Sunday, November 14, 2010

One Stone Upon Another...

Isaiah 65:17-25 and Isaiah 12
Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

Good Shepherd Berkeley and Holy Trinity/La Santisima Trinidad, Richmond: 11/14/10

Yosef Ben Matityahu, was a highly Romanized historian who dumped his Jewish name for the more politically advantageous “Titus Flavius Josephus.” He describes the blinding brilliance of the Jerusalem temple in 75 AD, five years after the temple was destroyed, but obviously long before it faded in his memory:

"The exterior of the building lacked nothing to astound either mind or eye. For, being covered on all sides with massive plates of gold, the sun was no sooner up than it radiated so fiery a flash that persons straining to look at it were compelled to avert their eyes, as from the solar rays."

Jesus responds to the ooing and ahing of the disciples by pointing out that this temple will be utterly destroyed, not one stone left upon another. And this temple was indeed destroyed in a hideous orgy of violence, by the Romans in 70 AD.
Josephus was present in Jerusalem when the city was captured and the temple was incinerated. You can hear the grief of the Roman-sympathizing Josephus in spite of himself:

"The countryside, like the City, was a pitiful sight; for where once there had been a lovely vista of woods and parks there was nothing but desert and stumps of trees. No one - not even a foreigner - who had seen the Old Judea and the glorious … City, and now set eyes on her present desolation, could have helped sighing and groaning at so terrible a change; for every trace of beauty had been blotted out by war, and nobody who had known it in the past and came upon it suddenly would have recognized the place…"

The temple was meant to imitate the holy with it’s vast solar brilliance. But as we know from other stories in the bible, when humans try to build structures to rival the glory of God, it never ends well.

In great contrast to the magnificent grandeur of this temple, throughout Luke’s gospel we are told of the lowly origins of Jesus, and the devotion with which he cares for the lowly. Jesus had the lowly birth of a homeless child, born, not in a glorious temple, but in a barn, and he will die the lowly death of a criminal. His mentor was the homeless wild man John the Baptist, who wears a mantel of camel skin and survives on what he can scrape together in the wilderness- wild locusts and wild honey.

In his first public declaration, Jesus quotes the words of the social justice loving Isaiah when he says that God has sent him for the poor, the imprisoned, the disabled, the oppressed. He heals those who were most unclean and despised: lepers, the paralyzed, epileptics, a bleeding woman, a girl who was already dead, and the blind, all observed by his apparently blind disciples.

Again and again he speaks with, heals and teaches that despised subset of the population, women, unheard of for a first century Jewish man. He warns that you must not take the seat of honor when invited to a banquet. Jesus particularly speaks against the hording of gold, telling his disciples to store up their treasure in heaven instead.

And the disciples have been with him all this time. So what do they say when they regard the splendor of the vast gleaming temple?

They say something like- “OY! Will you look at that gorgeous hunk of gold-plated real estate!”

But Jesus, ever patient, tries to tell them that, like all wealth, it will tumble, like all things material raised up, it will fall.

Jesus warns that not one stone of the temple will be left on top of another. He knows that this kind of wealth invites violence, that in fact that kind of wealth IS violence, and that violence is soon to come, war and insurrections . The violence and the devastation described by Josephus is the inevitable outcome of those things Jesus railed against over and over again: Power over the poor, hierarchy, greed, hatred.

We are a slow-learning species, and we, as a nation, are, as addictively as ever, worshiping gold and indulging in war, two wars in fact, one at least partially caused by greed, the other by revenge, the opposite of forgiveness. Jesus warns us against false prophets that will come in his name saying “I am he!: And “The time is near!” Jesus warns us not to go after them. We pray that our children do not harken to the call of the false prophets urging them on college and even high school campuses to “Be all that they can be” and help to obliterate modern temples.

Every day we hear about 3,400 other messages from false prophets, according to a film I saw called: Advertising and the End of the World. Every tee shirt you see advertising a name brand, every bill board, every TV or internet commercial, every product placement, every cereal box, every piece of junk mail and every sales man you are accosted by is helping to drive you into the hell of hording, the enchantment of gold, and, as the movie implies, the end of the world through the earth-destroying reality of manufacturing. Each false prophet will urge: “The time is near!”
“This sale ends in two days!”
“Get in on the ground floor of this investment!”
“Enjoy yourself before the economy tanks completely, or before you die, which ever comes first! You deserve it!”

