JOSHUA The Wrong Question

13 When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” 14 And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?” 15 And the commander of the Lord’s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so. (Joshua 5:13–15 ESV)

Note how the angel answers the question, “are you for us, or for our enemies?”

No.

It’s not that God isn’t taking sides — this is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the God who delivered Israel out of slavery in Egypt, who will soon deliver Jericho into the hands of Israel, the God who has promised to give Israel a land already full of people (seven nations, to be precise), and to drive those people out. This is a very partisan God, this Lord God of Israel.

And yet, the commander of the army of the Lord (שַׂר־צְבָֽא־יְהוָה, literally “[the] chief of [the] host of YHWH”) does not give Joshua any assurance of whose side he is on. Rather, he commands Joshua to take off his shoes, because this ground where the Commander of the Army of the Lord is standing is holy ground.

That God is present here (yes, as an armed man leading an army, an army that will fight exclusively for one side in the next few chapters) is more important than which side God is fighting on. Granted, the Commander of the Army of the Lord appeared to Joshua, and not (at least not here) to one of the Canaanite leaders. But I have the feeling that wouldn’t matter. He (he?) would still command whoever he met to remove his shoes.

Because the place — the place where Joshua is standing — is holy.

I’m reminded, in this non-answer from the Chief of God’s host, of how Jesus frequently dealt with questions. He almost never answered anyone or anything directly. Rather, Jesus would frequently upend the question, or redirect it. When asked who is a neighbor, he described what it meant to be a neighbor. When asked about the lawfulness of paying taxes (both to Caesar and the temple), he told his disciples to rely upon found treasure (a coin from the mouth of a fish) and reminded those around him whose money it was to begin with.

And so the Chief, when asked “for us or agin’ us?” responds “No.” Not neither, not both, but an answer that suggests Joshua is asking the wrong question to begin with.

Because we are to consider, with awe, not whether God is on our side or not (even as God is), but the simple reality that God is in our midst.

Which means we are to be equally in awe when God is clearly against us, as he will be when Canaanites and Philistines oppress, and much later, when Babylonian, and then Roman armies, show up to besiege, batter, starve, and destroy Jerusalem. To starve us, kill us, disposes us, send us into a distant exile.

And so it with the Cross, an act of violence, of terror, of torture, a demonstration of murderous state power, of a mob demanding to be heard and obeyed (because they want neither justice nor proper vengeance). That cross is clearly against us, convicts of us all of our sin, whether it is active complicity or stoney silence.

Awe at the horrible work of our hands and our frightened, angry, hateful hearts.

Yet the Cross is also an act of love, mercy, forgiveness. Of God staring into our fear, anger, and hate and saying, “it stops with me.” The Cross is for us too. The Cross says, “I forgive you, murderers and torturers, lawyers and judges, politicians and rulers, soldiers and jailers, betrayers and deniers, you who are the mob enraged for no reason save that you have not gotten what you think you deserve. I forgive you, you who weep, who are silent, you who do or say nothing because you have no power, you who flee and run and look away.”

Awe at the amazing mercy of a God who will cry out in agony, “Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing.”

For us or against us? It is the wrong question.

Take of your shoes. Grovel and worship. Because this place, this place of suffering, death, mercy, and forgiveness, is holy. We are holy. God is here.

God is in our midst.

Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and War

President Barack Obama has made the first official visit by a US President to the Japanese city of Hiroshima, to lay a wreath at a memorial to those killed in the US nuclear attack of August 6, 1945, and to call for a world free of nuclear weapons.

It is the old liberal dream — that diplomacy and negotiation should replace war forever.

We must change our mind-set about war itself. To prevent conflict through diplomacy and strive to end conflicts after they’ve begun. To see our growing interdependence as a cause for peaceful cooperation and not violent competition. To define our nations not by our capacity to destroy but by what we build. And perhaps, above all, we must reimagine our connection to one another as members of one human race.

Perhaps diplomats can gather around a great big table somewhere and outlaw war itself. Perhaps that will make this kind of change possible, allow for the realization of dreams so long dreamt.

Oh, wait, it was tried once. How’d that go again?

