God Meets Politics, part one: Render Unto Caesar

When you broach the subject of faith and politics (like I did here and here), it tends to lead to more questions about how these two realms (for lack of a better word) interact. For many people the question is should they even interact at all? Can’t we just keep God and our politics in separate boxes? In this series of blogs, entitled God Meets Politics, I’ll try to respond to those questions/objections by looking at the particular passages in the Bible that come up most often in these discussions. Today, we begin with an oft (mis)quoted passage from Mark 12/Matthew 22/Luke 20.

They sent some of the Pharisees and supporters of Herod to trap him in his words. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you’re genuine and you don’t worry about what people think. You don’t show favoritism but teach God’s way as it really is. Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay taxes or not?”

Since Jesus recognized their deceit, he said to them, “Why are you testing me? Bring me a coin. Show it to me.” And they brought one. He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” His reply left them overcome with wonder. (Mark 12:13-17, CEB)
 
The interpretation of this text often goes like this: See? Jesus himself says that we should keep God and Caesar, faith and politics separate, in their respective lanes. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.
 
But is this text really affirming that faith and politics shouldn’t be mixed?
In short, no. Actually, this passage teaches quite the opposite.
 
First, a bit of context. This interaction between Jesus, the pharisees, and the Herodians, comes during the time known as Holy Week. Jesus begins this week on Palm Sunday by riding a donkey into Jerusalem while his followers waved palm branches, declaring: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
 

This is a politically charged event. First, by choosing a donkey (and not a war horse!) Jesus is connecting his mission with that of Zechariah 9: 

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion. Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem. Look, your king will come to you. He is righteous and victorious. He is humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the offspring of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem. The bow used in battle will be cut off; he will speak peace to the nations. His rule will stretch from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth. (v.9-10, CEB)

Jesus choice of a donkey implicitly ties him to this idea of the king coming to rid the city of its enemies. Further, the use of palm branches is an homage to the last time the Jewish people knew freedom and independence, in the Maccabean era. In the 160s BCE, the Maccabeans gained Jewish independence from the Seleucid dynasty (which is where the festival known as Hanukkah originates), and to celebrate they minted coins with palm branches on them. So, to wave palm branches was also a loaded political idea.

And then there’s David, the once and future king. David was promised (2 Samuel 7) that, as long as they were faithful, one if his descendents would forever be on the throne of Israel. To call Jesus the “son of David,” or to reference the “coming kingdom of David,” was to say that Jesus is this coming king, the anointed one (messiah) that will lead in the revitalization of Israel.

Kings and kingdoms, donkeys and Davids all point to one inescapable reality: whatever Jesus is doing, it isn’t something that can be separated into two, distinct columns. There is no way to dissect the spiritual/religious concerns from the secular/political concerns. They are two sides of the same coin.

Speaking of coins, back to our story in Mark 12.

Holy Week was a week of controversy for Jesus. He waded into discussions about authority and taxes, resurrection and marriage. This specific text, about paying taxes, also known as tribute, to Rome was a hot button issue. Let’s break down this story a bit so we can better see the nuance that is present.

First, Jesus’ interlocutors are representative of two groups: the pharisees and the Herodians. These two groups would not normally play well together. The pharisees were focused on piety and purity; the Herodians were collaborators with Herod Antipas, and as an extension, Rome. So, as one seminary professor I had put it, “Jesus makes strange bedfellows.” Both the religious establishment and the collaborators with the empire see Jesus as a threat to their interests.

 Second, let’s look at the trap these two groups unite to spring against Jesus. When they ask about paying taxes to Caesar, they put Jesus in a seemingly no-win situation. If he says, “No, we should not pay taxes,” he is effectively calling for resistance to Roman rule, thus committing treason. If he says, “Yes, we should pay taxes,” he is essentially accepting, and submitting to, Roman rule. This would have been an extremely unpopular decision with the crowds who followed him. The Herodians and Pharisees would have been happy to have either answer. So, which answer does Jesus give? Hold that thought.

