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Friday, January 19, 2018

The Calling of Simon the Zealot: A Sermon Addressing Bitterness in the Mid-American Imagination

       A cassette tape runs in my head.  He has called us, too.  “Simon Peter, Andrew, James, his brother John… Matthew 10:3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the publican; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Zealot and Judas...
      All we know is that Simon was a zealot… but that’s no vestigial triviality.  Sure, Simon Zealot is not Simon Rock—something that would be important if Simon Zealot ever showed up again.  But I think the Spirit is also saying 1) zealots are called 2) yes, zealots may resist grace, 3) But Jesus’ loving call, drop by drop transforms their zealotry. 
       Interpreters from Human Resources, not wanting to hire terrorists, will want to interpret Simon’s zeal as “spiritual fervor.”  But isn’t that zeal after Jesus?  Matthew’s word zealot echoes violent texts like Numbers 25:13.  Luke’s name for Simon is zealotes—the epitome of piety for Maccabean guerrilla-fighters. The patron saint of all such Zealots was Phinehas.  During the wilderness wandering a plague came over the Israelite camp because of disobedience to the law and one Israelite paraded his idolatrous relationship with a Midianite concubine right past the tent of meeting and into his tent.  Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, was convinced of what another priest would one day say: it was “better for one man to die than for the whole nation to perish."  So, Phinehas followed them into their tent took his spear and frog gigged both the Israelite and his Midianite concubine in their idolatrous act.  It was then the plague against all Israel stopped; ... The Lord says in Numbers 25:11 "Phinehas…has turned my anger away from the Israelites; for he was as zealous as I am… so that in my zeal I did not put an end to them.”     
        There are lots of rabbits in this textual thicket, but let’s chase only this: This is the DVD playing in Simon’s mind.  The zealot’s militant zeal spares Israel from God’s militant zeal.  That’s the kind of zealot Simon was…and that I believe Jesus still calls.
      The Phinehas DVD resonates with Simon because he’s downloaded other videos into his Android.  Has his younger brother collaborated with Roman Swine to steal from the family budget like he was some EPA prosecutor who is his own judge and jury? Perhaps amidst land and income inequality he wonders why Jubilee year never gets obeyed.  Perhaps the Roman legionaries ravished Simon’s daughter--like a perverse Uncle, and the priestly powers in the family shielded the abuser. Perhaps all the jobs had gone down to Caesarea leaving the young people in Galilean hills with nothing but Roman drinking habits and sexual deviancy to occupy their time.   
       Some say Simon is mad as hell—zealous to restore his country to greatness.  But that doesn’t capture it.  He’s not mad as hell—he thinks he is as mad as heaven—He thinks that if Israel is going to be spared the wrath of God—if God is going to be kept from knocking down all our World Trade Centers, then this foreign temple corruption—this Roman behavior that defiles traditional marriage, and the land itself-- is going to have to be forcibly stamped out.  Now, do I have your attention?  This Zealot actually sits in the assembly of Jesus’ disciples.     
       The worship of Raw Power has lodged itself into American civil life. Churches can’t even talk about social hurts without things devolving into the bitter talking-points memorized from those bastions of catechesis--CNN and Fox.  There’s no agreement about who the real Ninevites are, but Simon on all sides is convinced they are ruining the land; the God of mercy has wilted his vine; and this Simon Bar Jonah is mad enough to die.
      Appeals to civility fall flat on Simon’s deaf ears.  Simon Zealot resists grace.   Have you listened to a mother (let’s call her Simone, rather than Simon) who has lost her child, Kirk, to murder?  Her head plays tapes of people who have told her to calm down about the murder of her boy, Kirk. Calm down? That would be tantamount to betraying her boy’s memory! So Jesus doesn’t counsel her to merely stay calm.  He counsels her along with grieving Martha, who’s quietly enraged the doctor was 4 days late and missed the Lazarus’ diagnosis.   “He who believes in me shall never die.  Do you believe this?  Martha, or today’s Simone or Simon or whoever you are—I’m not asking you to ignore your hurt—that’s real enough.  I’m asking you if you believe that you rage is “right.” Have you lost touch with the God of righteous anger and cleansing wrath who is more perfectly angry about injustice than you are?  Do you believe you have a right to be mad, and that a righteous God will set things to right? Do YOU…BELIEVE this?  I’m not asking you to accept Kirk’s murder as God’s will.  Perish the thought!  Simone, I’m asking you if you believe it is God’s business and our business to defy the whole damned death-dealing thing, and that you will hear the words out of the depths of God’s own raging grief, “Kirk, come out!”     
       But Simone still resists, because bitterness is in the bones. If she could be honest she’d say. “I’m bleeding--don’t ask this deep depression to do the impossible.” “But what if I do the impossible,” Jesus asks.  “You Reach up and touch the hem of my garment.”  I have all kinds of powerful medicine.  There’s no shame in taking medicine.  Let’s get your body clear so you can hear that in my bleeding yours can be healed.
       But Simone and Simon’s subconscious is streaming scary movies which don’t stop playing even when the threat’s over.  Simon’s like the guy who barely escaped maladministration charges.  The First and Last Eschatological bank floated him 20 trillion to cover the national debt. Yet, as he went out, he found one of his undersecretaries who owed him three months wages. He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!'…   'Be patient with me…"But he refused. Instead, he started a convention chant: “Lock her up, lock her up!”  But Jesus says, Simon, I’m not saying what your fellow servant did was right or that you shouldn’t be mad, but I have already absorbed the cost of the debts.  Folks can’t take permanently take anything from you!  “All that I have is yours.”   “Whether the world or life or death or the present or the future — all are yours.”  Always will be.
