Power, Privilege & Authority (Matthew 26:47-56)

17VFriedman-slide-O5CG-superJumboMacbeth enters with bloody daggers and simply says, “I have done the deed…” Every time I read this story, and Judas greets Jesus and kisses him, I think, “Judas has done the deed.” As the soldiers lay hands on and arrest Jesus, Judas’ betrayal is complete. The crowds of weaponized soldiers to arrest one man with this friends is reminiscent of law enforcement officers in riot gear at a peaceful protest. It feels like overkill (and in fairness, not all demonstrations are peaceful, but many are). Jesus rightly calls them out on it: “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me” (26:55).

One of the themes we continue to identify in Matthew is the interplay between power and authority. We saw it as soon as Jesus showed up in the power play by King Herod with the Magi. We saw it with John the Baptist and the power dynamics between him and the Pharisees. The question of authority continues to come around and it really comes to a head here. Jesus is saying, “you’ve had the power to arrest me all along, but you choose to do so under the cover of night.” You could almost follow it with, “cowards.”

Power and authority are concepts we don’t like to talk much about. We don’t like to admit we have it when we do, we often misuse it when we do, and when we don’t have it, we want it, and as humans, we can too easily do great damage to get it. Among other things, this Gospel is about rightly and wrongly ordered power and authority. The governmental and religious leaders have it, and they are afraid of losing it, so they use it to protect themselves. When power and authority is used to guard itself, it is wrongly ordered. It is disordered power. But Jesus has a whole other kind of power and authority, and he uses not to protect himself but to empower others. He uses it to empower those who don’t have it, and this is the core of the threat that Jesus is.

Throughout history, there are people endowed with a kind of innate power and authority. They have a natural ability to organize, mobilize, and affect real change. When these people step into that work, those with positional power and authority get nervous. We saw it with David and Saul. We see it with Jesus and Pharisees. We saw it with Joan of Arc, and Martin Luther, and Gandhi, and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela, and Malala. Rightly ordered power and authority makes disordered power and authority quake in its boots.

But this positional power and authority is real, and it has the power to do real harm. So Saul tries to kill David. Jesus gets arrested. Nelson Mandela does too. Malala gets shot in the face. This is not to say that all who are in positions of power and authority at all times are corrupt and doing harm. But it is to say, that when they are, there are those who are endowed with a whole other kind of power and authority who can’t not stand up and against it.

A core part of the Gospel of Matthew is watching Jesus step into his power and authority to break down the walls that the established power and authority built to protect themselves. As we will see, Jesus final words to his followers being with authority. And it is here in this story today, that this positional disordered power and authority shows its true colors. It does harm.

Like I said, we don’t like much to talk about power and authority, but we must. Do I have it? To what degree? Am I aware that I have it? How am I using it? How are privilege and power connected? Who and what am I trying to protect? To empower? And in all of that, with whatever power, privilege, and authority we have, to what degree are we willing to step into Jesus’ call from Matthew 16:

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” (Matthew 16:24-26)

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Stay Awake (Matthew 26:36-46)

giphy-13Jesus doesn’t want this. He is “deeply grieved, even to death” about this. He prays that this cup might pass from him. What I love about the scene in Gethsemane is the vulnerability of Jesus. Ever since chapter 23, and even before, we have seen a strong, confident Jesus, saying the hard words in the hard way to the religious elite, and boldly and clearly predicting his death. He does not seem to have any fear or hesitation about what is about to happen. He appears ready. Even when dining with his disciples, he seems confident and ready, even naming his betrayer. But as they approach Gethsemane, you can almost see him pause, take a deep breathe, turn to his friends, perhaps with a tear in his eye or a crack in his voice, and say, “I’m scared. I’m unsure. My heart is heavy. My soul is deeply grieved”.

He then heads in, falls to the ground and prays, but not before asking something of his disciples: “Remain here and stay awake with me.” There is no way that any of them could have understood what Jesus was going through at that moment. But in one of his most human moments, Jesus doesn’t need them to understand. He only needs them to stay awake with him. He only needs them to sit with him.

