Saturday, November 28, 2009

Sermon: Different Worlds

Pentecost 25 Year B
John 18:33-38
Different Worlds
by Rich Gamble

The passage today reveals the real confrontation in the Gospels. Jesus has been hauled before Pilot by the Jewish authorities. So here we have a representative of Caesar and a representative of Yahweh face to face. Finally comes the showdown between these two claimants of ultimate authority. This is the scene in the movie where our beefy hero has beaten all the underlings of his archenemy and now they meet face to face. The two enemies throw away their guns and meet in hand to hand combat. The music swells the camera shifts to slow motion and everyone knows that this is the climactic scene of the film.

Obviously the author of John’s gospel didn’t get to see enough action films to understand how such a conflict is supposed to be played out. In John’s confrontation between Jesus and Pilot the two representatives of differing Gods have a confused conversation.

Pilot has a problem, Jerusalem is filled with Jews as the crowds swell during the holy days of Passover. The Jews like most people don’t particularly like having foreign invaders occupying their nation. They are a contentious lot these Jews and Pilot has had run ins with them on several occasions. But Pilot is supposed to keep the peace and Pilot has only a few hundred soldiers in a town bursting at the seams with thousands of Jews. So Pilot is acting out of character and trying to keep the peace. Usually he would just use force but he doesn’t have enough troops to make the people do what he wants them to do.

So Pilot is trying to resolve this messy problem between the Jews. The Jewish leadership wants Jesus dead and they want Pilot to do it.Pilot wants to know why Jesus is such a threat to the Jewish leadership. Pilot wants to know about the claims Jesus has to what Pilot thinks of as power, that being the power to order people around. If Jesus has the power to order people around, then he might raise an army and pose a threat to Roman control. “Are you the king of Jews?” is Pilot’s question.

Jesus tells Pilot that he is not from Pilot’s world, that if he were he would behave like Pilot and place his trust in armed men. Jesus is not a part of that reality. Jesus appears to be uninterested in the title of king, he would rather be known as God’s truth teller.

Now traditionally when we hear Jesus talk about his world, Christians have interpreted this as meaning Heaven. Christians say things like, Jesus is not concerned about earthly things he is concerned about spiritual things. Jesus’ realm is the realm of the Spirit, the realm of the afterlife, the realm of Heaven. But though Christians commonly think this way it is wrong. Jesus is not talking about the afterlife in Heaven, he is talking about the Realm of God on earth. Jesus is not talking about some astral plain but the gritty smelly streets of Jerusalem, of Palestine, of the world.

Both Caesar and Yahweh are striving to claim the world for their empires but that is the only thing they have in common. Caesar wants to dominate the world to force everyone to do his will. Yahweh wants to incorporate the world into God’s love.

In the text today we have the incarnations of these two claimants for ultimate authority sharing a conversation but not a reality. Here again is a primary message of the Gospel, the conflict of worlds.

When Jesus tells Pilot that his realm is not of this world he doesn’t mean that he is from Mars, or from the 7th dimension, or from the realm of spirits. The word translated world here is a form of the Greek word Kosmos. The word means more than just geography it is a word that is used to describe the dominant way of perceiving reality.

Kosmos is the word Paul uses in the twelfth chapter of Romans when he says: "And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God."Don’t accept the reality the world hands you. You have the power to change it.

Jesus doesn’t accept Pilot’s world of greed and fear and violence. Domination and manipulation have no meaning in Jesus’ world.The problem is that we are so brainwashed into thinking that the world of domination is the only reality in the here and now. If it doesn’t fit into that way of thinking then it isn’t realistic.

In Jesus’ world people are not forced to join but are invited out of the world of Caesar and into an alternative reality. To step out of Caesar’s world is to step outside of the logic and desires of that world and to step into a whole different reality. In Pilots’ world force is much more powerful than invitation but in Jesus’ world there is no place for violence. In Pilot’s world greed is seen as a powerful motivation, but again in Jesus’ world it is pointless. In Pilot’s world love seems like weakness but in Jesus’ world it is the one real power to transform hearts, minds and nations.

There is no middle ground between Jesus’ reality and Pilot’s. It is a choice to be made not a compromise.

In this week’s Real Change newspaper, you will find an article by me about our experience with Nickelsville. You will also find an article by Rich Lang. Rich’s column in that paper talks about the misuse of our armed forces. I agree with Rich’s condemnation of our nation’s military policy, but Rich starts the article off by saying how he believes in the necessity of the military to protect innocent people from those who are violent. As much as I understand the logic of what Rich is saying, as a fellow Christian I have to strongly disagree with it. When Rich talks about the necessity of maintaining an army, the necessity of maintaining the capacity to be more violent than those who would use their violence to harm the innocent, then I say he is not speaking the truth of Christ.

In our tradition Jesus did not deserve the violence perpetrated on him. In our tradition if ever there was a case for a righteous use of violence to protect an innocent person it would be the use of violence to protect Jesus from the power of Rome and their Jewish toadies. But Jesus did not allow violence to be used in his defense. Jesus forgave those who sought and caused his suffering and death. Jesus called on his followers to put away their weapons and love their enemies. Jesus here says to Pilot: if my followers were from your reality they would be using violence to free me. But my realm is not yours.

Two different worlds. In the realm of love there is no room for righteous violence. In the realm of God there is nothing redemptive about violence.

Every Sunday we pray that God will forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors, but if we really practiced that as a nation our economy along with the rest of the world’s economy would crash. Our economic system is built upon debt.

The Realm of God is not some pie in the sky dream that will never fit on planet earth. It is not some post apocalyptic possibility. It is a radically different way for us to live in the world. Challenging? Yes. Difficult to understand given our indoctrination into the matrix of domination? Yes.Unattainable? No.

This is the last week of the church year. We start a new year with Advent. That says something about the nature of our faith. Our faith begins with a hope. Not an event like Christmas or Easter but a season of hope. This hope is born out of real human suffering. Suffering from vulnerable people caught up in Pilot’s world of greed and violence. Our faith speaks a powerful word of hope to those who suffer. A hope against all hope. A hope for a new world. That hope is entrusted to us. We keep that dream alive by living it to the best of our ability. That is our calling and it is good news.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Who is my neighbor?

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the religious leaders that the heart of the faith is summed up in two statements: love God with your whole being, love your neighbor as yourself.

One who heard Jesus said this asks: Who is my neighbor?

Jesus replies with the story of the Good Samaritan. It is a story about a man who has been robbed and is left naked, bleeding and penniless in a ditch beside the road. None of the leaders in the Jewish community stop to help the man, but a foreigner, a Samaritan does stop and offer aid sufficient to get the man back on his feet.

Jesus asks who is the neighbor to the man in the ditch?

I have received few complaints since the Nickelsville community moved into our sanctuary. The ones I have received have been most civil. But in each complaint I hear the implied statement that these homeless people are not our neighbors.

At such times this story of Jesus and the religious official comes to mind. The man asks who is my neighbor? Jesus asks, who is the neighbor to the man in the ditch?

The question of the neighbor is a question of perspective. For many of us it is border to our sense of equality. A neighbor is someone life us. For Jesus, a neighbor is someone who helps when help is needed, and therefore someone who sweeps away all borders and limits to compassion and equality.

I am thankful that the Keystone community chose Jesus' definition of neighbor when it came to deciding whether Nickelsville could use our sanctuary.