God’s Bloody Hands 3: Giving Peace - thrive UMC Official Blog

God’s Bloody Hands 3: Giving Peace

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Luke 19:45-48, 20:20-26; 21:1-4

Through Lent, we’re taking a look at the story of Jesus in Jerusalem –and not just the sequence of events by themselves; but we’re going to see how the story of Jesus completely redefines how we listen and tell the rest of our stories. And that, by the way, is at least a part of what makes the biblical story sacred: it’s sacred, in part, because the stories and writings of the Bible can teach us how to approach and interpret all other stories.  And I mean all of them.

Now, last week, we introduced the clash Jesus was having with the salvation story, or the peace story, of his disciples in Jerusalem.  He came into town, and he had all of these people who were excited for him to arrive.  They were all out there, chanting out a psalm together, throwing their coats down on the ground, and calling him king.  On the surface, everything was great: this looked exactly like the story everyone was hoping for.  But then Jesus starts crying for Jerusalem.  And Jesus starts crying because there’s something wrong with their salvation story they’re telling –there’s something wrong about their approach to peace.  And what was wrong with the way they were telling their peace story?  It was that they thought God was going to save them through a bloody, violent revolution.

This brings us to today.  Today we’re going to start to talk about the salvation story Jesus was introducing and bringing to life.  But to do that in the morning’s allotted time, we’re only going to be able to highlight a few key points in the text instead of reading it all together.  And I’m going to highlight those sections, so that when you read the 20th and 21st chapters of Luke on your own this week, you’ll know what’s going on.  Personally, I think these are really amazing things going on in these chapters –and they’re also the key for understanding how the disciples’ blessings for Jesus turned into a deadly curse, and it’s the key for recognizing a deadly danger we face as Christians today.

So, knowing that there was an entire crowd cheering him on as King, what made them want to kill him only a short time later?  Let’s read and find out!  We’ll pick up right where we left off last week: in the 19th chapter of Luke, starting in verse 45.

[Read Luke 19:45-45]

That is it.  It sounds like Jesus has been in town for about 5 minutes, and already people are wanting him dead.  “The chief priests, the legal experts, and the foremost leaders among the people were seeking to kill him.” For the record, none of the leaders or holy figures really liked Jesus before this –they’d had a number of run-ins before, which had not gone well; but this is where the murder plot really picks up.

So what did Jesus do?  He simply threw out the people who were selling stuff.  That was pretty much all it took.  It wasn’t his teaching, at this point –the text doesn’t even mention the stuff he’d been talking about –it only says he threw out the sellers and says “It’s written, My house will be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of crooks.’

And then suddenly all the leaders of Jerusalem are all like, ‘this guy is dead!’

But most normal folks don’t want to kill people they just disagree with, right?  Usually, we want to kill people because they threaten something that’s important to us.  And here Jesus is messing with the entire power-structure of the Jewish Temple.  That’s the central theme throughout the 20th and 21st chapters of Luke: he’s dismantling their religious and political systems of control.

We don’t need to get into all of the details of it today, but the general gist of their system is this: in order to be okay by God, you have to do certain things –and not do other certain things.  In short, you had to obey the laws.  By the time of Jesus’s day, there were over 600 individual laws:  600 different proscriptions of God saying ‘thou shalt’ and ‘thou shalt not.’ And all of these were found in the Hebrew Bible, which is more commonly known to us today as ‘The Old Testament.’  Obviously, that’s a lot to know, let alone be responsible for.  So, for your average person, who was illiterate at the time, you’re probably in trouble right?  If your crops aren’t growing, or your kids are sick, or your neighbors are giving you a hard time –it must mean you’ve done something to upset God.  You must’ve missed one of the laws… or maybe 500 of them.   Now, if God is upset with you, what do you do?

Well, you made a sacrifice, of course.  This was true for just about everybody –everybody participating in any kind of religious system around the world at that time, the answer was the same:  whether Greek, Egyptian, Hindu, Roman, Chinese, Mayan, or Jewish, the response for your ordinary citizen was to offer a sacrifice.  Meaning, you had to pay something to the spiritual forces at work in the world in order to get them to stop punishing or ignoring you, usually through a clerical person.  And although there were a lot of things that made the ancient Jewish people unique in the way they approached their sacrifice, the economy of how it worked was very similar to other cultures.  And it isn’t hard to imagine how it may have become the default response if something wasn’t going well for people.  If they weren’t experiencing peace, they would often try a sacrifice.  Your business is failing?  Offer a sacrifice.  Your kid is weird?   Offer a sacrifice.  You’re having a bad day –offer a sacrifice.  Haven’t made a sacrifice in a while?  Offer a sacrifice!