Lots of passive voice in Obama’s speech, as if some unnamed generic group of human beings, with no real purpose in mind, concocted the atomic bomb, and then it just happened to fall from the skies over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in early August 1945. He wasn’t going to apologize — the belief that somehow Obama has been wandering the world apologizing for the United States has always been pure crap — but he wasn’t going to take any direct credit for the attacks either.

“The world war that reached its brutal end in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was fought among the wealthiest and most powerful of nations,” unnamed of course until the war is rhetorically over in Obama’s speech, until the United States and Japan are allies, united in purpose and outlook.

It’s an anodyne way of talking about war, careful and, I suppose, thoughtful. Except that it isn’t.

Because it’s hard to talk about war. Hard, in a society like ours where we are constantly morally judging and justifying, reviewing and condemning, acts of the past, to say much sensible about something as horrific as the American decision to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki with these newly made instruments of terror and death.

But I’m going to try.

One of the terrible truths of war is that when you begin, when you unleash it, you take a terrible risk, make a terrible gamble — that you will unleash events over which you will no longer have any meaningful control.

And that you could lose. And lose very badly.

The Japanese took that risk as they attacked the United States in Hawaii and the Philippines, took that risk when it set war with the United States into motion. Americans committed to war with Japan, and waged that war methodically, systematically, and very, very brutally. No one envisioned a working atomic bomb on December 7, 1941, but the governments of every major belligerent in the Second World War had some idea of what split atoms could do, and were working to one extent or another on a just such a bomb.

Someone would have built it. And someone would have used it.

1000

True enough, Japan was incapable of laying waste to American cities — something the United States was proving exceptionally skilled at by mid–1944. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese died in those air raids, and many more from starvation because of the slow collapse of the country’s infrastructure in the last year of the war.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not irrelevant. These were new kinds of weapons that inflicted a never-before-seen kind of suffering and death. They may or may not have been needed to end the war, depending upon who you believe about the state of mind of Japan’s rulers (or the need to impress Stalin, or simply the desire to see how they worked) in early August, 1945. But they are a piece with the whole war.

Japan dropped the first bomb in anger against the United States. Hoping to win, of course, and defeat the United States. But when the Japanese dropped that first bomb, Japan took the risk that from that point, nothing would go as planned.

I’m not saying Japan deserved to be attacked with atomic bombs. Only that, once the shooting started, each side was going to whatever it took to defeat the other. The first side with these new and terrifying weapons was going to use them. Because they were built to be used. To destroy the enemy, to end resistance, and to secure victory.

I think about the terrible episode of Judges 19–21, Israel’s brutal and most pointless war against Benjamin. I’ve dealt with it in detail elsewhere, so I won’t even rehash it here.

What has always struck me is how this war — and all war, really — is simply reported in scripture. It is not condemned, and not even really praised either. This terrible war against Benjamin is a war instigated to achieve both vengeance and justice (for they are the same thing), but it spirals wildly out of control into genocide and regret and more mass murder, kidnapping, and rape in an attempt to fix the original genocide. It is us at our human worst — lying, self-righteous, violent, faithless, sentimental, regretful, convinced of our own wisdom and our own abilities.

In scripture, war appears to exist simply as an inescapable part of the human condition. What matters is not are we right or are we wrong, are we justified or condemned for waging war — but where is God, and is this war a judgment upon us as the people of God? Because the categories we contrive to morally justify ourselves and our violence — primarily defense, especially of those who cannot defend themselves — don’t fly in scripture. The conquest of Canaan is as aggressive and brutal a war as we can envision (“…[A]nd when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.” Deuteronomy 7:2) and it is perfectly moral, set into motion by God. (Israel is also incapable of waging that war for any sustained period of time.) And during the most defensive and morally justifiable of wars, the siege of Jerusalem, the Prophet Jeremiah encourages the people of Judah to surrender, to defect, to flee to the enemy, because the war is lost.

4 Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Behold, I will turn back the weapons of war that are in your hands and with which you are fighting against the king of Babylon and against the Chaldeans who are besieging you outside the walls. And I will bring them together into the midst of this city. 5 I myself will fight against you with outstretched hand and strong arm, in anger and in fury and in great wrath. 6 And I will strike down the inhabitants of this city, both man and beast. (Jeremiah 21:4–6 ESV)

God, “incarnate” in the army of Babylon, at war with Israel.

