Holy Tuesday Reflection: The Currency of Our Kingdom

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To read: Mark 12:13-17, Romans 12:1-2

I got a new credit card this morning in the mail.  It is white with silver lettering.  The horse and chariot of Wells Fargo gallop across it above an American Express logo.  It certainly looks pretty and somewhat majestic.  It even has one of those space agey computer chips on it to remind me that the world of Star Trek is but a breath away.

But the interesting thing about this credit card, from a historical standpoint, is not what image is on it but what image is not.  For millenia the various governments of the world have proudly stamped their image on our money to remind us of their sovereign authority.  Instead mine now has a corporation’s logo on it.  There is probably a PhD thesis to be written about the fact that corporations’ images now line our currency instead of politicians’.

Be that as it may, after I went to activate my new card online, I realized my old card had a balance.  So in one or two clicks I paid it off and cleared my debts, giving to Visa that which belonged to Visa, giving to Wells Fargo that which belonged to Wells Fargo.

It was a fitting practice to perform right before returning to Mark 12 where a second group takes a stab at trying to trap Jesus in his words.  The Chief Priests, who I wrote about yesterday, were very forward, almost blunt.  The Pharisees, living up to their reputation, are much more conniving.  They try flattery first to get Jesus feeling comfortable before they blindside him with a question.  I enjoy the CEB’s interpretation of the verse:

“Teacher, we know that you’re genuine and you don’t worry about what people think. You don’t show favoritism but teach God’s way as it really is. Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay taxes or not?” Mark 12:14

I have no idea what favoritism or teaching God’s way or genuineness has to do with paying taxes and Jesus doesn’t seem to either.  Jesus also seems to know what Minna Antrim would later say, “Between flattery and admiration flows a river of contempt.”

Seeing right through them, Jesus asks for a coin, refers to Caesar’s image on it and blandly says, “So then give to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”  Put more simply, “Pay your bills.  Clear you debts and then give everything else to God.”

I wrote a couple weeks ago that the image of God is written on us.  After all we were created in it.  So when we sacrifice ourselves to God, we give to God that which belongs to God.  We are the currency of God’s kingdom, a kingdom without money but nevertheless with great power.

But Jesus’ reply also looks forward to his own crucifixion, that moment where he became a dead sacrifice, completely sold out to God’s mission and God’s kingdom.  On the cross, a very Roman and very Caesar cross, Jesus gave us the ultimate example of one who gave to Caesar that which belonged to Caesar and to God that which belonged to God.  Jesus became our currency.

The Pharisees were hoping to trap Jesus in treason, a feat the Chief Priests later accomplished through the clever use of the word and metaphor of “king” before Pilate.  But the Pharisees’ clever question in the temple only succeeded in foretelling that which was coming, the moment when Jesus as “the image of the invisible God” would give back to God that which belonged to God, the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world.

But we, who also bear God’s image, would do well to remember that the cross doesn’t exactly let us off the hook.  Remember our call is to pick up our crosses and follow Jesus, becoming living sacrifices who are no longer conformed to the patterns and images of Caesar or Wells Fargo or Visa or Master Card  and their worlds but are transformed by the renewing of our minds into people who know and do God’s pleasing and perfect will.

Dear heavenly father, we who bear your image give ourselves to you again today that we may know and follow your perfect will for us. 

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Holy Saturday Reflection: Watching and Waiting

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It is partly cloudy and bit cold outside, with sporadic sunshine dancing across the street on which I live.

This morning my son woke me up around 7am.  His sister awoke about an hour later.  I made my family pancakes, fixed a flat tire, cleaned up fallen branches and pushed my children on their swings in the backyard.  My wife is currently at a book study that would have happened on any other Saturday.

This could be any other Saturday in April, and for many outside Christianity, and regrettably many Christians, this is.

Yet on this Saturday we wait and we watch.  After all, Holy Saturday is unique in the list of Holy days.  The gospel narratives barely include it.  Mark, the lectionary gospel for this year, gives us no narrative account of the Saturday between the crucifixion and the resurrection.  It simply skips over it with the words in 16:1, “When the Sabbath was over.”

We have no idea where the disciples were on Saturday or what they did.  We know that the women waited, but there is no reason to believe it was a passive waiting.  They probably went about the business of a regular Sabbath, while trying to reconcile their memories of Jesus with his bitter end.  If they were around today, they would probably be playing with my children in my backyard, or at the book study with my wife.  They might be smiling and laughing but their smiles would quickly turn to grief as the sunshine outside my window quickly turns back to clouds.

So today we are left alongside these women.  We do not fully understand the cross, even after 2,000 years and we do not fully grasp why God had to die.  We are struggling to stay happy after the terrible revelation that God lived among us and we killed God.

Yet as we wait, we hope for Sunday morning.  We may not know exactly what we are hoping for.  For many of us, it will just be the paltry end to our Lenten fast.  Others of us look forward to signing all five verses of “In Christ Alone” again.  .  .and again.  Others of us look forward to the Easter ham.

But whatever we hope for this morning, while we wait with the women, we gather our burial spices together and prepare to go honor our fallen Messiah, wondering who might pull back the stone for us.  .  .

Good Friday Reflection: What Kind of God?

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When my wife and I were still dating, I was visiting her parents for Thanksgiving.  There I found a book called “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel.  It looked interesting enough, so I read it and was blown away by it.  It is still one of my favorite books.

Towards the beginning, Yann writes about a young Hindu boy named Pi wandering into a Catholic Cathedral and searching the paintings for a depiction of the Catholic God.

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He sees a painting of women crying and angels hovering overhead and a dove.  He studies it awhile, trying to figure out which one of these creatures is “The God.”  Then his eyes rest on the crucifix and slowly it dawns on him, “This is their God.”

