What if God Really Did Show Up?

Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/usdagov/6059884729/">US Dept. of Agriculture</a>

Malachi 3:1-7

“Look. I’m sending advance notice by courier, to make it clear:

You’ve been looking for God, and suddenly God will arrive in the Temple.

You’re going to love this new deal my messenger will bring you,” says God.

Not! You won’t be able to stand it when God comes! God is like a smelter. God is like astringent. God will be a smelt operator, a silver smelter, and God will purify the priestly caste like gold and silver, until they have something good to offer God again. Then God will receive gifts from the people again, like it used to be.

“Then I’ll come to your sentencing,” God says. “I’ll be the witness against those who practice slight of hand, the cheaters, the liars, the people who refuse to pay fair wages, who force women and children into slave labor, who turn away foreigners, and who have no regard for me. I don’t change. I’m God. So you’re not too far gone, my children.

Ever since your parents turned away from what I said, you’ve been asking, “How do we get back?” Coming back is for the asking, and I’ll be there.

In Malachi’s day and ours, the people who cry “God” the loudest seem to be the most in violation of God’s commandments. They cry for a “return to the good old days when people went to church,” but if God were to show up and witness the lies, the cheats, the slight of hand, the refusal to pay fair wages, the 16 million women and children enslaved around the globe – well, it wouldn’t be pretty. Because it’s not pretty.

The return to “the way it used to be” isn’t so much about a return to tradition, or to nostalgic “good old days.” It’s about a return to justice, which is at the heart of the commandments. How do we get back? By starting with our own lives. Living justly. Doing what is right. Not doing the lying, cheating, withholding, and enslaving. By welcoming those who are different. That’s how, if we really believe in God, we might show the world (and God) that we do.

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.

The Unforgiveable Sin: Failure to Repent

Jesus occupies the templeMark 3:20-30

Jesus went home, where a crowd gathered before they could even finish dinner. When his family heard about it, they came to put a stop to him. He’s gone mad, they said.

Then the agents came from Jerusalem repeating over and over the charge: “He’s possessed by Beelzebul. He exorcises demons because he’s working for the king of demons.”

Then Jesus called them together and gave them a koan:

How can Satan exorcise himself?
A nation in civil war is a nation falling apart.
A family rent with division is a family falling apart.
If Satan is schizophrenic he won’t be in business much longer.

Nobody breaks into a powerful person’s house and steals his stuff without tying him up first.
But once he’s tied, his house can be plundered at will.

Trust me, people can be forgiven just about anything:
Wrongs and mistakes of all kinds.
But those who curse the means of their salvation
Are truly doomed forever.

(He said this because the agents had accused him of being possessed.)

First, it’s a koan. Don’t let the metaphysics get in the way. Here and elsewhere in Mark, the apocalyptic rhetoric is a lens, not the thing itself.

Second, yes, Jesus is talking about a home invasion here. And Jesus is the invader.

It’s not that Satan is schizophrenic. On the contrary, the forces of evil are powerful. It’s that Jesus is breaking and entering, and taking away and setting free the people who have been held captive by satanic forces – namely the agents who have come to shut him down. Jesus is talking about his eventual occupation of the Temple, their house, and his setting the people free from the legal, economic and social system they have constructed to keep them in submission. Note that the Temple has now become the house of Satan.

In my years of pastoral ministry I’ve heard a great deal of hand-wringing over what is the “unpardonable sin.” Most of it centered on what one can or cannot say about the Holy Spirit, or God in general, or whether you can “lose your salvation.” All that misses the point. To quote brother Ched:

To be captive to the way things are, to resist criticism and change, to brutally suppress efforts at humanization – is to be bypassed by the grace of God.

Simple. Except that the places and things that we ordinarily think of as the most holy (the Temple, the church building, “we’ve always done it that way,” even the Bible itself) are the ones most likely to turn out to be the home territory of the unholy.

Who’s the Slave?

Pyramids
Photo Credit: Daniel Dillman

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
– Exodus 1:8-14

Here is a perfect example of an all-too-often repeated dynamic. The minority tyrannizes the majority, why? Because the minority is afraid that the majority, of whom they are afraid, will escape, will run away and leave the terrified minority alone? That it would be easier just to let them go and be done with it, they’re gone now, nobody to be afraid of, never occurs to them. So, again, whose life is more circumscribed: the slave’s or the slave master’s?

Another paradox: the more the oppression, the more the problem grows. The more the problem grows, the more fear, the more the oppressive response. And on it goes.

Seth Godin recently remarked about the problems with basing a society’s (or any system’s) response on fear. It turns out that fighting terror with terror isn’t really a viable strategy in the long term. And Seth’s stories of his adventures at the airport are only the tip of the iceberg.

Fear and slavery are the way empires from Egypt to the USA have always worked. (They are also the reason no empire to date has lasted more than a few hundred years.) Therefore, the Exodus story is just as relevant today as it was the day it was first written down.

In response to this ancient dynamic, we would do well to ask ourselves why so much of our public discourse revolves around fear? Could it be that we’re simply as blind as the Egyptians to our version of the folly? Must we be the world’s police force? Really? Do we really think we’re that much in control of the world when we can’t even control our own credit rating. For a nation as fixated on a God of retributive justice as we are, we sure seem to be intent on relieving God of employment.

What would happen if we really took the advice of the Exodus story and simply let it go? What if we really acted as if FDR’s was right when he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Who’s the slave? Who’s life is more circumscribed?

Is it:

  • the oppressed or the oppressor
  • the Hebrew or the Egyptian
  • the passenger or the TSA agent
  • the employee or the boss
  • the child or the parent
  • the Guantanamo detainee or the American soldier
  • the sweatshop laborer or the corporate executive?

How do you loose the bonds of slavery? How do you break out of the destructive, unsustainable patterns? The answer, hidden behind the fear of the moment, but obvious with a few thousand years’ hindsight: “Let my people go.”

What do you think? Is it possible, in the grip of an imperial fear-based system, for the oppressor to let go?