Faces of Christ

Can we see God in humiliation? Can we see God in human brokenness?

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Maundy Thursday
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 116
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31-35

A few weeks ago I opened the mail in my office and found, to my delight, this year’s ELCA World Hunger Lenten study. Even though I don’t always use the Bible study, I’m always excited and intrigued by the study. Sometimes it provides good material for sermons, and sometimes it’s just an edifying study to read through on my own.

Cover of the 2018 ELCA World Hunger Lenten Study Guide. Copyright ELCA World Hunger. Fair Use.

This year’s study, titled Faces of Christ, has a cover that immediately caught my attention. The cover is composed of 30 individual portraits of Christ, and not all of them come from the same culture. It was interesting to see the different interpretations of Jesus, especially the Eastern, Asian interpretations of Jesus. We as white Americans in churches descended from Scandinavian and German ancestors are so used to seeing pale-faced, blond haired, blue eyed Jesus that it can be a little jarring to see a picture of Jesus not in our own image.

 

It reminded me of my visit to Israel and Palestine, the Holy Land of Christianity. In Nazareth there’s a huge cathedral, the Church of the Annunciation, built over the traditional location of Mary’s house. It’s truly a massive basilica, and all around the church and the grounds are artistic representations of the Virgin Mary and the boy Jesus donated by different countries. I remember walking through the church, looking at all of these different depictions of Mary and Jesus, and being in awe. Jesus was Mexican. Jesus was Japanese. Jesus was Ethiopian. Jesus was Thai. Jesus was Mongolian. Jesus was Irish. Jesus was Argentinian. Jesus was Palestinian.

I had never seen Jesus that way before. To put it plainly, even though I “knew” that the image of Swedish Jesus I grew up with wasn’t what Jesus really looked like, that was all I could ever imagine Jesus to be. Seeing Jesus depicted as a member of other ethnic groups was jarring. It didn’t match my expectations.

I imagine Peter felt very much the same way. This is the same Peter who in other Gospels sees Jesus transformed into a glowing super-person on the mountaintop. He listens to Jesus teach and preach. He watches Jesus heal and cast out demons. He sees Jesus walking on water and gets out of a boat to join him. He walks down the streets of Jerusalem as people throw their coats and palm branches on the ground, rolling out the “red carpet” for Jesus, so to speak, treating him like a king. Jesus was everything Peter expected the Messiah to be.

So when Jesus then gets on the floor, strips out of his outer clothing, and starts washing his disciples’ feet, it totally throws Peter for a loop. That was a servant’s job—the job of a menial worker. Think about how many of us like having our feet touched or, God forbid, touching someone else’s feet. It’s humiliating, what Jesus is doing. It doesn’t match Peter’s expectations, which leads him to protest. He just can’t see Jesus in this role, doing this work. He only sees Jesus in glory. He can’t see Jesus in humiliation.

What about us? Can we? Can we see God in humiliation? Can we see God in human brokenness? Can we see God in places, and in people, we would much rather ignore?

Very often I think we’re tempted to see God in “our image”, the way I remember seeing Jesus as I grew up in a Swedish Lutheran church. It’s tempting to see Jesus in the Peter Popoff’s Miracle Waters of the world, or in the smiling, never-sad, always-happy Joel Osteens, or in the military conquests done in Jesus’s name. It’s tempting to see Jesus as supporting the American upper-middle class that lives in the suburbs with sensible white American values. It’s easy to imagine someone we would admire and respect, and then project Jesus onto that, the same way Peter did.

We want Jesus to be strong. We want Jesus to be powerful. We want Jesus to be mighty. We want Jesus to be sensible. We want Jesus to be logical. We want Jesus to be military. We want Jesus to be respectable. We want Jesus to be respectful. We want Jesus to be clean-cut. We want Jesus to be pretty. We want Jesus to be successful. We want Jesus to be rich.

We want Jesus to be everything we wish we could be and more, because how else is he going to save us? How can Jesus save us if he isn’t better than us?

And yet here is Jesus, on his knees, half-naked, scrubbing people’s dirty feet.

Later, he’ll be dragged out of a garden and in front of a court. He’ll be mocked. He’ll be humiliated. He’ll be put on display and tortured, in public. And he’ll be put to death, executed by the state, like a common thug.

Can we see God in that? Can we recognize Jesus, the savior of the world, in all of that? I hope so.

