Friday, April 02, 2010

The Marginal Messiah

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
April 2, 2010

Good Friday
Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Hebrews 10:1-25
John 18:1-19:37

The Marginal Messiah

If we didn’t know better, we would think that this is how the story ends. If we didn’t know better we would think that with the brutal death of Jesus on the Cross, the story of God reaching out to humanity had once and for all come to an end.

It’s a story truer than history, a story that began in a garden, a story that began with God seeking out human beings for friendship – God seeking to walk in love with us. But, we know how that worked out. Human beings gave into temptation and chose betrayal instead - and our relationship with God was broken.

The story of the Hebrew Scriptures is the story of God making a deal with God’s people – a covenant that God promises to never break, no matter what. But God wanted more than just a contractual relationship with the people. Over and over God appointed patriarchs and judges and prophets in a relentless but seemingly hopeless attempt to repair our broken relationship with God. And over and over God’s messengers were rejected

And the story of the New Testament is the story of God doing something truly unexpected and mind-blowing in an apparently all-out effort to repair the broken relationship with humanity. God becomes uniquely present in an individual human being, Jesus of Nazareth. When we look at Jesus we see what God is really like.
One of our Eucharistic Prayers captures beautifully Jesus’ life and ministry: “Living among us, Jesus loved us. He broke bread with outcasts and sinners, healed the sick, and proclaimed good news to the poor. He yearned to draw all the world to himself. Yet we were heedless of his call to walk in love.”

“Yet we were heedless of his call to walk in love.” Beautiful language for the very ugly scene we just heard described in John’s Gospel. This was the last of the four gospels, written near the end of the First Century, a couple of generations after the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. The gospel was written for a community that was now faced with an excruciating choice. For the first few decades after Jesus’ earthly lifetime it had been possible for Jewish believers in Jesus to continue to worship in the synagogue. For those first few decades it was possible to both Jewish and Christian.

But by the end of the First Century both Judaism and Christianity were changing. The Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans, believers in Jesus were increasingly claiming that he was divine, and meanwhile more and more non-Jews were discovering Jesus and seeing him not only as the Jewish messiah but the messiah for the whole world.

And so near the end of the First Century the Jewish followers of Jesus faced a choice. Continue to follow Jesus and cut themselves off from Jewish life or reject Jesus and remain in the faith tradition of their ancestors.

You can imagine just how difficult that choice must have been.

I mention this little history lesson because for most of Christian history parts of the Gospel of John – and most especially the Passion – have been used to justify Christian anti-Semitism.

And so each time we read these scriptures it is necessary to remind ourselves of the context in which they were written. The Jesus movement began as a Jewish movement and the Gospel of John was written by Jews, to Jews and for Jews.

And so the later “Christian” idea that the Jewish people bear collective responsibility for the death of Jesus would have been incomprehensible to the author of the gospel and its first readers and hearers.

However, the author of the gospel and the first readers and hearers of the gospel certainly mourned the tragedy of what happened to Jesus. After God took the risk to reveal God’s Self in Jesus, after all the teaching and the healing and the miracles, we end up once again with God betrayed by humanity in a garden. More than that, we end up with God buried in a garden.

You have to admit that if we were writing an opera or a novel this would be an intensely sad and immensely powerful ending.

If we didn’t know better we’d think this is how the story ends.

But let’s back up and look more closely at these betrayals. It’s easy to explain the temptation that led to the betrayal in the Garden of Eden, isn’t it? You know the story; God says all of this is yours, except for the fruit of this one tree. I remember back in my teaching days, when students were taking exams they would not be allowed to use the bathroom or to get a drink from the water fountain. There were always a few students who would immediately fixate on these reasonable prohibitions – maybe because they wanted to cheat or more likely just because they wanted what was forbidden.

We all know about that kind of temptation, and maybe we know about the betrayal that can come if we give into that kind of temptation.

But why the betrayal of Jesus?

The Gospel of John doesn’t have anything good to say about Judas. He’s described as a thief, as someone who pretends to be interested in the poor. In the end, though, the explanation we’re given for Judas’ betrayal of his Lord is that “Satan entered into him.” Satan the tempter enters Judas and he acts out the old, old story of human beings giving in to temptation and betraying God.

What was the temptation for Judas? Maybe Judas wanted Jesus to be a different kind of messiah. Maybe Judas wanted Jesus to boldly challenge and overthrow the Romans and the Temple Priests and to create his kingdom here and now on earth.

