It’s Not About the Stuff

You probably saw the news reports from this past weekend about the harrowing experiences many people had on “Black Friday”, that shopping day to end all shopping days.  There was the woman who pepper-sprayed fellow shoppers to keep them away from the items she wanted to buy; there was the elderly man who was accidentally beaten up by police who thought he had shop-lifted; there was more than one person who got stepped on and/or run over by zealous shoppers eager for a bargain; the list could go on.  Incidents like these have characterized “Black Friday” before, but I don’t remember seeing this many reports of bad behavior in previous years.  And, interestingly, apparently this year’s shopping extravaganza broke all previous sales records for this date.

At this point, you might now expect to hear the usual lament about the evils of materialism which have pervaded our society generally and our celebration of Christmas in particular.  And, in a way, I suppose this is going to be the usual lament.  But in a conversation with a colleague recently, it was noted that the material part of materialism really isn’t the problem.  In other words, it’s not really about the stuff that we think we want and need so badly.  It’s really about the “ism” part; that is, it’s really about us and the relationship we have with the stuff.

Recall this particular teaching of Jesus:

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.” ’

He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’   – Mark 10:17-27

At first reading, it would perhaps be tempting to interpret this as a story about wealth and the dangers of wealth (or, in other words, the dangers of having a lot of stuff).  But the story is really not about wealth, it’s about a man who has wealth.  And the problem is not really his wealth; it’s really the relationship he has to his wealth.  Jesus observes that it is difficult for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God because he knows that rich people have a tendency to get rather attached to their wealth, to their stuff.  And it is precisely that attachment that is problematic.  If this particular rich man had not been terribly attached to his stuff, and approached Jesus with the same question, Jesus would have given a different answer – one suited to whatever it was that was keeping this man from experiencing the world as the kingdom of God.  But, as it happened, this rich man happened to be rather attached to his wealth, and it was that very attachment that was preventing him from experiencing the fullness of divine life.

The reaction of the disciples is our reaction:  it is astonishing.  Who can be saved?  “For God all things are possible”, says Jesus.  In other words, this problem of being attached to our stuff in such a way that we fail to experience life as God’s kingdom can be remedied through a therapeutic relationship with God, a relationship in which our center is shifted from our stuff to God.   Jesus points out that we cannot do that on our own, but that God stands ready to help us – and to forgive us and love us when we find we are not completely successful in making this shift.

It is tempting to distance ourselves from this teaching of Jesus by telling ourselves that we are not rich, so it doesn’t really apply to us.  Within our own social environment, we may not be terribly rich by comparison.  Yet, compared to most human beings living today, almost everyone living in the United States is incredibly wealthy.  If you earned just $12,000 a  year, you would be among the wealthiest 17.6% of the world’s population; 5.4 billion people around the world would be less wealthy than you.  And that rich man who approached Jesus?  He was probably less wealthy than most people living in America today.  So, yes, the story does apply to each of us.

There’s a lot of talk this time of year about putting “Christ” back in Christmas.  Most people think this has something to do with saying “Merry  Christmas” to everyone instead of “Happy Holidays.”  I don’t think Jesus would care much about which option we choose for greeting people in December.  If we really want to put Christ back in Christmas, we can work on changing our relationship to our stuff, and work at grounding ourselves more in God than in the stuff with which we are able to surround ourselves.


Advent Overturning, Christmas Rebirth

The season of Advent begins this Sunday, and in church, we will be hearing a lot about the end of the world and the second coming of Christ.  This is, indeed, the case every year in our run up to the Christmas celebration.  For most of us, these readings are hard to make sense of because, for most of us, the idea of the world ending in some spectacular, God-caused event and literally seeing Jesus returning, “coming on the clouds of heaven”, is one that simply doesn’t make sense to us.  So what are we to make of these Advent readings?

For me, the biblical texts about the end of the world and the accompanying return of Christ is a biblically provided path into an overturning of our settled and ordered lives.  We have a tendency to view the world in a rather static way, thinking that the patterns of life as we have come to know them are more or less permanent and the way life has always been.  The apolcalyptic passages of the Bible can remind us that life is not, in fact, like this at all – that in truth, lives and worlds are collapsing and coming to new birth all of the time.  When such apolcalyptic imagery views God as the agent of the “end times”, this is an emphatic affirmation that the impermanent nature of things, the tendency of things to collapse and for new things to arise, is the way life is supposed to be.  Indeed, this impermanence is a sign of the truth that creation is not completed but is constantly in motion.

