Selling Jesus on EBay

Selling Jesus on EBay

As many of you know, my wife and I have a vacation house in Pennsylvania (I don’t want to make it sound too lavish—although now that most of the bats have left and the mice and chipmunks seem under control, it may have increased in value). In one of the rooms upstairs (I won’t say which one in a polite sermon), right under the claw foot of the bathtub (whoops!), I noticed just this summer there is a linoleum tile with a pattern in it. “Hey!” I said to myself as I stared at it, “that looks like the profile of a face!” And then it dawned on me: It wouldn’t take much imagination to realize that that looked like Jesus’s face! I was struck with awe, remembering how many stories there are about Jesus’s face appearing in the patterns of trees and fungi and food and coffee foam. I had a pious thought: “I could dig up this tile and—after holding a news conference, of course, sell it on EBay and donate the proceeds to the endowment fund!” Then when I thought about the work it would take to remove that tile, I next wondered if people would pay to see a PICTURE of that pattern. So I took a picture with my phone and for the paltry cost of one dollar, you can persuade me to show it to you after the service! Before anyone visiting this morning leaves in disgust, I hasten to assure everyone that the pattern is certainly NOT the face of Jesus; it’s no shroud of Turin, and I have no intention of doing anything with it besides showing it to those interested at an extremely discounted rate as a no-tax, back-to-school special (just kidding). But it did make me think about patterns in Jesus’s ministry. In looking at them, the first thing to be cautious of is our human propensity to SEE patterns everywhere. There’s a scientific term for it: Pareidolia—“the tendency of the human brain to see familiar shapes­-especially faces–emerging from random patterns” (TIME Aug. 3, 2015). Those of you who are devotees of “everything bad happens in threes” and “everything happens for a reason” know what I mean. When we are confronted with something that doesn’t make sense – maybe like a painting at the Museum of Contemporary Art, or a piece of modern music with no discernible melody, or even the sounds from the white noise machine that puts us to sleep at night—we seem to have two choices. Either get irritable and reject the piece that seems to be assaulting our senses, or to use it like a Zen Koan to quiet our minds and reduce our stressed...

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No Charge for Baggage

No Charge for Baggage

Scripture: Matthew 10:10-15 I am happy to see all of you here today and I feel privileged to be the “preacher of the day.” I think there would have been more people here, but when they saw the sermon title on the marquee, they said: “I know what he’s going to say; I’ve heard it all before, so I think I’ll stay home and work in my garden.” Here’s what I think THEY think I will say on this topic: That lots of us have lots of baggage, but God doesn’t care how much baggage we have. He loves and accepts us. Ok. That IS what I am going to say, but with a whole lot more words (wait! Don’t leave!) and I hope a couple different perspectives. The first thing those travelers up Van Aken need to know is: I’m NOT talking about baggage for the journey into the NEXT life! I’m talking about right here, right now.   Here’s what Rev. Cam Miller has to say about that: As far as I am concerned, and this is just one man’s opinion, way too much about Christianity is invested in the other side of that choice. I think it is an enormously profound act of faith to be engaged in a spiritual practice that pays no attention to the other side until we get there. Personally, it seems to me that the primary act of faith is to trust God with the unknown and focus on this side without anxiety about the other side. First, let’s make a distinction between REAL baggage and metaphorical baggage. I’m embarrassed by both. When I tell my wife I’m just going to our little house in Pennsylvania to cut the grass, I can see her looking at my huge overnight bag, my fishing equipment, my books, my computer, my chargers (can’t go anywhere without chargers), my grass cutting accessories, lots of food, my hedge clippers and my chain saw (in case a tree has fallen across the driveway) and you get the idea. I’m sure she is thinking: HOW long are you staying? That kind of baggage is certainly a symptom of the metaphorical or spiritual baggage that this sermon is mostly about (what does it say about me that I can’t go anywhere without a book? –or a cell phone?). Back to spiritual baggage: There’s the baggage of the PAST—the things you’ve done that you feel guilty about and can never forgive yourself for. We can easily paraphrase Psalm 51:3 to read: “The weight of my offenses is before me always.” Then there are the secrets that you are harboring about yourself—the stuff you’d die a thousand deaths if people knew, (but...

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The Rich Young Man and Redistribution of Wealth

The Rich Young Man and Redistribution of Wealth

Matthew 19:16-26 Isn’t it interesting that Matthew puts this passage about the rich young man right after Jesus blesses the little children.  Of course, these two events may have taken place on different days or even in different years, but switching from the innocent sweetness of little children to someone who has all the resources and sophistication that wealth and education can bring, must have taken a great deal of effort.   I’m told that peace corps volunteers face this culture shock when they return from a third world country and re-enter a grocery store. The wealthy man’s question implies he is coming to grips with the fact that you can’t take your riches with you when you die, and so he is wisely asking Jesus, the teacher and prophet, how he can obtain the one thing he doesn’t yet have: eternal life.  He asks what “good” he needs to do to merit eternal life. When Jesus answers that there is only one who is good; namely, God, and then launches into a recitation of the commandments, the young man counters with what amounts to: “Whoa!  I am good!  I’ve kept all of these commandments.”  Jesus, instead of asking (as I would have): “Then why did you ask me ‘Which ones?’ when I said “keep the commandments?” Jesus must have looked at his clothing, his manner, the care he took of his skin, and then challenged him on the one thing he lacked in THIS life, detachment from his wealth. As the young man went away grieving (“no eternal life for me—yi!”), Jesus commented on the extreme difficulty of getting into that eternal realm with your bags full of money. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible makes the assumption that since the man was wealthy, he could NOT have kept the commandments Jesus quoted; that in that era and culture, he got wealthy by exploiting others, being greedy, and depriving others of what he had accumulated.  The NISB adds: “Contrary to elitist values that often despised the poor and blamed them for their poverty, wealth does not equate with virtue” (p. 1781).  “Wealth has blinded him,” NISB continues, “to unjust, hierarchical social relationships…To follow Jesus is to join a community that renounces domination based on birth and wealth, and where all are slaves (12:46-55; 20:24-28)…To live a life that deprives people of necessary resources, that maintains social inequities, makes it impossible to participate in God’s empire.  Repentance and restructured social and economic practices are necessary.”   Only God can effect that transformation. Wow!  Sounds like a call for the redistribution of wealth, doesn’t it?  Such a call would be fought with great vigor in the United States and labeled “Marxist” by many. ...

