Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Spiritual Struggle


There is a great story in the book, Report to Greco, by Nikos Kazantzakis. When Nikos was young, his mother was very religious; she went to mass everyday. His father was anti-religious; sort of bitter toward religion, and Nikos was torn. When he was 19 years old he decided to spend the summer at a monastery located on one of the mountains in Greece. At this monastery there was a famous old monk called Father Makarios. 

One day, Nikos asked Father Makarios, “Father Makarios, do you still wrestle with the Devil?” Father Makarios said, “No. I use to wrestle with the Devil all the time. But now I have grown old and tired, and the Devil has grown old and tired with me. So I leave him alone and he leaves me alone.” Nikos asked, “Then life is easy now?” Father Makarios responded, “Oh no. Life is much harder now. For now I wrestle with God.” Nikos exclaimed, “You wrestle with God and hope to win?” “No,” said Father Makarios, “I wrestle with God and hope to loose.” 

These two images—wrestling with the Devil and wrestling with God—represent two different aspects of spiritual struggle; perhaps even two different stages of spiritual development. 

For most of his ministry Jesus wrestles with the Devil. Many of the struggles come from his provocation of the religious establishment. But on one occasion, his mother and brothers come to “take charge of him” because they think “he is out of his mind” (Mark 3:21).  And on another occasion, just after Jesus tells his disciples that he must be rejected, suffer, and die, the disciples sought to persuade him differently. Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan, for you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but human concerns” (Mark 8:33). Jesus faced many temptations to divert him from the way of the cross. 

But when Jesus arrives at Gethsemane, he is now struggling with God. He tells his intimate circle of disciples, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” and he cries out to God that the hour of the cross might pass from him. Then, on the cross, Jesus cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I do not believe that God abandoned Jesus, but Jesus, as the Son of Man, the Human One, felt forsaken. Jesus was wrestling with God. 

Our struggle with the Devil is largely a struggle with the ego. The ego pulls us toward extremes: thinking too much of ourselves or thinking too little of ourselves. It’s a struggle with the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16). It’s a struggle with the desire for power, possessions, and prestige. It is largely a struggle about how we will channel the great passions and energies of life. 

Our struggle with God is largely about control and surrender to a greater purpose and cause. It’s the struggle of surrender to the Great Mystery that sustains and transforms all reality. In some ways, our struggle with the Devil (I’m using this term metaphorically) is our resistance to the plowing of the field; while our struggle with God is our resistance to becoming the seed that grows in the field. 

When we lose our struggle with God, then we are finally able to say, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” We come to know God at a more profound level of spiritual consciousness. When we lose our struggle with God, we know in our core being that we are intrinsically related to God and rooted in God, and that will be all that we need to know. That will be enough. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Centrality of the Cross (A Sermon)


The Cross at the Center (Mark 9:2-13; OT reading, 2 Kings 2:1-12)

Thomas Tewell, the Pastor of Fifth Ave. Presbyterian Church in NY City, tells about visiting a large church in another part of the world. He said it was a great worship experience and he was blessed by the service, but as he looked around, on the inside, outside, in their church literature, he couldn’t find a cross. Afterwards, he went to see one of the pastors. He said, “I love your worship, I love what’s going on here. But I’m missing the cross. Is there a cross in here anywhere?” The pastor whispered to him, “The cross doesn’t market well in this culture, so we don’t say a lot about it.” That evening Pastor Tewell wrote in his journal, “Am I into marketing or ministry?”

In the conversation down the mountain Jesus links mystical experience to costly discipleship. This brief glimpse of glory on the mountain of transfiguration is inseparably connected to Jesus’ suffering and death. In Luke’s version, the subject of discussion on the mountain is Jesus’ death. These two scenes—Jesus’ announcement of his death and the experience on the mountain—form a pair.

In the scene prior to the mountain revelation, it is clear that the disciples are not ready to hear about Jesus’ suffering and death. Peter, no doubt speaking on behalf of the group, rebukes Jesus for bringing up the subject. Jesus, in turn, rebukes Peter, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (8:33). Then Jesus tells them that if they are to be his disciples, they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. He tells them that they will have to lose their lives for the sake of the gospel.

But the disciples cannot hear it. They are in denial. So Jesus takes three of them, Peter, James, and John, upon the mountain and is transfigured before them. Perhaps Jesus sensed that if any of the twelve could understand, then these three might.