We live in a culture that wants to fix things. When we see a friend who is hurting, we want to know why, we want to fix it, and in many cases we want someone to pay up. And if we can’t do any of those things we often feel paralyzed, so we shut off and go to sleep. Jesus doesn’t need his friends to fix anything. he doesn’t need them to have answers. In his grief, he only asks that they stay awake with him.

Remember in chapter 25 when he talked about “what you’ve done to the least of these, you’ve done to me”? The poor, broken, homeless, naked, hungry, imprisoned are Jesus in this world. Sometimes we look at the injustices around us, with the best of intentions, we want to fix it. But we’ also feel powerless to do so. It’s a good and noble thing to do what we can to fix injustices, and we should fight with everything we’ve got for those causes, to be sure, but for the most part, we can’t fix them.

So what do we do? We go to sleep. We can’t fix it, answer it, solve it, or justify it so the privileged among us go to sleep. Beloved, God wants us to stay awake. God needs us to stay awake. And I wonder if God says to us today, “could you not stay awake with me for on hour?”. It’s hard to do, but some times all God is asking us to do is simply stay awake and sit with the Christ in his moments of brokenness, hurt, fear and grief.

Turning Our Backs on Jesus (Matthew 26:30-35)

exitNow we are moving. The meal has finished and Jesus and his disciples are on the move. Everything that happens from here on out is one step closer to the cross. As they approach Gethsemane, Jesus says, “You will all become deserters because of me this night”. I don’t know about you, but I was struck by the word “deserters”. The only context in which I’ve heard that word is when a soldier deserts their post trying to flee the war in which they are charged to fight.

In many ways that imagery fits here, but looking it up in other translations reveals something else. The King James says, “ye shall all be offended”; the NET and NIV say, “you will all fall away; the NASB also says, “fall away” but with a note saying “or stumble”. The Greek word is defined as “to cause to be brought to a downfall”. It is the same word used when Jesus warns us about being a stumbling block or causing one to sin. So prior to this verse, Jesus says things like, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6), yet here he says, “you will become [stumbling blocks] because of me”.

Let’s make sure we’re reading this correctly. He is essentially saying, “you will be caused to sin because of me”. Is Christ, “the solid rock”, also a stumbling block? Is Jesus causing us to sin? Or does something else in the context of Jesus’ arrest, trial, suffering, and death cause us to sin? I think it’s the latter, otherwise I think it would read, “I will cause you to sin this night”. It’s a curious statement by Jesus, and with all the warnings he’s given about his suffering and about stumbling blocks, it’s no wonder that Peter (and all the disciples) deny that this will happen.

But here’s the hard truth: Jesus’ work of breaking the barriers of the Kingdom of Heaven wide open is the hard work of dismantling systems of oppressive power. And that work is hard enough and scary enough that his disciples then and now (that is, us) will often turn away from the work and subsequently Jesus.

In this sense, at some time we all become deserters. We all turn the other way, turn our backs to Jesus. And yet, from the very beginning, Jesus has been saying, “repent… turn around for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. Our backs are toward Jesus, yet he makes the first move in coming to this earth to be with us. Even with him right in our very midst, we will again turn away. But then he makes a second first move towards us by going to the cross. He suffers the consequences of the work of liberation for us and with us. Though we desert, Jesus’ love for us never dies.

God’s love is always moving towards us even though we may turn away. God’s love is always pursuing us, even though we may be fleeing. God’s love is always making the first move to capture us, and though we may run, the pursuit of God’s love is relentless. In a very real way, we can run, but we cannot hide. God’s love is there, whether we want it or not. So slow down. Stop. Turn around. Quit deserting and look upon the gracious, loving face of the Christ who calls you beloved, and calls you to follow.

