that a little vibration of challenge will send our house of faith cards tumbling down.  Because in Jesus our faith is not rooted in our own opinions, but rather in action – the action of Christ, and the actions that Christ calls us to – which are about caring for others.
In conclusion (of part 1) – Feel free to go see an enjoy Heaven Is For Real and Noah.  But do not waste your time or money on the last film, which in my view is a reprehensible film ultimately designed to undermine Christianity.
Another take on this film "God's Not Dead" can be found here: http://lutheranconfessions.blogspot.com/2014/03/god-is-dead-but-can-we-talk-about-him.html?m=1
Part II – The Feature Film – “Son of God”
In the beginning days of cinema there had been a few attempts at telling the story of Jesus on the silver screen but they had not been very successful.  The silent film, “King of Kings,” directed by Cecil B. DeMille, was released in 1927 and in 1961 another film with the same title was released with a narration provided by Orson Welles.  Neither of them were terribly successful. But this changed in 1965 when the movie “The Greatest Story Ever Told” was issued. The film with its all-star cast, featuring cameos by everyone’s favorite film actors (including Charlton Heston as John the Baptist and John Wayne as the Centurion) was the first really successful blockbuster film about Jesus to hit the market.  From then on, the story of Jesus could be counted on to attract a large audience and make lots of money.  Since then there has been a steady stream of such films.  “Jesus of Nazareth” directed by Franco Zeferielli also featured all of the popular leading actors of the time such as Rod Steiger, James Earl Jones, Ian Holm, Sir Lawrence Olivier and Sir Peter Ustinov (to name a few).  (Of all the Jesus films, this is my favorite.)  Others that followed include “The Last Temptation of Christ” which is based on a novel by the great writer Nico Kazantzakis and starred Willem Dafoe as Jesus; “The Passion of The Christ” the terribly violent and theologically troubled version of the Passion directed by Mel Gibson.  And now this year we have added yet another film – “Son of God.” 
We assume of course that all of these films use the Gospels as the source for the storyline.  But it is not as easy as that.  The Gospels we find in the Bible are all beautifully crafted narratives that are all designed to proclaim the Good News of God come into the world through Jesus. Each Gospel tells the story in its own unique way and sometimes the Gospels differ markedly in their narratives.  For example, take the birth stories – there are no birth narratives in Mark or John, Luke focuses on Mary and has all of the Christmas elements we expect except for the 3 Magi who only appear in Matthew whose birth narrative is quite different from Luke’s.  So, what is usually done is to mix the stories together: adding the 3 Magi to Luke’s version and ignoring Matthew’s focus on Joseph.  This is easy enough to do with the Christmas narrative, but not so easy with other parts of the story.  And not only that, but in “harmonizing” the Gospels like this we end up loosing the distinct voices and proclamations of the individual Gospel writers.
But of course when we come to creating a screenplay based on the Gospels the only way to have a detailed narrative (that would include everyone’s favorite stories) is to create this kind of condensation of the four Gospels.  And all of the films do this to some degree or another, sometimes adding additional characters and episodes to fill the story out.  A film like “Jesus of Nazareth” went out of its way to include as much of the Gospel narrative, but even so the character of the politically manipulative scribe Zerah (played by Ian Holm) was added to add drama to the passion narrative.  Mel Gibson’s film not only uses the four Gospels, but adds into the mix non-biblical stories and some obscure Catholic devotional materials – the result being probably the worst and most unfaithful version of the story available (not to mention the gratuitous violence).   “The Last Temptation of Christ” on the other hand does not rely on the Gospels at all but simply rewrites the story completely rooting itself in the novel.
This brings us to “Son of God.”  This film is actually a condensation of the made for TV mini-series called “The Bible.” This film also pulls stories from all four Gospels and mixes them together. I expected this, but unlike “Jesus of Nazareth” which uses  as many of the different stories as it could, “Son of God” uses a very small selection of stories for the narrative of Jesus’ ministry.  The result is a kind of haphazard jumping from story to story in no particular sequence or order with key characters missing (there is a Martha but no Mary, for example).  Consequently, it is impossible to discern any kind of theology or proclamation since the narrative itself is so disjointed.  But, on the other hand the episodes themselves are sometimes very beautifully told.  For example, the episode of Jesus teaching and being interrupted by a Pharisee and then by the paralytic who is dropped through the ceiling is very well done.  Because of this haphazard approach various episodes appear in odd places in the narrative.  The story of Jesus reading in the Synagogue and then having the townsmen all turn on him is the first event of his ministry in Luke, but here it is one of the last events that happens to Jesus before the passion in the film and seems peculiarly out of place.  Some of the miracles are just silly in the way they are depicted, while others are pretty well done (the Paralytic and the feeding of the 5000).
