A House Divided – Mark 3:25

(The Rev. Dr. William Barber is barred by a State Trooper at the entrance to the Kentucky State Capitol.  Photo attributed to Steve Pavey, Hope In Focus, used with permission)

Image result for protest at Kentucky State Capitol“[This past week] conjured up images of the dark days of the past. Peaceful protesters nose-to-nose with police officers in places like Selma and Birmingham and Little Rock and Greensboro.  But this wasn’t the 1950s or 1960s.  And it wasn’t in the Deep South.  It was Monday at the Kentucky state Capitol.  And it was troubling.” J.Gerth, Courier-Journal

“Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every house divided against itself shall not stand”  Mark 3:25 KJV

On June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech before 1,000 delegates in Springfield, Illinois.   Held in the statehouse for the annual Republican Convention, the delegates chose young Abraham to be their State Senator.   It was three years prior to the start of the Civil War.    At 8pm that evening, Lincoln stepped to the podium to deliver his address.  At once, his remarks set him apart from what incumbent and opponent, Stephen Douglas, had long advocated.  For by exposing the fallacy that a growing nation could peacefully coexist as both slave and free – Lincoln speech delved into the ensuing crisis – using Jesus’ words as recorded in the Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke:

“A house divided against itself, cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free….Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it…or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.”

While one of Lincoln’s most memorable quotes, neither he or Jesus received good press at the time for saying it.   In Lincoln’s case, quoting Jesus that evening likely cost him the election to the Senate that fall.    In Jesus’ case, while successfully refuting his opponents, the authorities waged a malicious campaign to publicly discredit him as a sorcerer, a deviant and generally speaking, a completely unhinged man.    Small wonder Jesus’ biological family sought to abruptly have him stop doing what he was doing, so he could quietly return home for good.

So why did Jesus respond to his critics by employing the image of a house divided?

Because his words countered not only the absurdity of his opponent’s charges but exposed the shifting demographics in his day, where the most vulnerable were burdened with escalating economic disparity and homelessness in ancient Near East:

Observes Jeanne C. Tate, “The social order that the Hebrew people had known for centuries was in fact already crumbling. As the land peasant families had farmed for generations was consolidated into large estates, there was an exodus to the cities. Younger sons, in particular, were forced to leave behind the land of their ancestors for crowded and impoverished urban life.  [In the wake of traditional clans disappearing], Jesus was only pointing out the obvious: the people were indeed becoming a “house divided against itself.”

No, it isn’t 1950 or 1960.  And no, this didn’t take place in the deep south.   But the voices raised and hands of those pounding on the doors of justice will not be silenced.    And no house can remain divided for long.

 

A Prayer of Confession and Thanksgiving

“O Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure.”  Isaiah 25:1

Sovereign God, we confess that as mortals, we forget.   We forget that our lives – while not as precarious as other creatures – is nevertheless short-term.   There is no permanency clause, no stipulations requiring that when we die, it will be on our terms.   No promises were and will be given as to the matter of our demise, either.   This knowledge is out of our reach and not at all within our domain.

So thank you, for this life with all its joys and disappointments, delights and devastating failures.   Thank you for the lives given us but more so, for pouring upon undeserving us the sweet, intoxicating love of your salvific grace.   Thank for not holding back your mercy for mere mortals and all creatures that inhabit this fragile planet, the one we call our earthly home.

Thank you for your inestimable patience, your tireless energy, and your unfathomable wisdom.   Thank for seeing beyond what any of us could imagine, but having the capacity to peer into the immediacy of our hearts.   Thank you for loving us, our families, neighbors, friends, former co-workers, bosses beyond all matter of understanding.   Thank you for extending that quality of mercy we cannot apply even to ourselves.

Thank you for the astonishing beauty of freshly fallen snow, that clings to tree trunks and rests on branches.   Thank you for its impermanence, its temporal quality and its paradoxical quality of its extravagant beauty juxtaposed against the bitter cold.   Thank you for gracing us with the seasons meant to regulate life – even as we wantonly undermine the very facets of the earth’s atmosphere designed to preserve it.

Thank you for listening to the endless petitions that are lifted up to you, prayers from distraught, grieving and weary souls.   Thank you for not dealing back to those who curse you and your name, and utter all manner of falsehood and depravity against you.   Thank you for continuing to hold your children – even when we forget you, exploit you for our own selfish purposes and outright lie in order to preserve the very falsity that is destroying us.

