Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Keep it Quiet

Easter/Mark 16:1-8

by Daniel Harrell

Easter comes at a scary time this year. People are getting laid off and losing their homes. Jobs are scarce. Credit has loosened up a bit and the markets are up some, but there’s a long way to go out of the hole. Senseless gun violence of late has taken so many innocent lives. Earthquakes. War. Global warming has melted an ancient ice bridge in Antarctica, and yet cold weather here seems like it will never end. To top it off, taxes are due on Wednesday. Perhaps you’ve come to church this Easter seeking hope for your fear. You need to be reassured with some good news. You want some comfort to soothe your anxiety and worry. Unfortunately, this year’s Easter story comes from Mark’s gospel. Yes, Jesus still rises from the dead to be sure, but the outcomes dramatically differ from Matthew, Luke and John. Whereas the other gospels have the risen Jesus appearing to the women to cheer them up, in Mark, the women run away. The good news is bad news. Mark’s moral of the resurrection is this: Be afraid, be very afraid.

So much for easing your anxiety. You’re thinking, “I knew I should have come to church this morning!” True, the brightly dressed young man sitting by the empty tomb (most likely an angel) told the women “don’t be alarmed,” but angels are always saying that. The women tremulously back away from the empty tomb, their eyes and mouths wide with panic. Clearly this was not what they were expecting. Although Jesus had told them on several occasions how he would be killed and rise from the dead, nobody really believed it. The women came to the graveyard with burial spices with which to lessen the stink of Jesus’ decomposing body.

The angel said, “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He is not here. You just missed him. He has risen! See the place where they laid him. Go, tell his disciples and Peter.” But too bewildered to talk, the women fled and said nothing to anyone. That’s it. End of gospel. No after-resurrection appearances. No reconciliation with Peter who denied Jesus three times. No go into the world and make more disciples. No breathing out the Holy Spirit. No conversations along the road to Emmaus. No breakfasts on the beach. None of the stuff that you get from the other Gospels. Just fear. The end.

Last summer while on vacation with my family, we decided to take advantage of a beautiful evening and grill outside. The house where we stayed has this huge gas grill, but I forgot to check propane tank before cooking. Turns out that the tank was low. There was enough to get the grill lit, just not enough to keep it lit. Anyway, thinking that the grill was heating up, I got the burgers prepped, popped a cold one, set the table outside. My mom and sister joined me on the patio to watch the sun set. Meanwhile, the flame had gone out on the grill, but fumes from the tank still gathered inside. I looked at the cold thermostat and concluded that nothing was happening. Not thinking, I pushed the automatic igniter a few more times to see if I could get it going and again and… BOOM!! The cover blew off, followed by flying iron grates that whizzed past my sister’s head. My mom sat in shock. The rest of the family came running from the house, including a neighbor from down the street who had heard the explosion. Dawn stayed inside, bracing herself for the inevitable news of my demise. I was not dead, but my eyebrows were singed, my hair on end and black soot and grease splattered on my face. We were all pretty scared. But we were still pretty hungry too. So we ordered pizza. That’s it. Just fear, then dinner. The end.

Naturally the early church couldn’t tolerate such an non-ending, so somebody decided to cobble together from the other Gospels and elsewhere a more fitting conclusion. That’s why most of your Bibles have a line drawn after verse 8 noting something like, “The most reliable early manuscripts and ancient witnesses do not have verses 9-20.” These tacked-on verses describe Mary Magdalene as has having been possessed by seven demons. They have nobody believing the women’s testimony. The resurrected Jesus eventually shows up and scolds the disciples for their lack of faith, but then tells them how if they will believe, they’ll be able to “Pick up snakes with their hands and drink deadly poison and not be hurt,” which to me only enhances the fear factor. But Mark didn’t write these verses. His part ends without snakes. Some modern scholars assert that verse 8 is the introduction to an authentic conclusion of Mark that has simply disappeared, and they may be right. But if they are right I Though I have to wonder, if the concluding climax is missing, are there other important parts left out too? Maybe a piece where Jesus says he was only kidding, you can worship both God and money? Or at least something about Jesus teaching his disciples proper propane technique.

