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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Which Jesus?

Epiphany 8 Year A; Matthew 6:24-34

February 27, 2011

The Rev. Bob Honeychurch

This past Christmas, I received a gift that I had been angling for, and dropping ever-so-subtle hints about, for months. I got my very own Amazon Kindle. Many of you know that I travel quite a bit, and a Kindle is a great way to carry along thousands of books at the same time wherever I go, all packaged electronically into one small devise. One of the other cool features of a Kindle is that I can email myself documents, and actually use it to hold things like my sermon that I’m preaching this morning.

If you know much about an Amazon Kindle – or its electronic siblings produced by other companies – you know that you can peruse electronic bookstores and with the click of button purchase a book at a considerably lower cost than buying the same book in paper form. This at least partly explains the guy in downtown Pasadena standing out at the corner with a big sign announcing the “going out of business” sale for the Borders Bookstore on South Lake.

One of the other great features of a Kindle is that, in addition to making thousands of books available at a relatively low cost, it also makes lots and lots of books available for no charge at all… books whose copyright has entered the public domain – classics like Treasure Island or The Secret Garden or The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Also, lots of lesser-known authors trying to get their foot in the literary door will sometimes release one of their books for free, just to get their works into the hands of the reading public, in the hope that they’ll return and pay for other books by the same author.

That’s how I came across one particular book a few weeks ago. Admittedly, the main reason it caught my eye was that it was free. But the other thing about this book that lured me in was its title… Imaginary Jesus, by Matt Mikalatos. It’s a fun, fairly mindless story set in Portland OR, written from a confidently Christian perspective, of the main character’s search for the “real” Jesus amidst a sea of “imaginary Jesus” pretenders all vying for his attention and his affection and his loyalty. So, along the way we meet Magic 8 Ball Jesus (the one who will give you an answer to any question, so long as the answer is “yes”, “no”, or “ask me later”), and Liberal Social Services Jesus (the one who thinks that the best way to tell people about God is through service… but without ever talking about God), and Conservative Truth-Telling Jesus (who doesn’t have any arms, and thinks that the only way to tell people about God is through hard truth, but never raises a hand to help people with their physical needs), and Bargaining Jesus (the Jesus who will always answer your prayers… but only for a price), and King James Jesus (who only speaks in 16th century Elizabethan English), and You-Should-Get-A-Divorce-and-Marry-a-Younger-Woman Jesus (which is fairly self explanatory), and Political Power Jesus (who wants to legislate “family values”). The list goes on and on.

I was reminded of these many “imaginary Jesuses” as I read this morning’s gospel lesson… because I think that in this text we have to come to terms with an “imaginary Jesus” who raises his head for us 21st century Christians in a particularly pernicious way. The opening words of today’s gospel quote Jesus as saying, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Now the great tension in reading the New Testament is hearing the words of 1st century speakers with our 21st century ears. And one of the great challenges for us 21st century Christians (many of us, like myself, who are really 20th century Christians still trying to make sense of life in the 21st century) is that the world we live in, the values which have shaped us, the commonly-held standards and assumptions by which we pattern our lives, are simply not the same for Jesus and the other characters of the New Testament (not to mention the Old Testament which was written many, many years earlier).

The Imaginary Jesus that shows up for many of us when we hear today’s gospel is the one we might call Dualism Jesus. Dualism Jesus came on the scene in the past few hundred years, and tries to convince us that he’s been there all along. Dualism Jesus goes hand-in-hand with Age of Enlightenment… creating a worldview which separates all of life into two opposing polarities. So we divide the world into the sacred and the secular, good and bad, light and dark, in and out. We believe that we can distill all of life to binary code, where everything gets boiled down to choosing between one of two options.

And then, once we have convinced ourselves that that is the way the world works, then we try to convince ourselves that that must be the way Jesus works as well… and one more Imaginary Jesus comes into being… just like all of the other Imaginary Jesuses who are really nothing more than projections of ourselves and our own biases.