The references to the second coming of Christ, when viewed from this interpretive point of view, both challenge and assure.  The challenge lies in the overtones of justice which always come with any biblical speculation about Christ’s return.   This event is always imagined as a time when wrongs will be set right, when justice will prevail.  For me, this serves as a reminder that as God’s work of creation continues on, as worlds collapse and new ones arise, there is at the heart of that process God’s constant call and desire that what arises will be more just than what has come before.  We are challenged to be attentive to that call and that desire, to be agents in helping God to bring to birth a more just world.

The assurance that comes with this challenge, however, is the assurance that God in Christ is always on our side.  That is, on the side of the whole human family.  Throughout this whole on-going process of creation, throughout all the collapsing lives and worlds, throughout all the new lives and worlds that arise, Christ is constantly present, holding all of us in the love and compassion of God.  And that makes the process itself, and the challenge to live more justly, something that we can meet with joy and hope rather than fear and despair.

At the end of Advent, of course, comes our celebration of Christmas, of the birth of Jesus in history and also of the longing of the Risen Christ to be born anew in our hearts.  It is not a mistake that the time leading up to Christmas is abundant with apocalyptic images:  for if Christ is truly to be born anew in each of us, there are things in our lives which must be overturned, aspects of ourselves and our personal worlds that must be allowed to collapse so that a truer self, a more compassionate self, a more just personal world may be born – out of which we may act more justly in the larger world we inhabit.

So I invite you to welcome the Advent overturning, that you might be more fully prepared this Christmas to allow the Christ to be re-born in your heart more fully and abundantly than ever.

Remembering Gratitude

We are a week out from the Thanksgiving holiday, which is not only an occasion for a great feast, but also a time to remember to be grateful.

On the one hand, this probably sounds a bit trite.  I would hardly be the first person to suggest that we should use the  Thanksgiving holiday to take stock of that in our life which we have to be grateful for.  On the other hand, it’s a suggestion which I think we can never hear often enough.  Why?  Because we too often forget to be grateful at all.

Much of the time, many if not most of us spend time focusing on whatever it is that is wrong in our lives.  This can range from dwelling on irritations which, in the end, are not really such a big deal to being weighed down by genuinely big problems that do indeed bind up our hearts and steal our energy.  Whether we are sweating the small stuff or grappling with some truly big things, it is an important spiritual discipline that we discover what there is to be grateful for and take a moment to give thanks.  Perhaps, on our worse days, we can’t find much beyond a stranger’s smile or a ray of sunshine to be grateful for.  On our better days, we might take time to be grateful for life itself, for the relationships that enliven our lives, for the job that another would love to have or a roof over our head.  My point is that wherever we find ourselves in life, we can find something for which to give thanks.

And it is important that we do so, for the regular practice of giving thanks can slowly and subtly influence the way in which we meet and perceive the world.  When we remember gratitude, even for something very small, we experience a small transformation of the heart.  The regular practice of gratitude can help us see the world and our lives as places of possibility.  Ultimately, a practice of gratitude becomes the soil in which hope can grow.  And everyone needs at least a little hope to live.

So as you approach the Thanksgiving holiday, make a commitment over the next few days to remember gratitude.  As each day comes to a close, ask yourself what there was in your day for which you can give thanks.  And as you identify and hold onto these moments of thanksgiving, you will be deepening your connection to the source of gratitude, to God, and you will be increasing your capacity to greet the world open to possibility and grounded in hope.

Meeting Jesus at the Pizza Place

Tuesday night is pizza night in our household, and so this week I found myself at the pizza place as usual, waiting for the pizza to be ready.  I had noticed upon my arrival a homeless man sitting at one of the tables talking to himself.  Sadly, that is not uncommon in our area.  While I noticed him, I really didn’t think much about him.  As I was standing near the counter waiting, suddenly the homeless man got up and walked over to me.  He stood right in front of me, looked me squarely in the face, and said something completely unintelligible.  Then he patted my arm in a very gentle, friendly way, smiled at me and walked out of the store.

The manager was clearly unhappy that the man had approached me and had actually touched me.  I, on the other hand, was stunned.  Keep in mind that I was not wearing a collar – I was not identifiable as a religious official in any way.  And when I saw the man approaching me, I immediately assumed he was going to ask me for money.  Yet, something very different took place.  Rather than asking me for something, the man spoke in his own private sort of way, smiled at me and then touched me gently.   I immediately found myself coming to one conclusion:  that this man had given me his blessing.  In thinking about the incident, I find myself unable to come to any other conclusion except that I had been blessed by a homeless man.  He had given me what he was able to give me and had not asked anything in return.