A cloud overshadows them and Jesus appears in dazzling radiance. Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, are there to bear witness to Jesus, who occupies the center stage. No new information is imparted. The Voice declares, “This is my Beloved Son. Listen to him!” The Voice is telling them to open their minds and hearts, to hear what Jesus has just told them about the inevitability of his death and the necessity of walking in the way of the cross.

Do they listen? Do they get it? A little later Jesus announces his death once again. And as soon as he tells them a second time that he is going to suffer and die, the disciples get in an argument over who is the greatest. Then, a little later Jesus announces a third time that he will be rejected and killed, and shortly thereafter James and John, two of the disciples who witnessed the transfiguration, ask Jesus if they can sit on his left and right when he brings in the kingdom. 

How did they not get it? How could they not understand? The same way we don’t get it. The same way that our minds and hearts are drawn after other things.

A group was touring the Leader Dogs for the Blind Institute in Rochester, Michigan. They were shown the dogs and taken through the process of how blind people are matched with dogs to help them manage and get along in life. Someone asked their guide if it was difficult to train people to rely on the dog. He said it sometimes was. He said that the most difficult people to train for the Seeing Eye dogs are people who have limited vision. They may be legally blind, but they have some vision. And because they see a little bit, they rely on the little bit they see rather than on the dog trained to be their eyes. They want to trust themselves rather than the dog.

I wonder if one of the reasons we have such a difficult time accepting and pursuing the way of the cross is because we want to trust and pursue what we see and know, what is familiar to us. So we keep trying to frame the gospel around our picture of life, around our terms and conditions shaped by our culture. The message of the cross, the message of suffering, surrender, and death, is a hard message to accept, let alone market to the spiritual public. No wonder the church that Rev. Tewell visited removed all signs of the cross.

The message of the cross and Jesus’ radical call to discipleship sounds so anti-American. It sounds like a message for losers. It’s so anti-establishment, so anti-capitalistic, so anti-imperialistic, so anti-individualistic. And when you do see it; when you do get it, it’s a terrible thorn in the flesh. There are days, sisters and brothers, when I wish I hadn’t got it. There are days when I say, “My God, I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to live this way.” If a person has never struggled with this, then it’s not likely they understand the gospel of the cross.

Jesus said that you have to lose your life in order to save it. I don’t want to lose my life, do you? I don’t want to suffer. I don’t want to deny myself the right to claim honor or power or prestige. I don’t want to give up the desire for recognition and applause. I surely don’t want to bear the wrath of the powers that be. I don’t want to challenge the egotism and legalism and elitism of the establishment. I don’t want to give up my stuff or give away my stuff; I want to keep my stuff and get more stuff, don’t you? The pastor was right: the cross doesn’t sell; it’s not very marketable.

It’s no wonder we have turned the gospel into something more palatable and appealing. It’s no wonder the gospel of success and prosperity is so popular. We want the gospel to be about the good life, about self-fulfillment, not self-denial, about success, not surrender, about bigness and greatness and glory. When the church industry was booming in this country it was all about bigger budgets, bigger buildings, bigger and  bigger.

No wonder Peter wanted to build shelters on top of the mountain. He wanted to stay there basking in the glory. He didn’t want to have to think about suffering, self-denial, and death. We want to live on the mountain. We want our spirituality, our Christianity, our faith to be about the glory. If not the glory of this life, then at least the glory of the afterlife, about the sweet by-and-by, the glory of being caught up and carried away to a heavenly land beyond this world.

I have no doubt that there is glory ahead, that the life that awaits us will be glorious, though I have no idea what that will entail. And I suspect that in a secondary sense the transfiguration offers a preview of the resurrection and the coming of the Son of Man in glory. But that is not what the gospel of Jesus is about. Jesus’ resurrection was as much about vindication of his death as it was about any kind of preview of life to come. There can be no glory without the cross. Jesus had to go through Good Friday to get to Easter, and so do we. That is the journey of discipleship, of losing life in order to find life.

Even those of us who talk about the cross have a real tough time living it. I can bear witness, sisters and brothers, it’s a lot easier to preach the cross than live the cross.

