Good Teacher?

Preachers have only now begun to recuperate after yesterday’s triennial tap-dance around the divorce text when a young rich man comes running up to Jesus, falls at his feet, and cries out, “Good teacher.”  Good teacher?  Did he not hear what went down earlier in Mark 10?  Good teacher?  Is he not aware of what Jesus is about to do to him and to preachers for the next several thousand years?  Good teacher?

After a quick rebuke from Jesus, the rich man, seemingly no longer on the ground in front of Jesus, puffs up his chest, removes the good from his title and goes to to proudly claim that he has kept all of the commandments since his youth.  Good God man!?! Who in their right mind would make such a claim?  And yet, he does.  He boldly suggests that he has been able to keep all 10 of the Big-uns for as long as he’s been in control of his actions.  Good for him.

Jesus, no longer the good teacher, but now the teacher that the rich man needed, tells him that even in his faithfulness to the law, he is lacking something.  It seems it is that pesky first commandment.  You know, the one about having no other gods but God.  It seems the rich man has hoarded his wealth.  His possessions are his idol – his riches, his god – and so, if he is truly committed to living faithfully in the Kingdom of God, he must give it all up, give all his money to the poor, and follow Jesus.  In the words of old Hank Williams, Jr.

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That ain’t good, at all

It is easy, and quite tempting on the heels of last week’s text, to make this not-so-good teaching from Jesus exclusive to the rich man.  It’s be easier to say, “Jesus wanted him to sell everything, but Jesus didn’t understand late-stage capitalism, and you’re good.”  But, well, that’s probably not all true.  It would be difficult, and maybe a little tempting in a world built on scarcity, to say, “Yep, Jesus meant this for everyone.  To follow Jesus, you’ll have to sell it all, give it to the church (because the church is surely poor).”  But, that’s probably not all true either.

What the teacher, who we know to be good, seems to be saying to the rich man and to us, is that we do all kinds of bending over backwards to make sure God isn’t the God of everything in our lives.  We like to make it look like we’ve got this faith thing together, like we trust in Jesus, and like we are living in the Kingdom of God, but the hard reality is that all of us struggle to keep from making something else the god of our lives.  It might not be money for you.  It might be power, drugs, success, soccer practice, feelings, politics, or your resume.  There might be any number of things that are clamoring for you to hold on tight, lest God might come into your life and change your priorities.  What Jesus is inviting that rich man to experience is truth faith, letting go of everything he thought he could control, and trust fully in God.

That’s a teaching that might be hard, but it really is good.

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A growing list

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There is a well worn trope, whenever the 10 Commandments come around, for the preacher to stand before her/his congregation and say, “I must confess that I have violated one of the ten commandments.”  Their congregation gets itchy, assuming, of course, that it is the adultery or stealing bit, but then everybody gets a laugh when the preachers says, “I’m not great at keeping the Sabbath.”  Every time the 10 Commandments comes around, I think of the sermons I have heard start in just that way, and I chuckle while I roll my eyes.

This year, as I read the Commandments that God gave to Moses, the basic tenants of living in the Kingdom of God, I realized that I think my list of 10 Commandment failures is growing.  The Sabbath is nigh on impossible in 21st century America, but I am probably guilty of my fair share of coveting as well.  If Jesus is right, and holding anger against a brother or sister is equivalent to murder, well, I’ve probably done that too.  This might be the most popular sin in the social media culture in which we live.  Above all else, however, I know that my chief sin is the sin of idolatry.  In that way, I guess I’m more Pauline than I’ve ever realized as the entire Letter to the Romans deals with the human proclivity toward idolatry.

Anyway, this isn’t a post about Romans, but rather a realization that there are so many things in this world that would be a god in my life.  My to-do list is high on that list.  My desire to make things right.  My wish that others would live by the same set of rules that I try to live by (I’m looking at you people who park in the fire lane at the grocery store and clog up the flow of traffic in an already to small parking lot).  Wanting to be liked, to do my job well.  Excellence.  Me.

It being Lent, when 10 Commandments week rolls around, it seems like a good opportunity to do this sort of self-examination, so long as repentance follows shortly thereafter.  That’ll be my prayer this week.  For you as well as myself.  That the 10 Commandments might give us a chance to reflect on the ways in which we fall short of God’s dream, to seek forgiveness, and to move forward in a new way, eschewing idolatry and covetousness and seeking Sabbath and God’s refreshment.

