Monday, March 25, 2013

The Passion Narrative: Judas’ Perspective

mini-homily preached at Church of the Ascension, Silver Spring, MD
in the midst of Luke’s Passion Narrative
by Josh Hosler, Seminarian

And so it begins. For the disciples, being with Jesus must have felt like a constant state of euphoria—always on the go, always overwhelmed by something new, never really in control, never needing to be in control. But then it all changed. Have you ever felt as if life is a movie and you’re just watching? Well, Judas finally realized he was tired of feeling out of control. 

Judas decided not to tell Jesus he had sharpened his sword and brought it along. It seemed like Jesus might object, and Judas really needed him not to object. After all, Jesus had tens of thousands of devoted followers in town for the Passover feast. If he asked them to, they’d rise up and take the city from the Romans. Then they could buckle down for the real fight! There would be a siege, of course, but if Jesus could feed 5000 people with five loaves of bread, that wouldn’t be a problem. Before the year was out, the Jews would have their country back, and their Messiah as King! So Judas kept his sword carefully stowed, and he waited. 

On the Sunday before the Passover, the gang rode into town. People started laying palm branches at the feet of the donkey. It was the weirdest demonstration you’ve ever seen, because there was no dissent within the ranks. No troublemakers, no conflicting agendas, no need to reach for Judas to reach for his sword. The people adored Jesus. They were ready to make him king; it was as if they were waiting for a cue. Jesus’ little stunt against the money-changers wasn’t it, though. It did upset a lot of people, what with Jesus running around smashing things and shouting, “God is not for sale!” But the authorities didn’t make for him then because they were so shocked. They actually allowed him to stay in the temple and teach. Teach? Was this revolution ever going to happen? 

See, Judas worried that demonstrations of humility and minor acts of vandalism might not have the intended effect. It was then that he realized he should have been not just the treasurer, but also the PR and marketing guy. He had friends among the Pharisee higher-ups, and he always had the big picture in mind. Jesus needed a handler, and Judas would have been the best person for the job. For one thing, he could have converted all those rambling parables of the Kingdom of God into useful sound bites. Judas was a do-er … he couldn’t stop doing. But Jesus didn’t want Judas to do anything like that. So in the end, Judas took his game elsewhere. And everything unraveled pretty quickly after that.

Did Jesus knew how all this would shake out? It’s hard to say. But here’s one thing Judas just didn’t understand: that week that Jesus rode into town, trashed the temple, told his final parables, and called his friends together for a meal … that was the beginning of the end of religion. That might sound confusing, so let me clarify. By “the end of religion,” I don’t mean the end of communities of faith. We will always need places like this where we can worship God and organize to help the poor, who are still with us. We need to keep practicing, because at our best, we help reveal little pockets of the Kingdom of God. When the Kingdom comes, it slips in quietly, through the back gate. But it can never come into being until we’ve put away our swords.

We also need to get together to keep telling the parables—those rambling stories that can’t be reduced to sound bites. There was no way for Jesus to give us his message directly, as if God were some sort of mathematical formula. So through his stories, Jesus planted seeds in our imaginations. He left pearls, treasures for us to find … but we don’t find them when we don’t want to look. Jesus mixed his yeast into the dough. Will we let the dough rise? He invited us to go fishing, and he showed us how much sustenance we could catch if only we were hungry enough. Are we hungry enough? Are we paying attention?

If Judas had been paying attention, he would have seen that Jesus didn’t just tell parables. In the end, first by giving us bread and wine and then by submitting to everything that happened afterward, he became a parable.