Third, notice Jesus’ response to their less-than-above-the-board question. He recognizes immediately that it’s a trap. Then he asks for a coin. The coin in question would have been a denarius, which was worth a day’s wage for a worker. On this coin, during the time of Jesus, would have been the image of the Caesar, Tiberius. Above the image of Tiberius was the inscription, Caesar Augustus Tiberius, Son of the Divine Augustus. What would such an inscription mean? That Tiberius is the son of god (which was a political term as much as a religious term). On the reverse side of the coin was an image of the Roman goddess Pax, symbolic of the Roman imperial ideology of peace through victory.

Tiberius,_Denar,_Lyon,_CNG

This coin, then, is a violation of the command from the Decalogue: 

Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth…

Here’s the irony of the situation: Jesus doesn’t have a coin, yet those trying to entrap him readily produce one! Their trap is turning back in on them, and their hypocrisy is exposed. 

Fourth, notice Jesus’ response. He looks at the coin and says, “Whose image and inscription is this?” His questioners respond, “Caesar’s.” Which is correct. The coin is made in the image of Caesar. Then, Jesus tells them, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.

His reply left them “overcome with wonder.”

This response is often taken to mean that Jesus says, “Keep these two separate. They are oil and water. Make sure you keep God and your politics separate.”

Jesus, however, is actually doing something brilliant. When he says give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, he’s making a bold claim. When Jesus says “give to God what belongs to God,” what would be included in that? What belongs to God?

In Genesis 1, we are told that God created human beings in the image of God. Using the logic he presents in this text, Jesus would say all human beings, even Caesar, belong to God. 

Later, in Psalm 24, the Psalmist declares, “The earth is the LORD’s and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants too.” Not only are the inhabitants of the earth God’s, all of creation belongs to God as well.

Put concisely, what belongs to God? Everything. 
What, then, belongs to Caesar? Nothing. 

Jesus, friends, is brilliant, and in this shrewd response he offers a critique of the hypocrisy of his questioners and the absurdity of Caesar’s empire. Because Caesars come and go. Yet, the reality of justice, compassion, and love that we call God, and in whose image we are made, is here to stay.

Why Are You Gazing At The Sky?

Today, on the Church calendar, is Ascension Day. Forty days after the resurrection, according to the tradition in Acts, Jesus is taken up to the right hand of God. Let me set the scene. Jesus has just promised his disciples that they would be empowered by the Spirit to live out their calling, to be his witnesses, sharing the radical message of the Kingdom of God everywhere they would go. Following this, the text records this scene:

Acts 1:9-11, CEB:
After Jesus said these things, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. They said, “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven?

Of course, this scene is hard to imagine for us. We no longer hold to a three-tiered-universe understanding of reality. The idea of Jesus going “up, up, and away” seems hard to swallow. Yet, I want to invite you to think about this story theologically. For the author, there’s something going on in this scene that will shape the story he’s telling, which in Acts is about the spread of this Jesus movement from a ragtag, small group of followers, to reaching the heart of the empire itself, Rome. To think theologically means to ask, what is the deeper truth, the more-than-literal meaning of this story. Another way to put it is this: Believe whatever you want about whether or not this story is giving us a literal picture of Jesus going up in the sky. The question we must ask is, either way, what does it mean?

Here are a couple of thoughts on what this story might mean. 

First, Jesus is ascending to the right hand of God. This is a reference, I think, to two different things, one Roman, one Jewish, that come together to make one important affirmation. Let’s begin with Rome.

A few months after Julius Caesar was assassinated, his adopted son (and heir) Octavian (better known as Caesar Augustus) held games in his honor. During the festival a comet appeared in the sky for seven days, which was said to be the soul of Julius Caesar ascending to the realm of the gods. This was fortunate for Augustus. If his adopted father, Julius, was now among the gods, then he was the son of a god, and thus could be described as ‘lord.’ Lord in Greek is kurios, and refers essentially to who is in charge. Who has the say over how things are? In the Roman empire, the answer at the time of Jesus’ birth was Caesar Augustus, the son of god and lord. 