I’m not saying that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were God’s judgement upon Japan, anymore than the attacks of September 11, 2001, were God’s judgement upon the United States of America. I do not believe, on this side of the Cross, that a meaningful or purposeful presence of God is to be found in the violence we inflict upon each other. God is no longer present in the enemy army, or marching with ours. God no longer judges his people, or the nations, this way.

Violent judgement came to end on the Cross, when we judged and tortured and then murdered our God. When God surrendered to us.

At the Cross, our violence ceases to have meaning. It ceases to judge. We still do it, but now … it really, truly means nothing.

Oh, God is present in war. But as those who suffer. As those who cower in terror, run for cover. As those who perish. As those who struggle to make sense of the horror they find themselves dealing with, living in, surviving, and inflicting. Obama, in his own way, understood this in his speech:

We stand here in the middle of this city and force ourselves to imagine the moment the bomb fell. We force ourselves to feel the dread of children confused by what they see. We listen to a silent cry. We remember all the innocents killed across the arc of that terrible war and the wars that came before and the wars that would follow.

We can apologize, or not, for an act that possesses its own horrific logic. The 20th century was a horrible century, in which we fed ourselves fed into Moloch’s fiery hot furnace, shoveled ourselves like so much human coal — and not just in the trenches of France, or the death camps of Poland, or the grassy steppes of Western Russia, or an ancient port city in Japan, or the muddily fields and dusty cities of China, but all across Asia and Africa and Latin America, wherever the Gatling gun and finance capital (or national pride, or revolutionary ideology) imposed an order that saw people as things to be consumed, as mere resources to be dominated and exploited. I’m not even sure we are capable of apologizing for what we’ve done, or how we’d even start.

I do know this — there will be more violence, more horrors, more death, and more destruction. I hope not on the scale and magnitude of the Second World War, but we’ve shown just what kind of devastation we are capable of inflicting when we really set our minds to it, so that is always a possibility. Bombs far worse than those dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki sit, silently waiting, built to be used.

There will be more violence and more war because we are still human. Because we still want justice. Because we still want vengeance. Because we still believe in the work of our own minds and our own hands to make the world right. Because we are frightened it will never be right.

Because we still believe we can silence death … with death.

SERMON Not All There is to the Glory of God

I did not preach this last weekend, but if I had, it would have gone something like this.

Transfiguration Sunday (Year C)

  • Exodus 34:29-35
  • Psalm 99
  • 2 Corinthians 3:12–4:2
  • Luke 9:28-43

28 Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. 30 And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”— not knowing what he said. 34 As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” 36 And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.

37 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38 And behold, a man from the crowd cried out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child. 39 And behold, a spirit seizes him, and he suddenly cries out. It convulses him so that he foams at the mouth, and shatters him, and will hardly leave him. 40 And I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” 41 Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.”42 While he was coming, the demon threw him to the ground and convulsed him. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit and healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. 43 And all were astonished at the majesty of God. (Luke 9:28-43 ESV)

And they kept silent and told no one in those days.

You’d think the disciples would have told the whole wide world who and what Jesus was, especially given that the entire light of heaven shined upon him, that God has — again — formally and very publicly adopted him. Proclaimed Jesus the Chosen One, the one at lease the disciples should listen to.

Here, after all, on this mountain, eight days after asking his followers who the crowds thought he was, who they thought he was, and then telling those same disciples about his coming fate — “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” — Jesus has again gone to pray alone. And again, he has been followed by his closest disciples.

But instead of Jesus telling them what is to come, God shows them. Instead of Jesus questioning his disciples, “who do you think I am?”, God shows them. In a brilliant, overwhelming flash of light. “This is my son, the one I have chosen, listen to him.” And where Moses and Elijah — the giver of the law of the prophet of Israel who showed all of us how to live faithfully in the face of our own faithlessness, who showed the enemies of God’s people “that there is a God in Israel” by healing them rather than striking them down — stood, there is just Jesus. Alone.

And they — the disciples — kept silent, and told no one in those days.

We remember the Jesus of the Great Commission in Matthew, who goes and tells his disciples to preach, and teach, and baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. We remember the Holy Spirit setting a crowd on fire, we remember public testimonies and mass baptisms and crowds following. None of this was accomplished by silence.