And so it ends at the beginning. The end of religion means the end of oppressive, arbitrary rules and the beginning of a deeper relationship that put the rules into greater perspective. It means the end of dogmatically dictated sacrifices at the expense of the needy. It means the end of the anemic systems we create to try to “get right with God,” like: “God, if you do this for me, I’ll never do such-and-such again.” And arguments about who’s in and who’s out. And even the fear of death. Jesus’ time among us was a little taste of the day when there will be no dissent or oppression, because we’ll all learn to relax into God’s love and relax into loving each other. On that day, we’ll all understand that God truly has given us everything we need. I wonder if Judas understands that now? I hope so. I hope he finally came around—even through despair and on the other side of the grave, I hope he found the arms of his friend Jesus warm and welcoming.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Beyond Karma

sermon preached at Church of the Ascension, Silver Spring, MD
by Josh Hosler, Seminarian

Sometimes the Bible seems to give us cold comfort. We expect to be able to take solace in the words of Jesus, but every now and then we get a reading to which the appropriate response may not be “Thanks be to God,” but instead, “Thanks be to God?” We can’t quite see how it’s Good News. And apparently there wasn’t a lot of good news in the paper on the day that Jesus received his latest challenge, not from priests and scribes trying to trip him up, but instead from a situation ripped from the headlines. “Did you hear about the massacre? Pontius Pilate had a group of Galileans killed while they were offering their appointed sacrifices, and their blood mingled with the blood of the sacrificial animals. So, Jesus … what do you have to say about that? These people couldn’t have deserved this punishment … could they?”

Thanks, Radiohead!
One feature of Jewish theology was that God sends violence and strife as punishment for people’s sins. Importantly, it was set within a deeper understanding that God’s punishment is never permanent, and that God will deliver the people once their sentence is served. When the Hebrews cried out as slaves in Egypt, God delivered them through the Red Sea, gave them the Mosaic Law, and brought them into the Promised Land. When they forgot about God and began worshiping idols, God used foreign invaders, the Assyrians and the Babylonians, as tools of punishment. Then, once the Israelites had been punished long enough, God used the Persian king as a tool of deliverance, restoring religious freedom to the Jews and allowing them to rebuild their temple. It might be hard today for us to believe that through plagues and famines and revolutions, God is working out higher purposes on the world stage. But this was the belief of the Jews in Jesus’ time, and the Bible can very easily support that view.

What happens, exactly?
Oh yeah ...
But there is also another view that runs throughout the Bible, and I could put it less delicately than to call it the “stuff happens” view. We are all subject to the seemingly random forces of the universe, and they don’t always go in our favor. The Book of Job is a great example. It seems to be an early attempt to debunk some Jewish version of karma, that “what goes around comes around.” It’s not a comforting book, exactly, but it does end by promising that no matter how little we understand of what’s happening to us, God is ultimately good and can be trusted. I’ve met many Christians, too, who claim to believe in some form of karma, that whatever wrongs we do in this life are judged and punished in the afterlife, so that everybody comes out even. And here, too, the Bible is prepared to assure us that all our wrongs are ultimately judged before Christ. Isn’t it true that we will reap what we sow?

But Jesus sides with the “stuff happens” idea. He tells us in no uncertain terms that the people Pilate massacred did not die as punishment for their sins. He also refers to another story: apparently, a tower has fallen and killed eighteen people. Does this mean they were worse sinners than all those who weren’t killed? Of course not. God just doesn’t work this way. Those who survive a plane crash don’t deserve to stay alive any more than those who died deserve death. Pain and suffering can and do happen to all of us, in different ways, to different degrees, at different times. And Jesus reassures us that God works independently of these sad, unpredictable occurrences.

If I'm one of those who get zapped,
is it still for my spiritual growth?
But that can be frightening, because it may seem sometimes as if God is not actually in control. I think that’s why, despite Jesus’ words, the idea of karma has persisted in our tradition to the present day. In our reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Paul blames sexual immorality for the deaths of 23,000 people in one episode in the 25th chapter of the Book of Numbers. It’s an atrocious story, and you can read it for yourself when you get home, but the idea is that God mows down large numbers of innocent people to serve as a warning to those who remain! And throughout the history of the Church, leaders as prominent as Basil the Great and John Calvin have taught that plagues and famines and revolutions are God’s will, arranged for our learning and spiritual growth.