One really curious part of the film was Jesus on the Way to the Cross – the Via Dolorosa.  If you know your Stations of the Cross, Jesus follows them exactly, stumbling exactly 3 times and even Veronica makes an appearance (Who? Right she is not in the bible! She is a part of Catholic traditional piety). Also on the Via Jesus’ mother Mary manages to break through the line of Roman soldiers in order to comfort her son (again part of traditional Catholic piety – no from the Gospels), which from a historical perspective is utter nonsense.  And while the two thieves are carrying the cross beams to the place of crucifixion (which is historically accurate) Jesus himself is given a completely formed cross, which is historically completely inaccurate.
The acting for the most part is pretty good.  I really liked the actors playing Pilate, the High Priest, Malchus (yes the one who looses his ear is here the captain of the Temple Guard) and Peter.  The calling of Matthew was very moving and beautifully done.  Thomas on the other hand is a cipher, completely predictable and is very annoying.  But something to celebrate in this film is that Mary Magdalene for a change is NOT depicted as a reformed prostitute (which is accurate from the Gospels). The film spends a fair amount of its precious time on setting the atmosphere of brutality and oppression.  We first encounter Pilate as he arrives in Palestine and has his soldiers murder a child because the child is inconveniently in the way (this would never have happened – the Romans were brutal but they weren’t stupid).  Then from Josephus there is the brutal putting down of a group of protesters that in the film Pilate directs himself.  This event provides the motivation of the High Priest who surveys the carnage and then everything he does following seems designed to prevent another event like that from happening.  But the High Priest would not have done all of that, he certainly would not have entered into the Pilate’s chamber during Passover and he would not have taken such a direct part in orchestrating the execution of Jesus.  In fact, all of this political wrangling around Jesus by the High Priest himself made no sense from both the view of the Gospels themselves and from a purely historical point of view.  And after painting Pilate as such a cruel tyrant with no sense of humanity it rings very hallow indeed that he is suddenly struck with uncertainty and remorse over the execution of a peasant from Galilee.
        In the end, I give this film a C+ mostly because it is so episodic and hard to follow and then when we do get into the passion narrative it is so illogical and makes no attempt at all to maintain any kind of historical and cultural grounding.  But the acting and cinematography are good, and there are moments that are quite powerful.  Alas these are too few and far between.  The important thing to remember with all these films is this: ultimately they are just films.  In other words, they are retellings of the Gospel stories and they are not the Gospel.  They can help us if we approach them as a spiritual aid, but it is important that we remember that they do not really give us the whole story.  And the whole story is the story of a God who loves the world so much that this God sends the Son to be born, to live, to reach out in God’s love to all humanity and then to die on a Cross and to be raised on the 3rd day! It is this Gospel that we celebrate this month during Holy Week and Easter!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Reflections on the text – John 3 and 4 – Lent 3

Read John 3:1-17 here: John 3:1-17
Read John 4:5-42 here: John 4:5-42
Finding Jesus
Lost and Found!  Being lost and then found by God is an important theme in the Bible.  The children of Israel are lost in the wilderness, where they wander for 40 years.  But often they don’t think they are lost.  Often, in fact, those who are lost resist all attempts to allow God to find them.  Like a driver who refuses to stop for directions and would prefer to wander, the people of Israel just plunge on ahead getting more and more lost, and sometimes becoming hostile to those who would help them to be found by God. 
Jesus’ ministry is a ministry of healing relationships – our relationship with each other and our relationship with God.  Another way of putting this is that Jesus’ ministry is one of finding those who are lost and our Gospel text for both last week (chapter 3 – Nicodemus’ visit at night) and this week (chapter 4 – the Samaritan woman at the well) are beautiful examples of Jesus reaching out to those who don’t even know they are lost and helping them to find the truth of God in new and profound ways.  In chapter 3 Nicodemus visits Jesus at night.  He is a Pharisee.  He knows his Scripture and the law, but is obviously curious about this teacher and he comes to question him further.  But at the same time he comes in fear under the cover of darkness lest anyone would discover him.  Isn’t the following of the law the way we are to find God, he asks.  Jesus’ response is to turn this question upside down: we don’t find God, Jesus tells Nicodemus, God finds us!  For God so loved the world, that he gave is only son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16).  Even today many who read this text simply cannot accept the grace inherit in it and fixate on the “so that everyone who believes” turning this verse into a condition.  But this is wrong.  God’s love and commitment to humanity knows no bounds, it is beyond comprehension.  This truly radical acceptance and grace – this radical finding – comes through Jesus to all.  And, Nicodemus and readers through the ages – including you and me, are invited to open our hearts and accept this gift – to allow ourselves to be found! 
