Saturday, March 26, 2011

In their own words: The Adversary (Lent 1A)

During the season of Lent, the sermon series at McFarland UCC features characters from Jesus' story speaking for themselves. "In Their Own Words" will feature The Adversary, Nicodemus, The Woman at the Well, the Man who was Born Blind, Martha, the servant girl in the courtyard, and Peter.

The Adversary:

First of all, I need to set the record straight: I don’t do natural disasters. Not my gig. Don’t try to pin those on me. I might pop my head in after-the-fact, when things are all confusing, and stir the pot. But tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes: not my work.

That’s brute force. It’s beneath me. It’s inelegant. Give me more credit than that.

I’m more interested in letting you do the heavy lifting.

You have all the tools, you know. The raw materials.

All I do is offer some suggestions.

The plays are all yours.

Really. Let’s take a look:

Scene: A garden. A man and a woman are strolling around, not a care in the world. It’s an intimate little scene, just the two of them and some greenery, some birds singing in the background. It seemed like a nice time for a chat. Nothing pushy, I just asked some clarifying questions. “So, God said ‘no snacking on the produce?” Oh, no, she said…just this one tree is off limits. “And why would that be?,” I asked. Wasn’t God being a little possessive, not wanting them to know good and evil? Seems like a little knowledge would be a good thing.

A piece of fruit. It was a small thing. She wanted it, she really did. She just needed to justify it to herself. Let’s see…nutritious. Yep. Beautiful. Yep. Useful. Yep. They made the decision for themselves. Plucked that fruit right off the tree, because they decided it was time. She had some, and he had some, and boy, did they say it was good.

I just asked a few intelligent questions, at the right time. The consequences weren’t my problem. Everybody tries to blame it on me, as if I made them do it. Come on, now…you’ve heard about this little thing called “free will”, right? The two of them did the heavy lifting. Both of them. They made their own decisions. Nobody forced them.

Next thing you know, they were blaming one another, getting in that little spat with God, the one that got them thrown out of the garden, the one that folks have been talking about for centuries. That’s just how it played out. It was kind of fun to watch, because I got to see some of my favorite words in action. The D words: Division. Discord. Deconstruct. Demolish.

So, that’s the way I work. Those D words are my calling card. When you see and hear them happening, you know I’ve been around. When things are confusing, that’s a great time for me to drop in. Nobody really notices me at work. All I do is help people look at the world a little differently.

“You know, those Israelites, they’ll be trouble someday…”

“You know, that manager in the other office has been angling for a promotion, are you really sure you can trust them?”

“Lots of other pretty women out there…are you sure you don’t have any competition?”

“Do you think it might be a good idea to hang on to that stuff? You never know when you might need it.”

“What if that other kid wants your cookie?”

“Maybe you should take matters into your own hands.”

“Do you think you can really count on God?”

People arrive at their own conclusions. And, well, from that you get inequality. Jealousy. Mistrust. Division and discord. Sin. People using power, in an attempt to make themselves feel safe, or in control.

My favorite thing to do, is to get people to act under their own power. Like I said, brute force isn’t my gig. Free will is a wonderful thing. I ask the questions, sit back, and let it all play out.

It usually works out great. I’ve started a lot of wars that way. Blown up a lot of peace treaties. Turned protests into riots. Ended marriages. Unraveled countries and nations. Fascinating to watch. And I didn’t have to lift a finger. You all did it for me.


There was this one time, though, that things didn’t go smooth as silk.

Prophets in the wilderness are usually an easy target. They’re hungry. They’re lonely. They’re scared. They’re tired. Usually running from the world, running away from reality. Persecuted. They’re fun to play with.

So I show up, and wouldn’t you know it, none of my usual tactics work! Forty days and forty nights he was in the wilderness. The book even says it, right here: “he was famished”! I mean, really. I’m an expert in this wilderness stuff. Perfected it, with the Israelites, in that 40 years between Egypt and their Promised Land. Where’d you think the Golden Calf idea came from? “It’s been an awfully long while. Do you think Moses is ever going to come back down? Maybe the people need something to keep them occupied,” I said to Aaron. Used it again, on Elijah, got him whining and yelling at God. Managed to get John the Baptist, Mr. Locusts and Wild Honey himself, acting so loopy he lost his head.

Prophets in the wilderness – I’ve got that market cornered. A little hungry, thirsty, a little doubtful.

He was all alone out there.

It wouldn’t hurt anything if he did a little miracle or two, just for his own benefit, right?

I knew he had it in him.

“So, you’re the Son of God. You’ve got the power to turn stones into bread. Seems like now would be a good time to test that theory. What’s the point of power if you’re not going to exercise it? What’s the point of power if you die of hunger here in the wilderness?”

Not a thing. He spouts scripture back at me. “You can’t live by bread alone.”

So I had to paint a bigger picture. I took him to the temple.

“So, you’re the Son of God. Look at this. The temple, the center of the world, and here you are, above it all. Show how much God loves you…seize the moment. Jump off. That scripture you love so much promises that the angels will catch you.”