I hope so because if I can recognize Jesus, the savior of the world, in a broken and beaten body on a cross, then I can recognize Jesus in so many more places and people than I thought possible.

Which is a good thing. As Martin Luther himself reminds us,

“God says, ‘I do not choose to come to you in my majesty and in the company of angels but in the guise of a poor beggar asking for bread. … I want you to know that I am the one who is suffering hunger and thirst.’”
(Luther’s Commentary on the Gospel of John)

It means that I can throw out all of those ideas about who Jesus is and where Jesus can be found and instead start recognizing where Jesus has been all along–

In the minimum-wage gas station attendant that sells me donuts and orange juice every Sunday morning for my Confirmation class.

In the members of our community that come to the Three Lakes Christian Food Pantry and are overlooked by the rest of the community.

In the overwhelmingly Native American population of the Vilas County Jail.

In the rising number of opioid users and abusers in our community.

In the homeless who try to survive the winter in trailers, cars, and tents without heat or electricity.

In the LGBTQ+ community, who has no place in too many of our Christian communities.

In the victims of human trafficking that pass through Vilas and Oneida counties under our very noses.

In those who don’t think or vote the same way I do in politics.

In every face, every person lovingly created in the image of God who is ever brushed aside, ridiculed, forgotten, humiliated, or deemed “unworthy” by those around them.

In them, I see the face of Christ. In them, the image of God, the person of Jesus Christ, the savior of the whole world, is given a real and tangible form.

And if I can finally open my eyes to the face of Christ that has been around me the entire time, the face that I have for so long been willfully blind to because it didn’t meet my expectations, then maybe someone else can see Christ in me. And they can see Christ in you.

Jesus getting down on his knees to wash his disciples’ feet in an act of personal humiliation was more than just a gesture of kindness for his closest friends. It was an explicit acknowledgment that Christ isn’t found in power, or might, or wealth; but is instead found in acts of service, acts of love, humiliation, demeaning circumstances, and everywhere else we’d rather not look. The people “out there”. All of you. Me.

When you leave this place tonight, you will be Christ for everyone you meet. Bless them, as you have blessed me.

Featured Image: “Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth, Israel 16” by Hoshvilim is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Giving Up

I don’t have to tell you that we have a hard time giving things up. It’s human nature. And it’s everywhere in the story of Christ’s death.

Sunday of the Passion / Palm Sunday B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.

Isaiah 50:4-9
Psalm 31:9-18
Philippians 2:1-11
Mark 14:1–15:47

Every so often I see a question asked on Facebook that goes something like this: “Would you live in this cabin out in the woods for 30 days and receive $1 million, BUT, you have to give up watching football?” Or “Would you spend a week in this beautiful island oasis, BUT, you get no internet and no cell phone reception?” Ever see those? Would you? Would you accept $1 million if it meant you didn’t get to watch the Packers (for my Wisconsin congregation) for a whole season?

Essentially, these sorts of scenarios are asking this question: what are you willing to give up for something perceived to be better? Where do our priorities lie?

Years ago, I came across a song by TobyMac, a contemporary Christian songwriter and artist. I usually don’t listen to contemporary Christian music, but this song caught my attention, specifically because of it’s music video. The song is called “Lose My Soul”, and I recommend looking it up when you get home today.

In the video, TobyMac plays the owner of a pawn shop, and throughout the video different people in to the shop to do business. One woman comes in and sells her wedding and engagement rings, and by the look on her face, you can deduce that her marriage has ended in some way or another and she no longer needs them. Another man comes in with a bag of old cell phones, cameras, and iPods (that’s when they were still a thing), trying to pawn them off. A few come in with less than honorable intentions, some acting as distractions while another slips a laptop under his shirt and sneaks out of the store. One, at the urging of his friends, buys a handgun, and the three leave together.

In each instance, someone was giving up something—their relationship, their junk, their innocence. And in each case, it’s not easy. It’s not easy to give something up.

I don’t have to tell you that we have a hard time giving things up. It’s human nature. And it’s everywhere in the story of Christ’s death.

The people of Jerusalem were not ready to give up their image of who Jesus was, a political king who was going to rescue them from the oppression of the Romans.

Those present at Simon the Leper’s house were not ready to give up their snide judgment of the woman that anointed Jesus’s feet with oil.

Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve, was not ready to give up what he thought Jesus could and should be; and he betrayed him because of it.

