Archive for September, 2016

Our Great Scapegoat

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 11, 2016 by timtrue

champaigne_shepherd1Luke 15:1-10

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So Jesus thought about telling them this:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  And, on the sixth day, as you all know, God created Adam and Eve.  After a time, they had a son.  His name was Cain.  And a short time later, they had another son, named Abel.

Now, as you Pharisees and scribes no doubt know—because, after all, you are good Jews; you were brought up on the scriptures by your parents and the Temple—as you know, Cain and Abel grew up.  And one day they were out in the fields, offering sacrifices to God.  And, curiously, Abel’s sacrifice pleased the Most High God; but, for whatever reason, Cain’s did not.

An overwhelming jealousy came over Cain; and what did he do but rise up against his brother Abel and strike him down, dead as anything?  You know all this.

But what did God do next?  Did he strike Cain down, saying something like, “Vengeance is mine?”

No!  Rather, God put a mark on Cain and exiled him off to another place.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: God put a mark on Cain so that everyone who came in contact with him would avoid him; so that everyone who came in contact with him would know he was a monster and thus steer clear.  For this is what you’ve been taught.

But it’s not like that at all!  Rather than putting a mark on Cain to identify him as a murderer, isn’t Cain’s mark rather a grace from God?  Read your scriptures!  According to them, Cain’s mark is so that others will not be able to take vengeance on him.

And then, with this mark of God’s protection and grace upon him, what does Cain do?  He settles in the land of Nod, east of Eden, where he establishes a new civilization, replete with culture, laws, morals, ethics, politics, and so on.

Cain’s son Enoch founded a whole city bearing his name.  Cain’s descendant Jubal (according to Genesis 4:21), “was the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and the pipe”; and his descendant Tubal-cain “made all kinds of bronze and iron tools.”  That’s what the scriptures say!

Cain grumbled about his brother.  All of his problems, he told himself, were because of him.  Thus, Abel became Cain’s scapegoat.  So Cain killed Abel.  And then—interestingly enough—he went off to found a civilization.

*****

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So Jesus thought about telling them this:

In the beginning of the history of Rome, after the great Aeneas had landed on the shores of Italy at Latium, as you all know, twin brothers were born by the names of Romulus and Remus.

As young men these twins were astounded to hear a prophecy about themselves: one of the two was destined to establish a great city that should one day become an empire to rule the entire known world.  One of these two, the prophecy said; not both!

And thus the audacious Romulus began to build a sort of wall, establishing boundaries for his new city.  But Remus caught wind of Romulus’s plan and, in a display of defiance, jumped over Romulus’s wall, in full sight of Romulus, to say in effect that his boundary meant nothing.  The city is mine to establish, Remus said, not yours.

And, as you all know, Romulus rose up against his brother in a fit a jealousy and struck him down, dead as anything.  He then went on to establish the great city Rome, with all its civilization, culture, laws, morals, ethics, politics, and so on.

Now, O Pharisees and scribes, does this story remind you of anything?  Doesn’t it sound a lot like the rivalry between Cain and Abel?

Except now there’s a major difference.  In Cain and Abel’s story, Cain was wrong to spill his brother’s blood upon the ground.  And thus he was exiled in punishment.

But here, in Romulus and Remus’s story, the gods in fact approve of the killing; for the killing of Remus was, according to the pantheon, not a murder but a necessary sacrifice.  If Remus had continued to live, according to the gods, then the city would never have been founded.

So: Cain is guilty but nevertheless forgiven; Romulus isn’t even guilty.

Abel and Remus were both scapegoats.  In the Jewish story, Abel was a scapegoat for his human brother.  In the Roman story, Remus was a scapegoat both for the human and the divine.

*****

What is it about us and scapegoats?

There’s something in all of us that gravitates towards rivalry.  It’s nothing new, nothing unique to our generation.  The Olympic Games date back almost three millennia, to 776 BCE (according to the IOC).

Even in Eden, rivalry was part of the serpent’s strategy in tempting Eve.  “You will be like God,” the serpent claimed.  God was made Eve’s rival.

Now, there are individual rivalries—Cain versus Abel, Romulus versus Remus, Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier.  And there are group rivalries—the Trojans versus the Greeks, the Patriots versus the Colts, Republicans versus Democrats.

Evolutionary biologists point to natural selection: this innate competitive instinct is in our species for our own survival, they say.

Whatever the case, it’s there.  Competition is part of our human make-up.

And a very real part of rivalry is the scapegoat.

I want to get ahead, to be first.  And one way to do that (among others) is to place all my problems, faults, inadequacies, and weaknesses on someone else: a scapegoat.  Then I feel better about myself.

Eve told God, “The devil made me do it.”  Cain said, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  Romulus said the gods needed Remus as a sacrifice.  The Romans captured and enslaved the Greeks because, they said, the Greeks had conquered the Trojans: they got what was coming to them.  Tom Brady deflated footballs.  The reason the economy is so bad today is because of Obama; or, if you’re a Democrat, because of Bush.

What is it about us and scapegoats?

I’ll tell you what it is: they unify us.