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Women Should Be Silent!

Women Should Be Silent!

Scripture: 1 Timothy 2 If we could land on one book of Scripture that would convince us that Scripture is NOT all of a piece, and that there are many variations in genre, authorship, and authenticity through the ages, it’s this letter to Timothy.   Those who shy away from making distinctions among the books may have to accept some of the responsibility for what 1 Timothy has done to women through the centuries, especially this second chapter.  The issue of the roles of women in our contemporary world was brought home to me in a blog warning that climate change is going to affect ALL of us, no matter how far away we are from the melting glaciers.   The author (from United Nations Development) states that “We know that in 38 of the 48 countries surveyed by the United Nations in a 2010 report, women (over 15 years old) are responsible for searching and collecting drinking water. The harder it is to access it, the further they will have to walk, the worse their health will be, and the less time they will have to educate themselves.” Luckily, we have scholars such as John Dominic Crossan, who distinguish between a radical Paul (in his seven authentic letters), a liberal Paul, and a conservative Paul.  As Crossan puts it, “someone was cleaning up Paul” from his radical notions.   [See his talk on YouTube here: http://youtu.be/txdUXCY0clU]. Scholars are convinced that Paul didn’t even WRITE 1 Timothy, although it has been the cause of much dislike of Paul by women. Chapter two of 1 Timothy is fascinating in how it has been (and still is) interpreted.  The Jewish scholar, Dr. Amy Jill Levine (The Jewish Annotated New Testament), reminds us that the delay in the Second Coming of Jesus, which was the issue in Paul’s Letters to the Thessalonians, led the scribes writing in the name of Paul to support the status quo; namely, that women were to find their salvation in having children and their husbands were to rule the household, in the patriarchal culture (and in popular moral treatises) of the time. Dr. Levine even writes, in her notes on chapter two of 1 Timothy: “The view that women are subordinate to men and that the subordination derives from Genesis [note that the New Interpreter’s Study Bible calls 1 Timothy 2:14 a ‘somewhat forced’ reading of Genesis] appears in later Jewish circles and is native to some rabbinic understanding of womanhood…”   When I remind my wife that Scripture says she should be subject to me, she gives me that look that promises: “In your dreams!”    Rightly so: we are partners who love each other dearly, and hierarchy is not even...

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“You Have Heard That It Was Said, But I Say…”

“You Have Heard That It Was Said, But I Say…”

Scripture: Matthew 5:17-48 “You Have Heard That It Was Said…” This passage is difficult because Jesus says that he has come to fulfill the law, not to abolish it (nor the Prophets).  But then he goes on to quote the law about murder, adultery, oaths, retaliation and enemies and goes way beyond it in most cases.  “You have heard that it was said, but what I say to you is…”    Jesus seems to be on the side of the conservative interpreters of the Torah, stating that not one smallest part of a letter of it should ever be changed.  The Jewish scholar, Dr. Amy Jill Levine, in her Annotated Commentary on the New Testament, reminds us that not everything in the Torah is a law, and that way back at the time of Hillel,  Jews believed that there was an oral Torah and a written Torah, and both had equal value.  But the one can be interpreted by the other.  The Hebrew word for law (nomos) can be translated “teaching” and so gives further credence that not everything in the Torah, whether written or oral, has the force of law. Still, Jesus seems to be pointing the way to a higher standard of conduct.  He didn’t seem to have much tolerance for external observances, rituals or practices that were not accompanied by an interior purity of intention.  He knew that what comes out of our character and motivation and instincts means more than what we profess to believe.   He knew how difficult it is for us to accomplish even the most unselfish-looking deeds without having mixed motives for doing so. For those who celebrate or know about Ash Wednesday, with ashes so recently traced on our foreheads and the accompanying words assaulting our ears: “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return,” perhaps we have a context in which to interpret this difficult passage from Matthew’s Gospel. Our lives go so fast—we are old before we realize the years have passed.  We can’t believe the ages of our children and grandchildren.  You never thought you would live to be forty, and then suddenly find yourself in your sixties or seventies or eighties!   Ashes indeed.   I know this is a little far out, but what if Jesus, in these words recorded by Matthew, were trying to teach us something about life and death? We are, are we not, used to playing up certain laws in Scripture and ignoring others.  I was in a discussion group of teachers just the other day, and they were complaining about how little respect students seem to have these days.  They don’t respect each other, nor do they respect their elders, their...

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