Radical Preaching

Can preaching again have something to say?
This blog marks the attempt to bring the theological vision of Radical Orthodoxy into the worship and preaching of the local church.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Dangerous Times Call for Drastic Measures

I still remember the first time I discovered that the world was a dangerous place.

Aunt Sally and Lib lived up on the hill in front of my house. Aunt Sally was a retired school teacher, and Lib was her mentally challenged younger sister. By the time I was born, they both seemed ancient. Their lives revolved around snooping (reading our mail), gossiping about family and neighbors, cleaning our little Methodist church, teaching Sunday School, and raising chickens. Their house was not one of my favorite destinations: I thought it smelled funny, and they liked my brother better, anyway. I did, however, really like the chickens. When new chicks were born, I spent many hours chasing them and getting flogged by the mother hen. Finally, one day at the age of 7, I achieved my life-long goal and actually found a chick that had been abandoned by her mother. I took this chick with me and nursed her, fed her, and carried her everywhere I went. For a few days, this chick was the center of my every waking moment. After school one day, my brother, who was 2, and I were in the yard playing with the chick. When my bird tried to run away, I yelled to my brother, "Stop it." He thought I yelled, "Stomp it." And the rest of course is history. I discovered on that day that the world was a violent and dangerous place.

After the funeral procession and burial, I waited the appropriate three days, and dug my chick up to see if she had come back from the dead (A boy can always hope). The chick was still dead, and eventually my mother made me stop digging her up. I then began to devise a system so that in the future, we could prevent such tragedies. I was determined to create a world where abandoned chicks would be safe. Since my mother would not let me take the instant option of giving my brother away, I developed rules (No brothers allowed around any future chicks), I fixed a box on my bookshelf that was beyond my brother's reach (I had to go to school), I worked on my brother's enunciation (stop and stomp mean different things), and tried to think through how I could make a dangerous world safe for chickens. Dangerous times call for drastic measures.

There is a powerful temptation for us to try to make the world safe. Over the past few weeks in Waycross, we have experienced the death of a teenager in a tragic car accident, a double murder at a convenience store committed by a 17 year old, and the conviction of a high school teacher to 35 years in prison for molesting a 15 year old student. Earthquakes in Pakistan, hurricanes in Louisiana, and roadside bombs in Iraq remind us just how dangerous the world is, and our inclination is to take any steps necessary to make the world safe for ourselves and for our children. Dangerous times call for drastic measures.

Israel discovered very early in her history just how dangerous the world is. From the beginning, she was surrounded by powerful neighbors, superpowers who constantly were at war with each other and with their neighbors. By the time Jesus was born, Israel felt daily the boot of Roman oppression: foreign occupation, high taxes, and the powerful temptation to abandon the Jewish faith for the faith of the Empire. All around them, the peoples of the world began to embrace the ways of the Romans: names, customs, even practices that were odious to Jews. Faithful Jewish parents feared what would happen to their children in such a dangerous world. The Pharisees were one of the groups that emerged in an effort to make the world safe for Jews.

They knew that their survival depended on keeping their identity. That in a world gone mad, they must remember who they were and who their God was. They established a way of life based on radical adherence to the Law, attempting to integrate the Law into every facet of their daily lives so that they could be a people who were completely faithful to God. They gave their lives to learning the 613 laws of the Torah and then working out how these laws should be carried out in their daily living. The Pharisees were far from evil; they were faithful people seeking to survive in a dangerous world.

Of course, when you live in a dangerous world, you have to make difficult decisions. When your survival depends on your morality, you cannot be weak-minded or overly tolerant. You must sacrifice the individual for the good of the whole community. Thus, sinners had to be excluded. The disabled had to be excluded. The weak had to be excluded. The system put in place to make the world safer had to be carried out with zeal, or all could be lost.

To say that Jesus threatened the security of the Pharisaical system is an understatement. When he rolled into town, he performed miracles that worked to restore the excluded back into the life of the community. He cast out demons; he healed the sick; he opened the eyes of the blind, and unstopped the ears of the deaf; he touched lepers and restored them to good health; he raised the dead. He ventured into the situations and places where they could not and would not go. Even more frightening, he taught with authority, and what he taught threatened to unravel the whole system. They erected a "wall" to protect the faithful from the evil of the unfaithful, and he threatened to disassemble the wall. He did this claiming to be speaking with the authority of God. He was dangerous. In a dangerous world, he threatened to destroy the very walls that protected them, their way of life, and the future lives of their children. In dangerous times, sometimes you have to take drastic measures.

Thus, when Jesus comes to Jerusalem and enters into the Temple, the Pharisees see this as their opportunity to test him and put him in his place. They are foiled with the Herodians in an attempt to trap Jesus with a question about Caesar. They retreat, and after Jesus silences the Sadducees, they return with a new question. They bring forward their best lawyer with their best question. "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?" Whatever answer he gives will open him up to criticism. He will be put in his place.

Jesus' answer stuns them. He states that the greatest commandment is, of course, the first commandment: "You shall love the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." He adds, "And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself." And there it is. Jesus quotes to them the bedrock of Jewish faith, to which no faithful Jew could ever disagree. Jesus places himself squarely in the middle of Jewish tradition. He even connects himself to an issue dear to the Pharisees, stating, "On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets." Jesus not only places himself within orthodox Jewish faith, his answers sound like answers a Pharisee would give! However, through his actions and teachings they know he has radicalized the idea of "neighbor." Jesus' conception of love and neighbor threaten to re-narrate the entire Jewish tradition as they stretch beyond the comfortable (and safe) walls erected by the Pharisees. To follow Jesus means to enter again into a dangerous world where people get hurt and everything might be lost. To follow Jesus is to realize that life is not in our immediate control. To follow Jesus would redefine what it means to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength. In short, to follow Jesus would mean to tear down the walls and gates and risk everything to belief in God.

