Friday, March 30, 2018

What is Truth?

         Good Friday is a great day to get lost in the doctrinal language relating to theories of atonement. In short, the theory of atonement seeks to answer, “Why did Jesus have to die?” “Why is the cross the way to eternal life?” For centuries, theologians have quibbled to find an answer that makes sense. But as St. Paul reminds us, a sensible answer is an impossible task for the cross doesn’t make sense according to human wisdom.
I remember attending a clergy day where various priests from around the diocese shared different theories of atonement. And instead of growing deeper in the knowledge and love of God, I am afraid, we as clergy, only grew deeper in love with our own theories of atonement.
Ultimately, what happened on Good Friday for the salvation of the world cannot be reduced to a doctrine. While these efforts to explain the crucifixion may certainly open us up to the mystery of the salvation found on the cross, no doctrine alone can sufficiently explain why Jesus had to die. Each theory can only contain a parcel of the truth expressed by Christ crucified.
 In that vein, I’d like to explore with you one parcel of the truth revealed in Christ crucified. During his testimony before Pilate, Jesus is asked, “What is truth?” And like the Johannine Jesus is prone to do, Jesus does not give an answer to Pilate’s question. I would assume then, the question Pilate poses, “What is truth?”, is a question that is meant for the readers of John to answer. What is truth?
Those who have read John’s gospel will remember Jesus saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” In other words, God’s truth is revealed most fully in Jesus. The fullness of God’s truth can only be known through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And Jesus is not a doctrine to be understood. Rather, Jesus calls us into the knowledge and love of God and God's truth through a relationship.
 This is huge because the Old Testament scriptures tell us that God’s truth is so bright and so powerful that no mortal can look upon it and live. Moses has to veil himself before looking at God. God’s truth is so big that he must send his Son to reveal his truth in human flesh. And as we remember today, humanity will go to every length to try and extinguish God’s truth from the world.
I am reminded of a scene in the movie A Few Good Men.  Col. Jessup played by Jack Nicholson is being interrogated by Lt. Kaffee played by Tom Cruise. Lt. Kaffee keeps pressing Col. Jessup on the facts that to the death of a Marine. Lt. Kaffee demands to know the truth. And in response, we get classic Jack Nicholson. Col. Jessup finally cracks and belts out the famous line, “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” And then Col. Jessup goes on to tell the truth. When he is finished, the courtroom is completely stunned and quiet.
The truth of the matter is that God’s truth is not something we as human beings are capable of handling. We can’t handle the truth. In particular, there are two ultimate truths that we cannot handle. We cannot handle just how destructive we as human beings are, and we cannot handle just how merciful our God is.
And because we can’t handle the truth, because we cannot handle the gravity of our sin, because we cannot handle God’s inexhaustible love, we consume ourselves with half-truths and lies that ultimately lead us to create false gods and false saviors that we ourselves become masters over.
We consume ourselves with half-truths and lies that build ourselves up while tearing the other down. We consume ourselves with half-truths and lies that convince us to reject God’s truth because if we accept the truth of God in Christ then something about us must change, something about us must die.  
For this reason, Jesus – the bearer of God’s eternal truth – died. Jesus died to change us. Jesus died to change how we see and act in the world. Jesus died so that the world may know and seek after truth, a truth that saves us from the destructive forces of sin and the fear of death.
Jesus died to expose the lies and half-truths that we have convinced ourselves to live by. Jesus died to reveal the truth that we as humans are incapable of seeing and accepting – a truth that is vindicated with his resurrection. Jesus died so that we might die to the lies of the world and live for the truth of God.
As I child, my dad wrote me lots of letters usually to apologize about something. He communicated much better on paper than he did in person. I’ll never forget something he once wrote. He said, “I just want you to know the difference between right and wrong.” Similarly, Jesus on the cross is God’s love letter to humanity. On the cross of Christ, God is trying to communicate to the world, “I just want you to know the difference between what is true and what is false.”
And on the cross, the world is shown that difference between what is true and what false because on the cross Jesus shows us that love of neighbor is more powerful than the love of power and control for if we love power and control, then we can only love ourselves.
On the cross, Jesus shows us that relationships, even relationships with the enemy, are more life giving than the rigid application of a religion that can often be used to exclude the enemy or the “unclean”. On the cross, Jesus shows the world that eternal life isn’t found by winning a popularity contest. Rather, eternal life is found by giving up whatever privileges we think we might need in order to restore the dignity of another. 