It is possible that there’s more to Mark than what we have; but since what we have is all we do have, we must make do. Maybe Mark did mean to stop here. After all, people in Mark are constantly being told by Jesus to keep quiet. Here the women do just that. Instead of some cheap, feel good ending, Mark leaves us with something better and darker. A strange, frightening puzzle which leaves every reader to figure out for him or herself what it all means. Still, panic and bewilderment are odd emotions to attach to Easter. Christ’s resurrection is cause for celebration not trepidation. This explains why few churches ever choose Mark as their Easter scripture. When it comes to the risen Jesus, what’s to fear? Where’s the danger?

The answer depends on how you look at it, I guess. Had Jesus stayed buried in that cemetery, people could have come by, brought their spices and paid their respects. Jesus would have been memorialized as a wise sage by some, an admirable albeit failed revolutionary by others. His words would have been studied and pondered, published and programmed as screensavers and iPhone apps. The amenable lines would have been printed onto T-shirts and embossed on greeting cards; leaving the radical and dangerous lines to be tossed aside as anomalies, eccentric utterances of a man out of touch with the times. Seriously, who loves their enemies or prays for their persecutors? Who forgives without limit? Selling your possessions and giving all the proceeds to the poor is hardly practical. And why can’t you serve God and money both? We do it all the time. Becoming least in order to be great doesn’t make any sense either. And who’s ever heard of losing your life to find it or plucking out your eye if it causes you to sin? Had Jesus stayed buried in the ground, we could have left these words buried with him.

But Jesus did not stay buried. The angel says to the women, “He’s not here. He has risen!” You’d think this to be unbelievably great news, yet when the angel tells the women to go and take the good news to the disciples, and particularly to Peter who had to be feeling horrible for being such a weenie, they don’t. They keep quiet. Mark says it was because the women were afraid. I get that. I’m afraid sometimes to tell people about Jesus. I’m afraid that people will think I’m a freak, or demented, or right winged and judgmental, or intolerant. Especially once they hear that I follow Jesus for a living. As I’ve mentioned before, coming out of the ministerial closet can be a real conversation-stopper. Tell most people you’re a minister and the first thing you get is silence. Then comes the smirk (“No, seriously, what do you do?”); followed by the shock, (“Man, you seem so normal”); then the pity (“Job market’s pretty tight, huh?”) and finally the condescension (“Well, I’m sure it’s very rewarding.”).

For my birthday, Dawn treated me to a haircut and shave at this old-timey barber shop in the South End. I got into classic shaving a few years ago after one too many Cary Grant movies. I loved the idea of spending an hour or so under scented hot towels, followed by hot lather and the clean swipe of a straight edge across my cheek. The barber shop was just as I expected it to be: lots of wood and leather, the smell of witch hazel and lime, a barber pole whirring outside. The place reeked of testosterone. There were Sports Illustrated and Maxim magazines on the table and complimentary beer. This was place for real men, and as any real man knows, the only that matters to real men after who won the NCAA basketball championship is what you do for a living. I got scared. What if my barber was one those men who thought faith was for wussies? Or worse, what if he packed a truckload of religious resentment due to some horrible experience he’d had with church in the past? He was going to have a straight razor at my neck. Maybe like the women in Mark, I should keep my mouth shut too.

The only problem is that while Jesus did tell folks to keep quiet, that was only while he walked on earth. The reason was that Jesus didn’t want his fans to get in the way of his life-saving mission. Unlike comic book Messiahs, Jesus didn’t swoop down to destroy evil and sin by brute force. He did it by getting nailed to a cross. He won by losing. He took onto himself the best that evil could dish out and killed it in himself so that it wouldn’t be able to kill us. Sure, we all still die; but the difference is that people who believe Jesus don’t stay dead. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he said, “whoever believes in me will live, even if they die.” And then he proved it by getting up from the grave. Back in chapter 9, where Jesus briefly flashed a preview of his resurrection power for three of his disciples to see. He told them to keep it quiet, but only until he had risen from the dead. In other words, they weren’t supposed to keep it quiet forever. In fact, in chapter 8 he told them, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” Dang. I took this to mean I couldn’t keep quiet in a barber shop even if I was afraid.

