Spielberg Marathon: The Post

“The Times has 7,000 pages detailing how the White House has been lying about the Vietnam War for 30 years.”

“If we don’t hold them accountable, who will?”

“What are you going to do, Mrs. Graham?”

___________________________________________________________

Steven Spielberg’s valentine to newspaper journalism is not as effective as, say, “Spotlight” but the movie is mildly decent on its own merits.  Warfare opens the film as American troops battle in the jungles of Vietnam.  Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) witnesses the grisly reality of this war and upon return, the bullshit lies that politicians (namely the Nixon Administration) are serving the American public.  Upon his return to the states, Ellsberg walks away with thousands of pages of the Pentagon Papers showing that a succession of presidents had told bald-faced lies to Congress and the American people.  Robert McNamara is on record in the papers as knowing the war was unwinnable in 1965.  58,168 American troops died in Vietnam and who knows how many of the Vietnamese people including innocent civilians.

We meet the legendary Meryl Streep as Katherine Graham, the owner of the Washington Post in 1971.  She is an untested female publisher at a crucial time for The Post as the enterprise prepares to go public.  Swirling around Graham are various men who don’t think she can do the job and the stench of sexism emits from the screen.  While conflicted board meetings are going on, editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (the always reliable Tom Hanks) is enraged that the New York Times had gotten their hands on the historically famous Pentagon Papers leak.  An injunction kept the Times from publishing any more stories, so Bradlee has his team swing into action attempting to get the scoop before their competitors.

Enter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk known for “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” and giving an excellent performance in this film) who tracks down Ellsberg, obviously the same source to the Times, and obtains the Pentagon Papers.  So the climax becomes the proposition that the newspaper company is going public and now is tasked with the decision as to whether to publish the Pentagon Papers and draw the certain ire of the Nixon administration.

The messaging of the film is pretty heavy handed.  First Amendment. Freedom of the Press.  National security issues.  As the Washington Post published the Pentagon Papers, the owner, editors and reporters were not sure that they wouldn’t land in jail.  Their lawyers told them from the get-go that they would wind up in front of the Supreme Court in a weeks time waging a historic American battle of the American public’s right to know versus government secrets.

In our current times with Donald Trump’s frequent attacks on the press and the recent James Comey memos suggesting that Trump wanted to jail journalists, the film certainly seems timely and relevant.  The press, as is communicated thoroughly in this movie, is a check on power.  If newspapers and journalism are not a check on power, then who will be?

A recipe for a powerful film indeed and that makes it too bad that the movie flops in the third act.  Production of “The Post” was reportedly rushed when Trump started tweeting his rage upon journalists everywhere and, unfortunately, this really shows up in the third act.  The Supreme Court proceedings, crucial for the climax, are rushed and the fall out from those decisions flow like dutifully recited cliff notes.

There are some appearances by President Richard Nixon, viewed from the back through the Oval Office window, wildly waving his arms around talking about the Pentagon leaks.  I didn’t care for these scenes and would have thought it better to have Nixon not appear in the film.  He could have been the ominous boogeyman, spoken of but never seen.

All that to say, this is mildly decent Spielberg as opposed to great Spielberg.  Even mildly decent in the context of this project is hugely disappointing with the all star cast and explosive subject matter that has eerie relevance still today.

Lester Lauding Level:  3 (out of 5)

 

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Unequally Yoked: 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1

***The below is a sermon I preached at Seed Church on April 15, 2018. You can listen here.

Intro:

How many of you were youth group kids in the 1990s?  ‘Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers?’  You may recall hearing sermons on this verse in 2 Corinthians from the Apostle Paul.  The application always centered around…don’t date unbelievers.  Now, this is pretty sound advice.  Those of you who are married probably realize that with all the challenges that you may face in marriage, it is a blessing to have a partner that at least shares your general worldview.  It helps to be able to go back to a common foundation during difficult times.  Obviously there are circumstances in life that make this complex.  Sometimes people marry  believers or sometimes people after having gotten married lose their faith but generally, our youth pastors give great advice.

Paul is not talking about dating here though so let’s dive into what Paul was getting at when bringing this up with the infamous church in Corinth.

Last week, Mr. Aaron James spoke on the first part of this chapter.  ‘Behold, now is the day of salvation.’  And Paul writes how God sustains his ministry team through difficulties and hardships.  A common theme of Corinthians part deux.

That brings us to the unequally yoked.

Mean:

Verses 6:14:  ‘Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers.  For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness?  Or what fellowship has light with darkness?’

A definition of “yoked”:  “a wooden bar or frame by which two draft animals (such as oxen) are joined at the heads or necks for working together.”

Here are some questions with this passage?  Does this mean that you should not have unbelievers as business partners or as close friends?  What is Paul getting at in this passage?

