Friday, July 14, 2017

Badly Packaged Truth ...

In our world, marketing is an art.  Swaying your opinions is a science.  Advertisers look to combine the two and create something that grabs your attention, holds it even if briefly, and implants a message that you should like the product they sell.  If they cannot make you like it, perhaps they can make you curious about it.  If they cannot make you curious, perhaps they can have you associate feelings with it.  The packaging of a message has become the way we tend to judge the message itself.  Imagine trying to sell a pizza in a cardboard box with a car tire track/print clearly running diagonally across the top of the box.  Seeing a tire track across the box, would make you think this pizza was run over, and is probably crushed inside.  No one would want it.  Imagine attempting to sell soda inside a dented, scratched, and bruised up soda can.  You would naturally think this soda can will have way too much pressure in it, and when you open it, it will explode.  Even if you could secure the contents without incident, the packaging would make you think that the can had “been through the mill”.  It would do little to inspire confidence in the quality of the drink.
People get used to seeing packaging of a certain type for the products they buy.  When the packaging does not match the historical expectations of what it should look like, it draws attention, but most often negative attention.  It is like introducing a third wheel on a motorcycle.  At first no one sees the value in this, and then a niche market is carved out in biker clubs for the unusual, or as utility in a side cart.  Surely no one would introduce a fourth wheel, but then they do.  And voila, the All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV) is born.  But wasn’t that a Jeep?  No, the ATV is a motorcycle on 4 wheels, exposing you, the rider, to all of nature’s elements including massive injury if it rolls, or throws you from its grasp at high speed.  And yet the ATV market continues to grow.  Just like the idea of putting a motorcycle on the water, and voila, the watercraft market is born and thrives as well.  It would seem there is no limit to how we could apply the principles of a basic motorcycle with a little imagination.
And while we are now open to seeing perhaps a new kind of airplane based on a motorcycle given its rapid recent evolution; we are not so open in church.  All too many Christians, expect to see their leaders in a certain kind of package; a three-piece suit to be exact, something with a tie, and shiny shoes.  A deacon, or deaconess can get away with small variances.  But elders hardly can.  And a pastor, is chained to this image of appropriate packaging as surely as they are, to carry a Bible with them at all times.  And using your phone is a cheat, you must have a printed red-letter edition King James Bible, if you are to claim the title of preacher or pastor in this day-and-age.  Packaging sold to us by tradition.  Packaging in sync with our ideas about doing our best for God, but out of sync with what Jesus wore.  Even in His day, Jesus did not wear fine clothing.  He only wore clean clothing, certainly a by-product of baptizing so many people in the Jordan river.
Jesus did not take much of an interest in fine clothing.  In fact, he must have shunned it, at least for Himself.  It would have been remarkably easy to ask for it, from His followers.  They would have either given to Him, or secured it through taking up an offering, like so many modern ministers do believing this is the only way to secure the Lords favor.  It’s not.  Only at His death, is Jesus finally given a royal robe to wear, for the purposes of mocking the King of the Jews.  This is the robe the soldiers eventually gamble for as it still has value, even when Jesus dies above them.  But somehow, modern Christians cling to the idea, that simple, and clean are not enough.  Practical … for hands-on ministry to the poor and to the diseased never even enter our minds.  By this logic we would all be better off wearing scrubs.  With disposable clothing we could embrace the poor, and hug the sick, throwing away our scrubs later and buying new ones if they could not be cleaned in the wash.
But then, scrubs are not the most flattering of garments.  And our ministries are not designed for physical contact with those in need.  Our ministries are designed only for the listening ear, and contributing wallet.  So we expect 3-piece suit packaging, complete with tie, and shiny shoes.  Should a minister take the pulpit dressed in cargo shorts and a short-sleeved shirt with tennis shoes, we would rise up of one accord and throw him out.  Or at minimum, remove ourselves from the blasphemy that is sure to occur in a place that would permit this.  But it is not only clothing that marks our acceptance of a messenger of His truth.  It is behavior.  We have standards after all.  Biblical standards (or at least our interpretation of what those might be).  And we rigidly enforce our standards on everyone … including … Jesus.
