Eastertide Love Wins #2: Hard questions...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for the upcoming Sunday, May 8, 2011.  It continues my series using parts of Rob Bell's Love Wins for insights.  The two texts are the Emmaus Road story in Luke 24 and I Peter 1.  Join us if you are around...

Last week I was thrown on my butt by the news that the United States had finally succeeded in killing Osama Bin Laden. Like many of you, I was filled with a mixture of thoughts, feelings and reactions that included relief mixed with grief as well as a bruising and sobering sadness over the spontaneous blood lust celebrations that erupted all over America.

• This morning in worship is not necessarily the best place to unpack my thoughts about all of this – I’ve already posted them on-line for those who are interested – and sent them to the Berkshire Eagle, too.

• But I will say that as I followed the obsessive coverage of the carnage on National Public Radio, I heard something from one who had lost his wife in the Twin Towers that made me physically ill. Now please understand that I cannot and will not begrudge anyone their grief or pain – I carry my own open wounds about September 11th, too and have great solidarity with those who suffer – so it wasn’t the intensity of his anguish that caused me trouble.

No, it was that sickening combination of patriotism and fear fused with religious piety – the Cross of Jesus Christ carelessly wrapped in an America flag – that caught me up short. For this widower said, “I know that my sweet wife is dancing in heaven right now because the one who stole her life has been killed and brought to justice by the good ol’ USA!”

Lord, have mercy! Where do we come up with this stuff?!? Where do we find the gall and chutzpah to link the message of Christ’s grace with the harsh realities of geo-politics? Where did we learn to put heaven and assassination - joy and the often necessary but always brutal facts of war, fear and national security – or even grief and retaliation in the same sentence?

• And just when I thought I had to be living on another planet with a vastly different set of ethical and moral guidelines, it hit me: Christian people have been wrestling with this reality for 2,000 years!

• We’ve been troubled with this problem since the first Cross crucified our Lord. So get real, man: this is not a NEW problem – those who follow Jesus have been confused about the meaning of the Cross since the beginning – and we’ve been making this same tragic mistake for millennia.

That’s part of what baffled the disciples in this morning’s gospel text – and it is part of what Jesus clarified for them, too –when he opened their eyes so that they GOT it! In the words from St. Luke’s gospel we call the Emmaus Road story, we read:

Now that same day as two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, they were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself – Crucified and Risen - came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him. So He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?” They stood still, their faces downcast. Then one of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” “What things?” Jesus asked. “About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.

Did you grasp that? “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” This brother wasn’t speaking in spiritual terms alone, my friends:

• He meant that they had hoped that Jesus was going to restore Israel to its former political greatness: overthrow the Roman Empire, kick out the oppressive occupation troops and vanquish their enemies.

• Remember not only was Jesus crucified between two thieves – and we aren’t talking about petty bandits who were lifting a six pack from the local Jerusalem convenience store – but two well-connected political terrorists that had broken into a Roman garrison and stolen weapons to use in an insurrection…

• … but for the next 50 days after the Resurrection the story tells us that Jesus had to constantly retrain his disciples from thinking purely in political terms. Luke puts it like this:

Jesus said to his friends, “You can be so thick-headed and so slow hearted. Why can’t you simply believe all that the prophets said?” So starting at the beginning, Jesus went through the books of Moses – and through all of the prophets – pointing out everything in the Scriptures that referred to him… (Luke 24) And even then they still sometimes asked him, “Master, are you going to restore the kingdom of Israel now?” To which he said, “Timing is always the business of the Father… what you are going to get is the Holy Spirit… so that then you can be my witnesses throughout the world in a new kingdom…” (Acts 1)

Are you still with me? What I’m trying to say is that since the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus has been trying to show us another way – a way that is bigger than ordinary politics – and we have been very, very slow to comprehend. We tend to like to mix our religion with our politics even when say that we don’t – especially if it makes us feel better. Or more powerful. Or more like God is on our side when the real challenge is getting on God’s side. And the consequences of this – our trying to force God into our small politics and fears – is always tragic and sickening – like the bloodlust we’ve been seeing in our streets.

• So that got me to thinking outside the box for a little bit about the sacred importance of asking hard questions: not only did Jesus ask his disciples to wrestle with hard questions in his day, but people of faith have continued to come up with their own hard questions, too.