Next, let’s consider the Jewish tradition. In the book of Daniel, which is an apocalyptic Jewish text from the period of Hellenistic rule of Palestine (written c. 160s BCE), there is a description of four empires, symbolized by beasts. Each of these empires fades into history, ultimately replaced by the next. After the fourth beastly empire, the author records a vision in which a human being joins God and is given power to rule:

Daniel 7:13-14 CEB
As I continued to watch this night vision of mine, I suddenly saw one like a human being coming with the heavenly clouds. He came to the ancient one and was presented before him. Rule, glory, and kingship were given to him; all peoples, nations, and languages will serve him. His rule is an everlasting one—it will never pass away!—his kingship is indestructible.

The scene is essentially saying this: The kingdoms that came before act in a beastly fashion, establishing rule through the use of violence and social and economic inequality. The truly just kingdom, the Kingdom of God, would be humane, led by a Human One, or as it would have been said then, a Son of Man. The writer of Acts clearly had this text in mind when he wrote about Jesus ascending in the clouds. 

To bring these two ideas together, the Ascension means that Jesus is greater than Caesar. He has ascended to the right hand of the true God, and rules over creation, as the author of Daniel envisioned. To put it concisely: the Ascension means that Jesus is Lord.

Second, notice the response of the disciples: they stare into the heavens, watching Jesus disappear. Suddenly, two men in white appear (because it was before Labor Day and wearing all white was permissible), and ask them why they are gazing into the sky. The point isn’t to look into the sky, watching for Jesus. The point is to go and share this remarkable story of a Kingdom of justice and generosity, to be witnesses to the transformation they have experienced through their encounter with this Jesus.

Ten days later, on Pentecost Day, these first followers of Jesus would gather together and be filled with the Spirit. This was the empowerment of which Jesus spoke. These followers would no longer be content to watch the sky; instead, they would give everything, even their own lives, to advance this alternative kingdom, the Kingdom of God.    

What does the Ascension mean?

It calls us to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord.
Which means Caesar isn’t.
Then.
Now.
Ever. 

It also calls us to engage, to participate in the work of God, the work of healing, justice, reconciliation, and transformation, right here and right now. 

The reality is that Jesus isn’t gone. He’s here. He’s always been here. We are the body in which he incarnates. We are, as Teresa of Avila beautifully wrote, the hands and feet, the eyes with which he looks upon the world with compassion.

The Ascension isn’t about absence. It’s about an even more intimate presence. Our response, then, isn’t to stand gazing into the sky. Our response is to love, to give, to extend compassion and forgiveness. Our response, our calling, is to be the Body of Christ in, to, with, and for the world.   

Does God Pick Our President?

On Inauguration Day I posted an open letter to Donald Trump that, essentially, called him to be a president for all Americans and to stand for justice and equality. To my surprise, this post generated a lot of strong response. Some people (even people who voted for Trump) thought it was a balanced, fair piece. Others reacted with anger, and some with vitriol. As I sorted through the less-than-favorable reviews, I noticed a pattern. There was one line, in particular, to which most people had a strong reaction: 

I don’t think God made you president. I think it was actually the Rust Belt that made you president.

To be honest, when I originally wrote this letter, that was just a throw away line. I never imagined that it would create any kind of controversy. Yet, several people were indignant that I would suggest that God did not, in fact, make Donald Trump our 45th president. After having multiple conversations about what I meant by this, and listening to the pastoral instinct I’ve developed over the past couple decades, I want to explain my thinking on this. So, here goes.

I do not believe God made Donald Trump our president.
And this isn’t just an “anti-Trump” sentiment.
I also don’t believe God made Barack Obama our president, twice. 
Nor do I think God hand selected Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Carter…
you see where this is going. 

How can I believe such a thing? 
Simply put, I believe human beings are free agents.
We have the ability to choose, to decide. 
We make choices everyday that are all on us: what we wear, what we eat for lunch, who we marry, what we name our kids, how fast we drive…you get the picture. 

Actually, for me, the idea that God is hand selecting world leaders is troubling. 