Thank you most of all for being God: all-powerful and all vulnerable, unknown but accessible to all; older than the universe but younger than a newborn child.

Thank you for being all that you are, for endowing us with an inalienable birthright as your children and loving us through it all.   Thank you, thank you, and thank you!

Amen.

 

Matters of Conscience

“The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.”  The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Be a good citizen.  All governments are under God.” Romans 13:1 The Message

As referenced recently in the Boston Globe, “…23 prominent Christian leaders – issued a manifesto,” at a website unapologetically called, ReclaimingJesus.org.”

Citing the undermining of the soul of our nation, these faith leaders affirmed, “When politics undermines our theology, we must examine those politics. The church’s role is to change the world through the life and love of Jesus Christ. The government’s role is to serve the common good by protecting justice and peace, rewarding good behavior while restraining bad behavior (Romans 13). When that role is undermined by political leadership, faith leaders must stand up and speak out.”

On numerous occasions, I’ve heard it said in church circles that politics does not have a place in the church.    Fearing the division that can accompany this subject, understandably congregants wish to avoid a potential conflagration by steering clear of topics deemed controversial and thereby, a threat to the unity of fellowship.   Yet as the above affirmation indicates, it would do us well to pay heed to the unique role the church is asked to assume relative to government.

Written back in approximately 57-58 AD, the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans (the early Christian church in Rome), is often cited when people of faith ponder the matter of allegiance.   Paul wrote, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there are no authorities that exist except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.   Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed…” (Romans 13:1-2, NRSV).

So what does this say to those of us who are activists?

It is important to note that while Paul wrote this letter as a Roman citizen, his work as the architect of the early Christian Church put him in conflict with the ruling authorities.   Such that even while he counsels, “Let every person be subject to the ruling authorities,” he promptly declares that the ultimate allegiance of the Christian belongs NOT to Caesar but God!   It was a brilliantly worded but resounding contradiction that lay the groundwork for the Christian’s identity and where their allegiance ultimately must rest.

Which brings us to the matter of conscience.   Wrote Thomas Merton, Trappist Monk, and famed author, “Conscience is the light by which we interpret the will of God in our own lives.”   It is that interior aptitude, intuition or inner compass that guides us in our decision making.   At its best, conscience arises out of the “better angels” of our nature, imbuing our lives with divine purpose while actively seeking the common good for all of God’s people.

Wrote the 23 faith leaders who issued a manifesto, “The church’s role is to change the world through the life and love of Jesus Christ.”   Indeed, if “conscience is the light by which we interpret the will of God in our lives,” then despite the enormous hurdles facing us – let trust that in Christ God’s illumination is at hand.

From Jesus to Christ

“Now among those who went up to worship at the [Passover] festival were some [non-Jews].  They came to Philip [one of Jesus’ disciples]…and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  The Gospel of John 12:20-21

Christ the Redeemer Statue, Rio De Janerio, Brazil

At the top of Corcovado Mountain overlooking Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, a statue weighing 635 metric tons rests atop its peak. Resting atop this 2,300-foot mountain and rising from its base by another 650 feet, the sculpture of Christ the Redeemer is a symbol and cultural icon drawing people from all over the world.

While a local engineer designed the statue and another sculptor created the work, a different artist was explicitly commissioned to create its face. It was this face – the face of Christ – that made the final sculptor, Gheorghe Leonida, famous.

It is not uncommon to think of Christ as being Jesus’ last name.  However, Christ is not a name but a title, meaning anointed.  So there is the name, Jesus, as in Jesus of Nazareth, who was born to impoverished refugees during the reign of Emperor Augustus somewhere between 6 and 4 BC.  Living for thirty-three years, and executed as a common criminal – some scholars speculate that Jesus was not afforded the dignity of a tomb but instead buried in a shallow grave.

In sharp contrast, there is Jesus’ title, Christ, for whom the early architect of the Christian church, the Apostle Paul, describes as, “[the One] who holds it all together.” In other words, “…everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible…everything got started in him and found its purpose in him.” Colossians 1:19 & 15

Am I the only one who has trouble reconciling the two?

According to John’s Gospel, Jesus was welcomed by a crowd of people during the Feast of the Passover in Jerusalem (what we customarily call Palm Sunday). Following this, two men of Greek origin (guys clearly outside the Jewish diaspora) approached a couple of Jesus’ disciples. “Can we see Jesus?” they asked.