Now, that probably sounds a little crazy to us, right? Maybe a little ‘primitive?’  Maybe a little bad at math –like ‘hey, I just killed 16 people; but uh, here’s an ox –so we’re cool now, right?’  Because, obviously, what good will killing an animal do to help your crops grow?   Unless, of course,  you’re sacrificing gophers or whatever that might be digging up and eating  them –which, in most cases, was not what they were doing.  Otherwise, scientifically, there’s no connection.  So when we usually hear about all of this sacrifice today, we’re like ‘pshh –crazy old people: that’s why you’re dead and we invented the internet.’

But let me ask you this really quick: have you ever had a terrible day –maybe your boss or a coworker was being a terrible person –and then when you got off work, you immediately went and grabbed a beer, or quart of ice cream, or went out and bought something you like?   Anyone ever done that?  Question 2: will any of those things solve the problem of your boss or co-worker being a terrible person?  Even a little bit maybe?  Do you ever think: ‘with every spoonful of Ben n’ Jerry’s Rodney’s soul will be ever-so-slightly brightened!’?  Of course not, because that’s how crazy people think!  But I bet you do hope it will lighten your soul, don’t you?  It might sound kind of silly to say it that way, but we do buy a lot of stuff simply because we hope it will make us feel better, don’t we?  That’s why Snuggies exist.  Because sometimes a blanket isn’t enough –sometimes you need a blanket that also gives you a hug.  And that’s why we keep our households stocked with things like beer and ice-cream: we know that, nutritionally speaking, these foods are terrible for us.  They don’t contribute positively to our bodily health –but we consume them for their soothing effects.  And, in our contemporary case, there’s an economy of pleasure that we’re feeding.  All of us have parts of our jobs we hate, so we use the fruits of our labors to exchange for things that give us pleasure.  And we do this as a way to exercise control over our circumstances.  We might not be able to control how we spend our time and energy during the week, but we can manipulate things around us to bring us pleasure, right?  In short, that becomes how we justify ourselves –the garbage we go through at work, but also the frivolous stuff we do to try to make ourselves feel better.

And that was also a big part of how the ancient sacrifices were supposed to work: they didn’t just kill the animal, but in a lot of the cases, they also ate them together, as a community.  What made it a ‘sacrifice’ was that they were using their personal property to provide the luxury of meat for more than themselves, particularly the priests.  And so this was a gift for the collective; but it could also be used as a way to barter with the Divine, so people could get their way and feel at peace with God, and one another, and especially themselves. Of course, if you worshiped the Hebrew God in Jesus’ day, there was only one place in the world to make such a sacrifice: at the temple in Jerusalem.  So people would travel there, from all over, in an effort to get their lives in order and find their peace with God.  And since they had so many travelers, and since taking the sacrificial animals, like doves, sheep and oxen, would have been an added encumbrance for their long journeys, there was a market and tables for currency exchange, right there on temple grounds.  All for the sake of convenience, of course.  Sure, sure: the animals there may cost a little extra –but hey, where are you going to get animals this holy somewhere else, eh?

But as soon as Jesus gets there, and runs them all out. ‘This is supposed to be a house of prayer!’ Jesus says.  Pack up your money-bags and split.  And it doesn’t explicitly say this, but that may have been the end of the sacrifices that day.

In reaction, through the next couple of chapters, the political and religious leaders of Jerusalem try to come up with ways to trick and trap Jesus. They were hoping he’d say something that would cause him to lose favor with the people, or that he’ll say something that will get him arrested; but he doesn’t.  Slyly, he shuts down their threats and he calls them thieves, bandits, and frauds.

And skipping ahead, we’ll see how the public exchange ends.  This is from Luke 20:45, through 21:4.

[Read Luke 20:45-21:4]

Most of the time when these texts are read in church, they’re split up so that you won’t see the connection between the bit about scribes cheating widows out of their homes, and the widow he watches giving away her last coins.  Usually churches like to lift up this story which they call the ‘widow’s mite’ as a saintly example of faithful giving to the church.  And Jesus certainly doesn’t stop her, so maybe he is glad about her gift –I don’t know.  But, on the other hand, her gift might also be a sign of the broken system of the Temple.  Here we are with guys in fancy, long robes running around being honored and well-fed, while there are those who are the most helpless and vulnerable apparently giving themselves into destitution.  And her gift is a testimony to its dysfunction.

Now, here’s where you come in, because this is where the story should come to life for us –it should come to life for us in this simple question: what does God want from you?  From us?  Here we are, gathered on our holy day, hoping to get some peace.  We’re hoping to get some joy, or a tasty snack, or see our friends, or have the encouragement to maybe get our lives turned around –but what does God want from you?  God gave you a life, and all the stuff you can say you have –so what about God?

Does God need a snack?  Is God going to be homeless if you don’t write a check for the offering?  Nope. (I could be, but God will be fine.) No, one of the things that makes the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob unique is that he doesn’t eat.  We can’t feed that god.  So even in the oldest writings of the Hebrew Bible, it says the sacrifices were just a ‘pleasing smell’ to God.  Like, ‘mmmm, Bar-B-Q; that smells delicious –I wish I had a stomach!’ So is that what God wants?  For us to smell nice? To dress nice and be nice?  It’s a weird question, isn’t it –what does the God of all the universe want from us?