I must confess that the radiant temple at which I worship lately, is my beloved Mac Book Pro, a false prophet I will follow almost anywhere, at almost anytime. My husband asked me what I wanted for my last birthday, and I said I would like a Kindle, an easy way to have a whole library of books at my disposal while I traveled. He immediately said no, He would get me an ipad because that could do the work of a kindle and so much more! Very weakly and for a very short time I protested, and so I now have my Ipad and I no longer worship monotheistically at my Mac book pro. In fact, now that I have a smart phone, there is a kind of unholy trinity of false prophets in my life. This phone is not only inexpressively smarter than I am, but is able to beep and buzz when it wants me to do something, which I pretty much immediately do, except at 3:00 in the morning, which has happened lately. I find that I surf the web with my Ipad (you can do it anywhere!) much more than I read on it, and it is so easy to get lost down the rabbit hole of the world wide web, wherein time slips away, and your life along with it.

But it seems I am not the only one with cyber addictive tendencies to these radiant little temples. I recently heard that the fastest selling application for the Mac is called “Freedom,” and it is simply an application that will make it impossible for an individual to log on to the net for a pre-set number of hours of the day or night. I think I better get that ap, because when I wrote this, staring at my little glowing temple, it was 10:09PM and I hadn’t yet said hello to my daughter, who got home at 4:30. I sometimes think that if this cyber-temple of mine is not destroyed, it will destroy me, that one stone of me will be left upon another.

We risk our very souls when we don’t consciously walk away from all false prophets, electronic and otherwise, when we don’t question the powers and principalities that Jesus warned us about.

But Jesus, of course, preaches a different kind of prophesy, radiates a different kind of brilliance. Jesus is seen, shining like the sun, unsheltered by any temple, surrounded by those who loved him and whom he loved, in the story of the transfiguration, not long after our story of today.

God is not shining in this story, but is hidden behind a cloud, beseeching the ever-clueless disciples to listen to the “Beloved son.” And Jesus, glowing brighter than any gold, seems to have already replaced the blinding temple, by radiating love. He is flanked by his beloved OT prophets, Moses, who taught him about the love of the sacred, and Elijah who taught him about the still small voice of God. At Jesus’ feet are the disciples who he loved so much, in spite of everything they did. Peter, so typically, pops up in the midst of all this brilliance and wants to construct a few little temples of his own- but the voice from the cloud silences him. The vast structure, the brilliant temple, the awe-inspiring edifice that Jesus the new creation gives to us is the miracle of unconditional love. And any rich person can tell you that no amount of gold, no quantity of gigabytes can buy that.

But, as Jesus says, if we can endure this culture, that makes a God out of gold, that makes a sacrament out of war, if we can open the door of our own small temple to the possibility of love without counting the cost, we may just see the new Jerusalem in our lives, a new heaven and a new earth, right here and now. And we may even be able to re-gain our true souls.


Beyond Betrayal

Isaiah 1:10-18, Psalm 32:1-7, 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12, Luke 19:1-10
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA Sunday, 10/31/10
The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor

Beyond Betrayal

In today’s Gospel is the last encounter Jesus has with an outcast before his entry into Jerusalem, and his crucifixion.

Jesus has been seen to help many other kinds of dispised and unclean outcasts in this Gospel- a man possessed by a demon, a hemoraging woman, a man who had dropsy, a who is bend double with her disease, ten lepers and finally, the blind man.

The old prophets continually preached though the scriptures that a righteous Jew should help the poor and powerless, even those who were aliens. In our Old Testament reading we hear “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” But these dictates did not include the ritually unclean, such as the ones I just listed. And Zaccheaus, as a traitor working for the Romans, certainly was among the dispised unclean.

To accept someone like Zacchaeus, to have table fellowship with him was really extraordinary, in fact, inflammatory in Jesus time and place. Zaccheaus status among the Jews would have been a few rungs lower than lepers and the hemoraging woman.

The Tax collectors of the Jesus’ time, had nothing in common with the IRS agents of today. We might feel some level of unease with an IRS agent, but we know they are just doing their job. But the tax collectors described in the New Testament were uniquely dispised as true traitors, true betrayers of their people.

The Greek term teloni, in this case describes an entrepreneur who would pay a contract in advance, and then extort as much money over and above the required Roman tax as he could, for his own personal gain.

Under the rule of Herod Antipas, in the time of Jesus, there were personal, or poll taxes, land taxes, and a host of indirect taxes, such as the tax on transporting goods. Then there were the religious taxes, as well. And on top of that there was whatever the individual teloni could extort. The people were so desperately stretched and impovershed by all this taxation and extortion, that their desperation led to violent uprisings agains the Romans authorities.

So in finding a contemporary equivalent of Zacchaeus, one would not compare him to an IRS agent, but rather to one of a multitude of Bernie Madoffs, who would think nothing of backrupting elderly people and families and driving them out of their homes, just to further increase their already obscene wealth.

