Do No Harm

Writer’s block, you are just a horrible, horrible thing.  Not only do you prevent me from actually be productive but you also force me to play 2048 in hopes that something in my creative brain will spring a leak and I’ll finally get the ambition to either get up and leave or just write something.  And how fickle she is with what will spark the fuel.

Facebook.  I spend so very little on Facebook when I’m not working on SSEM stuff or trying to fall asleep and I get bored easily on it.  But I do like to post interesting things, and when I see Vince Gilligan is making a show that has the same name as my home town (Battle Creek, which I assume is Michigan because a crime show about Battle Creek, Iowa is going to be about as exciting as Corner Gas), I had to post it.

After that, I looked a bit and I saw a Methodist pastor friend of mine had posted a short guide to a Wesleyan approach to social media and the first rule was “Do No Harm.”  I’ve also been bingeing on House, M.D. (thank you Netflix) and that whole ideal pretty much gets thrown out the window constantly in hopes of diagnosis and healing.  I’ve also had the Westboro Baptist Church in my mind, both their hatred and some of the positive response to their hatred (and negative response), and I’ve wanted to address that whole method of evangelism.

I think it sticks in my mind so much because my goal with every sermon is, first and foremost, to “Do No Harm.”  Whenever I’m writing a sermon and I come up on something that is going to poke the congregation in the eye with a sharp stick – which I do like to do – I always consider the ramifications beyond forcing thought and questioning.  I don’t even really mind offending people but just offending people for offense sake is going to do nothing for their soul.  There is no reason for me to kick the souls of those who are gathered there to worship on Sunday just because I want to be edgy and whack all of the preconceived notions they hold in their hearts with a flaming sledge-hammer as violently as possible.  There is not point or reason for that unless those preconceived notions are actually harming them in a way that is comparable to the harm I am doing to their psyche by doing this.  I am not that arrogant.

The one big thing that I am always stuck on is the harm that can be done around death and mourning.  I tell people their being jerks, their being judgmental, or that their views on sin are all sorts of wrong with only a slight amount of trepidation but even mentioning death and dying makes me want to fall into that path of no resistance.  If I can just get “Jesus loves you” across without saddening anyone too much, I think I’ve won.  In that moment of mourning, it is so incredibly easy to lose faith; trying to use that moment as a springboard for a prophetic word is basically forcing people away from God.

But the prophetic words are necessary.  We have 4 major prophets and 12 minor prophets that get their own book in the Bible.  We are sinful and we need those who have a prophetic word to share to actually share it with us and guide us back to a path of righteousness.  It is necessary and good, but it also should be intentional, timed well, and should focus on the glory and goodness of God and not at all on the goodness of the messenger.  “You’re evil and I’m good!” is not a prophetic message, as much as those who preach would like it to be.

No matter the message, and no matter the messenger, there are times that a prophetic message will do harm and no good.  I think about the prophetic messages in the Bible and I cannot think of message that was given in a time of mourning.  There are plenty that came preceding and telling of times of mourning, plenty that basically told the Jewish people that what was coming was brought upon them by themselves, but it was never delivered once they were mourning.  People don’t hear those messages in times of mourning.  Christ taught a lot of prophetic things and yet he simply mourned at Lazarus’s death (then brought him back to life, but that’s a bit off topic).

A prophetic word given specifically in terms of a death will do nothing but drive people away.  Even if the person was (insert horrible, disgusting sin that the community believes will send them to Hell), that moment is not the moment to remind people of Hell and condemnation.  The funeral of a 14-year-old son of a minister and grandson doctor is certainly not the time to give a universal prophetic of how the United States is going to Hell because of homosexuality and holding funerals.

Trying to not get pointed but can you see the flaw in their logic?  This boy probably loved everyone around him, his father has dedicated his life to teaching Christ’s message, his grandfather dedicated his life to healing, and they were shot in cold blood.  The Jewish people mourned and held services to honor the dead.  Christ’s body was to be prepared by Mary Magdalene.