Excited that outsiders expressed interest in meeting their leader and rabbi, the two disciples quickly sought Jesus out and breathlessly relayed this message. But Jesus’ reply must have both astonished and confounded them, as it does us millennia later.

Signally that his public and earthly ministry was coming abruptly to an end, Jesus said,
“My time is up. The time has come for the Human One to be glorified (exalted).” John 12:23
Then describing how a single kernel wheat must be buried in the ground if it is to flourish and multiply, Jesus tries to explain once again not only what is about to happen to him, but why.

Franciscan writer and teacher, Richar Rohr, emphasized that while Christian orthodoxy taught that Jesus was both “fully human AND fully divine” at the same time, the best any of us mortals could do was see ourselves as only human…with Jesus as only divine.  Only by doing so, “we missed the whole point, which puts the two together in him AND then dare to discover the same mystery in ourselves and all of creation.” We were never intended to be mere spectators, standing on the sidelines.

At the top of Corcovado Mountain overlooking Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, a statue weighing 635 metric tons rests atop its peak. Resting atop this 2,300-foot mountain and rising from its base by another 650 feet, the sculpture of Christ the Redeemer is a symbol and cultural icon drawing people from all over the world. Yet it is the face – the face of Christ – that pulls scores of people to it.

Writes Frederick Buechner, author of, The Hungering Dark, “[t] here is so much about the whole religious enterprise that seems superannuated and irrelevant and as out of place in our age as an antique statue is out of place in the sky. But just for a moment…there can only be silence as something comes to life…”

What comes to life is this startling recognition.

We know this face.

It is Jesus of Nazareth. It is the Christ. The One who came and comes still.

Fiery Serpents on the Way to the Promised Land

“We’ve made some progress but, we still have a distance to travel,” stated [Representative John] Lewis of Atlanta on the 53 anniversary of the crossing of the Bridge in Selma over voting rights
“From Mount Hor [the Israelite wanderers] set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom [given the refusal of Edom’s King to give them safe passage]” Numbers 21:4

What if the first generation who followed Moses out of Egypt
were not unlike the brave souls who crossed over Selma’s Bridge fifty-three years ago with sights set for the Promised Land?

Like the recent re-enactment of the crossing of the Bridge in Selma, by the time we get to the twenty-first chapter of the Book of Numbers in the Hebrew Bible – we witness the next generation. These are the grown children of those who fled Eygpt; these are the ones who never knew anything else other than living as tent-dwelling Bedouins in a raw, forsaken, wind-swept desert. Though born in liberty, they were the offspring of those condemned to captivity.

In fact, the only one amongst them who had never known the lash of the overseer’s whip was Moses. Moses – born into privilege. Moses – educated by the best that Pharoah’s household had to offer. Moses – who was adopted by a princess and raised as a ruler’s son.

So when the Book of Numbers talks about the second generation of escaped slaves being bitten by fiery serpents because of they rejected the provisions of our Sovereign Lord (Numbers 21:4-9), I find myself wondering what is not said. Is there more to this account than stated? Could there be more to this story particularly when we consider that fifteen hundred years later Jesus uses this incident to prefigure his death?

When extensively hiking the deserts of California, recognizing poisonous snakes AND treating snakebite – is a necessary skill when traversing its wind-swept and rocky terrain.  Take heed, unlike the ancient account from the Book of Numbers, gazing upon a bronze snake set upon an upright pole won’t be found in backpacking first aid manuals or elsewhere. But nevertheless, both ancient scripture and current medical treatment underscore the venom’s systemic threat, potentially causing paralysis, severe swelling, difficulty breathing, cardiac arrest and death.

Fifteen hundred years later, Jesus used this account and image when speaking to a prominent religious leader who came to him under cover of night.  “If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how can I tell you about heavenly things?” Jesus said, “…[for] just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:12, 14)

Millennia later, you and I read this account and ponder what Jesus meant by these words. Save this. What if the only thing that can heal the likes of us is nothing short of a systemic remedy, one that treats toxin ravaged souls as well as bodies? What if the crosses we wear and those posted on church steeples and elsewhere are as holy witnesses – testifying that God-in-Christ sustains not by taking us out of the wilderness but by remaining – even in the most godforsaken places and times.*

*Inspiration is credited to Professor Terence E. Fretheim’s  outstanding commentary on this passage

 

Dismantled Temples

“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” John 2:19

The church on the Town Common. The Cathedral in the City Square. The chapel in the country village
The shrine sitting on a distant mountaintop. The house of prayer nestled between the pawn shop and laundromat.