But Jesus, at times, commanded silence. When Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ, the Anointed One of the God, Jesus sternly commands them to tell no one. Early in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus heals a leper, and commands him — tell no one. Go make the offering to the priest, he says, but tell no one.

It didn’t help. The fame of Jesus — as a healer, as someone who could command and cast out demons, and as a man who could a feast miraculously appear from a few loaves and fishes — spread far and wide. This was the kingdom, and this drew the crowds.

Even in his own day, no one kept silent about Jesus.

But Jesus is reminding his disciples, and reminding us, there is more to glory of God then a brilliant white light, than the power to cast out of demons and make the sick and the broken whole. I’m not denying this is the glory, the grace, and the love of God at work in the world. But it isn’t all there is.

There is suffering. There is weakness. There is helplessness. There is pain. There is despair, and loss, and loneliness, and isolation. There is fear. And there is death.

These things too are the glory of God. It’s hard for us to see God in suffering. It is hard for us to understand God in fear. And it is nearly impossible, I think, for us to really grasp the presence of God in death.

We want the 5,000 fed, and we want to see it and do it every day. We want the demons cast out into the swine heard, where they drown themselves. We want the power to make the world right. We want to get even, see our enemies underneath our feet, take some pleasure in their fear, in their suffering, in their defeat. We want the power and glory of God from on high to make us strong, mighty, rich, in charge. We want to be great, whether it is for the first ever or simply great again.

But that is not all there is to the glory of God.

Jesus told his disciples, tells us, that he will suffer many things, and that he will die. This is what it means for him to be Χριστος, Christ, the Anointed One of God. Today we may see glory, and tomorrow we may tell of it, but right now, we understand — sometimes silence is better. Because sometimes we don’t understand everything.

We haven’t seen all of God at work. We haven’t held God dying, ministered to a lonely and frightened God, or just been with and cared for a God who languishes unloved and unwanted in prison or on the streets or in a foster home without any real family. Because there too is the glory of God.

Because Jesus also tells Peter, as he commands silence, that the Son of Man will be raised on the third day. But to be raised from the dead, he must die first. We must kill him. And so there he is, the beloved Son, the Chosen One, lifted high upon a cross, a God who suffers torture and death to show us — to show the whole world — that death has no power and no hold over us, and is no real end.

Resurrected life, eternal life, out of death. The promise and the glory of God.

We do not keep silent about this, about an empty tomb, about the Beloved Son claimed and loved and given to the world. But too often we are silent about the suffering God — and the very human suffering he became a part of — because we see no glory and no power and no good end in any of it. And we want no part of it.

But the glory of God is right there. In front us us. To behold.

So, do not be silent. Do not be silent about the wondrous deeds of power, of healing, feeding, and casting out demons. Tell the world what you have seen. Remember, however, the cross, and the God who suffers with us. That too is a wondrous deed. And that too is the glory of God.

 

On Bearing The Cross

This last week’s Gospel reading from the revised common lectionary contains what I suspect for many is a familiar passage about what it means to follow Jesus:

34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:34-38 ESV)

The whole passage read for the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost began with Jesus asking his disciples, as they were visting Caesarea Philippi, “Who do people say that I am,” and a whole clutch of answers. Jesus, of course, asks who people — οἱ ἄνθρωποι — think Jesus is. And it’s funny, given all Jesus has done, none of the disciples report that anyone thinks Jesus is ὁ χριστός / המשׁיח. Instead, they think he is Elijah, returned from heaven, or some resurrected version of John the Baptist. Or even a prophet. But only the disciples seem to know that Jesus is God’s anointed one, come to deliver and redeem his people.

Jesus then tells the disciples what that means — that he must suffer and be rejected and then be killed, only to rise against three days later. This does make Peter happy, who pulls him aside, and decides to tell the boss off. This is bad news, Peter says, and you should be giving us good news. Jesus then rebukes Peter, and tells him in no uncertain terms — what he described, about suffering and dying and rising, is good news. Because it is the work of God.

The work of God.

And then to make is clear, Jesus gathers not only the disciples, but the crowd who follows as well. And tells them what it means to come after him, to follow him — it means carrying a cross, it means suffering, it means dying. It means focusing on the glory of God, as opposed to the glory of the world, and running toward that glory.