First, I assume the same people who believe God picked Trump don’t believe God picked Obama. And the people who think God chose Obama don’t think God chose Bush.  Right? But you can’t have it both ways. God either elected them both, or God didn’t elect either of them. Unless we think that sometimes God loses? Further, if God is picking world leaders, then what about Hitler or Stalin? Did God choose them, too? If so, God has made some really bad decisions that led to millions upon millions of people being oppressed and unjustly killed. 

Or, does God only choose the US president? That seems a bit arrogant of us, right? That out of almost 200 countries in the world, God only chooses the leader of the United States? That can’t be right. 

Second, the idea that God picks our president can lead to a dangerous and unfaithful conflation with the actions of the US and our leader to be the very actions of God. This is important: before the year 313 (with the conversion of Constantine and the issuing of the Edict of Milan, which made Christianity legal) the idea that God and empire were on the same side was foreign to the Christian tradition. Jesus came advocating the Kingdom of God, the values of which are expressed in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) as, among other things, pursuing peace through nonviolence and compassion. The early Christians recognized that even the best kind of worldly empire fell way short of the values of the Kingdom of God. Christ, crucified and raised, is Lord; Caesar with all his power, wealth, and influence, is not. Not then, not now, not ever. 

Simply put, no president, even the best of them, can lead a worldly empire to be the Kingdom of God. The realities demanded by both the empires of the world and the Kingdom of God are in conflict in deep ways. Sadly, beginning in 313, and continuing in 380 (with the Edict of Thessalonica, which made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire), Christians have, at times, cared more about political power and influence than we have advancing the Kingdom of God. 

Empires make their enemies bleed. 
The Kingdom is exemplified in Jesus bleeding for his. 

Empires are about the accumulation and concentration of wealth and power. 
The Kingdom ethic is demonstrated with a towel and basin. 

Empires are organized around protecting power.
The Kingdom is about sharing and being empowered to partner with God in the world.

Empires are about self-preservation and their own interests.
The Kingdom is about giving oneself away in service and compassion. 

The writer of 1 Peter reminds us that those of us who follow Jesus are a “a peculiar people.” Our values should not align exactly with those of the empires of this world. This is the danger of assuming the US president is God’s “man” or “woman.” When we assume God chose the president, we then might be willing to go along with and defend anything they do as being the will of God, no matter how counter to God’s will and way it might be.

All presidents will do some good things. 
And all presidents will do some less than good things. 
We can celebrate the good. We must critique the less than good. 

Critiquing the misuse of power, by the way, isn’t being judgmental. It’s evaluating the fruit on the tree. Jesus did such things. So did the Hebrew prophets. To call the Powers that Be to act justly is the most Christian/Jesusy thing you can do.

So, how does the president get elected?
We vote and the Electoral College elects.  

I assume God would prefer the candidate who will act most justly and compassionately, but I also believe that you and I have free will. We are not pawns on God’s cosmic chess board. We are free agents, making our own choices and living with the consequences of those choices. Of course God invites us, even woos us toward the best choices, but God is Love and love demands freedom. 

If you’re a parent you know this intrinsically. When your kids get a bit older, they tend to stop wanting to hug you and kiss you all the time. It’s not cool to do such things. If you chase them, hold them down, and make them hug you and say, “I love you,” does that really feel genuine? Of course not! But those rare moments when they, on their own accord and from their own volition, come up to you with a hug and “I love you,” that’s just the best thing. Ever. Right? 

Love demands freedom. Freedom to embrace, and freedom to resist. Freedom to move toward, and freedom to move away. If God is going around subverting our freedom, then God can’t really be Love. 

Yet our scriptures teach that God is, in fact Love, which means that God gives us the freedom to choose. Some choices are good and some choices aren’t, but they are still our choices. 

How we choose, whether it’s our presidential vote or how we treat our friends, neighbors, and enemies, is extremely important and 100% totally our responsibility. Will we choose well, opening ourselves to joining God in the ongoing work of healing and repairing the world? That is the question. 

What are your thoughts? Feel free to join this conversation in the comments below. 

Be well, friends!

