A litmus test of Christian morality: the film North Country

north countryMy wife and I wanted to watch a light film at home this past Saturday night and then go to bed early. We made the mistake of putting in the movie North Country, which came out in 2005. It was inspired by a landmark sexual harassment case that took place in a Minnesota coal mine. As I was watching the film, I was shocked by how mercilessly the protagonist Josey Aimes was treated by her co-workers, her family, and even the other women in the mine who were victims of the same sexual harassment. I said to my wife, “This seems a little bit over the top,” and she said, “Oh no, this is what women really deal with.” As I saw Josey standing up for her dignity with the whole world against her, I thought a real test of my Christian morality would be if I had the guts to stand up for her if I were working in that mine.

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How the despised ones bring everything to nothing (1 Cor 1:28)

“He has chosen the lowly things of this world: the despised ones and those who are not, to bring to nothing the things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:28). It isn’t just my heart’s tattoo; I really believe it’s one of the most important prophecies of the Bible. Jesus was the ultimate despised one, a king whose reign is defined precisely by his utter social rejection. When we are truly saved, we become despised ones with Jesus, being “crucified together with Christ” so that “it is no longer [we] who live but Christ who lives in [us]” (Galatians 2:19-20). What are we saved from? Legitimacy, which is “friendship with the world [and] enmity with God” (James 4:4), since it is a declaration of independence from God. How do the despised ones that Paul describes “bring to nothing the things that are”? By destroying the categories of legitimacy constructed by the normal majority (a.k.a. “the world”) as a substitute for reliance on God’s mercy.

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The savior who made us relevant to His mission (Acts 1:6-11)

jesus-ascension

I preached this weekend about the ascension of Christ. As I shared in a blog post earlier in the week, I think it’s important to consider why Jesus ascended to heaven instead of sticking around in visible fleshly form in His immortal body. The dialogue between Jesus and His disciples in Acts 1:6-11 helps to shed light on why His ascension was part of God’s plan. Below I’m sharing the sermon audio along with a written summary:

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It’s Okay to be Martha

Sermon for 7/17/2010
Text: Luke 10:38-42

Martha! Martha! It sounds kind of like “Marcia! Marcia! Marcia!” How many of you are old enough to have seen that famous episode of the Brady Brunch? Jan Brady is tired of people praising her perfect older sister Marcia so finally she just explodes. I didn’t see the original; I saw the parody on Saturday Night Live in the early nineties. In the story of Mary and Martha, we have another case of sibling rivalry. But in this case, it’s the perfectionist Martha who’s mad at her good-for-nothing sister Mary lounging around at Jesus’ feet when there’s work to be done.

So who gets to be Mary? And who gets stuck being Martha? I’m very good at playing the part of Mary. Last year, I was the stay-at-home parent in our house while my wife was a hospital chaplain who had to work a 24-hour shift at least once a month and sometimes once a week. I pretty much let the house go, because I figured the house is Martha’s job. Now I was a volunteer youth pastor at the same time and part of my ministry was to make Christian hip-hop music for my youth, so when our house got too chaotic, I would go on a “spiritual retreat” by putting on my headphones and shutting everything else out except for my music (which was about Jesus so it was like sitting at Jesus’ feet). I was really good at being Mary.

This year, our roles are officially reversed so I’m tempted to be even more of a Mary than before. Unpacking the house? Martha’s got it. Health insurance forms? I’ll let Martha cover that. I can delegate all my parenting tasks, such as poopie-diapers and bedtime, to Martha. Oh and I always say thank you.

I’m good at making time for myself to keep a good spiritual balance. I go to the gym every morning and take a sauna with God. On my day off this past Monday, I went and sat by Burke Lake with a spiritual devotion book. The last thing I want to do when I’m off from work is get stuck with honey-do lists or be stranded in a room full of boxes with two little boys who are capable of rapidly dismantling any and all forms of established order. Because if I spend all my free time helping to get the house set up, I’ll be stressed out and it’ll make me a lousy pastor.

I’m good at being Mary. And what’s great is that any time my wife has needs that conflict with my spiritual balance, I can look at this passage and realize that she’s just being like Martha: “Jesus, can you tell Morgan that he needs to pick up after himself, not to mention be a father and a husband?” “Cheryl, Cheryl, you worry too much; Morgan has chosen the right thing and it will not be taken from him.”

I could go on with my sarcasm for a lot longer; my point is this: just like most other passages in the Bible, we tend to read Mary and Martha’s story to our own advantage. Whichever character Jesus praises – that’s me. Whoever Jesus rebukes – those are the people who judge me and misunderstand me. We tend to oversimplify Jesus’ conflict resolution, as though He’s taking one side entirely and dissing the other side. Just because Jesus says what Martha needs to hear for her spiritual edification doesn’t mean that Martha is 100% wrong and Mary is 100% right. They were probably at different points in their spiritual journey and thus needed to hear different things from Jesus. Mary needed affirmation; Martha needed to be challenged.