Making ourselves gods

Last year, I had the pleasure of leading a real-life Draughting Theology study of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  I had read it several times.  I had walked Romans road.  I felt like I knew the lessons embedded in Paul’s letter pretty well, but until one spends time really digging into a text, commentaries in hand, with the goal of being able to teach it, one can not even begin to fully comprehend the complexities of a Biblical book like Romans.  One of the key lessons that I learned early in my study came from Jay Sidebotham’s commentary on Romans from the Conversations with Scripture series.  The thesis, or at least one of them, of Sidebotham’s commentary is that, for Paul, the core sin of humanity is the sin of idolatry.  There are a myriad of ways in which we offer worship to something other than God, but more often than not, the focus of that attention isn’t work, money, sex, or power, but ourselves.  The most common idol that distracts our attention from God is the idol of self.

This sin is no more evident than when we judge one another.  When we judge our neighbor, we put ourselves in the place of God.  This is why, in Sunday’s Old Testament lesson, when Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt, hoping to escape a famine and full of lies, Joseph essentially cannot treat them harshly.  Instead, he makes it clear that judgement is not the purview of a faithful human.  “Am I in the place of God?”  This theme shows up in the New Testament lesson as well.  The lesson is from Romans 14 (hence the introductory paragraph to this post), and in it, Paul’s seems to wonder aloud why it is that human beings, all of whom stand under the judgment of God, work so hard at passing judgment on one another.

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This all leads to Peter’s question to Jesus in Sunday’s Gospel lesson, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?”  Jesus’ answer, which he expounds by way of a parable about an unforgiving slave, seems to broaden the expectation that we forgive rather than pass judgment beyond members of the church to all, who like us, are slaves, either of God’s grace or of the power of sin.  Forgiveness is the antithesis of judgmental idolatry because to forgive is to obey the command of God.  We don’t make the choice to forgive, which means we are not trying to control our own surroundings.  Instead, we obey by forgiving, allowing God to be God.

It seems that every year on or around the 11th of September, these lessons come back around.  Some sixteen years after the day on which terrorists attacked America, it is still tempting to put ourselves in the place of God and make judgments, not just on the men who planned and carried out these attacks, but on the entire religious system which these men perverted for their own selfish ambition.  It is hard to talk of forgiveness on September 11th, which is precisely why leaders of the Christian faith must do so.  We must warn our people of the temptation to make our country or our way of life the idol of our worship.  We must caution them against the more insidious sin in which we act as judge, thereby making ourselves as gods.  We must repeat the refrain that because we have been forgiven so much, we too must forgive, for it is not our choice to make, but the commandment of God that we humble ourselves and offer forgiveness to all who have sinned against us.

[Don’t] Trust your gut

I’ve been on the road most of the last two weeks.  New Orleans for some R&R, Beckwith for Clergy Conference, and Charleston for my brother’s Air Force retirement ceremony.  This means that I’ve been eating things that I normally wouldn’t eat in quantities I normally wouldn’t eat them.  There was the cheeseburger covered in grilled onions and bacon at 10pm, the several dozen oysters, and the Denny’s Grand Slam breakfast, just to name a few.  The worst idea came last night, however.  I was stopped for the night somewhere between here and there at one of those chain steak restaurants when the waitress gave me a choice I should have refused.

“Do you want a 12 or 16 ounce New York Strip?”

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This is terrible advice

I went with the 16, and I’ve regretted it ever since.  In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Luke tells us that Jesus told a parable to those who “trusted in themselves.”  This too is a terrible idea.  When we try to trust in ourselves, we are bound to make all sorts of powerful missteps.

In the real life Draughting Theology, we are studying Paul’s letter to the Romans, which has at its core this idea that the primary sin of humanity is idolatry.  Not that we worship other gods, but that we put ourselves in the place of God.  When we trust ourselves to know what is right and to do it, we, more often than not, put our own desires in front of God’s.  We put ourselves at the center, do what’s best for us, and like me trusting my gut, must life to pay the consequences.

I’m eating Tums like they are candy, but in the spiritual realm, the only way out of trusting ourselves, is, as Jesus points out in the parable, to trust only in God’s mercy.  When we confess our tendency to make idols of ourselves, ask God to return to God’s rightful place in our lives, and put our trust in God alone, we will find life to be much more abundant.

Take it from me dear reader, don’t trust your gut.