We’re Depending on You

rejoicing
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/blmurch/3382804237/">Beatrice Murch</a>

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

God’s spirit is on me.
God has chosen me,
And sent me to rally the oppressed,
To mend broken hearts,
To announce the captives’ emancipation
And the prisoners’ release,
To declare that this year God will rescue
And today God will be vindicated.

To comfort the mourners:
To take care of Zion’s mourners,
Replacing their ashes with trophies,
Replacing their funeral clothes with party clothes,
Replacing their dejection with celebration.

They will be called Oaks of Justice
Planted by God to show how great God is.
They’ll rebuild what’s been long destroyed,
They’ll raise what’s been written off,
They’ll restore cities from shambles
Abandoned for generations.

I, God, love justice.
I hate robbery and deceit.
I’ll surely give them what they’re owed,
And I’ll make them a binding contract.
Their descendents will be famous all over the world,
Their children among every race.
Everyone who sees them will agree
That they have God’s blessing.

I’ll be glad because of God,
My whole being will thrill with God,
For God has dressed me in the trappings of victory,
Wrapped me in robes of justice,
Like a groom puts on his corsage,
And a bride puts on her jewelry.

As the earth grows plants
And a garden grows seeds,
So God grows justice and gratitude
Wherever there are people.

It’s worth stopping to think about how radical, even revolutionary, this poetry is. Start with just the idea that God would make a binding contract with people who have no legal status. Let alone rallying the oppressed, emancipating the slaves, and orchestrating a massive jail break. Think about it. There is a reason those cities have been destroyed, abandoned and not rebuilt. Someone wants them that way. There’s a reason why we (yes we) write some people off. But this poem will not allow people to remain written off.

No less radical the idea that justice and gratitude are going to grow in people as naturally as seeds grow in soil. It’s just not how we typically see people behave. Sure, there are lots of just and gracious people. But in the present situation, it’s hard to say whether they are so far in the majority as to be viewed as a “natural occurrence.”

So, here’s the question. Is this a utopian dream (or a terrible nightmare, depending on which side you’re on)? Or is it something that really is achievable?

And the answer is: it’s both. Or it can be. It would be only a utopian vision of justice for the poor and the masses, except for the first line: “God’s spirit is on me.” None of it is possible unless the one who is reading it hears it as her own words and calling. That’s how Jesus would one day read it in a Nazarene synagogue (Luke 4:18-21). He read it with the understanding that it applied directly to himself. But until someone – you perhaps – read it with the understanding that this was not meant to be Isaiah’s calling or Jesus’ calling, but your calling, it remains merely fantasy.

Is it real? Will the revolution live? Will the oppressed be emancipated? Will there be just and gracious people where you live?

Yes, but only if you make it so. It depends – and we’re depending – entirely on you.

Your Choice: Live Free or Die

protestor taking self portrait
Photo credit: Jason Hargrove

Mark 8:34-38

He called the crowd and his students together and told them:

“If you want to be my follower, you’ll have to put your willingness to be executed for treason against your overlords ahead of your own concerns to follow me. If you’re concerned with saving your own skin, you’re as good as dead. But whoever dies for me and and for the sake of this mission will really live. What’s it worth to have the whole world if you’re dead? Really, what will you trade your life away for? Whoever is embarrassed by their association with of me and what I say because you want to fit in with all the cheating and corruption going on – the chosen one will consider them embarrassments when that one comes with the splendor of God commanding heaven’s legions.”

Taking up your cross is not putting up with your kids’ mess. It’s not having to chair the church supper committee because no one else will do it. Jesus doesn’t care about the mess or the church supper committee.

The cross was a punishment reserved by the Roman empire for a very specific crime: Treason against the empire by a non-citizen. In other words, for rebels convicted of trying to take down the empire. This was what Jesus was convicted of, and Jesus’ sentence: rebellion.

In that context what he has to say about “taking up a cross” makes sense in the same way as New Hampshire’s state motto coined during the American revolution: Live free or die.

What’s the use in living if you’re living as a slave? If you can’t be who you are really meant to be? That’s Jesus’ question. And having a lot of stuff doesn’t change the basic equation of life. People who have so much you’d think they should be overwhelmingly happy lead lonely addicted lives. Michael Jackson. Charlie Sheen. Marilyn Monroe. Elvis Presley. On and on it goes. The whole world eating out of the palm of their hand. And as good as dead.

On the other hand, there are others who don’t have much at all, who change the world. Mostly we don’t know their names. Because by nature they don’t tend to call much attention to themselves. Because they know it’s not about them. But every now and then we learn their names: Cesar Chavez, Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa.

The point is what you’re ready to give your life for. You can’t keep it. So what will you do? What meaning will your short span of years take on? Jesus says that to follow him you can’t just go through the motions. You have to live. You have to be free. And you have to make a difference. Even if it means making some people – people who want you to “stay in your place and be quiet” – want to kill you.

Your choice: live free or die.
But Jesus would much rather you live.