And so, when Imaginary Dualism Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters. You cannot serve God and wealth,” our ears perk up, and our binary code kicks in, and we say to ourselves, “What Jesus means is, ‘There is God standing over at one wall, and there is wealth standing over at the opposite wall, and we have to go stand at one wall or the other.’”

But the Real Jesus never would have said that. I’m not questioning the words of Jesus in the Bible. I am simply questioning our interpretation of those words 2000 years later. You see, the Real Jesus, the 1st century Jesus who was born in a stable, and was raised as a Jew, and roamed around the eastern Mediterranean on foot, and gathered disciples, and upset the local authorities, and was crucified on what we call Good Friday, and who rose on what we call Easter Sunday… that Jesus never would have understood God and wealth as standing at separate walls. That Jesus (if I may continue with that metaphor of walls for just a minute longer) would only have understood that there was one wall… and God was the wall… and all of creation stood with God at the same wall.

Why then, would the Real Jesus say what he did in this morning’s gospel? I think he did so as a word of warning… but as a very different warning than most of us hear. It wasn’t a warning about having to choose between God and money. It was a warning that if you choose to see your money as separate from God, then you will have to make a choice… and you cannot serve two masters. If you choose to separate God from the world, you will hate one and love the other. If you choose to create that false dichotomy, that false dichotomy will become your undoing.

Much as it does in the weeks leading up to Christmas, there is talk beginning to swirl around St. Mark’s. In December, the question was, “So what do you want for Christmas this year?” This time of year however, with Ash Wednesday only 10 days away, the question has shifted to, “So what are you going to give up for Lent this year?” The temptation of the season of Lent, of course, is to fall for the Imaginary Dualism Jesus who tries to tell us that somehow the attachments of the world are at odds with the attachment of God, and so to truly draw closer to God we have to distance ourselves from our worldly cares. Do you see the inherent dualism in that logic… that somehow the world is over here, and God is over here… and to move “toward” God I have to move “away” from the world?

I don’t buy it. I mean, I simply don’t believe that is true. Probably the most beloved and well known passage in all the scriptures is John 3:16, where we hear those familiar words: “For God so loved the world.” If that is true – and I believe that it is – then God is fully present in the world… in every aspect of our common life together, in every dimension of the human experience, in all of our interactions with one another and with every part of God’s creation. To believe that we somehow need to distance ourselves from that good and holy world which God has created, and blessed, and loved, and fully become a part of… to do that, I believe, is to do a disservice to the gospel.

So… if you are one who absolutely HAS TO give something up for Lent each year, this year I would suggest that you give up “giving stuff up.” And in its place, I would also suggest that you look deep into the very things that you might some years set aside, and search for God’s presence just waiting to be uncovered there.

If some years you give up going out for dinner, this year I would suggest going out once a week – and choosing an ethnic cuisine you’ve never tasted before just to experience some of the ways in which God blesses us through wonderful foods and spices and flavors you might never have encountered previously.

If some years you give up watching television or going to the movies, this year I would suggest just the opposite. Watch more. And then ask yourself at the end of the movie or TV show, “How did I see the hand of God at work in that production? What is God trying to communicate to me or to the world through the themes or storylines I just encountered?”

If some years you give up chocolate, this year I say eat chocolate from different parts of the world, and learn about chocolate production in those places, and come to understand whether those folks are being treated fairly and equitably and justly.

If some years you give up using the internet so much, this year I’d suggest logging on daily, and using the internet to re-connect with family and long-time friends by writing a different person an email every day just to say that you are thinking of them and holding them close in your heart and in your prayers.

There are plenty of Imaginary Jesuses out there… all of whom want a little piece of the action, a little piece of the pie, a little piece of our heart. I suggest that you go on a quest for the real one, living in our midst, and inviting us to see God’s hand… in everything. Amen.

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