Disagree with the theology around having a body at a funeral?  That’s fine.  Think we worship the dead a bit too much?  I agree with you.  Think the funeral of a 14-year-old boy who has friends who need to cope with the senseless loss of life and need to see a body for their psyche to accept that his death is real is the place to protest funerals?  No, it isn’t.

Do no harm.  No matter what your theology is, what your message is, there is no where in the Bible we are called to do harm.  If we take Christ as an example, especially on this Maundy Thursday submitting himself to the priests to become the sacrificial lamb for humanity, we should also be submitting ourselves, sacrificing ourselves for others and looking to life them up, not tear them down.

Do no harm.  I’m also struck, though, at the hatred that is shown towards people of this nature.  I’m not surprised by it – heck, I’ve even joyfully participated at times – but I am struck at how easily we hate them because of the sins they commit.

Have you thought about what kind of room in Hell Fred Phelps is sitting in right now? Because I have, and I am shamed by that.  I have had a serious shift in how my theological stances express themselves in a practical manner and if I am going to stand by the ideal that there isn’t a sin that is uniquely capable to condemning you to Hell, I have to stand by that.  Condemning anyone, judging anyone, and glorifying yourself are each sinful, but so is gluttony and sloth.  If my sins don’t condemn me to Hell because of my faith in Christ and recognition of my sin, then I cannot begin to claim that he is in Hell when I am saved.

I posted this sign before but I am going to post it again.  I’m going to be working with the “What Not To Do” when talking about sin but I think we need to worry about what to do, as well.  So in practice, the inverse of “Do No Harm” is “Do Good.”  So if I wanted to do good with this, this would be my option:

Do good.  I wonder why people don’t offer them food and drink, feed them and make sure they are healthy.  I get the counter-protests, I get the desire to drive them away, but we should be like the Good Samaritan.  Even if they are the most detestable group of people to us, we should be loving them like we love each other.

“Do No Harm”

To loving each other,

– Robby

The Women

It’s Tuesday, which means it’s time for me to muse about what my sermon on Sunday is going to look like.  Aren’t you lucky?

To sum up where I’ve been throughout this Lenten series, here is a list of the people I’ve focused on, in order:

The Bystanders, The 12 as a whole, Peter, John, Judas, and The Jewish Leadership.

This week I was going to just do Mary, Mother of Jesus, but I realized something: we have a grand total of 3 verse that have anything to do with just Mary, mother of Jesus.  I can speculate on what she is feeling, but only as an outside without any real experience to empathize with her.  I can pretend I know the pain of child loss, especially senseless child loss, but I can’t actually empathize.  “Mary was at the cross, she was sad, and John took her as his mother,” it a pretty short and crappy sermon.

Though a short sermon gets the families home for ham sooner.  So maybe…..?

So I thought about this for a bit and I decided we have a lot of women in the gospel story of Holy Week.  Off the top of my head, we have Mary brother of Lazarus, Martha, Mary mother of Jesus, Mary Madeline, and the other women who were watching the tomb.  Women play just a pivotal role in Christ’s death and resurrection and this entire event would be entirely different if they weren’t involved.

I’m going to try to go in chronological order with the women.  How that will look as a practical matter is still to be determined but as a broad concept, I want to tell the story of Holy Week from the eyes of these women.  What did they experience, what did they feel, why did they do the things they did?

The first, then, is obviously Mary brother of Lazarus.  I touched on this part of the story with my Judas sermon but Mary brings a whole different view.  I find it interesting that she seems to know what is going on before even Jesus’ betrayer does.  She seems to understand that his end has come.  This is really her way of mourning, her way of giving Christ an amazing gift at the end of his life, her way of accepting his death.

I am reminded of lesson I got in seminary about funeral honorariums.  A lot of people in the class, myself included, initially thought that doing a funeral for a member of the congregation was just part of the job.  We certainly wouldn’t ask for honorariums and would have a hard time taking them.  (Oh, how innocent and pure we were as Juniors.)  Then we were hit with a stark reality check: the honorarium is a way for the family to thank you for helping them mourn.  In essence, it is part of the mourning process.  To deny them that is to deny them healthy mourning.