Little Pi finds that idea both horrific and magnetic.  Pi tells us, “If the Son is to die, it cannot be fake.  If God on the Cross is God shamming a human tragedy, it turns the Passion of Christ into the farce of Christ.  The death of the Son must be real.  And Father Martin assured me it was.  But once a dead God, always a dead God, even when resurrected.  The Son must always have the taste of death forever in His mouth.  The Trinity must be tainted by it; there must be a certain stench at the right hand of God our Father.” (Life of Pi, 68)

This poetic paragraph captures the harrowing irony at the heart of our faith, that our God died.  Whatever it means to die (whether going to hell, Hades, nonexistence, becoming a ghost, separation, etc) our God experienced.  And by going all the way to death and descending all the way to where dead souls go, God redeemed all death and all life.

That experience of death is now integral to the Trinity.  God dying was not a tangent theology in our faith.  It was not a fun little story to tell our kids every Spring.  Nor was it a silly business transaction that was soon forgotten amidst all the other heavenly business.  Instead, it was a world altering, earth shattering event.  It forever changed the way we relate to God and the way we relate to each other and even the rest of Creation.

But the irony goes deeper than that.  Our God didn’t just die.  We killed him.  One of the great ironies of the Christian proclamation is that the Creator of the entire universe lived among us.  He walked where we walk and talked like we talk.  But He did it all in the right way.  He lived a perfect, sinless, authentic life.  .  .and we killed him.

If you read the gospels you find we mostly killed him out of envy and fear.  We were scared he might take over and depose us.  We were envious because he had more followers and could do cool magic tricks.  And so we killed him before He could do any real harm to our fragile egos.

And yet, in the killing, in the death, we accidentally crowned him King!  After all, the crown (albeit of thorns), the purple robe and the sign above his head on the cross are all typical markers of a coronation.  The trial and crucifixion, read another way, are the movements of a coronation ceremony.  So, scared that Jesus just might become King, we killed Him and in so doing, made Him King.  It is quite the irony.

And it is this irony we celebrate today.  Our God has come.  Our God has died.  We killed our God.  But in so doing we unleashed the very power of love to all creation.

Today as we join little Pi in our churches and stare up at the cross wondering, “Could this really be God?” and as we wonder at the love that held Him there, while certainly calling to mind our own sinfulness, may that almighty grace flow forth from the King who forgives, who reconciles, who redeems and who gives out eternal and abundant life!

Holy Wednesday Reflection: Dead Fig Trees

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Today is Holy Wednesday.  Wikipedia also calls it “Spy Wednesday,” having something to do with Judas agreeing to betray Jesus.  Another blog I read calls it “Holy and Great Wednesday,” reminding me that today the Eastern Orthodox church commemorates the poor women who anointed Jesus with her tears.

Yet the rest of my Facebook feed and Twitter account are talking about another “holy” day, namely April Fool’s Day, a ridiculous day I try to ignore.  In it pranks are played for the sake of St. Fool’s or something like.  Maybe it is one of those national holidays where we remember those who have died defending our country, or maybe this is an ironic “Child Appreciation Day.”

But all week I have been wanting to write or talk about the one prank Jesus played in Mark.  It was on a poor, unsuspecting fig tree that was just starting to bloom.  Today seems as fitting as any to discuss it.

For those of you who are not familiar with the story, on Palm Sunday Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and people got all excited.  Then Jesus looked around and went back out to Bethany.  The next day he walked into Jerusalem and the text tells us he was hungry.  He saw a fig tree in the distance and it was blooming like crazy so he ran over to see if there were some figs to eat.  There weren’t any because fruit comes in the Summer and Passover is in Spring.  So Jesus got angry and cursed it.

The next day, Tuesday morning, Jesus was again walking into Jerusalem and his disciples noticed the tree was dead.  Jesus used the opportunity to lecture them about the power of faith and prayer or something like that.

The fig tree doesn’t come up again until Mark 13:28.  Jesus is in the middle of a long discourse about the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.  He tells them to remember the lesson of the fig tree, that when it blooms it signals the nearness of summer.  Yet when that tree bloomed it signaled its imminent destruction.

So many scholars hold quite firmly that the fig tree is a living metaphor for the city of Jerusalem.  Its destruction is an early warning sign of Jerusalem’s fate.

The fig tree calls to mind Micah 7:1-2 where the prophet teaches that Jerusalem is like a fig tree with tons of leaves but no fruit.  One scholar even suggested the “leaves” calls to mind Palm Sunday.  The people came out and waved their branches for Jesus, but no fruitfulness came about because of it.

This is all further solidified by the fact that the temple curtain was torn in two when Jesus died, a sign that Jerusalem was no longer the center of worship but that God’s spirit was being blown to all parts of the world.

Killing fig trees and destroying cities and ripping temple curtains is very dark stuff, especially on a bright and sunny day usually devoted to harmless pranks.  Yet it is important in Holy Week to remember that the teachings of Jesus in Jerusalem were dark. Jesus spends much time talking about how horrific the imminent destruction of Jerusalem would be.  He calls it the “desolating sacrilege” and describes brother betraying brother to death.  And indeed the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans only 40 years later was as horrific as Jesus described.

But the destruction of the temple in 69AD by the Romans did not hold back the presence of the Holy Spirit, for the Holy Spirit had all ready gone out from that place into the known world.

So it came about that the death of the fig tree that would not bear fruit caused much fruitfulness the world over.

As we draw nearer to the cross, to the great destruction of Jesus’ body, which itself is a temple, as we join in the suffering, the humiliation, the complete vulnerability of our God, may we know that Easter morning is about to triumph over the darkness and destruction and blow us to all parts of the world to bear much fruit.

See you all tomorrow for Maundy Thursday.