The other disciples were not ready to give up their self-righteous images of themselves as noble and brave disciples, and were not ready to face the reality that as soon as trouble came, they’d abandon Jesus—especially Peter, Jesus’s favorite.

Peter, James, and John were not ready to give up their complacency in prayer, falling asleep when Jesus asked them to stay awake. They failed at that three times.

The disciple who cut off the ear of the servant of the high priest with a sword was not ready to give up his idea that more violence and more weapons was always the answer.

The Sanhedrin was not ready to give up their need to kill Jesus, even though there was no evidence they could use against him.

Peter was not ready to give up the safety of anonymity, knowing that identifying himself with Jesus would mean he, too, could be arrested, beaten, and killed.

With just a little bit of bribery, the crowd was not ready to give up their trust in an armed revolution to overthrow the government as the only thing that could save them.

Pilate was not ready to give up what little peace and order he had in order to release an innocent man.

And because they weren’t willing to give anything up—because they weren’t willing to make admittedly hard and difficult choices—Jesus died. There was always some hope that maybe Jesus wouldn’t have to. He begged for another way to accomplish God’s purpose. Maybe Judas wouldn’t betray him. Maybe Peter wouldn’t let him down. Maybe the Sanhedrin or Pilate could see reason. Maybe the crowd could put aside humanity’s obsession with violence and killing.

But it wasn’t to be. Because they weren’t ready to give up anything, Christ died. And yet, they weren’t the only ones not willing to give some things up. Christ wasn’t ready to give up, either.

Christ wasn’t ready to give up loving human beings, even and especially the really bad, really awful ones.

Christ wasn’t ready to give up on the work of redemption, freeing all of creation from the power of sin and death.

Christ wasn’t ready to give up showing love to the very end instead of showing hate.

What Christ was ready to give up was his life, and to give it for ours. He was willing to give up violence, to become a victim of it, to reveal God’s intention for life in this world.

At the end of the TobyMac video for “Lose My Soul”, the young man who bought the handgun returns to the pawn shop. He walks up to the counter, draws the gun from his belt, and points it straight at the owner. And then, he slowly sets the gun down on the counter; and even though there’s a sign behind the counter saying “All Sales Final”, the owner gratefully accepts the gun back that this young man gave up.

When Christ marched into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, he marched to his own death. He was ready to give up his own life, to do whatever it took to let us know that God was not ready to give up on us. He marched for our lives.

What are you ready to give up?

Featured Image taken by the author at the March for Our Lives in Minocqua, WI.

Fury and Control

We thought that if we were in control, we could make the world a better place, a place that better reflected our wants and values. Instead, we’re no better off than we were before, and we’re probably worse. I see what we’ve done to our world in our attempt to control it, and it infuriates me.

Good Friday
Preached at St. Peter the Fisherman Roman Catholic Church in Eagle River, WI, at the ecumenical Good Friday service organized by the Vacationland Ministerial Association.

John 18:1–19:42

Back in grade school, I hated when we’d break up into teams and play sports. I wasn’t very good at sports—to this day, I’m still not good at sports—and that usually meant I was picked last or close to last. Unless it was something like “who could climb the monkey bars the fastest”, because I was a speed demon on the playground equipment. But basketball, baseball, soccer, ugh. I hated it.

But then, then, I got smart–or at least, I liked to think I got smart. Games have rules, right? And most games need someone to make sure the rules are followed. So I started volunteering to sit out and be the referee, or the umpire, when we’d play team games. As far as I was concerned, this was a win-win. I got to participate without the embarrassment of being picked last, but I also wasn’t really participating, and therefore, couldn’t let my team down. Perfect!

Of course, there was also another reason I liked playing ref or ump. That’s because being ref or ump in a game gives one an enormous amount of power and control in the game. Now I like to think that I was a pretty fair ref, and that even though I didn’t have any real authority I pretended to use it in a just and right way. But there’s no denying that I liked being in that position of control. It was fun. It was really, really fun.

I’m of course not the first human being to be in a position of power and control, and I’m not the first on which it took a hold. From the moment of our creation, we human beings have sought ever higher and higher levels of control. It seems to be wired into our makeup. We always want more control. Whether we’re toddlers demanding that we set our own bed time, children who want to play ref instead of team member, teens in rebellion against their parents, or older church folk clinging to the ways of the past, we live our whole lives looking for more and more control, to shape the world in our image.

And on some level, we’re pretty successful. Life is a constant struggle for control, losing some here, gaining some here. Some are better than others at it.