On the cross, God in Christ exposes the lies of the world, lies that we think we need to live, lies that tell us we need power and control and wealth and popularity, lies that are ultimately exposed as weak and pedantic on the cross.
And by exposing the lies we convince ourselves to believe in, the cross of Christ sheds light on the truth of God in such a way where we can handle both our sinfulness and God’s endless goodness, in such a way where we are no longer paralyzed by fear and shame but inspired by love and hope, in such a way where we aren’t afraid to change and die and commit our own lives to exposing the lies that are destroying humanity and proclaiming the truth that is saving the world in Christ.
Beloved sisters and brothers in Christ, you alone can’t handle the truth, but through the cross of Jesus Christ you are given access to the truth that is saving the world. May God give you the grace to live daily to live toward the mystery of the cross and may you know and feel in every fiber of your being that the way of the cross is the way of life and truth. Amen.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Feast Day of Judas Iscariot

            With tongue in cheek, I will sometimes call Holy Wednesday the Feast Day of Judas. This sounds ludicrous, of course, because Judas is the last person we would consider for sainthood. After all, he is the one who betrays Jesus and turns him into the Jewish authorities.
Matthew and Mark quote Jesus saying, it would have been better if Judas wasn’t even born! And all three synoptic gospels tell us that Judas betrayed Jesus for money. But if we can disconnect ourselves from the synoptic gospels telling of Judas’ participation in our Lord’s death and pay attention to John’s telling, then we might reconsider the way in which we vilify Judas.
First of all, John’s gospel doesn’t tell us that Judas betrays Jesus for a sum of money. The gospel writer simply says, “Satan entered into him.” Even more, it almost seems as if Jesus gives Satan permission to enter into Judas when Jesus passes the bread to Judas. And after Judas eats the bread and Satan enters, Jesus tells Judas, “Do quickly what you are going to do.”  
I don’t know about you, but I like the synoptic telling of the story better. It is much easier to vilify Judas than it is to consider a Jesus who would allow Satan to enter into Judas simply to move the divine plan of salvation forward.
The next logical question would ask, “If Jesus reduced Judas to a pawn in this chess game of salvation, would Jesus allow the same of me?” Would Jesus allow Satan to enter into me simply to move the divine plan of salvation forward?
At this point it would be good to stop this line of questioning and remember that this story isn’t about me, this story isn’t about Judas. This story is about what God is doing in Jesus. This story is about a God who is sovereign, about a God who has power over even the forces of evil to accomplish his work of salvation in the world.  
Likewise, the story of the saints aren’t really about the saints themselves but about God’s power of salvation working through the saints. The story of the saints is about a God who can make sinners, like you and me, point to the glory and majesty of the salvation story given in Christ Jesus.  
After Jesus announces that a betrayer is in the midst, all the disciples want to know who the betrayer might be. Scripture tells us that the beloved disciple is the only who learns that the betrayer is Judas. I imagine this means all the other disciples are thinking, “I hope it’s not me.” I imagine all of you are thinking, “I hope I’m not the one who will betray Jesus.” And I, too, hope that it is not me.
But again, the story isn’t about me. The story isn’t about you. The story doesn’t hinge on the things we have done or left undone. The story is about the One who does for you and me what you and I cannot do for ourselves.
The story that we recall, enact, and participate in through Holy Week is about the One who saves us from ourselves, from our sin, from our feelings of inadequacy, from our self-destructive ways, from our pride and hypocrisy by turning our attention away from ourselves toward the self-sacrificial love of Jesus.
And it is God’s hope that we discover in the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus that it doesn’t matter if we are Judas, the beloved disciple, Peter, or one of the saints on the liturgical calendar. For in the end, all that matters is that you belong to a God who redeems all of you – the good, the bad, and the ugly – through Christ Jesus – the One who calls you to live no longer unto yourself but for the One who died and rose again. Amen.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Not to be loved, but to love

            “Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields…shouting, ‘Hosanna in the highest heaven!’”
            Today’s liturgy began by recalling the fanfare Jesus receives when he rides his colt into Jerusalem just a week before the Passover. The people of Jerusalem are buzzing with an excitement that hasn’t been felt there in a long, long time. Finally, they can put their hope in someone who will save them from Roman occupation and oppression.
            As I thought about this procession, I tried to imagine other famous processions, processions that filled the streets with an excitement not felt in a long time. I thought about processions associated with the inauguration of a new president, processions associated with the coronation of a new king or queen, even processions associated with football teams as they parade into a stadium.