The companion story is found in the very next chapter, chapter 4 – Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.  First a couple historical and textual notes – John is setting these two stories next to each other for a reason.  Nicodemus comes in the darkness and late at night - the Samaritan woman comes to draw water in the bright daylight of noon; Nicodemus is an insider, a Pharisee, a man (in a man’s world) and one of the ruling elites - the woman is an outsider, a Samaritan and a woman; Nicodemus is well educated - the woman is not educated but knows her traditions; Nicodemus focuses his worship of God at the Temple in Jerusalem – the woman focuses her worship on Mt. Gerezim in Samaria.  Both are lost, but neither of them knows it at first.  The heart of this scene is when the woman questions Jesus about where the true worship of God is to take place.  “Which is it,” she asks, “Jerusalem or Mt. Gerezim?”  It is probably a bit of a trick question, and indeed when I read this story I can see a twinkle in her eye.  She thinks she knows how Jesus is going to answer, after all he is a Judean, from Galilee, but still a Judean.  But, like Nicodemus, she is stunned at his answer.  “Neither,” says Jesus, “God is present with those who worship in spirit and in truth.”  In other words, God is not confined in a specific place, God is present with you here and now and God is present with you whenever you open your hearts and allow yourselves to be found!
It is important at this point to address a very popular interpretation error that has tended to affect our understanding of this passage.  In verses 16 through 18 Jesus asks the woman to go and fetch her husband.  She replies that she has no husband and Jesus affirms that, adding that he knows she has had five husbands and that she is living with a man who is not her husband.  Many preachers and commentators down through the years have interpreted this to reflect badly on the moral character of this woman – and thus distracted by this non-issue end up missing the important point of the story.  This story is not about morality – it is about being found by God through Jesus; it is about God’s unconditional love and acceptance of all!  Please note – Jesus does not condemn her and neither does he offer her forgiveness.  Why?  She has nothing to be forgiven for.  The fact that she has had 5 husbands would not have been her choice or her fault.  Women in 1st century Palestine had no choice over those kinds of things.  She was a victim.  She was either widowed or divorced – which would have all been done without her input or assent. This detail simply confirms the fact that she is very much an outsider, someone who has suffered in life, someone who has known loss and known powerlessness – unlike Nicodemus! 
At the end of these stories who recognizes their lost-ness and opens themselves to being found by God – not Nicodemus (at least not yet) – not the insider; no he slinks away still uncertain and fearful.  But it is rather the outsider, the Samaritan woman is the one who goes and proclaims the Good News of God’s love through Jesus.  She came to Jesus accidently, not knowing she was even lost but accepted that God had found her and went back to tell all she encountered about God’s love and grace.  She even leaves her water jar behind – because she doesn’t need it anymore – she has been given and received the gift of the “living water.” 
So what about us?  Jesus offers us the same gift; Jesus offers us the living water of God’s unconditional love and grace; God has come to us, has found us as we wander in our own wildernesses.  The question is - will we accept the gift? Do we want to be found?  Will we open our hearts to God’s love through Christ? Or do we still want to pretend we know where we are and have everything under control?  Last week Julie in her wonderful sermon invited us to step out of our comfort zones and do something during the week that would reflect our openness to Christ and our willingness to accept that Christ has found us.  What did you do this week that was an action of the heart, that was an act of belief, that was an act of openness to God’s gifts?  I hope you will continue to ponder and pray about this; I hope you will continue to do acts of the heart throughout Lent and beyond – for in this way we strengthen our relationships with others and with God; in this way those of us who wander lost in the wilderness of this world are found!
"The Samaritan Woman at the Well" by HeQi

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Reflections on the text – Matthew 4:1-11 – Lent IA:

Read the Genesis text here: Genesis 2/3
Read the Matthew text here: Matthew 4:1-11
Identity Theft*
Who are you?  How would you define yourself? And as you think about how you would answer this question notice how often the words you choose represent a relationship.  I am a son, a father, a husband, a pastor, a musician, a teacher, a child of God – but not one of them is something I can be all by myself.  My identity is bound up in relationships of various kinds.  There is a very popular assumption that is part of our culture that we can forge our own identity all on our own, apart from anyone and everyone else.  This is the myth of American “rugged individualism.”  I don’t need anybody else – I am a self-made man/woman – NOT!  It is a lie.  We are who we are only in relationship with others.