Built by human hands, each structure emerges with a unique story to tell. Some are fairly recent. Others span centuries. These are our houses of worship, sanctuaries, and parish houses; monasteries, retreat centers, and mission outposts; chantries, tabernacles, and basilicas.

Fresh from changing water into wine on the third day in Cana of Galilee, Jesus strides into one of the holiest places in the ancient near-east world and begins turning over tables. Making a whip of cords, he drives out the sheep and the cattle and the people who had been selling them. Doves escape from overturned cages, hard currency flung onto the temple floor, and the exchange of money/goods utterly disrupted.

Angered, temple officials and marketers demand evidence. “What sign can you show us for doing this?”

Nonplused, Jesus replies, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

The Nicene Creed declares, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty…and in one Lord Jesus Christ, [whom] for us and our salvation…was crucified under Pontious Pilate; … suffered and was buried.

The third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures…”

Years ago when memorizing the Nicene Creed – I questioned the effort expended over the recitation of this ancient confession. Laboring line after line to commit the language to memory, it wasn’t until years later that I appreciated its fuller historical context – and why its development in the first place. Faced with the heresies of its day – and those that invariably followed – the early church responded, providing a framework and orthodoxy of the Christian faith. Knowing the tendency of mortals to limit the efficacy of God-in-Christ’s Sovereignty, a confessional context was wholly necessary, then as now.

Once, an enigmatic prophet strode into one of the holiest places in the ancient near-east world, turning over tables and practices that undermined the Sovereignty and Holiness of God. And we, we who fear that our institutions, our houses of worship and our hope in the future – are being reduced to the moral equivalent of rubble, would do well to return to the promises of scripture and this ancient confession, that soars in God’s victorious affirmation:

[and on] “The third day our Lord rose again, according to the promises of Scripture.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Reconstitution of the Heart as a Spiritual Discipline – Ash Wednesday and Beyond

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10

Last week and on Ash Wednesday, there was another school shooting – this time in Parkland, Florida.  Among the heartbreaking images, was of an anguished parent.   A cross of ash was etched across her forehead while her right arm clutched another woman overcome with terror and grief.    As if hitting the replay button, a crescendo of news flashes and responses from DC and elsewhere followed:

“Let us hold those affected in our prayer,”
or “Our thoughts are with the students, parents, teachers and first responders,” and this,
”Now is not the time to talk about [the lie that shackles the very institutions charged with protecting its citzenry].”

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right Spirit within me,” wrote the psalmist.

Take note there is no mention of cleansing the heart. Nor is the psalmist’s petition to amend or correct it.
Instead, its author implores the Creator God to act…decisively.

We know that the Holy Writ sees the heart more than a mere organ within the human body.  As the seat and foundation of human personality, the heart is the determiner of one’s ability to differentiate and understand, impacting the choices made even when the welfare of the many is at stake. But this same heart when diseased behaves as scar tissue. It becomes wholly desensitized. Reduced to cauterized tissue: the heart becomes hardened, unable to distinguish truth from fiction, the material from the merely trivial, the indispensable from the consumable.

Going back in Biblical history, the repercussions that come with the hardening of the heart are well documented.  One extreme example is recorded in the Book of Exodus – where chapter one records what had been a pattern of lethal violence directed at children.   Years later, Moses, who had raised in the royal household, is sent back to Eygpt by God to confront Pharoah. However, even on the heels of this directive – Yahweh cautions him – lest Moses hold onto the expectation that reasonableness and good intentions will be sufficient to change the despot’s disposition.

“When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform all the wonders I have put in your power; but I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.” (Exodus 4:21)

Given the devastating implications, why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart? For that matter, why would God harden anyone’s heart? Or could the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart and the vast multitude of pharaohs since then be the inescapable outcome of their cruelty; a callous indifference kept under a guise of respectability?  Was what ailed Pharaoh then a malignancy; that insatiable and diabolical malady that renders senseless any appropriation towards the good, the just and the peaceable?

So what of us, who are summoned to confront the pharaohs of our day? What of us, tasked with unmasking the pretense of religiosity and self-righteousness; who speak for the marginalized, the foreigner, the forgotten, and this fragile, blue planet we call home. We whose hearts are also at risk of being hardened, by the very forces we face.

Perhaps the reconstitution of the heart is a necessary spiritual discipline – not only for those whose hearts are hardened – but those of us who are at risk. What if last week’s alignment of Ash Wednesday AND Valentine’s Day was not coincidental at all?