So, applying it to here, we have become Judases if we refuse to allow them to present their gifts of mourning.  We may not do it out of greed, but we have decided we know better what they should do with their money, and we’ve put our own desires above theirs.

So Mary is mourning in a beautiful way.  And Martha isn’t, focusing on fixing the meal and working.  So much could be said about that, but I’ll simply put this in there: people mourn in different ways.  Not every way is healthy, not every way is proper, but each of us mourns differently.  What Martha missed, though, is allowing herself to enjoy the company she had and instead worried so much about the appearance and the work that she missed the opportunity to mourn with Jesus.  Still need to flush that out some more.

Then we have Mary mother of Christ at the cross.  I don’t even know if I have words; maybe silence will speak louder than I ever could.  A moment for mourning, both for Christ and for those who we have lost.  A time of mourn.

Then we have Mary Magdalene.  Who went to prepare the body.  Who found the tomb empty.  Whom Jesus appeared to first.

I am reminded of Lamb by Christopher Moore.  Now, I won’t talk about any romantic feelings between Mary and Jesus, going one or both directions, but I think I can safely say she has a devotion to him that the other disciples and followers did not.  I would argue that she is probably his closest companion.  There is something special between them, and I can’t help but think that Moore touches on it better than anyone.  Even if she is madly in love with him (entirely possible – Jesus is pretty awesome), she knows who he is and knows, at least in her soul, how this is going to end.  You don’t fall in love with Jesus and expect a long, happy life.  If nothing else, the Pharisees have given her ample reason to fear Jesus’ death.  I don’t see anything in scripture that lets me think she was shocked or surprised by his death.

Pained, jarred, and saddened?  Absolutely.  Shocked?  Probably not.

His resurrection, though, that was pretty amazing and shocking.  What I think we need to focus on, given her devotion, is that she didn’t recognize Jesus even when she was so devoted.  If his closest companion, the woman whom so much is written and speculated about the nature of their relationship, cannot recognize him, the change that happened was miraculous.  He was no longer the same man.  His resurrection was so healing and transformative that the new cannot be recognized as the old.

We are so changed by Christ.  Whenever someone interprets new life as a Spring thing, with baby chicks and bunnies, I want to scream.  The new life is not a birth; it is a rebirth.  It is taking something that was before Christ and transforming it into its perfect form.  Christ was transformed from is flawed body into a perfect version of his human self.  Radical transformation.

So yeah, that’s where we’re going.  From a point of mourning to a point of radical transformation given out of radical love.  It’s ought to be a decent sermon.

To preaching and sharing the Word.

– Robby

Judas and Forgiveness

Again, it’s time for sermon musing.  Did it two weeks ago, sermon flew off my hands and was good.  Didn’t do it last week, sermon didn’t want to come out and most certainly wasn’t nearly as good as it could be.

Granted, my last page printed blank.  I am not amazing on the fly when I’ve been preaching from a manuscript for 7 pages 😕

So sermon musing early in the week it is!  I haven’t chosen passages for this weeks yet but I know who I’m talking about: Judas.  Cue Lady Gaga!  Wait, no, no, no, no, no!  Now it’s stuck in my head!

(For your listening pleasure torture)

That…not offensive in my mind lyrically but musically offensive to my ears song notwithstanding, a friend of mine posited a question a few years ago that I think about every Easter season:

Had Judas waited until Sunday and talked with Jesus, would Jesus have forgave him?

Now, that is actually two questions.  The first is the theological question of the divine Jesus forgiving Judas for committing a sin.  I take a very simple stance on this.  Jesus came to forgive all sins.  All sins.  If Judas’ betrayal was unforgivable, then no repentant sins are forgivable.  There isn’t basis for condemning specific sins or his greed and betrayal being worse than any other greed or betrayal just because it happened against Jesus.  It doesn’t work that way, as much as our self-righteous natures would have us believe.

So, had Judas waited and repented, he would have been saved if he wasn’t already.