Not that I would be so uncharitable
as to name names ...
Yet if we follow this train of thought to its logical conclusion, we hear Christians telling us that the Newtown shootings, Hurricane Katrina, and 9-11 were examples of God’s judgment on America. Not only are these comments offensive, but they don’t match up with the words of Jesus today. Jesus offers hope, a different lens through which to view suffering and tragedy.

That is, he seems to offer hope at first. But then even Jesus calls us up short: “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” What?!? Can we not even trust Jesus to help us out of this mess? If these people who died in such awful ways didn’t do so because of their sin, why would we?

Well, let’s think for a minute. Would we really prefer things to work out such that people always get what they deserve? What might that look like? Worse yet, what would become of us? And when you look at it this way, it doesn’t matter as much who dies, how they die, when they die, or even why they die. Everybody dies. That’s not an act of God’s judgment. It’s just the way the world works. Tragedy happens, and it is very sad. But it’s not an occasion for wondering what they did to deserve it. Jesus says, “You will all die … unless you repent.”

Why did Google give me so many
disturbing images like this,
but nothing good for "Nothing separates
us from the love of God"?
“Unless you repent” … hang on a minute. Does this mean there’s a chance we won’t die? And of what are we supposed to be repenting? Well, Jesus has successfully changed the subject. We’ve moved beyond karma, and no longer are we dwelling on somebody else’s sins. Instead, we’re faced with repenting of our own sins, and that means we’re in a much healthier—and potentially fruitful—place.

First off, we might draw a distinction between “sins” and “sin.” “Sins” are the individual acts of wrong that we’re all guilty of every single day. It is good and right to notice these, bring them to God, and ask for forgiveness. After all, we do so with each other. If I accidentally step on your foot, I should say I’m sorry. I should also say I’m sorry if I wrong you intentionally. To apologize for our misdeeds, to each other and to God, is the first step toward reestablishing our relationship. This is how we deal with plural “sins.”

Don't give up on love and faith.
After all, will God fail?
But the singular “sin” is a state of being, a situation in which we feel as if we are separated from God. The first thing to say about “sin” as a condition is that it’s only real from one perspective: our own extremely limited one. When our baptismal covenant refers to “sinful desires that draw you from the love of God,” that’s only half true. In actuality, nothing separates us from the love of God, as Paul famously remarks elsewhere. God has got hold of us, and God is not going to let go … ever. A tower could fall on us, or we could be guilty of all sorts of horrible sins, but our state of sin is no barrier to God’s forgiveness. That is, unless we refuse to believe God’s forgiveness exists. And that is a possibility from our own perspective. If we get stuck in our guilty feelings, we may fool ourselves into thinking forgiveness is something we can earn. Then, when forgiveness is offered to us absolutely free and with no catch, we might refuse to accept it, as we heard colorfully illustrated in Terri’s sermon a few weeks ago. “I don’t deserve this gift. Really, God, you shouldn’t have.” God shouldn’t have? Do we get to decide that? Look, here’s the gift, take it!

One of my favorite expressions goes like this: Justice means getting what we deserve. Mercy means not getting what we deserve. Grace means getting what we don’t deserve.

Grown by you, me and Jesus ...
ripe and very tasty, indeed.
I think the kind of repentance Jesus is talking about is the graceful kind, in which we turn to God and say, “I’m sorry I didn’t trust you. Let’s try this again.” When we repent of our lack of faith, that in itself is an act of faith! It shows that we care about our relationship with God and that we are tending our own fig tree. And Jesus is tending our fig tree as well, digging around the roots, adding compost, and checking on our growth every day. He teaches us that kindness and patience are far more important than strict understandings of justice. Jesus has a green thumb, and he is doing everything he can to help us bear good fruit, sweet, luscious figs that will feed all the people around us. And that fruit is very good news. Thanks be to God! Amen.