When I really think about it, I’m not like Mary at all; I’m just a more dysfunctional version of Martha. Martha’s problem is not that she’s a detail-oriented person who takes care of all the unglamorous work that nobody ever thanks her for doing. The text says that Martha’s mind is “distracted”; in the original Greek, the word is periespato, which means getting yanked in every direction at the same time. If the difference between Martha and Mary is that Martha’s distracted while Mary’s focused on the “one good thing,” then I’m certainly not Mary.

Now some of you men out there are probably thinking what’s this guy doing comparing himself to two women. Isn’t this a story about women? I’m sure we’d like to take ourselves off the hook, but anybody can be Martha, men and women alike, whether we work at home or outside the home. All it takes is getting so overextended and yanked in every direction that we don’t think we have time for Jesus, much less our family. Mary was focused on making Jesus feel welcome in her home and she was willing to waste time with him so that he would feel at home. Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes a little child in His name welcomes me.” And so when I refuse to waste time with my sons, by playing with trains and doing things that don’t seem important, I am refusing to welcome Jesus.

But who can be Mary in a Martha world of busy-ness? Life in the information age is like being caught in a giant wave pool at one of those water theme parks. I’m yanked around by the waves of to-do lists and paperwork just like Martha was. The difference between me and Martha is this: while Martha tries her best to surf through that wave pool, I don’t even bother. I climb out on the side and find things to criticize about everyone who’s fighting the waves.

What I can’t stand is seeing people who’ve got both sides covered. They’re up-to-date on their taxes; and they’re excellent conversationalists at parties. They’ve got their kids enrolled in all the right extracurricular activities; and they’re reading Henri Nouwen books on the sidelines. They keep their houses like museums; and they go to fun places with their families every single weekend. Maybe such people don’t exist in real life; but they sure do in my head. And it makes me so mad that I can’t seem to get anything done and my Martha pile never seems to get any smaller. So I go looking for holes I can poke and things I can criticize about people whose lives seem perfect from the outside.

Let me share some of my Martha pile with you. I want for this room to be packed out with people every Saturday night, who all know how much God loves them and express their gratitude by worshiping God with all our hearts, minds, and souls. I want this to be a place where people who are as cynical as I was in college will hear something or feel something that makes them give God a second chance. I want to have a banging young adult ministry that reaches a hard to reach population with the right formula of fun outings, intellectually stimulating activities, and Biblically-sound discipleship. I want for this church to be like the Jerusalem church in Acts 2 where everyone gets what they needed and shares all that they can. I want for us to be so opened to the power of the Holy Spirit that we take to the streets to share the gospel with the world.

It feels good to say all that, but I don’t have any earthly idea where to begin and what the steps are for getting where we need to go. So I get short-tempered and huffy like Martha when she was rushing around getting the house together for Jesus. Or I find “spiritually-edifying” books to read instead of getting started on the nitty-gritty detail work from which I am so easily distracted. I’m good at being Mary on the outside to hide the Martha in my brain. And the whole time, Jesus is trying to cut through the whirlwind of my thoughts in a still, small voice: “Morgan, Morgan; you’re worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”

What is this one thing Jesus is talking about? I don’t think he’s giving us permission not to wash the dishes as long as we sit on the couch and read the Bible instead. There’s a place for taking Sabbath and resting, but Jesus’ one thing has to do with our attitude about what we do rather than a single action we’re supposed to take. The one thing that should motivate all of our actions is our love for God and by extension our love for the people God cares about.

The Old Testament story about Abraham hosting the three angels offers a good contrast to Jesus’ visit with Mary and Martha. From the time that his visitors arrive, Abraham focuses his attention on one thing: making them feel welcome. He gives them water to clean off from the road and kills off his choicest cattle to prepare a feast for them. Abraham is able to pull off being both Mary and Martha at the same time (largely because he has a crew of servants helping him out). Now few of us are going to have a team of people working in our houses like Abraham had. But there’s work to be done and there’s going to be a division of labor, which includes not only getting the floors clean but also entertaining our company.

Our challenge is to do what we do out of love for God as though every day is a day when Jesus is a guest in our homes. We need to remember this love whether we’re frustrated with our spouse for slacking off or we’re tempted to slack off ourselves. Because Jesus is with us, we don’t need to get bent out of shape about our inadequacies and start looking for someone else to blame. With Jesus’ help, we can put one foot in front of the other and do what needs to get done, which in my case means facing the boxes that we still haven’t unpacked from our move. Trusting Jesus means I don’t run away from the detail work. What I do is what Paul says to do. I go to the Cross, taking all the built-up guilt from time that I’ve wasted in the past and all the fear that I’m never going to get everything done; I throw off these things that hinder me and the sin that so easily entangles and run with perseverance the race that’s marked for me to run.