JS

Five Things I Wish I’d Learned About Preaching Twenty Years Ago

I love preaching/teaching/sermonizing (or whatever the kids are calling it these days). I gave my first sermon as a seventeen-year-old, way back in 1998. That’s almost twenty years ago, and I can’t get my brain around that information as I type it. In the last twenty years I’ve experienced a lot of transformation as a communicator, and it’s mostly been for the better (I hope). The past few months have ushered in a season for me that has been more fun and energizing than any I’ve ever known before. So, in these past few weeks, I’ve been processing this renewed sense of fulfillment and enthusiasm, and trying to mine from it what I’ve learned over the last two decades that has led me to this point (Apologies to the men and women who were two decades in when I was in diapers. I still have much to learn from you, and your input and experiences are welcome and needed!).

Without further ado, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way. 

First, I’ve learned that less can actually be more. My first sermon lasted around eleven minutes. I’m sure it felt like eleven minutes going on eternity for my community at the time, but they were gracious, kind, and encouraging. So much so, that I’ve given my life to this work. These days an average sermon clocks in between 30-40 minutes. I used to preach sermons that length, in which I did all the talking and tried to share every single interesting fact that I could about whatever the text or topic was. I thought I needed to give my community everything I knew about the subject at hand, and being in my 20s and often hearing “You don’t seem old enough to be a preacher,” I was probably trying to subconsciously prove the validity of what I was saying. These days, however, I’ve learned that from me, less is more. I still preach the same length, but now that time is also filled with conversation and discussion (more on that soon), not just a monologue or lecture from me. I do believe there are times and places where a lecture-style, intensive teaching is not only appropriate, but also necessary. Yet, on a Sunday morning, I’ve discovered that my job is to help us think about the text or topic in a way that is accessible and portable, meaning it shapes our lives and leads us into actual practice. To put it another way, I’ve learned to value creating conversations that lead to transformation more than simply trying to download information into people. 

Second, I’ve learned that I’m not the only person in the room with something insightful to say. I know, it’s silly this lesson took twenty years to teach, but I can be hardheaded. I learned this through engaging people in my community in smaller venues, first. We have a Wednesday night discussion group that meets each week during the school year, for one hour. This group varies week to week in attendance, and has no set agenda or topic. The people who come can raise any issue or topic they wish, and we all share our perspectives and insights. Some weeks we discuss particular biblical texts, while other weeks find us talking about health care or prison reform, all through the lens of our faith. I am continually impressed with the insights we share week to week. So, during this past Lenten season, when I was planning on preaching a series called Signs & Wonders, focused on the signs of Jesus in the Gospel of John, I wondered what would happen if I took time at the beginning and the end of my talk (and sometimes in the middle) to hear how the text or teaching landed. I opened up the opportunity to share to everyone in the room, and it has been amazing. To give just one example of how much I’ve learned from my community through this process, I have to tell you about Cheryl’s insight into Jesus’ sign that involved the Feeding of the 5,000. She pointed out the twelve baskets full of food leftover, and to the fact that, in that day, Jewish travelers (like Jesus’ disciples) would have carried a basket of food with them on their journey, to ensure the availability of kosher food. I knew this, yet never made the connection she did, which was that the young boy shared what was in his basket, BUT, Jesus’ disciples ALSO had baskets of food. Those are the very baskets that were used to collect the leftovers! This detail illuminated a whole other layer to this story for me, one that I would not have experienced if I were giving a monologue. The point: Don’t be afraid to crowdsource your sermons! This does not have to happen overnight, mind you. I’ve been at MCC for twelve years now, so I have a comfort level with my community that has opened up this possibility. Start somewhere. It’s important to hear (and learn from) our community participants. It’s not a one-way street!

Third, I’ve learned to find my own voice. When I was first learning to art of preaching, I wanted to preach just like my pastor. Then I wanted to be as good a communicator as the Andy Stanley’s and Louie Giglio’s. Then I heard Rob Bell, and I knew I wanted to be just like him. And here’s the thing, I learned so many important things about communication and connecting with people from each of those people, but I was a terrible copy of them. I couldn’t be them as good as they could. Part of my journey these past two decades has been finding my own voice, allowing my personality and experiences (and idiosyncracies) to come through. It’s taken me a long time, but I am finally comfortable in my own skin as a communicator and that has allowed me to connect better with my community. We can and should learn from others, and even allow some of those lessons to shape our approach. However, our best work (in terms of actually connecting and communicating) will come when we adapt those skills into our own voices and contexts.