And this includes our relationship with God.  I am a child of God by virtue of my relationship with God who called me, who loves me and who initiated the relationship in the first place.  And this relationship is nurtured and fed and sustained by our relationship with others.  In other words, (to burst another popular cultural religious lie) we cannot be a Christian all by ourselves.  We are Christians in relationship with God and other believers who make up the church universal and local.  The “I am spiritual but not religious” excuse is simply nonsense.  My relationship with God requires me to be in relationship with others.  And as I am a part of a community of Christ, fed and nurtured, challenged and participating, reaching out to others in Christ’s name then my relationship with God is strengthened and it grows.
It all comes down to this – what is the Christian faith ultimately about?  What is the core of Christianity?  It is relationship!  That is it – pure and simple.  It is not about following rules or being good, it is not about being spiritual, it is not about believing all the “right” things – our faith is about relationship.  And these relationships go in two directions – us and God and us and each other.  If we draw a diagram this would take the shape of a cross – that is not a coincidence!
Now with this understanding let’s turn to our lessons.  The Genesis reading gives us the opportunity to again hear the story of the fall and original sin.  “You can be like God,” tempts the serpent.  But this temptation is not just about power. The serpent is subtly suggesting to humanity that they do not need a relationship with God.  “You can do it all on their own! God is not to be trusted, so break the relationship and achieve your destiny as an individual.”  But it is a lie.  Breaking the bonds of relationship has terrible consequences - it leads to hate and conflict and pain and suffering.  From this story onward the story of the Bible, the story of God’s involvement with human history is a story of how God continues to work towards restoring this broken relationship between the creation – humanity – US - and God; and between the creation, humanity – US – with each other and all of creation.
In our Gospel text Jesus is tempted in the wilderness in the same way.  IF you are the Son of God” – IF – The tempter is calling into question the heart of Jesus’ identity and subtly trying to manipulate Jesus into replacing this identity with one of his own creation.  IF – then, turn these stones into bread; cast yourself down; grasp the power that is yours by right! Can you hear what is behind these temptations: “You can do it on your own – you don’t need God!  Why should you, God’s Son, be hungry, take the initiative and feed yourself; why should you, God’s Son, be vulnerable; why shouldn’t you, God’s Son, seize all the power of the world?”  But in every case Jesus responds by reaffirming the importance and centrality of His relationship with God.  In his responses he is clearly stating this – “My life is dependent on the word of God; my commitment to my relationship with the Father means I do not test God; and I accept what God gives humbly and gratefully.”  Not only that, but Jesus’ response also reaffirms his commitment to his relationship with humanity: “Jesus will be content to be hungry as others are hungry, dependent on God’s Word and grace for all good things. He will be at risk and vulnerable as are all others, finding safety in the promises of God. And he will refuse to define himself or seek power apart from his relationship with God, giving his worship and allegiance only to the Lord God who created and sustains him.*”
This is not the end of temptations for Jesus.  Jesus will confront all of these temptations again and again throughout his ministry even to the end as he hangs on the cross – IF you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!  And so do we.  We are also constantly bombarded with the temptation to go it on our own.  “You don’t need God – You don’t need anyone else.  You can be our own person all by yourself!”  But this is also a lie. We do need our relationship with God and we do need each other! It is only by reliance on these foundational relationships that we can possibly hope to move forward in our lives.  For example - “Each day we are besieged by countless advertisements that seek to create in us a sense of lack, insecurity, and inadequacy, undermining our God-given gift of identity with the promise that if we buy this car or use that deodorant or make our teeth brighter we will be acceptable. The message of the consumer-consumption culture is simple: you are not enough. Not skinny enough, smart enough, pretty enough, strong enough, rich enough to deserve respect, love, and acceptance. And here’s the thing: it’s a damned lie, a demonic attempt at a kind of identity theft far worse than the one we’ve been trained to fear. And Jesus offers us a way out, a way to safeguard our identity by lodging it in God’s good gift and promise.
“But Jesus does more than even that. He also demonstrates just how deeply God loves us by going to the cross. That’s right -- Jesus did not die on the cross in order that we might be acceptable or to make God loving. Rather, Jesus died to show us that God already loves us and has declared that we are not just acceptable but also treasured, priceless beyond measure.
“When Martin Luther felt oppressed by his conscience or plagued by doubt, fear, or insecurity, he would sometimes shout out in defiance, echoing Jesus’ words today, “Away with you Satan! I am baptized!*” This promise inscribed on our foreheads at Holy Baptism, inscribed each year in ashes on Ash Wednesday is this: that God has declared us worthy of love, dignity, and respect and has pledged to be both with us and for us throughout all of our lives.” It is God who works to restore our relationships, through Christ.  And no matter what, we cherish this gift and hold fast to the promise!

* Indicates a quote from David Lose essay – “IdentityTheft” – His essay also provided the title!