‘Uh, here God, here’s $20 bucks.  You could… I guess you could buy yourself a Snuggie?  They’re supposed to be one-size-fits all.’

‘Oh, thank you my child –that’s just what I always wanted!’

I mean, it’s so dumb, right –God doesn’t need stuff –it’s us that needs stuff, so let’s get back to the part about how this Christianity business makes me and my life better.  That’s always the part of the story we want to focus on and tell, isn’t it?  The part where we explain how this is good news for us.  The part that gives us good feels, so we can tell our friends, so they’ll come to church too –and then be really grateful to us for bringing them.  That way, for the rest of our friendship, I can be the one to go, ‘Never forget Billy, I was the one who introduced you to Jesus; thus, since you would have gone to hell without me, you basically owe me your life! (so you must honor me when I call ‘shotgun’).’

It’s funny, but isn’t it also tragically true?

And more importantly, isn’t that precisely the reason everything is such a mess?  Isn’t that the very name of the fatal flaw in our peace stories?  Wasn’t that where the scribes and leaders went wrong in the temple with Jesus?  And isn’t that why poor widows stay poor?  That everything about our lives begins and ends with the ever-present, omnipotent ‘I’? That all of our stories are squished and constricted between the bookends of the letters ‘m’ and ‘e.’   And all the religious rules and rituals, all of the sacrifices and sacraments, they don’t necessarily save us from having a heart just like everybody else, do they?  And sometimes the stuff we do here even helps people be jerks, doesn’t it?  I mean, have any of you ever met someone who identifies as a Christian, and goes to church and the whole bit –but when you watch them do something crazy, like not tip their waiter, they justify themselves by saying something like ‘eh, God will provide.’  Or maybe you’re out late with them on a Saturday, and they’re about to do something debaucherous, and they’re like ‘if this is a sin, I’ll just ask God to forgive me tomorrow?’  Or maybe someone will ask, ‘what’s the least I have to do to be a Christian?’

So I ask again: what does God want from you?  Is there any gift you could bring to impact the Master of a hundred billions galaxies?  And you all know how much I love to leave you all hanging with questions throughout the week, but I’m going to break my streak this time and give you a legit answer.

Yes, God wants something from you.  And yes, there is a great gift God is hoping you’ll offer up: you.  Your heart.  Love.  It’s that simple.  And this is a gift everyone has to give.  No one is left out.  It’s simple, but it is really hard.  Maybe the hardest thing.  Love God.  Love the people around you.  Love the people around you like God does.  Include God in your life.  Build a relationship with God.  God wants you.  And God has already set free, with power, to do whatever circumstances will allow you to do: God’s given you that gift.  Do something with it.  Make a difference.  Give. Give time.  Give money.  Give your attention.  Give without doing the math or looking back.  Not because you have to, but because you can and you want to.  Invest yourself in something that’s not you, and not about you.  Do what you can for those who are left out and lost, like the poor widow, so that they maybe won’t be so left out, and lost, and poor anymore.

I mean, think about this: what would happen if you made the life-commitment to pour yourself into two people outside of your family?  Just two, in the course of your whole life –and you poured yourself so deeply into those two people that they got why you were pouring yourself into them, and they turned around and poured their hearts into two more people?  Or what would happen if you invested yourself in an atmosphere of giving and thanksgiving?  Where we just drew attention to all the gifts we enjoy on a daily basis and, on all levels, shared them?  What if we just went around recognizing and sharing how the people we see around us are gifts?  And what if we gave them a chance to bring those gifts to life?  What if we just gave up score-keeping?  Could we try any of those things out with our lives?

What if we gave up our story of ‘what’s in it for me?’ and traded it in for the story ‘what’s in this to God?’  Wouldn’t our stories have to become a little bigger –a little richer, even?  Wouldn’t we have to become a little more grounded in the life we have, instead of feeling lost in the fantasies we have about the life we want?  Wouldn’t we be, just maybe, a little closer to peace?  May it be so with us.  Amen.

   

Nia
September 13th, 2015 at 12:26 am

Not too long ago I fell over a basket with a rusty nail stkciing up out of it and it literally ripped my shin open nearly to the bone. I have some sugar issues and do not heal quickly in my lower legs so I was very concerned about infection, etc. I had to get a tetanus shot and antibiotic shot. Then had to take antibiotic pills which gave me diarrhea and caused me to have problems with my hemorrhoids; which I then had to be treated for and I also had to take pain pills which made it difficult for me to function, etc. etc. You know what all of this drama made me think about? It made me think about all of the physical pain that Jesus went through on the Cross = for me! No one bandaged His wounds. No one gave Him pain killers. No one gave Him TLC or asked how they make Him more comfortable. Have you ever been injured or in pain? Crucifixion is a horrible death. I cannot even imagine the pain! And He did feel pain and SHAME!

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