There’s just one problem, one barrier to our seizing total control. That problem is God.

And that brings us to Good Friday.

More than anything else, Good Friday was an attempt by humankind to take control away from God. You could argue that we already tried that in the garden of Eden. According to that story, we tried to take control away from God by making ourselves better, smarter, more like God. It didn’t work.

So we needed a new plan. And when God was foolish enough to come incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, we were presented with the perfect opportunity to take control. We killed God.

And you know what? We’re still not in control.

We thought that if we were in control, we could make the world a better place, a place that better reflected our wants and values. Instead, we’re no better off than we were before, and we’re probably worse. I see what we’ve done to our world in our attempt to control it, and it infuriates me.

It infuriates me that chemical weapons are still being used as tools of war and terror, and that there are people dumb enough to try defending it or try using it to justify even more killing.

It infuriates me that no one seems capable of doing anything to stop people like Assad and Kim Jong-un, or the human rights violations in Egypt, Russia, the United States, Israel, Pakistan, China, without invasion or bombs.

It infuriates me that my own country drops bombs on the people of Syria and then denies the refugees safe haven, literally condemning them to death, and somehow thinking its doing some great and noble service in the process.

It infuriates me that the most holy region of the world for three major religions has been reduced to a literal war zone because we can’t learn to get along, instead using our sacred writings as billy clubs to beat on our neighbors and justify unleashing our rage and hatred against those who don’t think like we do, because “the Tanakh/Bible/Quran says it’s okay”.

It infuriates me that around the world the LGBTQ+ community is hunted and murdered, and that our own thinking in our churches not only accepts that reality but cultivates it and allows it to continue, because instead of worrying about people being attacked and killed for their sexuality and gender identity, we’re more worried about offending people.

It infuriates me that we laud praises on the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and then go about our lives as a racist community, a racist country, because our white privilege allows us to ignore the tragedies we leave in our wake and pretend we’re not responsible for fixing them.

It infuriates me that around the world those of us with the most stuff on the whole refuse to help the poor and the needy as Jesus did, without qualification or stipulation, because by telling ourselves that they deserve their position or are responsible for their own condition we can justify doing nothing.

It infuriates me that congregations and churches will sacrifice people, ideas, hopes, dreams, their mission in order to hold onto their precious buildings and “the way they’ve always done things”, as if the building and our less-than-useful European traditions could do the work of God without the people and their dreams.

This is the world we created when we attempted to take control of it away from God? We thought this was a better future than the one God had planned? We thought that we were actually capable of overcoming our sinful natures on our own? We thought we could maintain control?

But we’re not in control.

If we were in control, the death of Jesus Christ on Good Friday would have been just that: his death, the ultimate price we human beings can exact from one another.

If we were in control, there would have been no harrowing of the dead.

If we were in control, the tomb would have never opened. There would be no resurrection. Death would still be in control. Mary Magdalene would not have become the first apostle, sharing the good news of the risen Christ with the other disciples. God’s unconditional love and willingness to be sacrificed on the altar of hate in order to end the cycle of hate and broken promises that had characterized God’s relationship with humanity would never have been proved.

But we aren’t in control. We never have been, we never will be, and if our current and past attempts at remaking the world in our own image are any indicator, we never should be. We have always been slaves to a control that is not our own.

Once, that was Sin and Death, cruel masters of our own making that turned on us and shackled us. But today, today is Good Friday.

Today is the day on which we remember and recognize that we are not in control.

Today is the day on which we remember and recognize that, though we continue to act as though Sin and Death still rule over us, God reclaimed us, banishing the hold Sin and Death had over us, reaffirming our place as beloved, if unruly and rebellious, children of God.

Today is the day on which we remember and recognize that God, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen, is in control, and that one day, our seemingly-endless struggle against that control will cease, that the reign of God that has already broken into the world will come to completion.

Today is the day on which we remember and recognize that we tried to take control from God, and we lost.

We are still a world in rebellion; we don’t like to lose. We still inflict hardship and calamity and pain and suffering and torture and death on each other in our attempt to maintain what little control we might have. But thanks be to God that our sins are not the final word.

Thanks be to God that our power is fleeting.

Thanks be to God that our revolution did not sever our relationship with God, but rather provided God the perfect opportunity to re-imagine, restore, renew, and redeem that relationship.

Thanks be to God for Good Friday.

Featured Image: “Cross at ‘Dawn'” by *Robert* is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.