Had Jesus stayed buried in that cemetery, people could have come by, brought their spices and paid their respects. He would have been memorialized as a wise sage by some, an admirable albeit failed revolutionary by others. His words would have been studied and pondered, published and programmed as screensavers and iPhone apps. But nobody would have had to do what they say. However, Jesus did not stay buried. The angel said to the women, “He has risen!” Jesus resurrection was his validation, proof that all his talk was true. Throughout Mark’s gospel, Jesus got hammered by the religious establishment for talking blasphemy. He got hammered by the crowds for talking austerity. He got hammered by his family for talking crazy. He got hammered by his own disciples for talking about becoming a casualty. And he got literally hammered by the Romans onto a criminal’s cross. What kind of Messiah does that? What kind of Messiah just up and dies? The kind of Messiah who knows he’s going to get up after he dies. Jesus’ resurrection was his validation, proof that he was talking truth. And if you believe Jesus’ talk is true, then you have to do something about it. Dang.

The barber honed his razor’s edge sharp on his strop. The whetted blade glistened. Dabbing the hot lather across my now exposed and defenseless neck, he predictably asked, “so what do you do?” A bead of perspiration sprouted out on my forehead. My mouth went dry. My heart picked up its beat. (I could say that I “work downtown,” that’s not a total lie. I could say that I’m an author, but then he’d want to know what I’ve written. A psychologist? I do have a degree in that. No, that could be bad too.) The bead of sweat trickled downward as the words of Jesus rang in my ears, “If anyone is ashamed of me in this adulterous and sinful barber shop…” “OK, OK, I’m a minister!” I said, “I preach in a church! I talk about Jesus! I believe he rose from the dead! I pray and read the Bible! Please don’t cut me!” The barber stopped sharpening his razor. He said, “Really? Me too. I pray and read the Bible. I go to this little church up in Revere. We have an awesome sunrise service on the beach Easter morning. You should come. Our pastor plays the accordion. You might even know him.” (I do.)

I was all afraid… for nothing. Which is the good news of Easter, isn’t it? The angel was right, “don’t be alarmed.” Jesus rose from the dead, you have nothing to fear. Jesus rose from the dead; death has no sting. You don’t have to be afraid of dying anymore. Take the fear of death off the table, every other fear comes off the table with it—layoffs, foreclosures, violence, global warming and war, even taxes. Because Jesus rose from the dead, this life is not all there is. As the apostle Paul put it, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pathetic of all people.” But Christ has been raised; so you have nothing to fear even if other people think you’re pathetic anyway. Resurrection changes everything. Because Jesus rose from the dead, you don’t have to be afraid of your enemies. What are they going to do, kill you? You might as well love them and forgive them and pray for them too, just like Jesus said. And why not sell some of your possessions and give the money to the poor? Jesus says you’re getting up from the dead. What more do you need? Becoming least in order to be great? No problem. The same with losing your life to find it. OK, so plucking out your eye remains a dicey proposition, but with the resurrection, sin loses a lot of its allure. And ashamed of Jesus? Not me. Not even in barber shops. At least not anymore.

Jesus in a Bad Mood

Palm Sunday / Mark 11

by Daniel Harrell

Anybody who objects to the idea of God ever being in a bad mood has clearly never read the Bible. Slate magazine editor David Plotz read through the Bible and recorded his impressions in a book he ironically entitled The Good Book. Reviewer Rich Cohen summed up Plotz’s take on the Bible like this: “What’s the deal with Yahweh? Is the guy crazy or what? First he’s schmoozing, walking in the garden and whatnot, then he’s so angry he turns into a column of smoke, and here comes the scary voice, and here come the waterworks, the smiting and rivers of blood, and don’t get me started on his weird obsession with the firstborn. This is a God who loves the camper but hates the counselor — see all the little brothers who prosper (David, Joseph, et al.), and all the big brothers who get smoked. And yes, I know, I was supposed to put lamb’s blood on the doorjamb so the angel of death would pass over, but I am human, I was tired, I forgot. Does that mean the kid had to die? And what the heck does Yahweh even mean, anyway? Forty years to cross 120 miles of desert? They shouldn’t call him Yahweh, they should call him Wrong Way.”

Many might come to the same conclusion about Jesus in tonight’s red-lettered chapter in Mark’s gospel. “What’s the deal with Jesus? Is the guy crazy or what? First he’s all smiles, riding in all Messiah-like on a donkey, waving to the adoring crowds who throw off their coats and cheer him with palm-palms. But then he goes and gets so grumpy that he yells at a helpless fig tree, after which throws a tantrum in the Temple, overturning tables and benches of the people who work there. Talk about a bad mood. And don’t get me started on his weird ideas about prayer. “Have faith in God and you can tell this mountain to throw itself into the sea.” Are you kidding me? Yes, I know, “if I just have faith and believe then it will be mine.” But we all know how well that works out in real life. He’s just messing with my head. What the heck does Jesus even mean, anyway? Get hailed as a king only to go off on your elders and tell them you don’t have to talk to them even if they are in charge? They shouldn’t call him Jesus, they should call him Gee Whiz.

