The house built by fear

Reading from the bible can be scary. Sometimes a faithful reading of the bible will not bring calm and assurance. Just the opposite!

Today’s scripture can evoke fear.[1]When Jesus talks about Herod’s glorious temple crumbling to the ground and being betrayed by family members, our eyes widen in apprehension and we shift uncomfortably in our seats. Fearful of the future. What will it bring? Is God’s future good or something to fear. We do know, the way there won’t be easy.

From the Gospel, Jesus exposes two false ways in which people of faith try to deal with our fear. By that, I mean, strategies that we have employed for thousands of years in order to combat our fear. While these methods may be effective in allaying our fear, they also serve to block the way we connect with God.

The first such strategy Jesus exposes is our attachment to, and almost exclusive dependence on, what we build. Even, as we say, to the glory of God. These buildings. Glorious, adorned with carvings, intricate stained glass, spires making confident bids to the sky, and arches perfectly rounded and balanced. Architectural master pieces. To say the least.

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The pulpit alone, in Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica, is a wonder to behold. It is a sermon in itself – its spiraling, narrow staircase winding itself up into a small yet regally appointed platform high above the nave.

King Herod, for Christians reading the bible, was a paranoid despot. He killed innocent children was ruthless in defending and protecting his hold on power. Because he was afraid, afraid of losing it.

For historians and archeologists, however, he was a builder par excellence.

King Herod started building his temple in Jerusalem two decades before Jesus was born. During the time of the build he more than doubled the size of the temple mount. The temple proper was completed in eighteen months. But work on the outer courts and decorations continued throughout Jesus’ lifetime and still some thirty years after his death and resurrection. During this impressive season of building the temple, people gathered under the large colonnades and porches to hear speeches and witness healings.[2]

It was a gathering place, a central focal point for people’s identity in faith and source of authority and guidance for life. It was where you went to listen to and engage religious debate. It was where you went to deliberate truth. It was where you made animals sacrifices. Here, you found the rules and regulations and laws for a good life.

Less than a decade after everything was completed on the Herodian temple, it was pretty much destroyed by the Romans in the late first century. Jesus’ words in the Gospel text for today, calling for a day “when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down”, speak to events that were happening in the lives of Jesus’ followers during this time of the destruction of Jerusalem and its glorious, magnificent temple.

In reading this text carefully, however, I realized this is not just about buildings. Jesus isn’t just criticizing those who put all their religious stock in bricks and mortar. Jesus is exposing yet another related strategy for dealing with our fear. Not just in the glory of the buildings, but in the way we speak to one another and relate to one another. Not just in glory. But also in power.

It was, after all, the authorities who made the rules, sold the animals for sacrifice and mediated the people’s connection with God.

At root, the religious authorities persuaded the people that their relationship with God could only be mediated by the authority’s permission. If you didn’t follow the rules and authorities, you were not justified or in right relationship with God. The whole culture, the spiritual climate, surrounding the temple served to choke out freedom of a personal and direct intimacy with God.[4]

The Russian novelist Dostoevsky wrote the dismaying story with the title, “The Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamazov. The old cardinal of the church hears that the real Jesus has come suddenly to his town. The cardinal is alarmed that Jesus healed a blind man who had been coming to his church. Then, he hears that the real Jesus who has come to his town raised a young girl from the dead.

When the cardinal confronts Jesus he asks him: “Why, then, have you come to interfere with us?” He wants to rid the town of Jesus, because in his mind what Jesus did long ago is done far better by the church today. In other words, the cardinal has to admit to himself, the church does not need Jesus.[3]The cardinal really couldn’t give up the power he had. Not give it up for anyone. Even Jesus. The cardinal was afraid of losing his job — what it would mean for him and the church …

Seeking glory and defending power seem to be effective ways of dealing with our fear.  We attach ourselves to symbols and expressions of glory in our culture – the tallest buildings, the fastest cars, celebrities, newsworthy leaders and victories on the battle fields of life. This brings comfort, though momentary and fleeting. Because we can never be satisfied operating in this consumer and acquisition-fueled culture. There’s never enough, or it’s not good enough. Ever.

Jesus suggests we must learn a new language. A new way of being, with God and with one another. A way, marked not by successes in the eyes of the world—there were lots of tourists in those houses of worship we visited in Montreal. The world approves. But will we walk a different way – a way marked by love, faithfulness in suffering, and generous giving in the face of poverty, suffering and our fear?