If it were only and ever up to individual rivalries, we humans would never unify over anything.  Cain would kill Abel and Romulus would kill Remus; then, in some dark alley of mythology, Cain and Romulus would meet and fight until only one was left standing.

But, strangely, curiously, scapegoats unify us as a group against our rivals.  In the scapegoat we find a common enemy.

Suppose there’s a divisive issue at your place of work.  The boss thinks she’s found the source of the problem: a grumpy co-worker no one seems too sorry to see let go.  Then, curiously, after the co-worker is fired, the issue clears up—at least for the time being.  And then you all say, “Well, I guess the grumpy co-worker was the reason we couldn’t accomplish our agenda after all.”  For now that he—your rival—is out of the picture, why, you have some peace.  As a group, you are unified.

This peace may last only for a moment, sure.  Nevertheless, now there is unification amongst the ninety-nine because the one at fault has been discovered, identified, and cast out.

We humans are kind of a nasty species, yeah?  We tend to think in dichotomies.  It’s either we or they; the good guys or the bad guys; Democrat or Republican; the ninety-nine or the one.

We form our own rivalries in our minds, pick sides, establish loyalties, and fight against our common enemy, our scapegoat.  We establish unwritten rules about who’s in and who’s out; who’s saved and who’s not; who’s worthy of inviting to church and who’s not; who are the tax collectors and sinners and who’s not.

Yet, by God’s grace and forgiveness, even Cain went on to found an entire civilization.

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So Jesus told them this parable:

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? . . .  Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?”

You know what Jesus is talking about here?  This is the new civilization Jesus has founded, the City of God.

Jesus includes the lost sheep in his city.  Like an old woman who values every single coin she possesses, Jesus searches far and wide until he finds them all.

In his new civilization, the City of God:

  • Jesus includes the Cains.
  • He includes the Romuluses.
  • He includes tax collectors.
  • He includes sinners.
  • He includes Pharisees.
  • He includes scribes.
  • And he includes scapegoats.

By the way, who is the greatest scapegoat of all?  Isn’t it Jesus Christ himself, our great Scapegoat, upon whom we have placed all our sin and misery?

And finally, when all the lost sheep and coins, Cains and Romuluses, tax collectors and sinners, Pharisees and scribes—when all the forsaken scapegoats have been found and welcomed into Jesus’ new civilization, the City of God, there will be great rejoicing!

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When Bonds Are Severed

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on September 4, 2016 by timtrue

800px-Anton_Van_Dyck_-_Christ_carrying_the_Cross_-_Google_Art_Project[1]Luke 14:25-33

Today we hear some difficult words from Jesus.  “Whoever comes to me,” he says, “and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.  Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”  And a little later, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

This is a hard saying.

Now, much has been made in scholarship over the word hate.  Does Jesus mean hate in the way we say “I hate terrorism” or some other evil, humanity-opposed ideology; or does he mean it more like when a young child says, “Ugh!  I hate spinach”?

So, after all the scholarship is said and done, here’s what scholars tell us.  When Jesus says hate here in the Greek, in English it means—are you ready?—hate!  The Greek is just like the English: there are many different ways to define this word.

Which isn’t really all that helpful.

So, we look at the context.

After Jesus says this hard saying about hating mother, father, wife, children, brother, sister, and even life itself, he goes on to offer a couple illustrations about anticipating the cost of some kind of endeavor or another.  Who among you would build a tower without first sitting down and figuring out how much it will cost?  Or what kind of king would run pell-mell into battle without first strategizing?

From the context, then, we see the gist: discipleship comes with a cost.  Faithfully following Jesus isn’t easy!

The Old Testament passage, from Deuteronomy, highlights this idea.  “If you obey my commandments,” God tells the people of Israel through Moses, “life will go well for you.  But if you don’t—well, not so much.”  There is a cost to being a part of the family of God.

Same goes for Psalm 1 and the book of Philemon.

Oh, Philemon!  In this beautiful letter, St. Paul writes to Philemon about his runaway slave, a guy named Onesimus.  Under Roman law, Philemon has every right to execute Onesimus.  But Paul beseeches Philemon to overlook the law and instead to take Onesimus back into his household.  Moreover, Onesimus himself has converted to the Christian faith and will be faithful, for he has counted the cost of what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

That’s the gist.  Discipleship comes at a cost.  Therefore, as disciples of Jesus, we must count that cost.

But what does this cost look like?

I once had a good friend; let’s call him Ron.  Ron was my principal; I was a second-grade teacher.  From the moment we met we got on like two peas in a pod.

To illustrate our friendship: one November morning I left for school on foot, as was my custom.  Now, this was in northeastern Pennsylvania.  It was 25 degrees when I left the house for my two-mile walk to work: cold, but not cold enough for long johns, I figured.

But by the halfway point a stiff wind had come up and, with it, a sudden drop in temperature.  When I reached the school parking lot, I wasn’t all that surprised to find it empty and the front doors locked.

This was before the advent of cell phones or any other form of instant communication at our disposal today.  I would find out later that I’d left my house just moments before someone at the school had called me to say it was cancelled for the day.