It was not much of a leap for me to then begin thinking that this homeless man was Jesus in disguise.  Now, I’m sure that most of you will say, “Oh, Matthew, come on.  That wasn’t Jesus — it was a homeless guy.”   But let us not forget what Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel:

for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  (Matthew 25:35-40)

If Jesus is able to say that when we serve those in need among us, we serve Jesus himself, then it seems to me that the reverse is perhaps also true:  that when those in need do something for us, we are receiving from Jesus.

In the end, you may not think much of my encounter with the homeless man.  He can be quite easily set aside as a mentally ill, raving poor guy with no place to live.  Then again, many people tried to set Jesus aside as a mentally ill, raving poor guy with no place to live.  Regardless, I have to admit that I left the pizza place with tears in my eyes, for I had met Jesus and he had given me his blessing.

Jesus as One of Us?

Consider the following verses, attributed to Jesus:

Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.’ – Mark 10:18

“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” – John 14:12

I find them interesting.  In the first one, from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus seems to suggest that it would be a mistake to equate him with God.  He says these words in response to someone who addresses him as “good teacher.”  In the second verse, from John’s Gospel, Jesus is shown suggesting that those who trust in him will not only do the kinds of works that he has done, but “will do greater works than these” because, presumably, through our trust in Jesus we are able to experience an empowering relationship with God.

Taken together, these verses perhaps hint at something which probably sounds almost heretical to say to most people:  that in his historical life, Jesus was not all that radically different from the rest of us.  Now, before you take up your pitch forks and torches, hear me out.

Marcus Borg, in his book Speaking Christian, suggests that there is a distinction between what he calls the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus.  The pre-Easter Jesus refers to what we might call the historical Jesus.  He lived in a particular time and place, did and said particular things, ate, slept, drank, had a certain height and weight, and ultimately died on a cross.  At that moment, the historical, pre-Easter Jesus ceased to exist.  He was gone.  Three days later, his followers began to have experiences of the post-Easter Jesus:  the Jesus who was not limited by the constraints of corporeal reality – he could appear and disappear, he could be with people and remain unrecognized, he could walk through walls.  The post-Easter Jesus was not simply a flesh and blood person who had been reanimated; this was something different.

And so Borg goes on to point out that the pre-Easter Jesus was seen by the early  Christian community as a revelation of God in the shape of a human life.  In other words, the pre-Easter Jesus shows us what we can see of God in a human life.  And Jesus was extraordinary, remarkable, unique.  Meeting him was a transformational experience.  But, Borg argues, the pre-Easter Jesus was not divine; he was a revelation of the divine, of God, but that is saying something different.  The pre-Easter Jesus was fully human, as we are.  The post-Easter Jesus, the Risen Christ, he was experienced as divine by the early Christian community.  This post-Easter, divine Jesus was able to promise his disciples that he would always be with them, wherever they were – and that sort of omnipresence is a divine quality.  You might remember that Paul writes in the New Testament that Jesus was “declared to be Son of God with power . . . by resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4).  In other words, Paul does not attribute divine titles to Jesus until after the resurrection.

Yet, as Borg points out, most people tend to conflate the pre-Easter and post-Easter Jesus into one, projecting onto the historical Jesus a divine status which the early Christians did not actually attribute to him until after the Easter event.  The result of this conflation is that people tend to believe that the pre-Easter Jesus was able to accomplish extraordinary things, to be a transformational presence in people’s lives, because he had some “boost” of divine superpower.  And that notion diminishes Jesus’ humanity.

It also allows us to distance ourselves from the historical Jesus.  We can easily tell ourselves that it was all right for Jesus to be about all the things he was about during his public ministry because, after all, he was divine!  We, on the other hand, cannot possibly be expected to do those sorts of things because we lack that essential element of divinity that he possessed.  And so we make ourselves safe from Jesus and free ourselves from the challenge of becoming like him.

Yet in the face of that sort of thinking are the two verses with which I began, in which Jesus’ seems to make clear that he is not the same as God and in which he also makes it clear that those of us who trust in him will do greater works than he did.  While we tend to lower our expectations with respect to what human beings can accomplish, Jesus seems to raise them quite high.   The message seems clear enough:  Jesus was able to show the world God’s passion and character so clearly that when people saw what Jesus was doing, they were also seeing what God was seeking to do in the world.  We are challenged by Jesus to do the same thing:  to show the world God’s passion and character as clearly and decisively as we possibly can.  It does not mean that we are divine – it does mean that we are living as fully, dynamically and as wonderfully as possible into our own humanity.