The second question is, could human Jesus forgive the betrayal of a friend?  I automatically want to say, “Yes, absolutely!”  I’m backed up a bit; read John 21:15-19.  Jesus has taken Peter aside to discussion his faith tell him what to do with his love.  Jesus didn’t take him aside and tell him, “You denied me, I cannot forgive you.”  There isn’t a passive-aggressive, or active-aggressive confrontation to tell Peter just how much he cannot forgive him.  It just isn’t there.

My mind wants to complicate the matter.  I want to see motivations and, in my humanity, that makes some things more forgivable.  Peter acted out of fear, Judas out of greed.  Peter was literally going to die if he didn’t deny Christ – or at least he believed he would.  Judas did it for a few dollars.  I can sympathize with Peter and say I would probably have acted the same way; likewise, I can honestly say Judas did something I cannot fathom and I would not be able to forgive him.  I don’t even know if I could forgive him if I was a disciple; his action was so selfish and placed the life of their teacher at 30 pieces of silver. Greed that leads to death I cannot forgive.

…which goes to prove that I am very much a fallen sinner.  Jesus was human as we are, only in perfect form.  I want to forgive Peter but Peter, too, did his act selfishly.  His stakes were much higher but he valued his life over Christ’s and he knew it where as Judas probably didn’t realize that the silver would lead to Jesus’ death; he threw the coins back, if you remember.  I can’t see Jesus differentiating between the two acts; Judas was a friend and disciple (if a bit of a thief) and I can’t believe that our Lord and Savior, having been to Hell and back and knowing Judas’ betrayal being necessary for the redeeming act, would have held the grudge.

So the answer, given my flawed mind and lacking theology, is that, had Judas waited, he would have been forgiven.

I have to ask the next question in this line, then.  Is Judas in Hell?  Was Judas condemned for his actions?

This goes to something deeper than just Judas.  Is suicide unforgivable?  Can we only be forgiven of those sins we actively confess?  Does God condemn those whose mental illness, that they have no control over, causes them to sin?  How about people who refuse treatment when they could be saved; is that suicide?  How about people who take cancer treatments that will most likely kill them?  Or refuse cancer treatments that may save them?  Or how about the guy who ate too much and felt good about it and then died of a heart attack; his is gluttony unforgivable?

This isn’t a slippery slope question; this is a question of consequences for answers.  There are three major questions that need to be answered to answer this fully.  What is sin?  Can we be forgiven of sins we don’t confess?  Is is possible to confess every sin?

What is sin?  I am going to take off my hat of theologian, hat of biblical scholar, and just answer as best I can without digging through theology books and never finding a complete answer.  Sin is an act of selfishness.  A sin is an act that places your own self-interest above the interest of another or above God, even if that “another” is an abstraction without an actual victim.  I know there are books of the law and rules and regulations but I think all can be distilled down to this.  It’s also, essentially, the inverse of the greatest commandments (He replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.  All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.” – Matthew 22:37-40 CEB).

The Old Testament is full of laws that speak to the interest of the community above the self-interest of the individual.  I know a lot of people struggle with a lot of the ceremonial purity laws but they were in place to keep the temple clean, and I mean that literally.  A lot of the laws about reproduction and relationships have to do with the survival of the Jewish people as a people, as a race, and as followers of a true God.  So much of the law is about simply putting the needs of other above your own needs and desires.  As such, much of it is irrelevant to today not because Christians pick and choose or they ignore the parts that make them uncomfortable but because the laws would no longer work towards the betterment of others.

Much the same way, I wonder if what Paul said to people had more to do with survival of the new church – and not falling into or being confused with the pagan traditions surrounding them – than with what is actually specifically sinful.  Again, placing the interest of others before yourself.  What that has to do with long hair on women, I’m not quite sure, but I digress.