But here’s the question. What does it mean to deny ourselves, to take up his cross, and follow Jesus?

As long as I can remember, fairly conservative Christians in the United States — especially fundamentalists and those who have called themselves evangelicals — have told themselves a story of imminent persecution. The narrative, stitched together from bits and pieces of prophetic and apocalyptic scripture, predicts a time when a single world government will abolish true faith in Jesus Christ, and real belivers — if they haven’t already been snatched away — will suffer terribly for their faith.

And for a number of conservative Christians, the notion of being persecuted has an appeal. Being hated in the name of Jesus means they really truly follow Jesus. It means their faith and their following is both sincere and genuine in one of the few ways the gospels actually measure faith. I remember, if not quite a yearning to be persecuted, at least a kind of envy of those who truly suffered for their profession of Christ.

At the same time, while anticipating and predicting this series of events (they pre-date Left Behind by many decades, and came into their own in the years immediately following the Six Day War in 1967), conservative American Christians have also always claimed the cultural high ground. They see America as their country, and their society, one in which they get to set the rules and determine the meaning. In effect, they have always seen themselves a persecuted majority, with all the perks of both majority power and the claim to powerlessness that persecution endows.

So, you will see rapture beleiving Christians on the one hand claiming current events means the end is nigh, and yet vociferously and enthusiastically supporting U.S. government policies and actions that will effectively delay or postpone the end. Saddam Hussein might be the antichrist, but the United States still needs to fight him. The end will be ushered by an attack on the State of Israel, and the coming end is a glorious thing in which Jesus comes back, but the United States should, at the same time, protect Israel from attack, thus delaying the end. Perhaps indefinitely.

(In my time, I’ve only found one conservative rapture preacher who would even consider that the United States might not be on the right side of God and history in the last times.)

I’ve always found this to be something of a paradox. It certainly isn’t really denying one’s self.

I suspect some of this paradox is at work with Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who temporarily went to jail rather than issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. For some conservative Christians, I suspect the long-awaited (and hoped for and feared) persecution has finally come. And yet, they still can’t square that with the belief both in righteousness and their own status as the majority.

And no doubt some believe Davis, in taking her stand, is denying herself and taking up her cross.

We speak of crosses to bear as our own suffering. I’ve heard a few things in my days described as crosses — health problems, troublesome spouses, ungrateful children, a difficult job. Crosses to bear.

And no doubt now some are calling Davis’s kind of standing up for Jesus a “cross to bear.” It is losing life for the sake of Jesus, for the sake of the Gospel.

I think we miss the point of what Jesus is saying here when we focus on our suffering as a cross to bear. Jesus didn’t come to bear his own suffering, he came to bear the suffering of the world. He bore my suffering, and your suffering, on that cross.

13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (Colossians 2:13-15 ESV)

Remember, this isn’t about a self-righteous proclamation on our part. This is about following Jesus, and he is in front, leading us. And so, this isn’t about our suffering (even as it is), but it is about a full-on encounter with the suffering of others, of the world — meeting it without flinching, without fear, without turning back, and bearing it with those who suffer.

We who suffer stand with a suffering world, telling the world that suffering is how God meets the world.  Suffering is how God most loves the world. By suffering and dying with us, Jesus shows us what it means to love, to be loved, and to bear a cross with him.

Jesus would not be standing in a county clerk’s officer forbidding the issuing of marriage licenses to same-sex couples. But he wouldn’t be handing them out either. I’m not sure Jesus would care much either way. He had little to say about the governance of the world except that, in the end, it didn’t matter. Because the truth he proclaims is not the kind of abstract right and wrong that seeks to order the world or have us get right with God, but it is a truth about God’s presence in the suffering of the world. And our calling to be part of that presence of God.

To show the world what that means, we who follow Jesus — both the disciples whom Jesus calls and the crowds who choose of their own free will to follow Jesus — are called to join Jesus on that long journey to Golgotha, facing and meeting the world in its fear and loneliness and suffering and telling it the most important thing we can say — that God so loves the world that Jesus came to tell the world, to show the world that it has not been abandoned to despair, to sin, and to death.