What is Communion? (Matthew 26:17-29)

44157-ThinkstockPhotos-653967256.1200w.tnSo today we come to what is commonly known as the Institution of the Lord’s Supper. It is, of course, a massive story. It is the grounding of one of our two most significant acts in the Christian Church. It is the root of what centered the early church. Jesus gathers his disciples for what in Matthew is the Passover meal. He notes that one of them present will betray him, and it becomes apparent that it is of course Judas. Then he gets into this famous scene reenacted in churches across the globe every Sunday: “While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it…”

Let’s just let this in a moment: The most deeply rooted ritual in the Christian Church, one which has become so highly regarded that more rules and regulations come with it than perhaps any other act (save for maybe baptism), comes in the context of a meal. An actual meal. An important meal, filled with tradition and ritual, but a meal nonetheless. In a world of both literal and metaphorical fast food, I want to suggest that we’ve gotten what we call “The Lord’s Supper” all wrong in the church. It’s still a beautiful and powerful act, but we’re missing something.

In many cultures, reconciliation with enemies comes with the invitation of a meal. I think of Rep. Ilhan Omar’s continued invitations to President Trump to come and have tea with her after he grossly mischaracterized the Somali immigrant community in Minneapolis in the days leading up to the 2016 election. There is an intimately relational element to meals. It connects people. It’s why the Thanksgiving meal is important. There is no other element to that holiday other than a meal (well, maybe football). It’s also why it can be so challenging. In it, we are called to put differences aside and in that sense be reconciled to literal siblings and family.

The “Institution of the Lord’s Supper” comes in the context of one who is going to betray Jesus “While they were eating…” Might we miss out on what the Lord’s Supper really is because, in this world, there’s no time “while we are eating”? We rush through meals in our culture today like they’re a nuisance. I’m as guilty as anybody of this.

But what if the core of the Christian gathering and community isn’t songs and sermons and sanctuaries, but is sharing a meal? How might our overall worship change if we, in our regular daily and weekly lives, slowed down our meals to really be with each other? Is it possible that “communion” doesn’t just happen (as it is in our church) on the first Sunday of the month for about 10 minutes? Communion must be more than a piece of Hawaiian bread dipped Welch’s grape juice in a rigidly but efficiently ordered manner. What if it’s happening every time we gather with others to eat? What if a shared meal is the core and center and most holy act of Christian community? How might that change both our relationships and our “communion” with God and one another?

An Alabaster Jar (Matthew 26:1-16)

anointing-at-Bethany2And so it begins. Jesus has finished this multi-chapter diatribe wherein he thoroughly exposes the scribes and Pharisees’ hypocrisy and talks of the King’s return, and, in so doing, he puts the insiders on the outside and the outsiders on the inside. After all that, he says, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” I pictured him saying it like this: “And, so, y’know… they’re probably gonna kill me for this”. He is fully aware of what he’s doing and what will come of it.

Then this beautiful scene takes place. Jesus is in the house of Simon the leper (being in the house of a leper is a scandal all its own, by the way) when a woman anoints him with expensive perfume, an “alabaster jar of very costly ointment.” This would be a common tool of the prostitute trade. She brings her very livelihood. And the disciples are upset and call it a waste. Maybe they’re well intentioned, but whenever I read this, I hear self-righteousness coming out of them. It’s as though they say this just to get good marks with Jesus. He doesn’t bite. He affirms her sacrifice and considers it preparation for his burial.

We’ve come full circle. At his birth, back in chapter 2, he was given myrrh, and here he’s given it again. The Greek word for “costly ointment” is “muron” (μύρον) and is an ointment said to contain myrrh. This is a good and right sacrifice to him, but, also, it does seem wasteful, I think. While I hear some self-righteousness in the disciples, I also tend to agree. In light of all Jesus has said, done and preached, they have a point!

The distinction, I wonder, might be this: No one told this woman she had to give Jesus anything, but she comes and gives what she has in the most authentic and pursuant way she can. Think about it: She entered some one’s house. Did she know Simon the leper? Or did she just hear Jesus was in there, had to get to him, and barged in to give him whatever she had? The gift was not so much the oil as it was the heart that gave the oil. Her gift was authentic and pure, and this, I believe, is what Jesus desires of us. Jesus wants our hearts, and whatever gifts we give him must come authentically from the heart.