There is a scene in Huckleberry Finn when Huck comes to live with the Grangerfords for a while. At the time, the Grangerfords are feuding with the Shepherdsons. The two families had been fighting each other for thirty years and they go to the same church. To leave the church, I guess, would be to admit defeat, so they go to the same church. The men of the two families take their guns into the church building and stand them between their knees or prop them against the wall within convenient reach.

The sermon that day is about brotherly love. Huck says it was pretty “ornery preaching,” all that preaching about brotherly love. On the way home, Huck observes how everybody talked about how the sermon “had such a powerful lot to say about faith and good works and free grace and preforeordination” and a bunch of other stuff that Huck didn’t understand. Yet, come Monday morning, everyone went back to fussing and feuding and fighting. It’s difficult to sustain a gospel lifestyle that is oriented around brotherly and sisterly love, let alone a lifestyle centered on the cross.

In the transfiguration scene, this is the second time Jesus is revealed to the readers of Mark’s Gospel as the Son of God. The first occurs at Jesus’ baptism, when the heavens part, the dove descends, and the heavenly Voice says to Jesus, “You are my Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Here at the Transfiguration, the Voice affirms a second time, “This is my Beloved Son. Listen to him.” The third time that Jesus is revealed to be the Son of God is at the cross. But at the cross there is no Voice from heaven. The heavens do not part, there is no heavenly cloud, no descending dove, no Moses or Elijah, and no dazzling radiance.

At the cross the Voice of God speaks through a Roman centurion, who was responsible for carrying out the crucifixion. When Jesus finally breathes his last breath, the Roman centurion declares, “Truly, this man was God’s Son.” Mark opens his gospel by saying, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And here at the end comes a final witness by the man responsible for carrying out the execution 

This final revelation is the most difficult to believe and accept: That Jesus reveals himself to be God’s Son by surrendering to the cross. It’s no wonder that so many Christians have turned the cross into some kind of cosmic transaction of judicial forgiveness whereby God’s wrath or holiness is satisfied or propitiated. It’s no wonder we have made it some sort of legal transaction about the payment of a debt.

Why was Jesus killed? Jesus’ devotion to the reign of God on earth made the cross inevitable. Jesus’ embodiment of radical grace and his call for radical discipleship, his table fellowship with outcasts and commitment to human need over ritual purity, his identification with the poor and call for justice and liberation for the oppressed, his teaching on forgiveness and reconciliation, his call to die to the ego and be clothed with humility and compassion, his demand that we love our enemies——all of that and more exposed and provoked the wrath of the powers that be. It sparked their fear, exposed their falsehood, and ignited their animosity and hate.

According to Mark’s presentation of the good news, there is no gospel, there is no salvation, there is no conversion without the cross. The cross is at the center. The main purpose of mountain top encounters with glory, of mystical experiences of the Divine, if we are fortunate enough to have one, is to help us accept the path of discipleship that leads to the cross.

The Apostle Paul clearly understood this. This is why he said in his first letter to the Corinthians that the cross is to Jews a scandal and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those of us being saved by the cross, being changed by the cross, it is the power and wisdom of God (1:24). In writing to the Philippians, Paul says that his passion, his goal, is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection through sharing in his sufferings and being conformed to his death (Phil 3:10). Paul clearly understood that the only was to enter into the transformative power of the resurrection is by way of the cross, by sharing in Christ’s sufferings and being conformed to his death. I don’t think that message will ever draw big crowds; it will never be very marketable, but that is certainly the message of the gospel according to Mark.

In the Old Testament reading from 2 Kings 2, Elisha wanted to experience the power and presence of the spirit of Elijah. He so wanted it that he refused to leave Elijah’s side. How much do we want to share in the Spirit of Christ? Are we willing to stay with Jesus all the way to the cross? I probably needed this sermon as much as anyone, and the question I keep asking myself is, “How far am I willing to go?”

Gracious God, help us to understand that the gospel of glory and the gospel of the cross are one and the same; that in the spiritual world, the real world, there is no glory without the cross. The struggle that was going in Mark’s church about following Jesus in the way of the cross is our struggle too. We wrestle with it the way Jesus did in Gethsemane. We don’t want to drink that cup, and yet we know that it is the path of discipleship, the path that leads to life. We know that we have to lose our lives in order to find our lives, but we don’t want to lose our lives. Maybe we can give up something for Lent, but lose are whole lives for your cause, for your kingdom’s sake——that’s too much for us, Lord. Be patient with us. Guide us through this struggle. Give us grace to fight the good fight of faith, the fight that is going on within us this very moment at the prospect of taking up our cross and following Jesus. Help us to overcome. Give us the grace to say “Yes” to both our Lord’s invitation to enter the world of unconditional love and to accept our Lord’s radical call to discipleship. Amen. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

Reflections on God's Anger

In Mark’s Gospel a leper comes to Jesus begging, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” The text says, “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’” The alternate reading says that Jesus was “moved with anger” (Mark 1:40-41).  