Since it’s Palm Sunday, I’m moving ahead in our red-letter series to Mark’s account of Jesus’ grand entrance into Jerusalem. For the entire gospel Jesus’ fans have been trying to get him to let them treat him like a king, and here he seems to finally give in. However, the same fans must have become severely disillusioned once their king goes kong in the Temple courts, making a huge fracas as he chased out those who bought and sold there. We usually interpret this as Jesus condemning the commercialization of faith, as an indictment against Christian investment schemes or health and wealth preaching. But in fact, buying and selling were necessary parts of proper Temple business. The Temple was where animal sacrifices to God occurred. These sacrifices happened over and over hundreds of times a day for various purposes, the Temple system was all about having a right relationship with the holy God. In accordance with Torah, sacrificial animals had to be perfect. Relating to God cost you the best of your herds, flocks and crops—animals without any spot or blemish. But if you lived any distance from Jerusalem, getting your bull or goat to the Temple without dinging it up was pretty difficult. Therefore as a service to the faithful, the religious authorities arranged it so you could buy a blemish-free bull or bird at the door. You’d bring your cash, change it into Temple currency, buy your bird and give it to a priest to sacrifice. It was all very convenient and very kosher. So what’s the problem?

Mark explains by using one of his favorite literary devices: the Mark Sandwich. Throughout this gospel, Mark sandwiches one story of Jesus inside another in order to amplify the meaning of each. Here, Jesus’ cursing a fig tree provides bread for the Temple clearing meat. In verse 12, a hungry Jesus is looking for some breakfast. Finding a fig tree in leaf, he also found that it had no fruit, sort of like getting to a Dunkin Donuts only to find they’ve run out of coffee. Like any of us do whenever we’re hungry, Jesus gets irritated and curses the fig tree (a pretty pointless thing for most people to do). However being Jesus, you’d think he could have just told the tree to pop out a few Newtons and be done with it. But instead he just tells the tree to die. Jesus comes off as petty and petulant, picking off a helpless plant just because it had nothing to pick. Not that it could have had any fruit. Verse 13 says it wasn’t even fig season. Jesus was clearly barking at the wrong tree. Except that what Jesus does is not about the tree but what the tree represents. That’s right, the fig tree is figurative. Jesus is telling another parable, only this time he’s acting it out for the disciples to see (since they never seemed to understand the parables Jesus simply told).

That the fig tree is fruitless is the parable’s point. Throughout the Bible, God’s people are compared to fruit trees, expected to flower and bloom and produce fruitful deeds in accordance with their redeemed nature. Yet in accordance with their human nature, God’s people persist in resisting God’s grace, treating his favor as favoritism and as permission to do as they please. The prophet Jeremiah had stood in Temple centuries prior and conveyed God’s displeasure. “You have no shame,” he howled, “you do not even know how to blush. When I would gather you, declares the LORD, there would be no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave you has passed away from you.” Their sin ran deep―violating every law on the stone tablets. They cheated and stole, they murdered and committed adultery, they lied, swore falsely and chased after shiny idols made of metal and stone. But the topper was the way they used the Temple system to cover their rear: sin and sacrifice only to go out and sin again. Jeremiah yells, “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to idols, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are saved!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?”

Jesus quotes this last line in his own Temple tirade, intentionally reenacting Jeremiah. If you read “den of robbers” as “hideout for evil,” then you understand how the people treated the Temple as a safe-house for their sin. No wonder Jesus got so furious. By turning the tables and blocking traffic, Jesus effectively brought a halt to the sacrificial charade. He blocks their access to God and throws a wrench in the whole relationship. Jesus also quotes Isaiah, saying that the Temple was supposed to be a “house of prayer for all nations.” The idea from the beginning was that outsiders would always be welcome inside. The Lord is the Lord of all people. God did choose Israel alright, but they were to be an example of his grace, not sole beneficiaries. Somehow they let it all go to their heads, so that by the time we get to Jeremiah, the Temple had become like some exclusive country club. God’s people, rather than putting out the welcome mat for their unbelieving neighbors, treated the Temple as a sanctuary from their unbelieving neighbors. Refusing to let his house be so mistreated, God ironically let it be leveled by the very pagan neighbors that God’s people tried to keep out. In time the Temple was rebuilt, but the people’s behavior never changed. So Jesus brings down Jeremiah’s curse again.