Throughout the Gospels, the religious authorities asked Jesus for a sign of his authority. And, he never satisfied them with his answer. His answers usually appear to disturb their sense of right and wrong.

The truth, when it comes, seems to turn upside down our initial ways of thinking and doing. Here, Jesus says, “For I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”[5]

These opponents were neither stupid nor un-educated. In fact they were the most articulate and brilliant of the age. So, there is something altogether different going on here. A different way of being with God. A way not encumbered by discursive thought and debate. A way not intimidated by rules and regulations and conditional statements of belonging. A way not defined by glory-seeking persuasion nor forceful coercion.

The confirmation class the other night reflected on the meaning of the Trinity—God the Father who creates all, God the Son who is with us, God the Spirit who gives us strength. On this poster they cut out images from magazines to place in one of three designated areas on the poster. These images evoked for them the meaning and feeling of what God is up to in the world today, through the various persons of the Trinity.

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In reflecting on the experience of doing this exercise afterwards, we pastors admitted this was rather an abstract exercise. We weren’t just memorizing definitions of the Trinity from the Catechism, difficult enough as that is! But in engaging the confirmands on another level, we began to see more than we thought possible.

We discover that we don’t find God by building glory or defending power — ways we use to avoid confronting our fears of the future. Rather, the good news is that God has already found us. In this world. In our lives. And in a multitude of ways.

Making this link, this connection, is much simpler than all the methods we have devised to combat our fear. We don’t need the tallest and most beautiful buildings to assert God in this world. We don’t need to merit, or qualify for, our relationship with God by building skyscrapers or getting straight A’s in school.  We don’t need degrees and a long pedigree to justify ourselves in faith. We don’t need to arm ourselves with book knowledge in order to defend against some opponent whether a family member or stranger.

All we need is an open heart and a desire to love and trust. Following Jesus is about going directly to intimacy with God in our deepest selves. And God is there, right there, all along.

We can respond, then, not out of fear. But out of the love of Christ for all and in all. Forever.

 

[1]Luke 21:5-19

[2]Acts 3:11; 5:12

[3]Cited in Eberhard Busch, in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.310-312

[4]Ray Leonardini, Finding God Within (New York: Lantern Books, 2018), p.93-96

[5]Luke 21:15

Pilgrims rising

Don was a husband and father who one day was commuting home after work in a bad thunder storm, when the car he was driving was struck by lightning. Don was okay, and he managed to get home. Sitting down with his teenaged children, he relayed to them his harrowing experience.

Expecting at least a small degree of sympathy from them, Don was perplexed when his eldest interrupted: “Quick, let’s go buy a lottery ticket because they say the chances of being struck by lightning are like the chances of winning the lottery.”

The disconnect we feel in how Jesus’ disciples often responded to him is not dissimilar. He tells them he must die a horrible death. And they respond by demanding seats of power, authority and glory beside Jesus. His disciples continually seem out of sync with their leader’s meaning.

The Gospel for today[1]must be read in the larger context of Mark’s writing here. In Mark, we see that this is the third time Jesus announces his death, the third time the disciples respond in perplexing ways, and the third time Jesus responds to them by giving them a commentary on true discipleship.[2]

By looking at the what comes immediately before this text, we also discover that the disciples who followed Jesus were afraid.[3]It’s fair to presume, then, their desire and request to secure positions of glory once Jesus took his rightful throne on earth and/or in heaven was born out of fear.

The connection between fear and striving for security is common in all of us, to this day.

We are afraid. We fear the changing realities which make new demands on our time, energy and resources in the church. We fear the outcome of our health concerns. We fear the effects of an uncertain future, in our nation, our world and in our personal lives. In the fear of the unknown, it is a natural knee-jerk to secure anything down. Do something, anything, to give yourself the illusion of control. An insurance policy.

Let’s give the disciples the benefit of the doubt, to suggest perhaps they were aware that Jesus’ path was going to lead to his arrest, torture and death. And they knew that likely they, too, would be caught in the crossfire. They were probably aware that Jesus was causing an uncomfortable stir among the powers that be, religiously and politically, in Jerusalem. They saw the writing-on-the-wall.

