Friday, March 25, 2016

His Cross Became My Cross

Good Friday Devotion

One dark moment in time changed my life forever. That day the desert sky over Jerusalem was filled with low, heavy, black clouds. I wasn’t expecting such a ominous day on my visit to the holy city of Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover.

My name is Simon. I’m from the city of Cyrene. I left my home three months ago in order to get to Jerusalem in time for the great feast—a pilgrimage of over 1,000 miles. I arrived just in time for the beginning of the festival.

That fateful morning, I went to the Temple to make my offering. As I was leaving the Temple, I was caught up in a mass of people who swept me down the street, like a tiny boat drug across the desert sands. The crowd was driving us towards the Pavement Stone, Gabbatha, the seat of the Pilate’s tribunal.

The name of Jesus, the Galilean, was being chanted in derision. I had heard him preach in the Temple the day before. He told stories about God’s love and forgiveness. He called Yahweh, Abba, Father, like the great rabbi’s of Judaism. He spoke about God in such intimate terms that his words touched my inner spirit. I wondered what Jesus could have done to make the crowd so angry.

The mass of humanity swelled, pushing us towards the Pavement Stone. The mob began to shout, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Not everyone was shouting the haunting words of death, but a strong chorus had overtaken the voice of the crowd. Then a loud cheer went out from the front of the crowd—as one we lunged forward. I knew what was going to happen next.

I turned my shoulders sideways and began to snake my way out of the crowd. When I got to the edge of the throng, I ran down a back alley to get ahead of the procession. I was sure I knew where they were taking Jesus—to Golgotha, the hill, the skull, the tomb of Adam, the place of the tree of death—so that’s where I went.

By the time I got to the base of the hill I could see the ocean of people rising in my direction like a threating storm. I found myself standing behind three women and a man. The two younger women and the man tried to console the third woman dressed in blue. The three spoke to her tenderly and called her mother Mary. I couldn’t see her face but I could hear her sobs.

Oddly, the crowd grew quieter as they approached where we were standing. I could see Jesus, in front, struggling under the weight of the cross he was carrying. The Roman soldiers whipped him as he stumbled up the hill. He winched at the strike of the whip. I heard him groan with every step. His body was raw flesh and blood. His head bent to the ground. His long hair, soaked dark, mingled with sweat and blood, covered his face.

And then, as if Jesus knew she was there, he turned his face to see Mary, his mother. He face was almost unrecognizable. Mary threw her anguished soul towards him. The man and the two women held her trembling body. Jesus fell to the ground, not from the weight of the cross, but from the burden of seeing his mother in such grief.

“Cyrene!” one of the Roman Soldiers yelled. “You! Black man.” The soldier was pointing his sword at me as he strode in my direction. I was paralyzed.

“Come here!” he shouted.

I wanted to run, but I couldn’t. Something held me in place. My eyes fell on Mother Mary. At that moment, she turned and looked into my soul.

“Help him. Please. Will you?”

Abba, Yahweh Father gave me the strength to let go of my fear and walk towards the soldier.

“Pick up his cross!” he yelled. “Or I’ll find one to nail you on.”

As I took a step towards Jesus, Mother Mary reached up and touched my hand. A wisp of her tear soaked hair blew across my arm. Her grief passed into my heart.

Jesus’ lifted his eyes from his mother to me. “Brother, would you carry my burden up the hill?” he whispered.

I knelt by his side. I slid my arm under the weight of his cross and lifted it off his broken shoulders. He collapsed. I struggled under the burden of man’s cruelty. I bent my back to rise to my feet. Jesus reached up his hand. I shifted the weight of the cross to one side of my back and reached under Jesus’ arm. His weight leaned into me as together we lifted him to his feet. He kissed my check and whispered into my ear, “Peace be with you.” He steadied himself. Looked up the hill. And started the final leg of journey towards his destiny. I followed this man of sorrows to his death. His cross now became my cross.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Jesus for President: Polls say Zero Chance

We’re living in a new age. Everything is changing so rapidly. All the rules are off the table.

This week our bishop sent us a letter that included a statement issued by the Episcopal Bishops. The brief document, entitled “A Word to the Church,” was written in response to the “violent political rhetoric we are facing in our country today, especially in the current Presidential campaign.”