Okay, so I define sin as “an act that places your own self-interest above the interest of another or above God, even if that “another” is an abstraction without an actual victim.”  The next question is, “Can we be forgiven of sins we don’t confess?”  I say yes, but I have to use the answer to the next question to prove it.  I will mention, though, that there are theological traditions that disagree with me (most notably the Catholic tradition).  Why this is specifically important to Judas is, if you have to confess every sin to be forgiven, then you can’t be forgiven of suicide; it becomes the only unforgivable sin.  Any sins being unforgivable makes me uncomfortable, but this particular one doesn’t go against the rest of the theology of the forgiving nature of Christ so I can only say, my next answer is where my struggle is.

“Is is possible to confess every sin?”  In the most literal sense, no, but I don’t think anyone is really going to argue that.  What I am going to argue is that confessing all of our sins while not being contrite over some of them means we didn’t actually confess all of our sins.

Let me play an example out.  I ate a Big Mac and washed it down with a Large Dr. Pepper, no ice last night.  I followed that with a mixed drink and then about 20 chocolate letter cookies that are the size of big animal crackers.  Guess how guilty I feel about that?  Not at all.  And before you ask how that placed my desires and needs above others, I actively participated in shortening my life for a bit of pleasure so my wife will have to deal with my death while I’m (hopefully) in heaven.

That Big Mac was pretty stinking selfish, right?  Still don’t feel contrite about it.  If I were out and about right now, I’d go have myself another one.  I am selfishly sinning and I feel fine about it.  When I die and my life is playing before my eyes, gluttony and sloth without a bit of remorse is what is going to play for me.  It isn’t going to be pretty, and I will only feel contrition because I’m looking into the face of God.

So what I’m saying is, on my death-bed, I’m going to have sins I haven’t truly repented yet because I’m a fallen human and I am incapable.  I may grow up and learn to feel contrite over gluttony and sloth but then I may pick up greed as I make more money.  At the end, I will not have confessed all of my sins honestly, not acknowledged my sins, and still die.

I believe, in suicide, a person probably feels more sorrow for their own failings and their own sins that most people do.  Judas killed himself because of a grave sin he committed.  To say he wasn’t contrite and aware of his own sin in that moment would be a flaw.  Yes, taking his own life was a sin, but it isn’t the only selfish was to die and if we condemn all people to die in a selfish act, we are condemning a lot of people to Hell.

Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m too much of a bleeding-heart liberal, but I think we need to reevaluate how we view suicide and sin in general.

So is Judas in Hell?  Dante says yes, most people say yes, I say….

To being a coward and not taking a stand,

– Robby

“I messed up…”

Anyway, one of the best sermons I’ve written in the last few months ever, I suppose, was when I spent some time just musing on here about what was rolling around in my head about the passage I was going to preach on.  So I’m going to do that again.

For Lent I’ve been preaching on how the Holy Week affected different groups and individuals.  The first week I did the standard bystanders that watched these events happen.  This last Sunday I talked about how the disciples, as a group, would have responded to what was happening.  This week I’m talking about the denier, Peter.

This week is going to be a deviation from what I’ve done the last two weeks for a couple of reasons.  The first is that I’m deviating from what I have been drawing source material from.  Before Lent I was going through Luke a chunk at a time, and I decided, since we were already in Luke, I could just keep with it and pull source material from Luke for the series, and then pick up where I left off after Pentecost.

When you look at the first two groups, that actually works out fairly well.  There is quite a bit you can pull; the only thing that was missing that I had to pull from somewhere else is the mention of the striking the shepherd and the sheep scattering, and I only needed to mention it in passing because everything else I wanted to draw from was there.

No so with Peter.  One of the benefits that you get with talking about the disciples as a whole using Luke is that the author doesn’t tell you who cut off the guard’s ear.  You can leave it anonymous, allowing Peter to exit this role of super-close companion and let him be just one of the 11 in the group.  It makes it easier to look at the group and get the emotions they were feeling.

When you talk specifically about Peter, though, it’s kind of nice to know that he is the one who did it.  Because of that, I have to pull from the other gospels to get a more complete picture of Peter.  I’m always torn on this – I have a bias towards letting individual books speak for themselves and not pulling from other to justify a message – but I think allowing scripture to interpret itself and forming a complete picture given the four sources we have on the topic is a fair method of interpretation.  And I’m not cherry picking – at least, I don’t think I’m cherry picking – and I’m letting Luke provide the basis of the story, only using other gospels to fill on holes.