And in the midst of this fear, the Sons of Zebedee tried to insure some benefit for all the sacrifices they were already making and would likely continue to make. Perhaps if they didn’t understand something, it was they couldn’t yet grasp the depths of the sacrifices they would make as a community of faith.

What Jesus stands for is a different way altogether from the way of the world. The disciples are caught up in the power plays of the world. They have in mind a hierarchy, a pecking order, of who’s on top. There is this Machiavellian feel to the debate amongst themselves, as if relationships of power must only be a win/lose scenario, a zero-sum game where in order to get ahead some people have to be left behind.

The way of Jesus, in contrast, is the way of the Cross. Jesus exposes the false way of the world by surrendering to it and dying by it. The way of the cross exposes our folly and calls us to a deeper more inclusive way.

Martin Luther first coined the phrase in his Heidelberg Disputation written in 1518. He called it, “A theology of the cross.” It is a way of understanding and imagining God. That is, God was, and is, being revealed to us in all truth most clearly and unequivocally in suffering. In the vulnerability and pain of death on the cross, Jesus revealed—and continues to reveal—the God who suffers alongside us wherever there is pain and suffering in the world.

Luther thus criticized a “theology of glory” which presumes God validates faith, and is only validated by, success, measures of progress and triumphal conquering over any weakness or adversary. This theology dominates not only in our society, but sadly also in the church.

A theology of glory reflects an unbridled, Pollyanna optimism that avoids and resists places of defeat, failure, vulnerability and weakness as having anything to do with divine identity or purpose. A theology of glory undermines real people and a God who is known in the darkest times and places of life. It despises our common humanity and the losses we all endure.

The way of Jesus is for all people, not just for those who make it to the top. The way of Jesus is for all people, because we all have our crosses to bear. We can share in our common suffering. And grow together. It is therefore in community, the Body of Christ, the body ‘broken for all’ we say in the Communion, where Christ is revealed and where our true purpose is born.

#OttawaRising is the hashtag used, announced and displayed on Ottawa Senators Hockey club promotional material. The vision is of the team rising out of the ashes of disappointment from last season. That was the season from hell, when they finished second-to-last place in the league standings, suffered through a broken, conflicted locker room and as a result had to trade away star players.

But it is only standing in the ashes that you can claim the vision of ‘rising’ again. The Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals wouldn’t declare resurrection as their identity, this season. It only makes sense to proclaim the resurrection in the midst of the defeat of the cross.

The Gospel abounds with a promise. The disciples may not hear it as such. But Jesus has great compassion on them. He does not rebuke them for being out of sync with him. He affirms that they will indeed drink the cup that he must drink and be baptized with the baptism that he must endure.

Jesus will continue to offer this promise and hope to us, that we will not always need to act and respond out of our fear. That what we do as a community does not need to be knee-jerk platitudes that only keep us stuck in cycles of fear, self-preservation and defensiveness. Jesus will continue to call us into deeper expressions of serving others and of paying attention to the needs of others not just our own.

If there was anything the disciples should have known with any amount of certainty, is that Jesus’ promise is secure and very sure. Because by being in last place, and losing it all, those first disciples would one day rise.

And so will we.

[1]Mark 10:35-45

[2]C. Clifton Black in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common LectionaryYear B Volume 4 (Louisville Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.189.