On Good Friday the ruling political forces of the day tortured and executed an innocent man. They sacrificed the weak and the blameless to protect their own status and power. On the third day Jesus was raised from the dead, revealing not only their injustice but also unmasking the lie that might makes right.

In a country still living under the shadow of the lynching tree, we are troubled by the violent forces being released by this season’s political rhetoric. Americans are turning against their neighbors, particularly those on the margins of society. They seek to secure their own safety and security at the expense of others. There is a legitimate reason to fear where this rhetoric and the actions arising from it might take us.

In this moment, we resemble God’s children wandering in the wilderness. We, like they, are struggling to find our way. They turned from following God and worshiped a golden calf constructed from their own wealth. The current rhetoric is leading us to construct a modern false idol out of power and privilege. We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others. No matter where we fall on the political spectrum, we must respect the dignity of every human being and we must seek the common good above all else.

We call for prayer for our country that a spirit of reconciliation will prevail and we will not betray our true selves.

Nothing should be lost on the synchronicity of the bishop’s letter being given to us to be read on Palm Sunday. I think what we are talking about here is what or who is our model of leadership.

I’m left with three questions. What kind of leader was Jesus? And how would Jesus fit into the 21st century American culture as that kind of leader? And how should Jesus’ model affect how we respond to our culture today?

We get a pretty good picture of Jesus’ leadership style on Palm Sunday. Jesus started his two-mile journey into Jerusalem from Bethphage, known as the village opposite. Bethphage is only mentioned in context of this specific story in the New Testament. What could that to mean about Jesus’ style of leadership? It means he was opposite of the norm. He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. The donkey was the symbol of the desert. The donkey was the symbol of Jesus’ new kind of leadership. Living in the desert, being the opposite of the accepted norm.

The palm leaves used were also opposite of the norm. Slaves used Palm leaves to fan the rich. Now the palm leaves were being thrown down onto the road for Jesus to ride over. The cactus of the desert and the palm leaf on the ground marked Jesus’ leadership. He brought the opposites together as symbols of how to lead.

Then, Jesus rode into Jerusalem and marched right into the temple. His first act was to drive out those who profited from the poor and the marginalized. That act made him so unpopular that the authorities began to look for ways to kill him.

For the rational mind, Jesus’ methods would make no sense. But, for the imaginative mind, Jesus’ style was filled with unlimited possibilities. To be the last was to be the first. To be poor was to be rich. To die was to live.

So I ask myself, could Jesus be a leader in 21st century America?

Could Jesus be elected as President of the United States? That’s laughable. A Jew has yet to be elected President. Jesus was Middle-eastern. He was a revolutionary. He preached peace, love, and equality. There was nothing about Jesus that would make him a popular figure in the American political scene. It seems so ironic though that Jesus’ name gets used like a badge of approval for almost every presidential candidate— actually except for one.

Would Jesus be elected a Bishop in the Episcopal Church or hired as the rector of parish? Well, No. He wasn’t an Episcopalian. Okay, well more importantly, Jesus wouldn’t fit into the expectations of being a CEO-type leader. The church most often wants an extravert, who is rational, strategic thinker, who can plan for every scenario imaginable. Ironically, most experts on the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator think Jesus was probably the opposite of that type. Jesus was most likely an introvert, who could envision a new future that could happen in the now of this very moment. In other words, Jesus was mystic not church builder. Think about it. He let Judas be the treasurer of his small band and he drove the money-changers out of the temple. Building a bigger budget was not top of his list.

So, would Jesus be a deacon in the church? Maybe. That sounds more like Jesus. But, I doubt he would jump through the hoops of the ordination process. Besides, I seriously doubt Jesus would wear a clerical collar.

So where would we find Jesus as a leader in America today? I imagine Jesus would be leading others to feed the hungry; gather clothes for the homeless; fill water stations at the border; help refugees; working in prison ministry; and I imagine Jesus would carry a Black Lives Matter sign at a protest; he would speak out against greed, violence, and injustice. Jesus would be doing the kinds of things that would get him crucified, not elected to any leadership position.

Few people have encouraged me to preach about politics in church. Someone suggested to me that given my sermons about Jesus and politics that I am probably left without a candidate to vote for in any type of election; much less President. But now is not the time to keep quiet.