This is an example of a variant in the manuscript tradition. We do not possess a single original manuscript of the New Testament (this is true of the Hebrew Bible as well). We have copies—copies of copies. The vast majority of manuscripts date from the ninth century and later. A smaller group of manuscripts date earlier. A few generally considered very reliable date from the fourth to the sixth centuries. We have a few papyrus manuscripts that date even earlier that contain portions of the New Testament, but many of these show evidence of having been copied without the greatest care. 

It is the work of textual scholars to compare these manuscripts, rate their comparative value, and study the text itself in light of scribal copying practices in order to determine the original text. This process, of course, is not an exact science; there is much subjectivity involved. The place where one manuscript differs from another manuscript is called a variant. A variant is simply an error or mistake that has been made in copying the manuscript. There are hundreds of variants in every single copy. Most of the time, the variant does not greatly affect the meaning of the text. Sometimes it does, but usually it doesn’t. 

Some of these variants were intentional, many were unintentional. Miscopying a single letter could change a word, and sometimes whole sentences were left out. Scribes copied these texts by hand, usually in poor lighting conditions. It’s amazing really that the New Testament manuscripts are as reliable as they are. 

Some of the variants were intentional. The scribe may have thought that the copy he was using was wrong and decided to guess at what the correct reading might be. The scribe may have wanted to make a particular point or accent a certain theological emphasis, which prompted him to alter the text in some way.

Many New Testament scholars argue that in Mark 1:41, “moved with anger” is the original reading. It is much more likely, they say, that a scribe would have changed “compassion” to “anger” than the other way around. 

So what is Jesus angry at? Certainly not the leper, who, in desperation, cries out to be healed. In that culture, the leper would have been socially and religiously ostracized, completely cut off from the community. The one constant theme in all the Gospels is Jesus’ compassion and concern for the poor and the marginalized. 

Jesus may be angry at the ravages of disease that debilitates and destroys life. Or, more likely, he is angry at a social system that demonized and excluded an entire group of human beings guilty of nothing more than being “different” and being ravaged by a force over which they had no control. 

Jesus, who is a window into the character of God, raises the question about God’s anger. Of course, the Hebrew Scriptures have much to say about God’s anger. 

Numerous times in the Hebrew Bible God gets angry. But anger is not part of God’s disposition. Unfortunately, that is not often true of humans. We tend to nurse and indulge anger. 

Anger can be a positive force. In 1893 when Gandhi was a young, struggling lawyer, traveling to Pretoria, he was unaware of the unspoken prohibition against any nonwhite traveling first class. A train guard asked him to give up his compartment and occupy the baggage car. When he protested, the police constable threw Gandhi’s luggage onto the platform as the train steamed away. He made for the waiting room, which was cold and without lights. With no overcoat, he spent the night huddled in a corner, shivering with rage at the insult. When morning came, he had made up his mind to stand up for the rights of his race, cost what it might. While Gandhi did not nurse his anger and become an angry person, it was anger that fueled his initial decision to launch a non-violent campaign for liberation. 

I read somewhere where Martin Luther is reported as saying that he could pray and preach at his best when he was angry. Of course, there is no way of knowing if his congregation felt the same way; I suspect that didn’t. 

We certainly should feel some anger at injustice, when God’s children, especially the poor and vulnerable, are taken advantage of. Indifference is not an option for disciples of Christ. We may need to allow our anger at injustice to fuel our involvement and engagement on the side of the powerless and most vulnerable in our society. But we do not do anyone any good when we indulge anger and become angry persons. 

It seems to me that Jesus could express anger at times, but he did not carry it with him or allow it to fester. I think Paul gives some good instruction when he says, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” When we nurse our anger and become angry persons, any little irritant can cause an explosion of anger. Undoubtedly, this is what happens in the phenomena we know as “road rage.” Angry people are dangerous people. Human anger indulged forms endless cycles of contempt and violence. 