But Jesus, ignoring purity codes and ancient predjudices as usual, was willing to love beyond betrayal. And he was oblivious to what people would think of this acceptance of a betrayer of the Jews. Think of the political fallout if President Obama was seen having an elegant dinner over at Bernie’s Madoff’s opulent abode, pre-incarceration of course. But although the crowd around Jesus grumbled bitterly that he was associating with a sinner, Jesus didn’t care.

Jesus also may have sensed the betrayers to come, whom he also greeted with love. He not only accepted Judas’ kiss, but during the last supper, according to the Gospel of John, he gave Judas communion, handing him a piece of bread dipped in wine- forgiving him before he even committed the betrayal. Jesus may have been demonstrating to the beloved disciple by his side, not only who would betray him, but how one ought to respond to a betrayer- offer him the sacrament of forgiveness.

In his wonderful book, Works of Love, Sooren Kiekegaard speaks of the moment after Peter denyed knowing Jesus for the third time. Immediately after the third betrayal, the cock crows, and Jesus turns and looks at Peter, (Lk 22:60-61a). Then Peter leaves him, weeping bitterly. Kierkegaard, extrapolates for sometime on his conviction that the look that send Peter away weeping was simply a look of the purest love and forgiveness.

Then as a further act of compassion, Jesus later allowed Peter to ritually undo his betrayal, when Jesus asked him three time, “Do you love me, Simon Peter?”

Jesus loves through all the betrayals- the betrayal of Judas, the betrayal of Peter, and finally, as he desperately perceives it, the betrayal of God. He repeats the anguished words of the psalmist, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” And so Jesus knows how to love beyond the betrayals of the tax collecting Zaccheaus.

And Zaccheaus, in our story of today, miraculusly becomes as a child again, thus beginning his ownership of the Kingdom of Heaven. Given that he was short of stature, he already had a head start, and so he discarded his dignity to run ahead and climb a tree, something any child would have delighted in doing.

And miraculously, Zaccheaus, when he sees Jesus not only looking at him with love, but inviting himself to the tax collector’s house, is able to accept the love, and to be transformed by it. He immediately offers to give away half of everything he owns, and pledges to pay back four-fold, those people he had defrauded. Therefore Jesus announces that salvation has come to the house of Zaccheaus, and that he, this dispised betrayer, is a son of Abraham, a just and faithful Jew. His betrayals are forgotten, and Jesus enacts the forgiveness we heard in our reading from Isaiah “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.
This is the happiest ending in a story involving a rich man in the Gospel of Luke. Early in the gospel, it is made clear to whom the Kingdom of God belongs, and it is not to the rich. And in the “woe to you” section, of the beatitudes Jesus tells us “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” A little later, he calls the rich farmer a fool, and demands his soul of him. The sumptuously feasting rich man dressed in purple and fine linen, goes to Hades while the poor man Lazarus rests in the bosom of Abraham. Finally, not long before our gospel of today, Jesus meets a rich young man, who asks him what it takes to earn eternal life. Although Jesus looks at him with love, he tells him that to earn eternal life, he must give away all of his possesions. The rich young man, unlike Zaccheaus, turns and walks away sad.
Jesus then delivers his famous one-liner about it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus looked at Zaccheaus, at Peter, at Judas, as he looks at all of us. He sees not a betrayer, but a lost sheep, a broken heart, a lost soul. All of us are broken, all of us are lost at some time in our lives. And perhaps we have the guilt of a traitor. We may have betrayed a child, a loved one, a friend, a master, as Peter did, we may have felt that we betrayed God, and we may have betrayed ourselves. But in our own lives, it is exactly in the guilt of betrayal, exactly in the brokenness of our hearts, the brokenness of our lives, that we meet Jesus. Not in our perfection, not in our riches, not in our perfectly appropriate life styles and professions. Luckily, Jesus came to save the lost, as he says at the end of our Gospel reading. He comes to save us when we need him the very most, wounded by judgements of who we are, judged as a sinner, a betrayer, an abomination before God. Judeged, perhaps most brutally, by ourselves.

This last outcast Jesus heals is a most unlikely convert, a rich man who transforms into someone who could, indeed enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Now, in our story, as we are almost entering Jerusalem, the previous reality is turned upside down. We are approaching the time when Jesus, with his death, shatters the old world order. With the great force of Jesus’ resurrection, a new world, blessed by the Reign of God is opened for us. And here the broken-hearted, the lost, the hopeless, rich and poor alike can and will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, can and will invite Jesus to stay with them, can and will be not lost, but found.