If that’s the case, then the real temptation for Judas was to see the world his way and not the way God sees the world. Maybe Judas’ downfall was remaining too focused on what the world saw as central – the Roman imperial regime and the powerful Jewish priestly class. But, God’s focus is different.

It turns out that when we look to the margins we find the heart of God.
God chose to enter the world on the margins. The priest and scholar John Meier has referred to Jesus as “a marginal Jew.” Jesus was raised in Galilee – an agricultural land given to the humble work of growing of grapes and olives, to fishing and to the herding of sheep. The sophisticated people in Jerusalem saw the Galileans as backward country bumpkins – easy to identify because of their funny accent. The way the world saw it, Jerusalem was the center and Galilee was on the margins.
God enters the world through this marginal Jew with a funny accent, Jesus of Nazareth. Born under circumstances that must have provoked lots of gossip, Jesus spent most of his earthly lifetime on the margins – growing up and beginning his ministry in Galilee, reaching out to the other marginal people, the fishermen, the shepherds, the women, the tax collectors, the blind, the ill. Jesus is the marginal messiah.

When we look to the margins we find the heart of God.

Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus doesn’t have much to do with those the world considers central. Instead Jesus lifts up those the world dismisses as marginal.
In the Beatitudes Jesus lifts up the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted. Jesus says in the kingdom, in God’s way of seeing the world, these are the people who are central. The world dismisses them as marginal, but it’s when we look to the margins that we find the heart of God.

The world sees accumulating wealth and possessions as absolutely central. But when a man who had obeyed the commandments asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus told him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Not a common view, to be sure. When we look to the margins we find the heart of God.

The world teaches hate your enemy, hold a grudge, and seek revenge on those who hurt you. And yet just a few weeks ago here in church we once again heard the familiar parable of the Prodigal Son. The way the world sees things, the father in that story should have shut the door in the face of the disgraceful son who had gone off and wasted his inheritance. Instead, when the father spots his lost son approaching in the distance, Jesus tells us, “he was filled with compassion; he ran out and put his arms around him and kissed him.”

The world would have condemned the son as a loser, leaving him to rot at the margins of society. Yet, when we look to the margins we find the heart of God.

In much of the world today, half of humanity is seen as marginal. At best women are at best second-class citizens and at worst women are reduced to handing over control of their lives to fathers and husbands. Yet, two thousand years ago the gospels tell us that Jesus the marginal messiah treated women with great respect and friendship. He engaged in conversation with – and revealed his identity to – the Samaritan woman at the well. When the crowd was willing to stone the woman caught in adultery, Jesus instead challenged the men who would condemn her and offered mercy to the woman.
The sisters Mary and Martha were two of his closest friends and, of course, there was Mary Magdalene. On Sunday once again we will hear the story of Mary Magdalene, the apostle to the apostles. Then as now women were on the margins of society. And over and over, Jesus lifts up what the world dismisses as marginal.

When we look to the margins we find the heart of God.

If God owned a newspaper or a cable news network I believe God would open news bureaus in all the marginal places. There would be news bureaus in Camden; in Port-au-Prince; in Flint, Michigan; in a refugee camp in Sudan; in a small mining town in Appalachia; and maybe even a few blocks away, right here in Madison, where poor people are hidden away, crammed into tiny apartments.

When we look to the margins we find the heart of God.

So, what about us? Let’s face it; living here we are some of the most fortunate people in the world. Does this mean that we buy into what the world considers to be central? Or, although we are fortunate enough to live here, are we willing to look to the margins? Are we willing to even try to see the world how God sees the world? Or do we give into the temptation to just see the world our way?

If we see as central what the world sees as central then just like Judas we fall to temptation and betray Jesus, the marginal messiah.

If we don’t even try to see the world how God sees the world, if we don’t even try to look to the margins, then we fall to temptation and join with Judas in betraying Jesus, the marginal messiah.

“Living among us, Jesus loved us. He broke bread with outcasts and sinners, healed the sick, and proclaimed good news to the poor. He yearned to draw all the world to himself. Yet we were heedless of his call to walk in love.”

If we didn’t know better we would think this is how the story ends. But we know the story doesn’t end at the tomb. We know that God’s not done reaching out to us. We know that God’s not done trying to heal the broken relationship with us. We know on Sunday morning we’ll gather with Mary Magdalene in the garden and make the joyful discovery that Jesus has conquered death.

But for now let’s mourn all the times we’ve looked away from the margins. Let’s mourn all the times we’ve been heedless of Jesus’ call to walk in love. For now, let’s mourn our betrayal of Jesus, the marginal messiah.