When we are angry, we can easily get pulled into a cycle of negative reactions and responses. Like the young man who squeals to a stop in his sports car in front of the general store where an old man sits on a bench. In a condescending way, he says, “Hey pop, how long has this town been dead?” The old man retorts, “Well, can’t be very long, you’re the first buzzard I’ve seen.” Anger indulged fuels a continual cycle of put downs. It fuels contempt and malice. Most things that we can do with anger, we can do better without it. 

God’s anger is very different than ours. When we think of human anger, we usually associate that with a loss of self-control or compulsiveness. It’s often connected to the desire for revenge or the intent to do harm. Human anger is often expressed as sudden outbursts of emotion. It can become demonic and take possession of us. We can become possessed by anger. 

God’s anger is not unpredictable or irrational. It is never a spontaneous outburst. It is never a blind, explosive force. There are some who interpret Jesus’ act in the temple—his overturning the money tables and driving out the animals—as a sudden outburst, “a temple tantrum.” I think it was a deliberate, well-thought-out prophetic protest against the injustices of temple religion. I believe that Jesus was in control of his emotions the whole time he was overturning the tables in the temple. 

God’s anger is purposeful and it is an important aspect of God’s character in relationship to the creation, particularly God’s covenant people. Surely God gets angry  when we do not live up to our covenant responsibilities, especially when we fail to love one another and take care of the most vulnerable in our midst. But God’s anger is certainly not a dominant characteristic; it is a secondary one. The ruling passion of God as the writers of Scripture affirm in many passages, especially the Prophets and the Psalms, is God’s love and compassion

The Psalmist tells us to sing praises to the Lord, for God’s anger is but for a moment; but God’s favor, God’s grace and acceptance and care are for a lifetime (Ps. 30:5). The Prophet Micah says, “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency” (7:18). 

The reason Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh was because he knew all too well what God is like. After Jonah is swallowed by the fish and deposited on the dry land, he finally obeys God and goes to Nineveh to warn them of God’s judgment. To Jonah’s dismay, the people repent and turn from their evil ways, and God relents from his judgment. Upset at God, Jonah says, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2). 

God does not delight in punishment, God takes pleasure in redemption. God, of course, is not indifferent to evil. God is moved; God is personally affected by what we do. When God’s children hurt each other, when we call each other names, when we are mean and demean one another, when we harm each other psychologically or physically, God gets angry. But it is an anger pervaded by grief and exercised with restraint. 

Over and over the prophets tell us that God is patient and longsuffering and slow to anger. God’s anger is instrumental; it serves a purpose. The great Jewish scholar and mystic Abraham Heschel says it well, “The call of anger is a call to cancel anger. It is not an expression of irrational, sudden, and instinctive excitement, but a free and deliberate reaction of God’s justice to what is wrong and evil. . . . There is no divine anger for anger’s sake. It’s meaning is . . . instrumental: to bring about repentance; its purpose and consummation is its own disappearance.” 

Whatever we might imagine God’s judgment to be or look like; however we might conceive of its expression in this life or the afterlife, its purpose is never exclusion or punishment for punishment’s sake. It’s not retributory or retaliatory. It’s not vindictive; it’s restorative and redemptive. 

What if our criminal justice system was structured to truly rehabilitate criminals, not just punish them? What if the central focus of the system was to reform and redeem, not simply enact retribution? Some violent offenders may be beyond redemption (at least in this life) and must never be released. But many are very redeemable given access  to the right resources. 

The money we save in years of incarceration could provide victims of violent crime the resources they need to work through their anger and need for revenge. Perhaps many would find the grace to forgive, not merely for the benefit of the offender, but for their own good and the good of their families. Harbored anger is a poison that affects everyone in contact with the angry person. 

Of course, a system is only as effective as the people who lead and serve within the system. Thankfully, even now we have good judges, lawyers, police officers, etc. who inject grace into the system. But we also have too many who are full of anger, who adversely affect a system that is in much need of renewal. 

We can allow our anger to become a disease that ravages us, a cancer that poisons us. Or we can let the living Christ touch us with healing, liberating grace. Rarely, does healing happen the way it does in the Gospel stories. Normally, it is a process, sometimes a long process, but one that can result in liberation from resentment and bitterness, and a renewal of joy and gratitude.