“Do not put God to the test,” he said. Argh. He knew my game. I had been testing, pushing at his defenses. Making him worry about his basic needs was the first approach. And my stones to bread maneuver struck out. Psychological needs were usually a sure-fire winner. “Just a little test, something simple, something to make him prove he loves you, that he’s never going to leave you, never going to give up on you.” And apparently, that wasn’t going to work either.

It was time to get serious. This guy was in a position to change the world, he had so much potential. So I pulled out the big one. “C’mere. Up on this mountain. Take a look. Everything you see, all these cities, and kingdoms, everything spread out before you. Think about all that power you have. Think about how much you could change, how much you could fix, how much you could make right, if all these things were in your hands.“

Did I mention that I like power plays? If he cared so little for his own welfare, then surely, this angle would work. Of course, he would be motivated by what he could do for others.

In the end, all of you, no matter how altruistic, how community-minded you think you are – are like this. Even do-gooders worship at the altar of power. Trust me. I have been watching humanity for thousands of years. You’ve been feeding me great material. Don’t think that I haven’t been paying attention. You all, secretly, want power. Admit it. You fill up the space around you, with stuff, with activity, with commitments, trying to create buffers, trying to control your world. Trying to use whatever power you can gain to shape things according to your will, your hopes, your view of the way things should be. If it’s not power to meet your own needs, it’s power for the sake of your family, or power to fix the world. It’s all about the power.

So of course, this one would be no different. He just had a lot more power to start with. That just made it more fun. So there we were on the mountaintop, and I was saying, “Just worship at the altar of power. Exercise your influence. Shape things the way you want them to turn out. That’s all. Then all this can be yours. You can fix the world. Call it, ‘the world according to Jesus.’ You can solve all the problems, make it just the way you want things to turn out. ”

What would you do, if you had that ability? Think about it for a minute. The world according to you. What would you make right? What would you change? What things would you un-do, and remake in your own image?

Go ahead. Think about it. I’ll give you a bit.


You came up with something, didn’t you?

Told you so.

Every human being I’ve ever met – except one - falls for that trick. Sin with a capital S. And the only one I’ve ever met, the only one who refused to reshape the world in their own image, was Jesus.

He turned me down in a heartbeat. Sent me away, defeated. I came back, again and again, with my offers, and he turned me down, every time. Even at the very end, he refused.

“Worship the Lord your God, and only God,” he said. Not self-sufficiency. Not happiness. Not your ability to change the world.

“Worship God, and only God,” Jesus said.

I don’t have anything that can trump that.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Buyer's Remorse - the Bible and the WI Situation

I have been mulling scripture with respect to the situation taking place in Wisconsin. Some folks have been calling Scott Walker 'Pharaoh'. I've seen a few smart quips about bricks, straw and mud on Twitter. But I keep going back to the 8th century prophets. Seems like the right place. Amos will have something to say about this, right?

"They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth. Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins - you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate." Amos 5:10-12

Hm. Lobbyists in the balcony of the assembly, public can't get in, and are barricaded ever further away from their own government building? Sounds familiar.

Or maybe Micah?

"But you rise up against my people as an enemy; you strip the robe from the peaceful, from those who pass by trustingly with no thought of war." Micah 6:8
Deploying ever larger cadres of law enforcement to guard against peaceful protesters? Adding metal detectors and searches to the entry protocol of the capitol? Denying members of the public without an appointment the right to enter? Ejecting folks who have the temerity to turn their back on the governor?

But then, I thought some more. And I flipped toward the front of my study bible, to Judges and Samuel, and Kings. And I saw this:

"...give us a king to govern us, like other nations..." said the elders of Israel (1Sam 8:4).
Ah. That's it.

And Samuel tries to warn them.

"These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. he will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves;" (1Sam 8:11-18a)

Know what you're asking for, said Samuel. This is what your world will look like: The fruits of your labor will be passed up the economic and social food chain, and you won't be able to do anything about it. And still, they proceeded:

"But the people refused to listen...they said,"No! But we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles."" (1Sam 8:19-20)

"Give us a tough guy," the voters of this state said. "Someone to fight our battles, somebody like all of the other states have." A few voices (but not enough, or loudly enough, or well-financed enough) said "Do you realize what you're asking for? Is that what you really, really want?" And the voters of Wisconsin clamored, "yes!," electing Scott Walker into our state's highest office last November.

Many of those who called for a king are now having buyer's remorse. And many of Wisconsin's residents are stunned at how quickly this has come. Law enforcement ringing the Capitol. Snow fences, and concrete barriers, keeping citizens away from the building. Lines to stand in while the government keeps us out. Draconian cuts to programs that make us a civil society. Decreasing education funding and increasing prison funding. Decreasing access to health care and decimating the ranks of skilled, dedicated public employees as they flee the Governor's power-hungry methods. This is not the Wisconsin I have grown to love. This is not the system of checks and balances I learned about in 9th grade American Government class. I was groping for a new metaphor, and I finally realized it was here, at the beginning of the reign of Israel's kings, in the Hebrew Bible.

And what disturbs me most is the end of Samuel's speech:

"And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day." 1Sam 8:18

We were warned.

People of faith, pray for wisdom and strength. We're gonna need it to get out of this hole we dug ourselves.