Inasmuch as Israel’s story is our story too, we should presume the same sort of divine disdain whenever we treat church as a sanctuary for the faithful; as a safe-haven to protect us from the secular world. We should presume the same sort of divine disdain whenever we take our relationship with God for granted, treating grace as insurance against our own bad behavior and bad choices. While God’s grace is his free gift and there’s nothing you can do to earn it, you still must do something to show you’ve received it. “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ,” Paul wrote to Christians in Corinth, “therefore we make it our practice to please Christ.” If pleasing Christ is not your practice, the implication is that your insurance may be like something from AIG. Grace is about more than being declared “not guilty” before God, grace makes you into a whole different person. If God’s forgiving your sins hasn’t changed you, it may be that you’ve not yet been forgiven. “You can tell a tree by its fruit,” Jesus said, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

The next day they came upon that figless tree again, and Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” Here’s the other slice of bread for the Mark sandwich. It tastes a lot like Jeremiah too. “While you were doing your sinful deeds,” declared the Lord, “I spoke to you again and again, but you did not listen. I called you, but you did not answer. Therefore I will now do to the house that bears my Name, to this temple you trust in, to this place I gave to you and your ancestors, I will [destroy it and] thrust you from my presence.” God let the Temple be leveled once. He would do so again. This is the lesson of the fig tree—except that Jesus’ response to Peter seems off track. “Have faith in God,” he says, “and you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea’ and it will be done for him.” In other words, shriveling a tree is nothing. Believe without doubting and you can transform entire landscapes. Of course if you’ve ever tried that you know that’s not right. I can pray all I want and I still can’t even get a houseplant to wilt (unless I stop watering it too).

This leads us to that seeming disconnect between faith and prayer that we explored a couple weeks back. While Jesus does say here in verse 24, “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours,” common experience teaches that this is rarely the case, which obviously means that nobody has enough faith. Most mountains remain where they’ve always been, diseases go uncured, marriages unrepaired and jobs unfound. But even if we had the faith to move mountains, that’s no guarantee that they’d move. There is a strong link between prayer and faith, but not always the way we like to link it. It’s not the amount of faith that matters as much as the direction in which it is pointed. And once you start pointing at Christ, your faith and your prayers start to change too. Faith in Christ results in prayer like Christ—prayer that first and foremost says to God: “Not my will, but Thy will be done,” as hard as that may sometimes be.

But why the digression on prayer anyway? I thought Jesus was talking about the destruction of the Temple. It is important to note that Jesus does not say faith in God can move any mountain, but specifically this mountain, which for the disciples hearing Jesus say it in the shadow of the withered fig tree would have been the Temple mountain. Jesus is still on his jeremiad. “Anyone who says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him.” Because it’s going to happen anyway. About 40 years after Jesus said it, Rome would sack the Temple as flat as the Babylonians leveled it some 600 years before. We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.

Taking for granted that the disciples were able to put tree and Temple together (which I know may be a reach given Mark’s portrayal of the disciples), it may be that their takeaway was not that they too could wilt plants and move mountains, but that they could sock it to their own enemies. Why take out a tree when you can take down your obnoxious neighbor, your conniving ex-wife or the boss who just laid you off? Knowing how human hurts crave vengeance, Jesus quickly adds a caveat in verse 25: “When you pray, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive your sins too.” For a guy in such a bad mood, this is a remarkable concession. He angrily kills a tree to predict the end of relationship between God and sinners, then prays to throw the whole mountain of mess into the sea, only to turn around and say forgive? It does sound so strange until you remember that whenever Jesus spoke of the Temple he also spoke of himself. Both were the dwelling places for God. And both would be destroyed. The curse Jesus puts on the fig tree and the Temple is the curse he puts on himself. As it says in Deuteronomy, “cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” But Jesus hangs on a tree not to end the relationship between God and sinners, Jesus hangs on a tree to restore the relationship. He becomes the perfect sacrifice for all time and for all people. Remember, prayer is not about getting God to do what you want as much as it is getting you to do what God wants, as hard as that may sometimes be. And what does God want? He wants to forgive sins and draw all people to himself. Even though it kills him to do it.