Filed under: Sermons | Tags: Constantine, Cross, Empire, Imperialism, Jesus, Lent, Obama, Rome
Luke 1: 46-55, Luke 18:18-30
Last week, Pastor Peterson regaled us with the adventures of Paul as he traveled around Asia Minor and Europe, sharing the gospel. He started communities of folks following Jesus’ teachings and met with others communities that had been formed by others. The message of God’s love and forgiveness made known through Jesus Christ was getting out, inspiring people, and forming networks of Christian communities throughout the region.
This week, we’re jumping ahead to check into the Christian scene 300 years later. Christianity is continuing to spread. New communities are emerging and others are growing. Some Christians are rejected by loved ones because they join this community. There are periods of persecution. Much of this persecution comes from Christian’s refusal to acknowledge the Roman Emperor as a god. Despite, or perhaps because of this persecution, Christianity is flourishing.
The Roman Empire that occupied Palestine in Jesus’ lifetime is still strong and covers a wide territory stretching across Europe and Asia Minor. In fact, it’s gotten so large, that three different men control three regions. Let’s get this picture: control of a vast region is being shared by three rulers, who have a taste of power, but can’t get it all because of the other two. Perhaps you know enough of history and humanity to guess that this is a recipe for war.
One of these men is Constantine. He is in battle with the other two rulers, as each struggles for sole power over the empire. One night, as he and his troops rest before going to battle, he has a dream. He sees his troops marching to battle, their shields emblazoned with a cross. He hears a voice urging, “in this sign, conquer”. His troops win the day, with the cross of Christ leading them into victory.
Constantine claims power and becomes the emperor of Rome. He declares himself a Christian. He not only makes Christianity legal, he uses the power and resources of the state to build churches and employ clergy. Christians find themselves to be the favored group of the empire.
We cannot know the true faith of Constantine’s heart. His mother, Helena, had a strong faith expressed in her own stories and pilgrimages. Did Constantine have a religious experience that led him to legislate Christianity? Or was this simply the political maneuvering who would do whatever he could to secure his position of power?
All we can see are the results. Christianity, connected with the power of the empire, was able to spread and grow. People could benefit by being a part of this state-sanctioned religion. But, I wonder what was lost.
I choose two readings from Luke for us to look at as we ponder what it means for Christianity to become an empire-sanctioned religion.
Our first is Mary’s song, the Magnificat. It’s a beautiful expression of her sense of God’s presence in her life and in the lives of her people. She and her people have not known what it is to live as free people, under self-rule, for generations. Her experience of God is of one who breaks into situations of oppression and frees the oppressed, fulfilling promises of mercy and care.
Her song and the hopes expressed therein may have been the song that could express the experience of the early Christians. They could share Mary’s experience of feeling lowly, poor, powerless. But by the time Constantine declares Christianity the state religion, things are changing. The powers, the empire, is funding the church and its clergy. Clergy are serving as advisors to the emperor, even to the point of advising on such issues as war.
Our second reading was from later in Luke, as Jesus is going around the country, teaching. A man named only as “a certain ruler” comes up to Jesus, wondering about his life, perhaps seeking affirmation of his piety. When this ruler declares he has upheld all the commandments, Jesus does not reject his claim. Jesus simply asks him to do something he is unable to do: to give up all this wealth, give it to those in need, and follow Jesus.
I think Jesus is asking something more of this young man than to simply share his resources. Jesus recognizes that this ruler has a passion to follow God, he’s already followed the commandments. Jesus is asking him to give up his identity as a ruler and put on the identity of a follower of Jesus. There seems to be something incompatible with these two identities.
So when we have Constantine claiming Christ as the sign in which he has conquered his way to power, what can we say? Is he able to be a follower of Christ even while surrounded with the incredible power and wealth that is his as the leader of the greatest empire? As I said before, it is not for us to judge his heart.
But it is for us to live in the legacy that Constantine has left. Constantine began an era of Christianity being synonymous with conquering empire. The thirst for power that belongs to the empire rubs off onto the Church. It was this tryst between Christianity and the worldly powers that shocked Martin Luther. His experience of the simple monastic life left him with a naiveté about the Church that was smashed with his trip to Rome. The Church had become greedy, loving the shows of power and riches that used to belong to the pagan empire. The selling of indulgences, paper documents declaring a soul released from purgatory, that set Martin Luther off on his rant of 95 theses, were being used to fund the building of great basilicas: the Church’s answer to the great royal castles. Constantine’s legacy was a generation of European and American missionaries who brought their own cultural values along with the gospel, forcing their empire over those to whom they were called to preach freedom.