        But, still Simon chooses prison.  He doesn’t want some pie in the sky speech.  Simon wants to insist I’ve been robbed of joy and meaning right now.  Jesus replies, “You mean like a homeless Son of Man not having a place to lay his head?” Sisters, without blindness Fanny Crosby would have been a mediocre song-writer. Brothers without being dogged by the Oxford establishment C.S. Lewis would never have been perpetually stuck with freshman, developing a rapport with the public. God comforts us--uses our trouble-- so that we can comfort others.  Simon, you can be surprised by joy right now. 
       Yet there are so many unfortunate tapes questioning the legitimacy of Simon’s anger raging in Simon’s bitter body… setting off alarms...demands for fairness… The I’m-cheated videos… The Phinehas drama of redemptive violence plays is a persistent pop-up add canonized in the heart.   In our pews Simon sits in various stages of denial or despair over this rage.  Competing warrior gods stoke bitterness over different outrages because their nuclear-button-measuring existence depends on a constant fight.  Simon may even know he’s being played, but he’s too mad at his enemies to care.
        BUT (Scandal of scandals) Jesus still called Simon—to convert his zeal.  Out of all the men in Israel—he called him with all his self-assured ways of righting wrongs… Jesus called him just as Christ called you—zealot that you are!  “He has called us too.”  Not because of –but in spite of my zeal—manipulative moral crusades to “save” the church-- Christ picked me.   
       Simon’s resistance to grace can be overcome because the protest Phinehas lodged has now been lodged within the Divine Life, itself!  Simon, Jesus says, I’m not telling you not to be mad—l’m saying, “offer your rage to me.”  Isn’t that the vision which changed Saul to Paul—the recognition that Saul’s zealous persecution was falling on Jesus himself?  “Who are you Lord?” “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.  I choose you!”   If it is better for one man to die than for the whole nation to perish then the God-Man in Jesus Christ takes the stoning himself—and religious zeal is changed.  "Rage will always find a scapegoat. Resentment ricochets through history until the Divine Life in dying a human death bears it… and rises again. God has stilled the plague by taking the Phinehas’ spear in his own side—and so zeal is…listen… vindicated. Our righteous wrath—God’s wrath must fall somewhere.  And as it falls upon the Divine it is transformed… into uncompromising, gritty, brave, awe inspiring love for the enemy.
       Mayor Richard Lugar warned Robert Kennedy not to speak in an Indianapolis African American neighborhood, April 4, 1968.  The police were unprepared to ensure the protection of the Kennedy campaign.  Ethel Kennedy stayed away in relative safety.  It was the day Martin Luther King was murdered. Hundreds of enraged Black citizens had joined the throng of Kennedy supporters downtown.  They had come, as in most other major cities in the United States, ready to incite a riot.   
      Yet Kennedy delivered one of the greatest political speeches in American history.   After gently sharing the terrible news—news that shook us down to questions about who we are most fundamentally, he said that he understood the rage people might feel.  For the first time he spoke about his own brother’s murder in public.  He admitted that he had harbored this rage—the pain the violent principalities and powers had afflicted on him.  And then he quoted Aeschylus to the would-be mob: And even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
       Kennedy had come to Indianapolis to enlist the crowd in his political movement.  He called them.  He called them by affirming their anger, and by acknowledging that their rage was in some ways resistant to his message of grace.  But finally he bore witness to the possibility that the awe-inspiring grace of God bestows wisdom even on the most resistant and angry hearts—that drop by loving drop, though we despairing of ever being freed from our rage—even in some ways against our will, the presence of someone who suffers with, for and in us, edits our internal tape.  Someone who has born in his own soul our griefs--who has in his being born the injustices we feel—only this kind of someone is capable of editing the tape of our heart.  The lie of redemptive violence becomes a story of cruciform wisdom.  The one who bears the crown of our thorns, our stripes, our nails and our bullets makes it possible for wrath to be born and religious zeal to be channeled into an awe-inspiring love that shuts the mouths of lions, makes peace in Indianapolis, and redeems the world.     
        Even those of us who are more contented about wider social forces still suffer in ways that affect them just as profoundly and often more directly than the wider social stuff. In the 90’s Sit-com Everybody loves Raymond Deborah discovers husband Ray has saved the cassette answering machine message of his former girlfriend breaking up with him—on tape.  Yet, Deborah listens to this tape with him. Deborah, who daily takes the brunt of Rays silliness, assures him that she will never leave nor forsake him.  And a new tape is born in Ray’s heart—The voice of Deborah’s love is edited by God’s Audacity onto the old tape, and the “why’d u dump me” tape becomes a song of vindication.  Deborah picked Ray—Jesus called Simon and, despite our resistance, the rest of us now transformed zealots are called.  I am one and you.

       Oh Triune God, almost in spite of ourselves we have received so much grace in Jesus Christ to validate and vindicate our zeal.  In our broken body, chronic fear and lost dreams—we now surrender our zeal to the cause of grace, and receive more than anyone could ever take from us. Amen.