Jesus’ life began with outsiders, coming from far off lands in the East, who pursued him and gave him gifts from their hearts. And here, Jesus’ life will end with another outsider, who pursues him and gives him a gift from her heart. The kingdom is breaking wide open with people from all walks of life authentically pouring their lives out to him. May we do the same this Lenten season; may we be a people of all walks of life, who pursue Jesus relentlessly and authentically give him our hearts. His body has been prepared, his disciples warned, and his betrayer set in motion. Today is the day. The time is now.

The Least of These (Matthew 25:31-46)

B92A0D6B-9741-21D0-A862-A04A6D80D766This is an oft-quoted passage, especially these days. Even 2020 presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren cited it (though she got the citation wrong) in a recent “town hall”. It’s implications are deeper than politics, though. To be honest, it should panic us a bit. There is a clear separation here, a separation that should give us in 21st Century America great pause. Read the passage again and just let it inside you.

A few days ago our passage was Jesus telling about all the signs of his return. The overarching point of this passage is “be ready” because you never know when he will come back. Here we are, just a few days later on our journey but also only two chapters later and Jesus says, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” I do not think it is a coincidence that talk of Jesus’ return and the ever-present of the “least of these” are this close.

Is it possible that we should be ready because Jesus is here? Is it possible that we should not have our heads turned toward the sky looking for a king on a white horse, but turned towards the ground where those without a home sleep? And turned towards the orphanage in Haiti where the weakest among us starve for contact? And turned towards the nursing home bed where our wisest breathe their last? And turned towards the psych-wards where some of our most brilliant try to find their place in this world?

Jesus shows up every day, all around us. He has returned. His Kingdom is at hand. It expands whenever the overlooked are seen, cared for, loved, and empowered. Let us be Kingdom expanders. Let us turn our gaze away from the clouds and towards the very world in which we live. Because Jesus is right there.

Use What You Got (Matthew 25:14-30)

Looking-to-Moving-Forward-How-to-Keep-Your-Momentum-GoingFirst of all, let’s be clear: This is not about investing money into Wall Street. It’s just not. Period. So what it is about?

This is the third passage in a row about the return of the master. In order for the master to return, the master must leave.  It is no coincidence that immediately following his most clear reproach of the religious elite, Jesus is talking about leaving and returning. He knows his time coming. He knows that he will soon, with the power of the Spirit, have to leave this mission into the hands of the disciples. This mission is important, and, not before too long, Jesus will have to let it go.

By itself, this passage sounds like a pretty harsh one about making your life worth something. It feels as though we have a mean boss who demands that we make something of ourselves or we will be cast out. Quite honestly, it’s hard to say that that isn’t there. But, again, let’s look at it in context with the Jesus we see throughout the Gospel. This is a Jesus that battles for the outsider, the outcast; this is a Jesus that demands good fruit, that is, he demands a life that doesn’t leave a sour taste in one’s mouth. This passage, I believe, is about grabbing onto the severity and immediacy of Jesus’ mission, more than it is about pleasing your boss. God does not want us to blindly obey God’s commands. God wants us to grab on to the passion, heart, and energy behind God’s mission.

This is a passage about helping us see that we are to be stewards of that mission. Justo Gonzalez says it beautifully in Three Months With Matthew. He points out the absence of the master in the parable and then says, “What we do not always see is that God’s apparent absence turns us into stewards of what God has given us”. This is not a passage about proving your worth. It is a passage about grabbing onto the mission of God and then using whatever it is God has given you to move that mission forward. God believes in us. God entrusts the work of the kingdom to us. Let us get out there and build it, knowing that we have nothing to lose, because the grace of God works with us, picking us up when we fail and covering us when we make mistakes. The question is, “what has God given you to help build God’s Kingdom?”