Jesus has a plan for me; He’s got a plan for you; He’s got a plan for this church; and we don’t have to know that plan right now. I don’t have to get my head swimming with ideas like Martha that make me testy and short-tempered and unable to move forward. What I need to do is trust Jesus with the big picture and take one piece of the puzzle at a time. It’s not going to be perfect; it’s not even going to be efficient. I will make a thousand mistakes that teach a thousand lessons. But the good news is this: God’s going to win and He had the mercy and compassion to use even a scatter-brained guy like me for one small piece of His victory.

So whether we’re busy or lazy, whether we’re detail-oriented or big-picture people, let’s admit that we all lose focus sometimes; let’s do the thankless chores that we need to do in gratitude for the grace of Jesus Christ that makes it okay to be Martha.

If You Want to Be Good, Be a Samaritan First!

Sermon for 7/11/2010
Text: Luke 10:25-37

If you want to be good, be a Samaritan first. Most people reading the Good Samaritan story put the focus on being “good”; I want to put the focus on being a Samaritan. We can do all the good in the world; we can stop and help every person with a flat tire on the beltway; but unless we have a Samaritan heart, the good that we do won’t do us any good at all.

It’s hard to get past a surface level reading of the Good Samaritan story since everybody knows it. Even people who don’t go to church know when they hear “Samaritan” in the news headlines, it’s a story about a nice and helpful person. So I could just say, “Y’all know the story; don’t be like those other Christians who walk past the bleeding man on the side of the road; be a good Methodist and put him on your donkey.”

The problem is that back in Jesus’ day, Samaritan didn’t mean nice person. Jews hated Samaritans, and it wasn’t just racism. They had several centuries of reasons.

Let me give you some background. After Solomon died, ancient Israel split into two kingdoms – the north and the south. The northern kingdom was a lot wealthier and more successful militarily than the south, but the south stuck closer to its spiritual roots in Yahweh, the God of Abraham, since the south had Yahweh’s great temple in Jerusalem. The northern kingdom was more religiously “cosmopolitan”; they prayed to Yahweh some of the time, and Baal and Asherah other times. Despite its early success, the north made some bad choices that led to its being conquered by the Assyrians, who renamed the whole region Samarita. The Israelites who resisted the Assyrians were deported and sold into slavery. But the ones who disguised themselves by selling out the God who had brought them out of Egypt for the new gods of their conquerors – they became Samaritans.

Meanwhile, the Judeans in the south kept their faith and held their holy city of Jerusalem even under Assyrian siege. When Judea finally fell to Babylon a century and a half later, the Judeans went into exile until the Persians took over and let them go back to rebuild their temple. When the Jews came back home from Babylon, they found this group of Samaritans claiming to be their distant cousins and claiming to have the same religion even though they had disfigured it beyond recognition.

Samaritans were not just a different race; their quarrel with the Jews was not just a misunderstanding; the reason that the Jews were so upset with the Samaritans was that while the Jews had suffered through exile and persecution due to their religious beliefs, their Samaritan cousins had sold out their God to save their own skin.

The reason I gave you all this historical background is so that you would understand how utterly bizarre it was for Jesus to make a Samaritan the hero of his story. What did this descendent of heretic sell-out traitors have in him that the pious, devout priest and Levite didn’t have? Something was in the Samaritan’s soul that caused him to be “moved with pity” when he saw a man bleeding on the side of the road.

About a year ago, I got myself in a bind that helped me understand this story. The kids in my youth group loved to eat at the flea market, which they called the “pulga” in Spanish. The problem with the pulga was that it had a gravel parking lot with some really sharp rocks. So when we went to the pulga in the church van one searing hot afternoon, we got a flat tire and didn’t have a lug wrench big enough to change it. Several cars away from us was a Hispanic man who was loading his little girls into their car seats. My teenagers ran over to him before I could stop them and asked for help

Now I would have been irritated if I had just buckled up my kids’ car seats, but he just got his AC running and came over to survey the problem. I explained that we needed an abnormally large lug wrench. He said to give him twenty minutes and he would take his girls home and bring back his whole socket wrench set. I tried to stop him but he told me he wasn’t working that day and had nowhere to be. So he went home, rushed back, and we found a socket big enough to turn the nuts. The nuts were so rusty that we had to put two tools together to get leverage. It worked to get the nuts off but in the process we broke his tool. I offered him $10 to help pay for the cost, but he wouldn’t accept it. He said that other people had helped him before and he was happy to do the same.

I wanted to make this incident into a teaching moment so I asked the youth to turn off their ipods and reflect on why this man did what he did. “That’s easy,” they said, “he’s Mexican!” (which makes a little more sense if I tell you that 90% of my youth were Mexican-American).