Constantine’s legacy is the Church today, uncertain of its role and message. It is our belief that the church is about the status quo. It is our willingness to believe that wealth, power, and prestige are signs of the depth of our faith. It is our need to have a Christian president and the reason false rumors of Senator Obama being a Muslim could cause such unrest.
When the church has, for so long, colluded with the forces of political power, we forget what our identity is. We forget who we are. We are God’s children, claimed and marked with the cross of Christ. Not a symbol in which we conquer others or claim power over them. The cross is a symbol in which we are united with the One who put aside power, who took on suffering, rejection, and death.
We are the body of Christ, active in the world. We are called to work in our communities, working with and in the political structures our nation has set up. We’re called to work in whatever setting we are placed: in our office, our school, our government, serving God in our vocation. We’re called to work in the public world. But we are never to forget the center of our identity, Jesus Christ.
We are Jesus’ followers, magnifying the Lord into the world. Constantine’s reign made it easy for the Church to magnify itself, growing in power and wealth, matching the greed of the empire. God does not let our identity fade into the history of a dying empire. God continues to come to us today. To challenge us to hear the ancient words of scripture, of people’s experience of God in their lives, and consider how God is active among us today. God is pushing us out into our communities, to be the serving and welcoming hands of Christ. God unites us around life-giving elements of bread and wine, turning strangers into brothers and sisters.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: card, classism, money, poverty, Valentine's Day
Happy Valentine’s Day.
Here it is yet again. A day of pain for some people, a day of overindulging in chocolate hearts for others. Maybe a day for getting – or- giving flowers!
I spent a good deal of my evening yesterday with kiddos. As much as I sympathize with all those who feel especially lonely on this day, I really feel badly for kids. They are the ones being exploited by this holiday. They- and their parents.
I teach Arts & Crafts for K-6th grade. So, having been given a number of Valentine’s pictures and stickers, along with envelopes, I decided we’d all spend the evening making Valentine’s cards. Of course they’d all made card boxes at school and were excitedly telling me about their upcoming class parties.
I remember those days. Mom would buy me a box of whatever Valentine’s cards I chose, and a bag of candies. Then I’d sit down with my class list, write each classmate’s name on a mini-sized card, and tape a piece of candy to it. The next day my class would walk around the room, depositing cards into each student’s box, until we came to the time when we could open our cards, or just look for the good candies.
My classmates and I didn’t struggle to come up with the 5 bucks for the mandatory Valentines.
But last night, one little girl quietly said she hadn’t got any cards for her class yet. Her mom wasn’t able to get any for her. It hit me that many of these kids’ families aren’t able to afford food or rent. How can they justify buying little paper cards that will be so quickly discarded?
So who’s showing the love? At least we know the card and candy companies are getting it.
Filed under: musing on being clergy | Tags: female clergy, feminism, feminist theology, pastor
This is what a member of my intern committee (the group who evaluate me throughout my year of practical learning) has said to me repeatedly. “I’m just so used to having a man lead worship”. “It takes a bit to get used to a woman up front”.
They remark on my voice, not as deep as a male’s- but still loud enough to hear.
They remark on my gestures, my presence. Not as forceful.
I do like one man’s comment that he feels the congregation is being gently gathered when I greet them in a gesture and words of peace. Like God enfolding them in God’s arms, tucking them under mothering wings.
Do I want to embody a Feminist God? I really just want to be seen as a viable option for a clergyperson. I just want to be “Pastor”.
But, if in the meantime, some folks begin to experience a God greater than the old, white male authoritarian god-picture they’ve been carrying around… I suppose that’s not all bad.
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: Ash Wednesday, Baptism, Fall, Lent, Sin, Temptation
Genesis 2:15–17; 3:1–7
Grace and Peace to you, my brothers and sisters in Christ.
Or perhaps, in keeping with the season, I should say, “Return to the Lord!”.
This is the clarion call of Lent, the church season which began Wednesday.
Remember Wednesday? That was the day I spent watching snow pelting down at a 45 degree angle, swirling through our trees and over our road until no one would have guessed there’s a road between our yard and the field we overlook.
It wasn’t the Wednesday I had spent Tuesdays anticipating! Tuesday afternoon, Pr. Denver and I burned some of last year’s palm branches, dodging the smoke of our mini-bonfire in a pot. Pastor taught me to sift the ashes and carefully mix them with oil for the perfect consistency. The office staff and volunteers had carefully crafted two sets of bulletins; they were neatly folded and ready for the next day. We at Zion had done what we could to prepare for Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. We each would have been marked with ashes in the sign of the cross and told, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”. With these words we open a season of repentance. We’re reminded of our own mortality. We are reminded that we are not God.