There were those that wanted Jesus and his followers to stop preaching the message of God’s love in the Temple. Basically Jesus’ response was that he could not be silent. And neither can we. Jesus said that if we don’t speak up, surely the stones would cry out. What he meant was, that if his followers, those of us in the Jesus Movement—if we don’t have the courage to speak up, someone else will. In other words, if we don’t speak out against the violent forces being released by the political rhetoric, then our silence becomes our consent to the violence. Would Jesus be silent? No. He would not. So we, as followers of Jesus have to speak up against the violent rhetoric and we have to vote.

Being a follower of Jesus is all very weird and it changes everything. But, somehow, asking people to be civil doesn’t seem to all that weird. Evidently, though, following Jesus does change everything. Being in the Jesus Movement changes what we eat, what we buy, how we treat other people, and even how we vote. Amen.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Jesus visits Jung for some therapy

At some point in life most of us have asked our self the big question, “Who am I?” Am I this kind of person – or am I that kind of person? It’s like playing mental Ping Pong. We ask this question of our selves at almost every stage of human development. As children we are looking for an identity within our family. As teenager we’re looking for an identity separate from our family. As young adults we’re looking for a purpose. As adults we’re trying to live out our purpose. As older adults we’re trying to assess if we have fulfilled our purpose. These questions are extremely important in our growth as mature humans because our answers affect our relationship to other people. Simply put, you can’t truly know another human being, and you can’t truly know God—unless you know yourself. Christianity has taught this truth from its beginning.

In the Gospel of Thomas Jesus said, “Divine Reality exists inside and all around you. Only when you have come to know your true Self will you be fully known—realizing at last that you are a child of the Living One.”

But, how did Jesus come to realize this about himself? First—he was human. Therefore he had to ask all the human questions, including—Who am I? Yes, that’s right, Jesus had to go through the same self-discovery process we have to trudge through. He had to ask himself, who am I, so that he could discover that he was a child of the Living One. He modeled for us that we too are children of the Living One.

Today’s gospel reading (John 12:1-8) is a perfect example of Jesus’ search for his answer to the question, “Who am I.” To do this we have to read the Gospel of John metaphorically, not literally.

I’ve developed a diagram to help us get a picture of Jesus’ Self-discovery process found in today’s reading. I know there is too much information in this diagram to cram into a fifteen-minute sermon. So, I’m giving you a glimpse of a series I’ll be offering in late May, early June. The title of the program will be “Jesus: His Mind, Mystery, and Magic.” This sermon is the very beginning of my ideas about how Jesus thought.

A couple of quick notes about the title at the top of the chart: Jesus called himself the Son of Man, which followed in the tradition of Ezekiel. The word Anthropos is a reference to Carl Jung’s suggestion that Jesus is the archetypal man in search of his True Self. Therefore, Jesus, the Son of Man is the archetypal True Self, whose path we can follow for our own self-discovery.

The diagram is a circle—a mandala, a sacred circle. A cross divides the circle into four sections. Four is a complete number—as in the four points of the cross, the four directions and the four elements, air, earth, fire, and water. At the different points of the cross, you will see the four letters of the unspeakable name of God, YHVH. In the Kabbalah’s interpretation of the Torah, the four letters of the unspeakable name of God are—Yod (Father), He (Mother), Vau (Son), He (Daughter). There’s so much to say about this because it plays such an important part in understanding Jesus’ understanding of the Holy One. But that will have to wait until another time.

The two quadrants on the top, the darker blue, are the conscious, the bottom two, the lighter blue, are the unconscious. The four quadrants represent the holistic picture of Jesus personality—his complete personality. The upper left is Jesus’ ego. The upper right is Jesus’ emerging Self. The bottom left represents Jesus’ soul. And the bottom right is Jesus’ shadow. The characters in the story represent the four parts of Jesus’ personality. For our sake of discussion, the story is not about Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and Judas—the story is all about Jesus.