Royal Wedding Gets Crashed: A Parable

Prince William and Kate MiddletonMatthew 22:1-14

Jesus told yet another story:

The goal is like this:

Prince William was engaged! So the royal family began making plans for the reception, and when the time came the Queen sent couriers to bring the invited guests. But they wouldn’t come. She sent them out again with the message: “Hey, the reception is ready. I’ve even got fillet mignon and caviar. Come! But they made fun of the whole affair. One went on a cruise, another went to her corner office instead. More than one of the couriers were kidnapped, mistreated, and some even executed as spies.

Well, the queen was furious. She sent shock troops out to round them all up, brought them in and slaughtered them all, and laid waste their lands and businesses. Then she sent her couriers out again into the streets. “The wedding is going ahead regardless,” she told them. “Invite everyone you see.” So they did. They brought in everyone they could find, saints and scoundrels alike. Soon Westminster Cathedral [Abbey] was filled to capacity.

Then the queen came in, and looking over the crowd she saw a fellow who wasn’t wearing a suit. She said to him, “Sir, how did you get in here without a suit?” But he just stood there in shock. So the queen said, “Arrest him. Shackle him. And send him to Siberia. He belongs with those haunted by regret and anxiety.

Many get the chance. Some take it.

Of course, the real wedding didn’t go that way. It’s a story to engage your imagination. What if… And the location in which Jesus tells the story (while leading a people’s occupation of the Temple court during the run-up to Passover) is significant. He’s holding a “teach-in” with a story about the people occupying a place once reserved for only the elite. In that moment, it’s their story. In this moment, it’s ours.

If you mistake the Queen for God, you end up with the spoiled-rotten God of today’s Exodus story without Moses to talk her down. Be careful! Jesus never says, “God is like the king who…” but “the kingdom of heaven [the goal] is is comparable to a king who…” It’s an important distinction. Jesus is trying to get us somewhere: to the kingdom, to the goal. The parable is not about the character of God. Rather, it imagines how we might get there. And how we might not. And how we might seem to get there, but miss.

The goal (the kingdom of heaven, the wedding banquet, Westminster Abbey) begins as something the well-connected, powerful movers and shakers, rich and successful in business seem to have at the beginning. And yet, when they are invited to participate in the goal, they don’t realize what they’ve got. They turn away. They ridicule it in pursuit of other things. On the other hand, ordinary folk are excluded. The great reversal happens when (again, as in the Exodus story) the failure of those who have it all to claim it all ends up in their losing it all.

So, the parable suggests the goal is within reach of everyone and anyone who wants to claim a ticket. Only the ticket does require doing a little work. You’ve got to put on a suit. Your best suit, no matter the condition, will do. It doesn’t matter if it’s old and ratty, but you’ve got to put it on. Failure to change yourself on the way is every bit as much a misunderstanding of the goal as the elite folk ignoring and making fun of it. If you arrive as you were, you haven’t really arrived. And that, too, ends in oblivion, albeit of a different sort.

While much has been (rightly) said of “God’s preferential option for the poor,” the parable is a warning that to reach the goal, even the poor, the average, the ordinary people need to claim it or miss the opportunity. That’s the anxiety and regret.

The upside: Now, this moment, is your opportunity. Many have the chance to make something of it.

Will you take it?

Another Look at the 12 Disciples

12 Disciples
12 Modern Day Disciples by Kiiroi Yumetobu

Matthew 10:1-4

Then Jesus called out 12 of his disciples, and he sent them out to get rid of evil spirits and to make people well. Those sent out are:

  1. Pete,
  2. Pete’s brother Drew,
  3. Jim Zebedee,
  4. John Zebedee,
  5. Phil,
  6. Bart,
  7. Tom,
  8. Matt (“the Collector”),
  9. Jim Alphaus,
  10. Thad,
  11. Simon (“the Heathen”), and
  12. Judas Iscariot (“the Traitor”).

It can’t be just coincidence that all of these characters are named after people who were heroes of the Maccabean revolution.

During the Greek occupation of what is now Palestine and Israel, in the wake of Alexander the Great, the Maccabees led the revolt against the imperial occupation. You can get most of that story from several books of the Apocrypha. Short version: the Greeks set up a statue of Zeus in the temple at Jerusalem and all hell broke loose. Eventually, the Greeks went home (and the Romans moved in).

But now, years later, people were naming their little boys after those great Maccabean rebel warriors. Why? Because they wanted those little boys to grow up and kick the Romans out the same way their namesakes gave it to the Greeks.

So out of the whole crowd of disciples following Jesus, he picks this band of people with revolutionary names to do what? Carry out a revolution. They’re doing what? Getting rid of evil spirits, “casting out demons.” Whichever euphemism you pick, they’re going to go kick butt and redeem the people. Sounds like a revolution to me.

It’s the method Jesus chooses that’s peculiar. They’re not going out with swords and bombs, without provisions or even spare change. They’re going out as the world’s first movement of itinerant peace activists.

Revolutionary!

It can’t be a coincidence.