Thursday, March 31, 2011

Regime Change - Lent 4

When Samuel anoints David as king of Israel, he becomes part of a long pattern of contested sovereignty – “regime change”. Saul is still living, and for several more years will act out the role of king. But as of this moment in Jesse’s yard, he is no longer the real king; that authority God has taken from Saul and bestowed on David, because, we are told, Saul has turned his back on the Lord and set up a monument for himself.

Regime change is what Eve and Adam attempted in Eden when they seized the fruit of God’s tree. And it’s what’s going on in Libya right now. Who will be king? Who will have power?

The question of power – where it comes from, its legitimate uses, who has it – provides a constant rumble rising out of history’s cellar – a tectonic force that reshapes life on the surface, sometimes gradually, often violently.  And there is violence here. Saul will seek David's death. Absalom's violent death will break his Father's heart. Not much of scripture has to do with gradual change.

So we might, as we journey towards Jerusalem and the cross in this Lent, remember another king who suspects a rival. When the Magi visit Herod seeking the newly born king, Herod’s response is immediate, pre-emptive and violent. There will be no other king. Herod will use power to sustain power, even if it means using that power to wipe out the infant population of an entire region.

On the road to Jerusalem, the disciples come to Jesus and ask, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  Jesus puts a child among them, because any child will know right away who’s the greatest in the kingdom.  “The King, of course!” And then, anticipating his own act of generous and courageous humility, he says, “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom.” 

Near the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus takes up the proclamation of John the Baptist that another kingdom is emerging to rival current arrangements. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  He’s not talking spirituality here, at least not the gossamer stuff that passes for spirituality.  He’s talking about transformation in how power is understood and used. In two weeks we will mark Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, where he will contest the claim of Herod as king and of Caesar as emperor. Their power is no longer legitimate; they have separated it from its source in the God of Israel, and from its purposes of compassion and justice. They have, like Samuel, built monuments to themselves. There is not an ounce of humility to be found between them.

Herod understands the claim that Jesus makes as he enters Jerusalem, and if he doesn’t, he has the priests to explain it to him. Jesus is claiming sovereignty over the city, claiming to be its true king. And just a few days later, God will indeed anoint him, and the centurion will recognize him, and the world will never be ruled by violence or fear again. And if those who build monuments to themselves, who use power to consolidate their advantage rather than to serve the common good, who sustain their advantage by violence and the threat of violence – if people like that, wherever they are, imagine that there’s none who can oppose them, they would do well to remember this ancient story rumbling up from the cellar of history – Samuel anointing the new king, the true king, the king who will still be standing when the old king falls.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

For Lent 2

None of us remembers our birth. But most of us can imagine what a trauma it was to leave the warm, humid comfort of the dark and quiet womb and be thrust into the dry, cold, noisy brightness of whatever room.  So when Jesus speaks to Nicodemus of a spiritual birth, I’m inclined to believe that what Jesus asks of Nicodemus is not going to be easy.

The gospel account of the exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus is complicated by the writer’s habit of characterizing Jews (in general) and Pharisees (in particular) as obsessed with narrow legalism and driven by judgmental self-righteousness. Evidence suggests that the sect of Pharisees was more complex than the portrait this evangelist paints. Nevertheless, what emerges in Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus is an exploration of the contested ground between structure (law, judgment) and freedom (Spirit, novelty).

That contested ground is not an exclusively Pharisaical or Jewish reality. It is at the heart of a contemporary tension in the formerly “mainline” churches, including our own Anglican Church. While as a Diocese we may have embraced a vision that includes “life-changing worship”, some of us are not sure we want to say “worship” and “change” in the same breath. Moreover, the contested ground is not just between people. Sometimes it is within us, as we desire both the comfort of familiar structures and patterns and the promise of renewal and transformation.

So as we eavesdrop on Jesus and Nicodemus, we listen to understand not just some long-ago contest between law and spirit, but to understand ourselves and our common life as well. We hear Jesus tell Nicodemus that “getting there”, entering the Kingdom, is a process that demands of us our willingness to endure discomfort – the discomfort of a passage between the dark and quiet womb of familiarity and the noisy bright expansive spirit-birth into new life.

Whatever for? Why would anyone willingly embrace such a transit? Two things come to mind. First, for growth and delight. At birth I weighed around five kilos and I had grown as big as I could or ever would in my mother’s womb. Moreover, in that place there was no Lake Superior, no college basketball, no first kiss or waking up together, no cinnamon toast, crossword puzzles or John Irving novels. (You might make your own list of the wonders of life this side of the womb.) We set out on this journey so that we can inhabit more fully the fullness of our lives.

And we set out for the sake of the world. “For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” The Hebrew name of Jesus – “Yeshua” – also means “salvation” and (by a delightful linguistic grace) “that which is spacious”. As we make the passage from the dark and quiet womb of “so far” towards the noisy, bright expansive (spacious) “not yet”, our capacity to participate in the spacious work of Jesus grows. In the Letter to the Romans, Paul writes that “the whole creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” People so firmly attached to current arrangements as we sometimes are cannot be agents of the transformation that God desires and for which the creation so eagerly longs. The world is waiting with eager longing for us to get over it, to get on with it, to consent to God’s spirit-birth, to the unsettling journey from what is to what will be.