Jesus compounds their dilemma by asking them a question. "What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?" They answer, "The son of David." Jesus responds by quoting from Psalm 110, where David refers to the Messiah as "my Lord." Jesus asks, "If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?" The Pharisees imagine the Messiah as one in the line of David who will rule them with strength and authority as David did, restoring their place in the world and defeating their enemies. Then, through the strength of his right arm, the world will be safe again. Jesus escalates the tension by proposing that the Messiah is more than a son of David, that he is also Lord of David, meaning, of course, that the Messiah is divine. While Jesus does not declare himself to be that Messiah, the move towards this conclusion is rapidly approaching for the Pharisees and for the entire Jewish religious hierarchy. He has thwarted each of their challenges and tests. He has now raised the stakes. The authority with which he teaches is not just being spoken on behalf of God. His authority stems from his speaking as God, as the Lord of David. At this point, Matthew tells us, "And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him anymore questions." The time for talk is over. The Pharisees withdraw to plan for what comes next. Dangerous times call for drastic measures. Jesus threatens the entire system, all of Jerusalem. Caiaphas will prophetically state, "It is better for one man to die than for the entire nation to perish" (John 11:49-50).

We also live in dangerous times. We live in the post-9/11 era, where as a society we have stopped asking questions. Being threatened, we simply withdraw to construct a safe place free from danger. We buy big cars that insulate us from the noise of driving through the poor sections and mobile home parks. We buy alarm systems to protect our homes. We move to the suburbs. We build more prisons, hire more police, get bigger guns. Yet crime goes up, and our feeling of safety becomes nothing more than an illusion. As a nation, we do not ask questions about what is going on. We are willing to do anything to give us the illusion of safety. In the name of safety, we are even willing to sacrifice our sons and daughters in foreign lands to give us the illusion that the world is safer. The reality is the world is a dangerous place, despite all of our efforts to make it "safer."

As the church, we also realize that the world is dangerous, and we realize that we also must take drastic measures. But what actions do we take? What do we do?

1) We can go with the Pharisees downwards on the path of the Law.
We can continue to try to build a safe world of our own making in our own image. It will appear safe on the surface, but will remain so only by herculean effort, smoke and mirrors, and mass deception. Ultimately, death and danger will stay away only as long as we continue to sacrifice our children to death. The cost of building walls, identifying enemies and destroying them is overwhelming. Safety comes at an ever-increasing cost and will ultimately fail. As St. Paul reveals, "The end of the Law is death."

2) We can go with Christ upwards on the path of Love.
We can confess that the world is dangerous, and that we will probably lose everything, including our lives. The path of love is risky and costly. Rather than building walls to keep out thosee we fear, the path of love journeys straight into the homes of our enemies, and it is a two way street. Instead of division, there is an invitation to fellowship. Instead of the sounds of unending war, there is the sound of people singing sweetly. Instead of a road littered with broken dreams and broken lives, there is a glorious parade headed up to the cross, where we can lay down our lives, not in the worship of the illusion of safety, but with the hope of resurrection and entrance into the kingdom of God.

During the early years of slavery in North America, slave masters often sought to convert their slaves to Christianity. However, as conversions grew rapidly amongst the slaves (more rapidly than in the white community), these conversions were ordered to end. In South Carolina slaves outnumbered plantation owners by a margin of over 9:1. Church services were frequently banned, unless they could be carefully controlled. We wouldn't want slaves reading about Moses, would we? Dangerous times call for drastic measures. There is one chilling story about a group of slaves who held worship services in a barn over a wash basin filled with water. In this context, they could sing, pray, and cry out to God without fear of being heard and beaten. One day, the overseeer discovered their worship service, and with a whip violently broke up the service. Everyone ran for cover except for one man, who continued to pray while the overseer whipped him. His prayer was "Father, forgive him for he knows not what he does!"

Dangerous times call for drastic measures. Instead of being a people known for wielding the whip without questions, can we be a people able to feel the bite of the lash and still forgive our enemies? Could our drastic measures be becoming a people who trust so much in the Lord that we are willing to believe that our salvation comes from worshiping God with all of our heart, soul, and mind? Would we be a people willing to love our neighbor as ourself even if our neighbor hates us?

On a dangerous morning in a dangerous land, will you take the drastic step of coming to His table? Know that this is a dangerous journey and a dangerous meal. It is a table where questions are asked and truthful answers are given. Prejudice and hatred are present, but they are being washed away in baptism. Sin is not ignored, but it is confessed. Death is not denied, but it is defeated. As you eat from this table, a miraculous transformation will take place, our bodies together will become His body. Our drastic measure is nothing more than to be His body broken for the world and His blood spilled for the salvation of the world. To eat this meal is an invitation out of the violence of the world and into the peace of God's kingdom. Will you come this morning?

3 Comments:

Blogger Eric Lee said...

Scott,

Great sermon, bro! I hadn't thought about the Pharisees and the Law in that way before tied to the idol of "safety."

Peace,

Eric

October 24, 2005 3:53 PM  
Blogger David said...

I love the personal story at the beginning! It's essential that you (& all of us) relate the truths of Sacred Scripture with our own personal experiences. This story does it perfectly.
I recommend the following items (one book & one article) to you.

The Psalms by Luigi Giussani

Homeless on "Paradise Drive" by Peter Augustine Lawler in the Fall/Winter 2005 issue of IR

October 28, 2005 9:16 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

David,

Thanks for the references!

I am reading the Lawler piece right now.

Grace and Peace,
Scott

October 28, 2005 5:34 PM  

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