Matthew marks the beginning of this thinking (or at least one of the first times it was publicly exposed) in his gospel in the ninth chapter picking up in verse 9 saying … “And as Jesus passed forth from thence, he saw a man, named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose, and followed him.”  As Jesus is leaving his home country or city, He sees Matthew engaged in the practice of collecting Roman taxes.  This is the MOST hated position in the entire nation.  The guy who cleans the poo out of the swine pen would be considered high-society, compared to a tax collector.  Tax collectors are thieves by profession.  Even if they do not steal more for themselves (which most do), they steal Israelite wealth and transfer it to Roman coffers by the nature of what they do. 
Asking Matthew to become a disciple, was literally like asking public enemy number one, to become one of your chief ambassadors.  No thinking modern minister would ask a deformed, lesbian, overweight, stuttering, loud-mouthed, aging minority woman, dressed in shorts and a tee shirt with bare-feet, full of skin disease, and right up to the last minute, a thief of everything you owned, person … to come and follow them, and secure a prime place in your ministry for Christ.  The packaging is ALL wrong.  Any one of those things could perhaps be OK, but the entire combination would make them public enemy number one in the Christian community.  To make them an Apostle of Jesus Christ, is simply unthinkable.  This was the emotional equivalent of selecting a Roman tax collector in the time of Christ.  Matthew would begin his discipleship with Christ as the MOST hated man of the 12, and of the nation at large.  And what does this hated man do … he invites Jesus and the others to come dine in his home.
Matthew continues in verse 10 saying … “And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples.”  The friends of the hated, are hated themselves.  Matthew opens up his home not only to Jesus, to but too everyone else that would be willing to dine there.  His friends are the dregs of society.  Prostitutes, beggars, whoremongers, other thieves, even a gentile or Roman or two.  The list of people willing to associate with the most hated, are by nature also hated themselves.  Though on the social scale, Matthew is clearly the worst, the lowest, and the most hated of any of these groups.  They all serve a purpose.  Matthew and tax collectors serve only Rome.  None the less, Jesus comes and dines with them all.
Matthew continues in verse 11 saying … “And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?”  Enter organized religion into the story.  Enter centuries of tradition passed down within the church, even if they are wrong, or misguided … they remain traditions.  The behavior of Jesus was simply unacceptable.  His behavior rules Him out as being our Messiah.  How many things do you do in your church, or church service, because you have always done them that way?  How many rules and burdens have been placed upon you from the organized church, having nothing to do with the example of Jesus Christ, that you follow because someone said you should?  And when the pastor says you should, how many search the life of Christ, and through this lens, the scriptures for themselves to see if what even a pastor says is what really should happen?  We don’t.  We don’t take the time.  We just do what we are told, as sheep are known to do.
Matthew continues in verse 12 saying … “But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. [verse 13] But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”  Yikes!  Questioning the need for the sacrificial system itself in favor of mercy, was tantamount to blaspheming Moses and the history of that system that Jesus setup in the first place.  But then, Jesus setup that system because we care little for mercy, and so are in need of sacrifice to remind our hardened hearts what mercy should be.  To kill the innocent animals, was supposed to be hard for us to do.  It was supposed to be a reminder that the mercy we feel for the innocent would one day take the Saviors life for us all.  Because we prefer sin to mercy.  Because we prefer the love of self, to the love of others.  And in this preference, our mercy wanes.  And we are ALL unrighteous.  And we ALL have need of the mercy of our Lord to save us from ourselves.  Jesus reminds us that mercy underwrites our very salvation.
If the incident or the story ended here, we might feel good being able to criticize only the religious leadership of the establishment, about their narrow ideas of packaging, and their hypocrisy.  But even the fringe have ideas about packaging as well.  The fringe folks of our community look down on 3-piece suits as being haughty, as being condescending, as being un-enlightened with what is truly important.  The fringe folks have their own music, and methods, and ideas.  And as they rebel against the establishment, they become like the pilgrims of our ancestry who fled religious persecution, only to establish it themselves.  The fringe folks harden in their own ideas about what is important, and become inflexible to change, or adapt to something new.  And it is like looking at two sides of the same coin; both chained to the metal of insistence of being right that binds them. 