Jesus asks a hard thing of Nicodemus, and of us. He asks us to endure the loss of warm familiarity, an uncertain passage, and unsettling newness for the sake of the world, and for our own fuller and deeper joy.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

For Lent 1

The first crisis of human stewardship came with our first ancestors’ decision to test the sovereignty of God by consuming the only fruit in the garden reserved exclusively to the Creator. Rejecting stewardship and embracing the illusory promise of sovereign possession of the garden, they initiate a continuing pattern of exploitation, entitlement, violence and destruction that plagues human participation in the life of the earth.”               
                           Anglican Church of Canada – Resources for Mission

Several weeks ago, Jesus informed us that we have to choose the master we will serve – God or wealth. On Ash Wednesday, we heard his words, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Today we read about the “first crisis in human stewardship” in the garden, and then about the resolution of that crisis – indeed, the redeeming of human stewardship – in Jesus’ wilderness encounter with the adversary.

In that encounter, Jesus overturns contemporary (in his time and in ours) wisdom about stuff, status, and power. He makes choices that affirm that his primary relationship is not with any of these, but with God as God’s steward. In fact, he refuses to express ownership or possession of any one of them. The stones are not “his” stones to refashion for his own purposes. Status as God’s son is not “his” status, an entitlement he can claim in support of his own emerging leadership agenda. And the power to govern the world is not power that can become “his” power if he does as the Adversary asks. Power is a gift from God for God’s purposes of compassion, healing, justice and mercy. What the Adversary offers Jesus is the misdirection of that gift into purposes of fear, domination, and threat. Jesus models human stewardship – grateful recognition that endowment and purpose flow from the same source – from the one he calls abba – “Papa”.

Jesus recognizes that human relationships – with the creation, with other persons and communities, and with power – will always be a matter of stewardship. In Bob Dylan’s words, “it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” Jesus’ encounter with the Adversary brings into sharp focus what is already apparent in the garden. The Adversary may frame our decision in terms of freedom or slavery, but the real question is not “Whether?” but “For whom?” we will be stewards. Both God and the Adversary govern a kingdom; the elemental stewardship question is which of them we will serve.

The forty days of fasting that lead to this encounter follow immediately on the heels of Jesus’ baptism, his inauguration into a renewal movement led by his cousin, John the Baptist. They are a consequence of his audacious claim to be a steward of the kingdom of heaven. It is God’s own spirit who dispatches him to the wilderness, where that audacious claim will be put to the test.

Where is our stewardship tested? Where are we tempted by the Adversary’s promise of absolute freedom and unrestricted title to whatever stuff, status, or power we can lay our hands on? It’s not, on the surface, a very friendly question, but it’s one we need to ask. Because it is not Jesus’ Papa who intends us harm, who invites us away from practices of stewardship grounded in compassion, justice, love and mercy. It is not Jesus’ Papa who seduces us, with illusions of freedom, into a stewardship grounded in “a continuing pattern of exploitation, entitlement, violence and destruction.”  And if we learn in Lent and Holy Week that the journey a Kingdom-of-God steward makes through this life is not an easy one, at Easter we will discover again what we had perhaps forgotten – that it is the only way home.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

For Transfiguration

My friend Jon Sams says it’s hard to believe in God in a flat place. I don’t know about that – prairie horizons utter powerful and eloquent testimony to the holy. But I do know that biblical mountains (remember Moses at Sinai) are places apart and above – places in which our usual patterns of encounter with the world are suspended. On the mountain we do not take the initiative. We are not in control, or even responsible to see that this or that happens or does not happen. Biblical mountains are a topographical sabbath on which we lay aside the notion that any of us is the author of life’s story. On the mountain, God is the author, the Storyteller who moves the plot forward.

So as Jesus leads Peter, James and John up the mountain, we have at least a sneaking suspicion that something is going to happen, that the Storyteller is about to introduce a new direction. Another new direction. We’re all still recovering from the last new direction – in all three synoptic gospels, what precedes this story is Jesus’ teaching that he will suffer and die at the hands of the authorities in Jerusalem.

Little wonder that when Jesus appears transfigured, when his face shines like the sun, when his clothes become dazzling white, when Moses and Elijah appear with him – little wonder Peter’s soul overheats. Two radically different visions of Jesus emerge within six days; and within a few short verses we encounter Jesus first as crucified victim and then as the shining apex of history, who brings both law and prophets to completion. What’s a simple fisherman (or any of us, for that matter) to make of this?

I think we understand what Peter wants to do with the booth thing – building three booths, for Elijah, for Moses, and for Jesus. He wants to take control, make the new story like the old one, to soften the outlandish novelty now appearing in the plot. He wants to usurp the Storyteller and domesticate the story, because this wild new thing frightens him. It makes no sense to him.  Perhaps the closest we can come to imagining what is happening to Peter is to remember that astonishing part of our lives called “puberty”, a time of confusing changes in our emotions and bodies, of profound and sometimes stormy dislocation in our relationships with others, standing on the threshold of adulthood without knowing it, feeling lost. Puberty isn’t the last time most of us will have to renegotiate our sense of the world, and of ourselves in the world, but it is memorable.

One thing about such thresholds is that they aren’t “well-signed”. They don’t identify things clearly – so we don’t easily know that we’re at a threshold!, grieving the loss of a familiar past!, apprehensive about the shape of an unknown future!. That may be what makes a story like this gospel so valuable. It gives as a window into our own lives, and a way of talking about them that can help us name the threshold, the loss, the apprehension. 

I wonder if it also helps us understand what Jesus means when he asks us to take up our cross and follow him. I wonder if taking up the cross means enduring – in whatever mean-time, at whatever threshold, and as gracefully as possible – the losses that will always attend God’s call to enter more deeply into new life, into the fullness of our humanity, into the promised future. Events on the mountain promise a transformed future on ahead, and ourselves redeemed and made new; the cross tells us the cost of that journey.