            I also thought about how quickly these shouts of joy turn into shouts of condemnation. The minute a new president breaks a campaign promise, the minute a monarch does something that takes advantage of the people, the minute the football team starts losing, the people change their posture. They call for an impeachment or for a coup or for a new starting quarterback. We certainly are a fickle bunch.
            Now sometimes the people are right. There have certainly been presidents and monarchs and quarterbacks who have needed to be replaced. But the change in posture toward Jesus seems almost inexplicable. He is, after all, the Messiah – the Savior of the world. But the people still fail to see what kind of Savior.
            Notice how the gospel lesson from Mark 11 records the people saying, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” The people are still looking for a military king like David to rid Jerusalem from foreign rule and oppression. And it’s not like Jesus hasn’t said he must undergo suffering and death at the hands of the religious and political authorities.
I guess it’s one of those things you must see to believe. The script is going to have to play out. Jesus is going to have to endure all those things he said he must endure before rising to his place as King and Lord of all. His approval rating will have to plummet to .0001% - remember his momma is still around.
In John’s gospel, Jesus says to Pilate, “If my kingdom were of this world, then my followers would be fighting to save me.” No one, not even his closest followers, fight to save the Messiah – the Savior of the world from the injustice of his death. And one must wonder, what kind of king would die to save those who won’t even fight for him at the most critical hour? What kind of king would lay down his life for those who won’t do the same for him?
As I was considering these questions, I recalled the prayer attributed to St. Francis, the one that says, “grant that I might so much seek to be loved as to love.” Our Lord and King, the Savior of the world came not to be loved but to love. Our Lord and King isn’t seeking re-election. Our Lord and King doesn’t care about approval ratings. Our Savior isn’t interested in a popularity contest.
Instead, our Lord and King is interested in establishing his Father’s rule in heaven on earth. Our Lord and King is interested in establishing the law of self-sacrificing love in a world that is governed by the love of power and control. Jesus is interested in saving the world from its self-destructive ways by showing the world how true life and true joy is found when we seek not to be loved but to love.
This past week, as I was considering the implications of Jesus’ triumphant procession into Jerusalem, I witnessed a procession that I had never seen before. The procession was led by an elderly man named Janusz Korczak and 192 orphans in 1942.
Janusz directed a Jewish orphanage in Warsaw, Poland when the Nazi’s came to move the 192 children in the orphanage to the Warsaw Ghetto. The Nazi soldiers told Janusz that he didn’t have to go. However, Janusz said he must stay with the children, and so he did.
During the two years in the ghetto, Janusz tried to help the children experience some kind of joy. He even got the children to put on a play during that time. In August of 1942, soldiers came to take the children to the Treblinka extermination camp. Again, Janusz was offered sanctuary but refused saying, “I cannot abandon the children.”
An old video captured the procession and shows Janusz holding the hand of a young boy as the group made their way to the train that would take them to the gas chambers. The video shows the children wearing their best clothes and each holding a favorite toy. Janusz had told the children they were going to a different country where there would be flowers and meadows and streams.
So even as they marched toward their death, Janusz managed to make the procession a cheerful one. There was even a buzz of excitement in the air. One last time Janusz was given the chance to save himself, but he refused and stayed with the children until the very end. He never abandoned them.
Janusz, a gifted writer and educator, wrote in his journal, “I exist not to be loved and admired, but to love and act. It is not the duty of those around me to love me. Rather, it is my duty to be concerned about the world, about man.”  
In light of the cross, the triumphant procession of Jesus into Jerusalem looks more like the procession Janusz led to the Nazi gas chambers than any procession led by a president or monarch or football coach. Jesus’ procession is triumphant not because of some kind of anticipated military victory but because through Christ God shows the world that joy and hope and love are more powerful than the powers of evil and death. God shows the world that evil and death is not to be feared for love wins.
Jesus rides into Jerusalem not for the fanfare but for the purpose of the cross. Jesus primary purpose is to die with and for all the abandoned children of the world. And to the thief who repents Jesus promises Paradise – presumably a place with flowers and meadows and streams.
Jesus rides into Jerusalem not to be loved but to love the world even to the point of his own death on the cross. Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem is meant to show this lost and fallen world that, even when we abandon our Savior, our God will not abandon us at the hour of our death. Jesus’ procession is meant to give us hope even when we march toward the worst kind of evil this world has ever seen.  And it is for this reason alone, we proclaim our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ the King of kings.  Amen.