Fourth, I’ve learned not to tie up all the loose ends. At one point my approach to a teaching was the same as a thirty minute TV show. Create some tension, then resolve it at the end. I’d try to put a nice, big bow on the end of the sermon, leave no question hanging. But that’s not how Jesus sermonized, is it? Remember the story of the Prodigal, in Luke 15? Jesus tells the story of two brothers, and a compassionate father who wants all his kids to be at his party. At the end, however, everything isn’t resolved in a nice, neat “they all lived happily ever after.” Instead, Jesus concludes the story with this scene of the father talking to his older son, who had stayed home: 

“Then his father said, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.’”

He’s inviting this older son into the party and trying to explain why he’s thrown such a lavish celebration for his younger son, Yet, if you’ll notice, Jesus doesn’t ease the tension by saying, “And the older son realized he was being a jerk and went in to celebrate his younger brother’s return.” 

Jesus doesn’t do that. He leaves the tension, and puts the task of resolving that tension onto his listeners, who happen to be some religious leaders who question Jesus’ celebratory meals with tax collectors and “sinners.” He’s asking them, “What are you going to do? Will you join the celebration? Will you miss out on the Kingdom party by being obstinate and jealous of the reality that God loves all of God’s kids?”

There have been people who’ve decided to leave our community, frustrated that we don’t give more answers or tell them what to think. I see our task as helping people learn how to think about these things. To use another example, we aren’t telling them what to see as much as we are helping them find the lens that helps them see best. This is why I love to end a teaching with a question or two. We engage these questions on the spot, but I also hope these questions are shaping our continued conversation and reflection during the week. The sermon time is the first word in a conversation, not the last word. 

Fifth, I’ve learned to value engagement over perfection. One of the first sermons I gave at MCC was from a text in the Psalms that talks about how we are animated by the Breath or Spirit of God, and without that Breath, we die. I decided to use an illustration to drive home the point. The plan was to blow up a balloon, talk about the idea that we are animated by God’s breath, and then release the balloon. Like I said, that WAS the plan. When I started blowing it up, however, the balloon started hissing. I realized too late that there was a pin-sized hole which caused the balloon to burst like something out of a Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner episode. 

I. was. mortified. 

I didn’t bring a spare. I had no idea how to get back on track, because I was so embarrassed. I wanted the sermon to be seamless and flawless. And there’s something to be said for giving it one’s best, which I do every time I preach. But I’ve learned that the flubs and misspeak can sometimes be the moments that begin to engage people. They humanize you…because you’re really human! This idea that the preacher is somehow above or more connected to God than the people in the seats is just rubbish. We all live, move, and exist in God. The problem isn’t one of access, but awareness. To be frank, there are many times people in my community are more aware of God, and our conversations help me become more open to God myself. 

The point, after all, isn’t looking like we have it all together or all figured out. The point is transformation. Mine. Yours. Theirs. Ours. The ultimate goal is that we all are more aware of God, more open to God, and as a result, more open to loving and serving all of God’s kids around us. 

I realize that twenty years to some people is just a drop in the bucket. I hope to be in this long enough to look back on forty or fifty years, or more, and celebrate the lessons I’ve learned. I’m also really interested to hear from all of you who do this work. Do these thoughts resonate? What would you add from your own experiences? Please share in the comments section. 

Grace and peace, friends!

 

 

 

Famous Last Words: I Am Thirsty

For part one, click here
For part two, click here
For part three, click here
For part four, click here.

John 19v28, CEB
After this, knowing that everything was already completed, in order to fulfill the scripture, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.”

We come to the fifth word.

Jesus is thirsty. 

What is so striking about this is that several chapters before, in John 4, Jesus has a conversation with a Samaritan woman, in which he offers her Living Water. In contrast to regular water, which will only temporarily quench thirst, this Living Water will provide continuous quenching. “The water that I give,” he says,  “will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles up into eternal life.”