Anyway, there I stood, locked out of the school building, shivering, already chilled deeply, regretting my choice not to wear long johns, when I remembered that Ron lived just around the corner.  So I walked to his house and knocked on his door.  The thermometer on the porch read 10 degrees.

A few seconds later Ron opened his door, with an expression of dismay on his face.  He was in his bathrobe.  “What are you doing out there?” he asked.  “Come in, before you catch your death!”

So I did.  Gladly!  And he proceeded to make a pot of coffee while I called my wife to explain I might not be home for a little while but I’m okay, just gonna warm up for a bit at Ron’s.

Then, of all things, on the old VHS together Ron and I watched The Muppet Movie while we sipped our coffees and allowed our conversation to meander like that great river in ancient Greece.

Such was our friendship!

Until some years later, when I called Ron on the phone to hash out some inner theological battle I was having over the sacraments.

“Ron,” I said finally, coming to my point, “so I’ve left the Baptist church and joined the Presbyterian.  Our girls will be baptized on Pentecost Sunday.  I’d love if you could be there.”

There was only silence on the other end.  Uncomfortable, awkward silence.

“Ron,” I finally addressed, “what is it?”

And then he said the last thing I wanted to hear.  “Tim,” he said, “I don’t see how our friendship can ever be the same again.”

Turns out the vital bond holding our friendship together was our shared Baptist perspective.  Now that bond was severed.

Ron and I have exchanged some emails and Christmas cards since.  But that’s the last time I heard his voice.

A friend lost.  Over something as petty as a denominational difference.  Did I count the cost of this when I signed up to be a disciple?

Perhaps a better question to ask: Did I even have a choice?

This scenario brings up an interesting nuance in counting the cost of discipleship.  Ron and I no longer share the friendship we once did.  Our bond of friendship was severed over our ideological differences.  But it wasn’t my fault.  If it were solely up to me, Ron and I would still be bosom buddies today.  I was the passive party in the severing; Ron the active.

These things happen when we follow Jesus.  Our faith interferes with our friendships and family relationships.  Our faith interferes with the bonds we form with our things, our material possessions.  We need to understand that.  We need to count that cost.

But how active should we be in severing these bonds?

Let’s explore this nuance.

Jesus says that unless we hate family members, friends, and possessions we cannot be his disciple.  Does that mean, then, that I actively cut off ties with family members and friends because they don’t share the same perspectives as I do?

I’m an Episcopalian.  So, what if I have family members who are Roman Catholic?  If they visit me on a Sunday, they’re more than welcome to come to this Table and participate in Communion with me; but if it’s the other way around—if I go to visit them on a Sunday—I can’t take Communion, at least according to Catholic canon.  Thus, what does this mean for me?  Do I never attend church with them again?  Do I stop visiting them at religious holidays?  Do we agree never to talk about religion when we’re together?

So, change up the scenario a little bit.  I’m an Episcopalian.  What if the friends or family members go to one of those fundamentalist churches, one of those churches that says only born again Christians are going to heaven; and they drop continual hints that they really don’t think I’m born again?  What kinds of bonds and to what extent do I actively sever then?

Or what if a friend or family member wants to make politics a moral issue—that it is a moral imperative for me, he says, as a Christian to vote for one candidate or the other?  (The name doesn’t matter.  I’ve heard moral-imperative arguments for both sides!)

Now take it a step further.  What if my friends or family members are Mormon?  What if they’re Atheist?

It’s going to happen: I will experience differences and divisions because of my faith.  But should I be active in severing the ties that bind?

Ron thought he had to cut ties with me over a different Protestant perspective—two denominations within the same vein!

On a much larger scale, recall the ugly history of the Christian church.  In 16th– and 17th-century England, for instance, Roman Catholics burned hundreds of Protestants at the stake; and there was a lengthy civil war started and perpetuated by Protestant Puritans.

And what’s been happening in recent times?  One group doesn’t like another; so they actively break away and form their own, new denomination.

Is this what Jesus wants us to do as his disciples?  Is this what he means by hating father, mother, brother, sister, and so on?  Is this what it means to bear his cross and count the cost?

The Christian way, it seems, has been antithesis.  We see something we don’t like or that we don’t agree with and we say, well, Christ called us to hate sister and brother, so we should actively wipe the dust off our feet and move on.  We’ll start our own thing, a thing we like better, a thing more aligned with our perspective.  This has been the Christian way.

But is this Jesus Christ’s way?

Not too long ago we heard that Jesus sent his disciples ahead of him out into Samaritan villages.  Jesus knew ahead of time that his disciples would be opposed ideologically, that the mission would most likely fail.  If Jesus had wanted actively to sever bonds with these Samaritans, he most surely would not have sent his disciples on this mission.  But he did.

Christian history is replete with active division, discord, even hatred.  But Jesus Christ’s way is about reconciliation, forgiveness, giving others the benefit of the doubt, and loving our enemies.

Jesus Christ’s way is active love.

This, then, strikes me as the cost of discipleship, the cross that we are called to bear:

Be passive in hate; active in love.