The upper left quadrant represents the Ego. You’ll see Jesus making four statements that are focused on his conscious awareness of who he is existentially. “Leave Mary alone. She bought the oil. She’s anointing me in preparation for my impending death. Don’t worry about the poor right now, you’ll always have them.” Jesus sensed that after he had overturned the tables in the Tabernacle and raised Lazarus from the tomb, the authorities would be looking to execute him. Jesus was focused on the situation of the moment—his situation. There’s nothing wrong or bad about that—that was just his reality at the moment.

The lower right quadrant represents Jesus’ shadow. The writer of the gospel puts the shadow’s words into Judas’ mouth. “We have a responsibility, we need the money to take care of the poor, to take care of us.” Jesus had to have been worried about what was going to happen to his poor disciples after he died? But, he didn’t want to think about responsibility at that moment, or maybe at all. So he avoided thinking about it and hid his thoughts in his shadow. Then there was the issue of betrayal. Jesus probably felt like he had betrayed his disciples—they gave up everything to follow him and now it was all going to end on the cross. And maybe Jesus was worried that he was a thief, that he was stealing his identity as a child of God? Maybe he was concerned that he wasn’t worthy? Or that he wasn’t ready?

The lower left quadrant represents the soul of Jesus. In Jungian psychology, the soul is always representative of the opposite gender that resides within us. Jesus being a male, would identify his soul as feminine. In the story we are reading today, Mary and Martha represent two sides of the same person—Mary the disciple, the esthetic, Martha the servant, the doer. This two-sided person actually represents the three Marys in Jesus’s life—the mother, the wife, the daughter. In mystical literature, the three Marys are the same person, playing out different roles in Jesus’ life. This is the role of the soul—to confront us with our aspects of spirituality. That’s what Mary is doing as she anoints Jesus’ feet with her hair. She acts in humility. She makes a sacrifice. She engages all her mind, body, soul, and spirit to be in union with the Living One. She is acting out for Jesus how his spirituality and his soul must evolve. Soon Jesus would wash the disciples feet.

And finally, let’s turn our attention to the upper right quadrant—the Self, represented by Lazarus. Here we see Lazarus, possibly the beloved disciple, who had died and then had been resurrected. Lazarus was in the house, while his sister was anointing the feet of Jesus. He was sitting at the table. Lazarus represented whom Jesus would have to become in order to find his True Self. Jesus would have to be willing to die so that someone else would resurrect him, in order that he might become the Holy Eucharist served at the table, the altar.

I know, this all very weird stuff for us to think about. But, the question is, why should be paying attention to the humanity of Jesus?

Typically, we’re presented a Jesus who is an enigmatic, two-dimensional figure—a mysterious figure that is so far away that we lose any personal connection. So then, we fill in the human gap. We turn Jesus into our imaginary childhood friend, or the best friend we never had, or the brother that was missing in our life, or the lover we need. And once we re-create Jesus, then we do the same thing to our self, creating our idealized fictional character of who we wish we were. And worse yet, we then project all of our stuff onto our family and friends. And what happens is, our recreated Jesus doesn’t live up to our expectations. Our family and friends don’t act like we want them to. And of course, we are not really the person we created. We need the real Jesus, so that we have a model to find our own authentic self.

As followers of Jesus, let me suggest we spend some time this week and during Holy Week with these questions:

What have you avoided in your life and stuffed in your shadow?

What is your soul trying to tell you about your spirituality?

What is your True Self calling you to become?

Like Jesus, the answer to these question are somewhere inside of you.

Let me end with a portion of the poem “Who am I?” written by the Christian theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Who am I? This man or that other?
Am I then this man today and tomorrow another?
Am I both all at once?
Who am I? They mock me these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, you know me, O God. You know I am yours.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Upside Down Politics

Many of you have heard me tell stories about my sister, Dinah. She has what’s known as Prader-Willi Syndrome, it’s caused by the deformity of Chromosome-15. She’s mentally and physically handicapped. Dinah is the oldest known living person with PWS in the State of Arizona. She just celebrated her sixty-first birthday. Most people with PWS die in their late thirties due to issues related to PWS.

Despite Dinah’s limitations, I consider her to be a wise mystic. Talking to her is similar to having a conversation with God: you have to sit in silence, be patient, and listen carefully. Even then, you might not hear a word. And when you do, it’s not the word you were looking for.