[3]Mark 10:32

Changing your mind on faith

This past week I was finishing up on my monthly calls to shut-ins and those who are not easily able to attend worship services here. And it was in a couple of conversations where I felt particularly moved. Of course, I am not mentioning any names or specific circumstances.
“Sometimes I wonder if I have enough faith,” said one.
“When is it that you feel that you might not have enough faith?” I asked, prompting further: “What kinds of things are happening when you think you might not have enough faith?””Whenever things are not going well for me. When I’m suffering, or in pain. When it hurts. When I’m afraid that the worst will happen.”
Speaking Lutheran to Lutheran, I mentioned that the 16th century reformer was an anxious person. Martin Luther was terrified, for example, of dying. “I think that’s probably very normal,” I said. “Even people we consider giants of the faith, were afraid and scared especially when they thought they were going to die.”
Our conversation continued until we concluded that to have faith was not apart from all that scares us or causes us suffering and pain. Faith happens inspite of the difficulties of life. The challenging circumstances of life don’t define and determine our faith or lack thereof; Our faith or lack thereof is expressed amidst the realities of living.
“Faith is real only when we face and embrace the suffering of our lives.”
And it is here that we encounter what Jesus is getting at in the Gospel text today: We are not harmed by what comes from outside of us — including difficult circumstances — but by what is going on inside of us: what we think and say (Mark 7, James 1).
I like the more positive way the Deuteronomist expresses the same lesson — this to the Israelites entering the Promised Land: “Take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen [that is, the great acts of God to free the people from slavery in Egypt and sustain them through the desert wanderings] … nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life…” (Deuteronomy 4:9). Don’t forget! Don’t forget who and whose you are! Because what we do comes straight from what and how we think.
If we are honest, this life can take a toe-hold on our imagination — with values, goals, material aspirations and selfish projects that affect our way of thinking. I would add, cultural values that lead us to conclude that only if everything is perfect in my life — no pain, no tears, no suffering and lots and lots of money — then and only then can I have faith, believe in God and be active in my faith.
The Gospel message of Jesus Christ enduring throughout human history is all about a renewing of the mind — embracing a whole new way of thinking. Paul expresses this in one of his letters to the early church: “Be renewed in the way you think …” he counselled the Ephesians (2:23). Because often the way we think — our attitudes and opinions — are downright unhelpful and evil. “All these evil things come from within,” Jesus warns (Mark 7:23).
Sometimes we hold on to our opinions as if they were sacrosanct even though they may be unhelpful. But have we ever really examined our opinions? We often look down upon others (and ourselves), and dare I say politicians, who ‘change their mind’ about something or other. Waffling, we believe, or changing our mind about controversial subjects especially, is bad and suggests a weak personality. And yet God, even, changed his mind about bringing disaster upon the people when Moses and other prophets engaged God in passionate debate (eg. Exodus 32:14). If God is able to change directions, could we not too?
To change our way of thinking to be less self-centred and more other-centred.To change our way of thinking to find meaning more in serving others than serving self.To change our way of thinking about doing something good not out of fear or shame but more out of a heart filled with compassion.
“Once upon a time a king was strolling through the forest and he saw an old man, a poor man, bent over a furrow. He walked up to him and saw that he was planting seeds for chestnut trees. He asked the old man why he was doing it and the old man replied, ‘I love the taste of chestnuts.’
“The king responded, ‘Old man, stop punishing your back bent over a hole in the ground. Do you really not know that by the time even one of these trees has grown tall enough to bear nuts, you may not be around to gather them?’
“And the old man answered, “Your Majesty, if my ancestors had thought the way you do, I would never have tasted chestnuts.'” (Juan Gomez-Jurado, God’s Spy, Orion Books, Great Britain, 2007, p.164-165)
I had another inspiring conversation this week with someone who is caring for a loved one suffering with illness. She decided to invite some friends struggling with similar challenges over for a meal. These friends, especially, were down and depressed about their mutually-shared, tough circumstances.
And yet, over the tasty meal and dancing to music and laughter, something shifted in the climate of the meeting. The next day, the host received an email from one of the friends who visited: “Thank you for your generosity and love. I was so encouraged by the visit, that when I returned home, I changed into my gardening clothes, went outside to the front yard and trimmed the bush that had gotten way out of hand.” It was like the fearful, anxious, angst-ridden Martin Luther who said that if he knew the end of the world was going to happen tomorrow, he would still go out and plant an apple tree today. Now, that’s faith.
Here’s my confession today: Often I wonder whether it’s even possible. Whether we can change our minds towards God and God’s ways in Jesus Christ, no matter what circumstance of life in which we find ourselves. Sometimes I doubt that our minds can be renewed into the likeness of Jesus when we are sick, when we feel destitute and deprived, when things don’t go our way. When times are tough, we often knee-jerk into old, often destructive patterns of thinking. Will we, indeed, have enough faith, to see things differently and not despair?
It is here when, despite how I feel, I affirm a faith that says: No matter what you think, Martin, no matter what anyone else thinks, God will not forget you. Even if I have a lapse of memory and forget who I am and whose I am, even though our minds may go completely, this is the promise of the One who created us: “I will not forget you; I have inscribed you on the palms on my hands” (Isaiah 49:15-16). Because of who God is, I can therefore act boldly on a way of thinking that is based in trust. Trust this loving God who will not let go of us. Ever. And no matter what.
Thanks be to God!