Matthew continues in verse 14 saying … “Then came to him the disciples of John, saying, Why do we and the Pharisees fast oft, but thy disciples fast not?”  John the Baptist was definitely NOT mainstream Israelite society.  He dressed weird.  He ate weird foods.  His hair was uncut.  He bellowed messages of repentance and baptized people under that banner in the river Jordan.  This was not the Rabbi you followed for a traditional experience.  This was the fringe.  The out there, the weirdo of the church.  He fit no mold.  Yet he and his followers maintained a few traditions like fasting.  And as they observed Jesus, they begin to see the unfairness of them fasting all the time, and the followers of Jesus never fasting at all.  It bothers them.  Even from a fringe perspective the packaging begins to look wrong.  Both the organized Pharisee and the fringe disciple of John are questioning the same thing … could the packaging of Christ that is different from both indicate He is not actually the Messiah?
Matthew continues in verse 15 saying … “And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast. [verse 16] No man putteth a piece of new cloth unto an old garment, for that which is put in to fill it up taketh from the garment, and the rent is made worse. [verse 17] Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved.”  Jesus tells both audiences the same message, what He brings is new, it is a new life.  The traditions that burden us were never supposed to be there as burdens.  They were meant to free us, or we should be rid of them.  Fasting is not meant as a burden, but as a tool, to clear the mind to see the will of God clearer … or not at all.  Association with the dregs of society is not a sin, it is meant to show them love from a God of love, not to become them and like them participating in the same sins they are held captive to.
It is the love of Jesus that can free us from who we are, whether traditional Christian or fringe Christian.  Our freedom is not found in how we package ourselves, but in how much we love others, and burn to make their lives better.  How much we burn to point others to Jesus as the way to escape the pain of their lives, is the basis of our freedom, nothing else.  His mercy defines our freedom, nothing else.  When we love, we remove the need for sacrifice.  When all our minds are consumed with love of others, there is no room for sin to enter in.  Better that kind of love, then a cycle of sin-and-forgive we are content with today.  Better to love others so much, we do not have time to sin, we do not have desire to sin, we only want to see people find the love of Jesus Christ.  It is not up to us to clean them, that is the work of Jesus.  It is not up to us to judge them for who they are today, but instead to point them to Jesus and have faith that He will clean them up over time.  Jesus is not just looking to meet someone, and then turn over their salvation to you.  He is looking to meet them, love them everyday, and see them freed from pain of sin.  That is what salvation is all about.
Does it bother you that Jesus does this in a homespun garment and simple sandals?  Does it bother you that Jesus gets dirty on dusty roads?  Does it bother you that Jesus picks up all kinds of germs as he embraces the lepers, the demon possessed, the crippled, the folks with diseases of the skin and bloody wounds?  It is not clean work healing the folks in need.  Love is not clean, it is messy.  Love that redeems is messy to.  It has to be, to get to the place where you are, and remove you from it.  The Truth has a name.  It comes to us from the inspiration of His Holy Spirit still today.  Even if it is not wrapped in the package we traditionally accept, we can still listen for His Truth even when the person who offers it, may not be perfect yet.  It was never the package that mattered.  It is not the 3-piece suit that lends credence to what is said.  Only the content of what is said, can be measured against the Truth of Jesus Christ.  A lot of lies are said in 3-piece suits, just as they are in cargo shorts and tee shirts.  But a lot of truths are offered in both as well.
Let us open our minds to His Spirit, focus on it, and discard the package for what it is … meaningless.  It was not the homespun robe and simple dusty sandals that gave Christ His passion for us, and they did nothing to deter it either.  All they were, was clothing, nothing more.  No significance.  What He said matters, not in what clothing He said it.  The same is true today of ALL of His messengers to us.  Truth still has a name.  And Truth can still come to us from the most unlikely sources, if we will but see it.  Leave the packaging up to the influence of His Spirit, and focus only on the Truth that is uttered.  If Jesus is in it, the package is meaningless.  But if Jesus is not in it, no matter how well it is packaged, it is still worth nothing.  Jesus reminds us, if we want to do our best for Him, we should show mercy, and love others.  The recipients of that mercy and love will be looking in to your eyes, not at their reflection in your shiny shoes, or at the wrinkles in your cargo shorts.  Your eyes will reveal your passion … or not.

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