• So maybe one of the most blessed things we could do at this moment in time is to quit being afraid of all the hard questions and start saying them out loud?

Think how liberating and creative that would be if people inside the church started to understand that it was a blessing rather than a curse – a sacred calling rather than a scandal – to give voice to all the hard questions we have about God and faith and politics and heaven and hell? Then all different types of people – inside the church and beyond – might even come to believe that having questions – and doubts – was part of what it means to be faithful! Now wouldn’t that be a fascinating time?

• Fewer catechisms and more questions? Fewer judgments about who is truly in and who is definitely out and more compassion?

• I think St. Peter was right when he wrote: Now that you've cleaned up your lives by following the truth, love one another as if your lives depended on it. Your new life is not like your old life. Your old birth came from mortal sperm; your new birth comes from God's living Word. Just think: a life conceived by God himself!

So let me give you a few examples of the hard questions I think it is time to start asking out loud – without fear or judgment – just as Jesus asked his first disciples, ok? We’ll start with some religious questions:

• Is it really true – and truly faithful – to believe that “of all the billions and billions of people who have ever lived, only a select number will make it to ‘a better place’ called heaven and every other single person will suffer in torment and punishment forever? Is this acceptable to God? Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this – or even allow this – and still claim to be a loving God?” (Rob Bell, p. 2)

• Or what about this: “Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of living? Doesn’t this raise more disturbing questions about God and so-called traditional beliefs, too?” (Bell, p. 3)

• What’s more, “if there are only a select few who go to heaven, which is more terrifying to fathom: the billions who burn forever or the few who escape this fate? And how does a person end up being one of the few? Chance? Luck? Random selection? Being born in the right place, family or country? Having a youth pastor who relates to the kids? God choosing you instead of others?” (Bell, p. 3)

“And then… what kind of faith is that – or more important – what kind of God is that?” (Bell, p. 3) I think these questions – and a ton of others – need to be out on the table. They need the fresh air of real inquiry as well as the fresh minds and tender prayers of all of God’s people so that we can start sharing what is the truly GOOD news.

Because the good news, you see, has NOTHING to do with the old traditional words that tell us that “God loves us and offers us everlasting life in heaven by grace – freely – through no merit on our own… unless we do not respond in the right way. Then God will torture us forever in hell!”

• The good news of Jesus is better than that…

• The good news of Jesus is that he comes to us in all types of ways – whether we’ve betrayed him like Peter – or abandoned him like Judas – or confused our religion with our politics in broken ways like the people on the Emmaus Road.

And when he comes to us, he opens our hearts with grace and then opens our eyes to his loving presence all around us in every day. He takes what is ordinary in our lives – bread, wine, chicken soup, heart ache, confusion, politics, music or our toughest questions – and blesses them so that they might nourish rather than wound or divide us.

• How does today’s gospel put it? “He sat down at the table with them. And taking the bread, he blessed and broke and gave it to them. And at that moment, open-eyed… they recognized him… and said, “Didn’t we feel on fire as he talked with us on the road and opened up the Scriptures for us?"

• That is, weren’t we fully alive – being cleansed and made whole – by his loving presence from the inside out?

For the good news to be truly good news it HAS to be better than our fears – or bloodlust – or all the rest. It has to be big enough to embrace our hardest questions and help us move into a life conceived by God. One of my favorite writers, Tony Robinson, recently put it like this in reference to trying to make sense of the good news of Easter: “The New Testament never reports ‘sightings’ or the risen Jesus.”  

It reports "appearances." Jesus intrusions. People don't say, "Yes, it was about sunrise when I got a glimpse of him heading over the hill there."They report, "he appeared." What's the difference? The difference is who's the subject of the verbs. The difference is who's in charge. With sightings, we are. With appearances, God is.

“Easter means, among other things, it's not about us. Not all about me. Not all about you. It's about God.”

In Jesus, God is busy rewriting our sentences, busy intruding upon us, appearing when and where we least expect him – and asking all types of hard questions. So is that good news or bad? I guess it depends on who you think is in charge.

But when it is Jesus then our eyes will be opened and our hearts will be on fire with true grace.


Rev Nancy Fitz said…
Now I know where I want to go on Sunday. I've been tossing these questions around. I havent read bell's book but did read a similar one years ago, "if grace is true" . Thanks for your articulate thoughts.
RJ said…
You bet, Nancy, great to hear from you!

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