Now, the one who offered Living Water has become thirsty. 

This, like the cry of abandonment, echoes Psalm 22.
“My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth…”

Jesus’ thirst is actually what led him to the cross.
His thirst for the Kingdom of God.
His thirst for justice for the poor and oppressed.
His thirst for a generous, compassionate, and peaceful world. 

And now, in this moment, that existential thirst has become literal, palpable. 

May we embrace Jesus’ thirst as our own. 
May it only be quenched by a more just and generous world
where all are welcome, and all have enough. 

 

Famous Last Words: Why Have You Forsaken Me?

For part one, click here
For part two, click here
For part three, click here

Mark 15:33-34, CEB

From noon until three in the afternoon the whole earth was dark. At three, Jesus cried out with a loud shout, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani,” which means,
“My God, my God, why have you left me?”

The cry of abandonment is Jesus’ fourth word from the cross. We can all relate to this word, can’t we? This sense of being forsaken by God can be real and excruciating in the darkest moments of our lives. Jesus’ cry expresses this feeling, yet also invites us to be hopeful. 

Yep. You read that correctly. Hope.

This line, “My God, my God, why have you left me?” is actually the first line of Psalm 22. Jesus is actually quoting scripture, and this Psalm fits well the experience of Jesus on the cross. The Psalmist cries out to God in abandonment. His enemies are mocking and humiliating him. They even divide up his clothing. Yet, in the midst of this sense of aloneness and defeat, the Psalmist writes:

Because he didn’t despise or detest
the suffering of the one who suffered—
he didn’t hide his face from me.
No, he listened when I cried out to him for help.

The Psalmist begins with despair, and ends with the confidence that God will hear his cry. Which leads us back to Jesus. To quote the first line of a text like this would call to mind the rest. Ultimately, even in the darkness of this moment, even though he feels abandoned and forsaken, Jesus holds on to the hope that God will come to his rescue. 

May we hold on to the same hope. 

Famous Last Words: Don’t Forget Your Mother

For the First Word, click here.
For the Second Word, click here.

John 19:25-27
Jesus’ mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene stood near the cross. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that time on, this disciple took her into his home.

The Third Word Jesus speaks from the cross is about his mother. Near the cross, Jesus sees his mother and the disciple whom he loved (I talk about who this might be in this past Sunday’s teaching at MCC. Go here to listen). In his waning moments he commits the care of his mother to this Beloved Disciple. I think this touching moment works on two levels. 

First, as a son, he is concerned for his mother’s future. If she were a widow, as it is traditionally assumed, her options in a patriarchal society, without someone assuming her care, wouldn’t be good. So, Jesus commits her to the care of his most trusted disciple. 

On another level, is we allow these two characters to also play a symbolic role, we can see the larger point Jesus is making. If the mother of Jesus represents the Jewish tradition, the faith that gave birth to and shaped Jesus, and if the Beloved Disciple represents the emerging Christian tradition, then Jesus’ intention is clear: as this movement expands, don’t forget where you came from. Honor your mother, the faith that brought you into the world. 

Too often, we wrongly assume that Jesus came into the world for the purpose of founding a new religion. This is not so. Jesus’ work was that of a reformer, calling his tradition to be true to the God he called ‘Father,’ to love their neighbor (which for Jesus, is everyone), and to participate in the repair of the world. Christianity actually began in the synagogue. Those Jewish men and women who believed Jesus to be the fulfillment of their hopes and dreams worshipped alongside their Jewish brothers and sisters who did not see it that way. Eventually, however, the tension between the “Mother” tradition and the burgeoning Jesus movement came to a head. There was a split between these two groups.

Yet, from the cross, Jesus reminds his followers, “Don’t forget your mother.” Honor and acknowledge the soil in which your roots have been planted. Sadly, Christian tradition is stained with many, many instances in which we have done the opposite. Crusades and Holocausts serve as stark and painful reminders of how we have failed to honor our Mother.  

God, forgive us!

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