Several years ago, a woman asked my mom that if she could wish for a miracle would she want Dinah to be normal. In a flash, my mom replied, “Actually, I think Dinah’s the normal one and we’re the ones who are handicapped.”

The woman replied, “Well, I think if you had enough faith and prayed hard enough, God would grant your wish.”

The woman asked a question, for which she already had an answer. She was acting like she was God because she had created God in her own image. This woman assumed God was judging my mother for her lack of faith.

All the while, my mom was trying to tell the woman that she needed to turn her thinking upside down; to think in a different way. That’s the point of this morning’s strange gospel reading. Jesus wants us to think differently about the nature of God.

In Luke’s gospel (13:1-9) the people were asking Jesus the age-old question: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” But those people already had an answer. They assumed that those who had died tragic deaths were being judged because they deserved to die. They thought God would be judgmental like they were. In other words—if they were God, that’s what they would do.

But, Jesus responded in his typical fashion. He never answered a direct question. That’s how my sister answers every question. You can ask her anything, from the mundane to the complex, and she always says, “I not not know.” As if she’s saying, I don’t know—But, if I did know, I wouldn’t tell you.”

What Jesus does tell them, though, is to repent. By repent, he means that they need to change their way of thinking. In other words, they need to turn their thinking upside down. The people thought that God should control everything that happens in the world. God should punish the evil and reward the righteous. They thought God should manipulate the world for their benefit.

But that’s not what Jesus taught. Jesus told them to stop thinking that way. Jesus said that the sun rises on the good and the evil. Jesus said that the rain falls on the just and unjust (Matthew 5:45). My sister has PWS because it randomly happens in one of every 10,000 births. In other words, life is random, shit happens. Fortunately, Jesus doesn’t leave us hanging with the old adage, “Life sucks and then you die.” He tells us a story that I imagine went like this.

You see that fig tree over there? My dad planted that tree years ago. Every year he would till the ground around the tree, gather manure and mulch it into the ground. Then he would carry buckets of water to pour around the tree. Year after year he took care of that tree. And still, the tree never produced any fruit. I asked my dad once why he didn’t just cut the tree down and simply plant another one. My dad said, “My son, I love that tree because it reminds me of God’s love for me. I make mistakes everyday. But God continues to nurture me. God feeds me. God waters me. God does all the work. And still day after day I can’t seem to bear any fruit. I’m so underserving. But God never abandons me.” When my dad died, I kept caring for that tree because it too reminds of my heavenly father. No matter what happens in this random world, he loves us. Our heavenly father is constantly down on his hands and knees, tilling the soil around us. He goes out into the pasture and gathers the stinky manure. Then with his hands, he mulches that manure into our soil. And then he fetches bucket after bucket of water to make sure we have enough to drink in hopes that, one day, we might bear fruit. But, no matter what happens, even if we never bear one fig of fruit—our heavenly father will never give up on us. He will never cut us down.

Jesus told this story because this is how he envisioned the never-ending love and forgiveness of God. Jesus is telling us that this is how he cares for us, giving us never-ending love and forgiveness. And Jesus is telling us this story because he wants us to turn our thinking upside down—he wants us to give our love and forgiveness to others unconditionally. But how do we do this?

Jesus told us to feed the hungry, give the thirsty a drink of water, visit the sick and those in person, and to welcome the stranger (Matthew 25:35). Jesus told us to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. (Matthew 22:39) Jesus told us to love our enemies and pray for them (Matthew 5:44). Jesus spoke out against hate language that bullies other people. Jesus spoke out against the oppression of the poor. Jesus spoke out against the injustices in our world.

You’ve heard me say that the teachings of Jesus are weird—and that his teachings will turn our thinking upside down. Thinking like Jesus will affect what we eat, what we buy, how we treat other people and how we vote. I think that’s true and I’m not afraid to say it.

Being in the Jesus Movement means that Jesus’ teachings will affect every aspect of my life—including my politics. If a political candidate sounds like they would bully Jesus for his teachings on love and forgiveness, how could I support that person? If I can’t find Jesus’ teachings about love and forgiveness somewhere in the candidate’s political agenda, how could I vote for them? Being in the Jesus Movement is hard work because Jesus’ teachings are often hard to live out. But, I believe that is our calling.