It’s fair, I think….

Here is my scripture list for this sermon:
Luke 22:7-13
Luke 22:31-34
Matthew 26:36-46
John 18:1-11
Luke 22:54-62

A decent list.  I’m not typically a multi-passage preacher (single passage almost exclusively) but I’m trying to tell a story and having more source material is good.  And I’ve been using this multi-passage format to introduce the congregation to various other biblical translations.  I respect the NKJV for what it is but I just…I just think there are better translations out there.

The other way I am shifting gears is that I’m talking about an individual, not a group. Palm Sunday I’m going to be talking about the Pharisees and Scribes as a group; every week between now and then I’m going to be talking about an individual.

Part of talking about an individual is defining them within their group.  That said, it’s more about getting a complete picture of the person, not just what we typically see.

Be honest, when you think about Peter and Lent, what comes to mind?

If you said anything other than the denial, you are lying (or you are a better person than me).  Peter denies Christ 3 times, everyone knows that.

Who prepares the meal?  Who goes with Jesus after the departs to pray?  It seems to be relevant to the whole story that Peter is in the inner circle, a trust disciple, and probably the loyalist follower Jesus has.  When he says, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death,” (Luke 22:33 CEB) I believe he meant it completely.  At that moment, had the guards busted in, he would have fought valiantly.  He would have struggled, been arrested or killed, and accept his fate.  He is being straight with Jesus here.

The problem is that he doesn’t find himself in this active role of dying with Christ.  He doesn’t get arrested with Jesus when he’s ready to go, and he doesn’t die when we tries to defend Jesus.  Instead, he is faced with a difficult situation we don’t really talk about.

First, think about his physical state.  They were having dinner where a large cup of wine was shared.  I imagine that plenty of wine was shared between the men.  I don’t want to argue drunkenness but a couple of glasses of wine coupled with general physical exhaustion leads to the situation where the three men are falling asleep while Jesus is praying.

Peter is tired, a little under the influence, and then something crazy happens: Jesus gets arrested!

Okay, that part isn’t crazy.  The Pharisees have been plotting for weeks and haven’t even been quiet about it since they walked into Jerusalem.  This wasn’t that unexpected.

What is crazy is that Peter didn’t get arrested or killed at that moment.  He drew a sword, cut off a guard’s ear – demonstrating just now little understanding he had of swordplay – and not only lived to tell about it but didn’t get arrested.  He has to finds himself in shock in that moment.  He should have been arrested or killed.

Now a bit tipsy, really tired, in shock, and nerves on edge, he finds himself at a fire with strangers.  And they start questioning him, and he can’t handle it.  I don’t know if the logic of this went through his head or if it was subconscious, but this is where he finds himself if he confirms who he is and they do turn on him:

He doesn’t die with Jesus, he doesn’t die a martyr in public, he just dies.

In his shoes, in his physical state, I can easily see where he would think they were going to turn on him and the last thing he needed was to die there, in a back alley, where no one would care.

I don’t know if I could have not denied Christ, either.

Then the rooster crows, he runs to a dark corner, and every motion that he’s felt over the last few hours, day, and years comes out in a stream of guilt-ridden tears.  That’s where we end until Easter.  That’s horrifying, this moment of truth that Peter, the rock of the church, fails miserably, is the end of this story until Easter.

If that leaves you uneasy – it certainly does me – good.  I’m struck with how much we are convinced that we need to be comfortable.  Heck, I have a hard time watching fictional characters on TV when it gets awkward and uncomfortable.  We should not dismiss this as one guy’s denial because all of us could easily have found ourselves in that position.

Not quite as horrifying as thinking about walking around in Judas’s shoes but still a pretty tough pill to swallow.

Okay, that’s enough of that.  Time to drink a beer.

– Robby