I was a little disappointed in their response, but as I was driving them home, my mind started turning over what they had said. Is there something about being an immigrant in America today that’s similar to being a Samaritan in Judea 2000 years ago? The analogy isn’t perfect, but I think there is one. Just like Jewish people had a reason to be mad at Samaritans, many people who look like me have a reason to be mad at immigrants, at least illegal ones. And just like the Samaritan in Jesus’ story probably had nothing to do with his ancestors’ betrayal of Judaism, the Hispanic man who helped us might not have been illegal, but because he spoke no English, my mind put him in a box just like Jesus’ Jewish audience put all Samaritans in the same box.

I’m not interested in getting into the politics of immigration any more than Jesus was interested in talking about the history behind the conflict between the Samaritans and Jews. What I will say is this: the priest and the Levite faced a similar disadvantage to the one I have. They had the privilege of being God’s chosen people in the same way that I have the privilege of being a citizen of the best country the world has to offer right now born into a stable middle-upper class Christian family. Why is this privilege a disadvantage? Because the world I have always lived in is a fair place where people who stay in school and work hard grow up to have successful, stable families of their own. Since I didn’t grow up in a neighborhood where people get beat up, and it doesn’t fit with my view of how the world’s supposed to be, I’d rather walk across the street and let someone who knows what they’re doing take care of the bleeding man.

Either that or I do stop, because I’m trying to prove how mission-minded I am. Maybe I’ve got latex gloves, blankets, and band-aids in my car just in case I see a bleeding man on the side of the road. But if we look closely at this story Jesus told, the point is not whether my church has an effective outreach ministry to people who get beat up by robbers and left for dead. What Jesus wants to know is whether there’s enough space in my soul for the Holy Spirit to move me with pity. Or have all my theories about the world and my need for it all to make sense closed me off to every attempt God makes to light a fire under me? Can I be “moved by pity” like the Good Samaritan was? Not unless I become a Samaritan.

I think that’s what Jesus is saying here. And the reason I think that is because Jesus became like a Samaritan in His own life and death. That’s why I included the Suffering Servant passage from Isaiah in today’s reading. “He was despised and rejected by men… Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” The reason early Christians knew that Isaiah was talking about Jesus in this passage is because Jesus’ decision to become a hated outcast is central to how He saves us.

We think we understand Jesus’ cross. We put it on our diagrams and in our four spiritual laws, and think that’s all there is to it. It’s become for us like a giant credit card we swipe on our way into heaven. But what does it really mean that the Creator of the universe, “who was by nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing… and became obedient to death on a cross”? The cross was the ultimate shame in Roman culture, the form of death reserved for petty thieves and scoundrels deemed unfit for a Roman sword, in other words, the Samaritans of the Earth.

See, the cross is not just a payment for sin. Jesus is the ultimate Insider who knows every word that comes out of our mouths before we even think about saying them. But when the ultimate Insider becomes the ultimate Outsider by going through the most disgraceful thing a human being can possibly go through, it means that other outsiders can see that we’re not alone. We can tear off the masks we’ve put on for other people and wear our shame openly since our Creator wore the world’s shame openly on the cross. We can be Samaritans because our King let Himself be a Samaritan so we could take up our crosses and follow Him.

Most Christians are familiar with Jesus’ call to take up our crosses, but I suspect we misunderstand what it means. We think that taking up our crosses means committing to a certain number of hours a week of church work. We’ve reduced the cross to self-sacrifice. But carrying a cross wasn’t just a sacrifice; it was a “symbol of suffering and shame”; people spat and threw things at Jesus while He was carrying His cross.

When Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me,” what He’s saying is you don’t have to be afraid of your shame anymore. “I died for you to free you from all the things you’re so embarrassed that other people will find out about you, the things about you that might make other people treat you like a Samaritan. Now accept the freedom to stop trying to prove that you’re not a Samaritan when you know good and well that you are!”

Did something happen in your past that you’re not proud of? It’s okay; take up that cross and follow Jesus! Do you have to take pills every morning to keep from getting depressed? That’s fine; take up that cross and follow Jesus! Is your kid not meeting all of the learning milestones that the pediatrician says he’s supposed to? Take up that cross too and follow Jesus! Taking up your cross means giving up the lie that everything in your life is going just fine, making peace with the fact that you’re a sinner who Jesus died for, and taking the risk that other people might treat you like a Samaritan.

When we’re not willing to take that risk, we end being like cranky Hank from Pastor Ed’s sermon last week. The reason people like Hank are so cranky is because they’re scared to admit that they don’t have it all together. It’s my nervousness about my own flaws that makes me want to judge other people. But when I admit that I’m a hopeless sinners and I trust Jesus enough to take my shame to the foot of His cross, then I can be free like that Good Samaritan – liberated from caring what other people think so the Holy Spirit can have its way with me.