So it’s ironic that we had to cancel Ash Wednesday services due to the weather. We didn’t want bring the presence of death that close, so it was better that everyone stayed safe and warm in their homes. All our preparation didn’t really mean a whole lot. We had no control over the weather at all.
Today, the first Sunday in Lent, we’re met with two stories of temptation and an interpretation of them from Paul. In the first, we’re transported back to the Garden of Eden for the scene we usually call “The Fall”. The first two humans God has created are living an idyllic life, enjoying the abundance of the trees and plants around them, spending that perfect time of the evening strolling in the gentle breeze with God. There are many trees producing good things to eat. But there is one tree of which they cannot eat.
In Matthew, we meet a hungry Jesus. He’s been fasting for 40 days in the wilderness. Now Satan has come to test him. Quickly Satan identifies Jesus’ empty belly and tells him to do something about it- create bread and be filled.
It is traditional in Lent to give up some of those good things to eat. It is as if we need to recreate that Eden temptation, and prove we can say “no!” to that delectable fruit the serpent points out. Or maybe we think we can be like Jesus and say “I don’t live by chocolate alone”.
But if our interpretation of these passages leaves us with a need to prove our strength by resisting a luxury for 40 days, I think we’re really missing something.
Let’s look again to what’s going on in these texts. The serpent’s engaging Eve in a bunch of questions about what God did and did not say she could do. Eve’s been listening well, she tells the serpent what God has told them, that the abundance of the trees of the garden is for them to eat and enjoy, but the one tree in the middle will lead to death. And so, she’s stayed away. But the serpent doesn’t just walk away here, realizing that Eve has listened and trusted God. Rather the serpent twists around to cast doubt on God, declaring that God won’t let them eat of this tree because it would give them knowledge and make them as God themselves. This is the irresistible temptation.
They want to be God. They’re not. They are human. God alone is God.
But what about Jesus? In the words of the Nicene Creed, we confess Jesus Christ is fully human and fully God. We enter Matthew today, just after Jesus has been baptized by John and named God’s Son. So when Satan comes to test Jesus, what is the test really about? The temptation for Adam and Eve is to be God. But Jesus is God, Jesus is God incarnate, here on earth, and even for being so fully human, he is not without his identity as God and the power that comes from that.
When Satan says, “change these solid rocks into food that will satisfy your hunger”, or “cast yourself off this cliff but don’t get hurt”, or “claim your authority and rule over all these people” what is the test really about? Jesus has been named the Son of God, surely doing these miraculous deeds of power would prove that he is God! Jesus has the power, why not use it?
Here our sin is made clear. Our concept of God is of one with infinite power and knowledge. As the story of Adam and Eve makes clear, we aren’t even satisfied to leave that power to God. We crave that power and knowledge for ourselves.
Jesus reveals who God is. Jesus has the ability to claim power over matter, people, and even death. But using power to control is not who God is. Jesus doesn’t need to prove he is God through a great show of power. Jesus doesn’t take on the role of a master chessplayer, moving his pawns around the board.
Jesus is named the Son of God, Satan taunts him to prove it. Satan equates being the Son of God with using power. But Jesus doesn’t buy that. Jesus’ identity as the Son of God is proven through his reliance on God. No triple-dog-dare-you will convince Jesus he needs to prove himself through acts of power. Satan’s final challenge reveals what he is really after, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me”.
At this point, Jesus is sure of his identity as the Son of God. God alone is the source of life. Anything else is an idol, not worthy of worship, not able to give life. Jesus can say, “enough, Satan, you have nothing to offer me, leave me”.
Jesus is so very different than us. We crave control over our lives. We want knowledge, we want power, we want to be gods. We track weather patterns, make plans for our lives, expect to have the ability to make our dreams come true. Perhaps we think we can prove that God loves us or that we are faithful by our success in life or our ability to do good things.
We are people only worthy to be marked with ashes. We are only dust. We will return to dust. We don’t have the power to change that. But we are not smeared with ashes only to despair. We are marked so that we remember who we are. We are mortal human beings. But just as God breathed life into the first human creature God molded from mud, God breathes life into us. We are marked the in sign of the cross, tracing the sign that was marked there in our baptism, the sign in which we are claimed sons and daughters of God. Not so that we could claim power over the things of this world, or over death. But so that we would be claimed, claimed by God to be free from struggling for power over others, and to be freed from death. We are marked so that when we turn to each other, it isn’t only ashes that we see. Rather, we see the cross. We know each other as forgiven and loved by God, and are able to love each other on that account.
You are forgiven and loved by God, my sisters and brothers in Christ.