Well, let’s backtrack a little bit to get the full context.  Recall that in 2 Corinthians 5:18 through 6:2, Paul’s main message is that he is appealing to the Corinthians to be reconciled to God.  Then in verses 6:3 through 6:10 he defends his own ministry telling the Corinthians that he was enduring great suffering to get this gospel message out but also that he experienced the power of God in his ministry.  What Aaron spoke on last week and at the tail end of that passage, Paul asks the Corinthians to widen his heart to him (verses 6:11-13).

Bringing us to verse 14, now we see a window into what Paul is doing.  He is calling for a separation.  Paul wants the Corinthians to separate themselves from the local temple cults in Corinth.  Paul had done all this work imploring the Corinthians to receive the gospel.  Indeed, he had suffered greatly and with this instruction, perhaps Paul is concerned with birds taking the seeds like Jesus famous parable or weeds and vines choking out the work of the gospel that Paul was cultivating.  A call for holiness.  A call for separation.

In Corinth, people would often get invited to dinner parties at temples.  These would be cults and would be in service to various deities that were worshipped in Corinth.  The instruction from Paul is to not be partnered with these temples or yoked or committed to them.

What partnership can righteousness have with lawlessness?  The answer is none.  Jesus is the epitome of righteousness and taught people how to live a righteous life for the true God and not just taught but empowered.  Lawlessness is the opposite.  Paul would later call an anti-Christ the man of lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians 2:3, 6.

Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?  Again, none.  These are mutually exclusive.  Light overpowers darkness when it shines in.  Jesus calls Himself in John 8:12 the light of the world.

Verses 6:15-16:  ‘What accord has Christ with Belial?  Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever?  What agreement has the temple of God with idols?’

More of Paul contrasting and rhetorically asking questions related to why believers should not be yoked together with unbelievers.  The comparison of Christ and Belial is at the beginning of verse 15.  Jewish writings, including in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the apocalyptic books, have Belial as Satan himself.  Christ and the devil are both the highest rulers in their respective realms so Paul is drawing on that contrast.  Righteousness and wickedness.  Light and darkness.  Holiness and profanity.

‘Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever?’  Remember, he is not saying have no contact with unbelievers.  He proclaimed in 1 Corinthians 5:10 that having no contact with unbelievers would entail Christians leaving this world.  Therefore, he is instructing them not to partner or join temple cult rituals or dinners.  That this is the context is driven home at the beginning of verse 16:  ‘What agreement has the temple of God with idols?’

Verse 6:16:  ‘For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God and they shall be my people.’

 The Jewish people believe that God dwelt in the Most Holy Place in the temple in Jerusalem.  Of course God did not just dwell in a place made of human hands.  God is Spirit and He is everywhere.  In the Old Testament, 1 Kings 8:27; 2 Chronicles 6:18; Isaiah 66:1-2 all state that God does not just dwell in houses built by humans.

The Apostle Paul taught to the Corinthians that God could dwell within their hearts and that their body is His temple.  That is in 1 Corinthians 3:16 and 6:19.  Remember, Corinthians would go to dinners and celebrations and there would be sacrifices to idols.  Paul had declared that the idols in pagan temples are dead but believers the living God inside of them because we as Christians are temples for the Holy Spirit.

Paul reminds believers (the Corinthians) of four main promises of God from the Hebrew Bible:

A) God said, ‘I will dwell with them.’ This comes from the Hebrew text of Exodus 25:8 and 29:45.  It actually can be translated ‘I will dwell within them.’

B) God said, ‘I will walk around them.’ This saying is from the Greek text of Leviticus 26:12.  God walking among His people symbolizes peace.  This is a peaceful relationship.  God pays attention to details of people.  He walks closely with His people.

C) God says, ‘I will be their God.’ This God who wants to be near and wants peaceful friendship with His people wants to be the exclusive God of His people.

D) God says, ‘They will be my people.’ God is a personal God.  He has related to His people through covenants and promises throughout history.

Verse 17-18:  ‘Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing then I will welcome you and I will be a Father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.’

Holiness means a separateness.  God calls out His people from the nations.  God asks for allegiance from people who believe Him.  God has not turned away from His people ever but the history of Israel suggests His people have turned away from Him.  The beginning charge here is for God’s people to be called out of idolatry and partnered or yoked together with the True God.  The first part of verse 17 is a quote from the Greek text of Isaiah 52:11.  The ‘I will receive you’ is taken from the Greek text of Ezekiel 20:34, 41 and Zephaniah 3:20.

Simon J. Kistemaker provides some historical insight into the connection between the ancient Israelites and the new believers in Corinth.  ‘The Old Testament context is the time when the Jewish exiles were permitted to leave Babylon by a decree of Cyrus.  They could carry with them the vessels that belonged to the temple in Jerusalem.  God exhorted them to depart from Babylon but not to take along anything unclean that pertained to idol worship.  His people, chastened by the exile but now set free, had to be pure and spotless.  Likewise the Corinthians who had come out of the world of pagan idolatry now had to be a people fully dedicated to their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.’

The ‘I will welcome you’ part definitely directly states an act of obedience.  In other words, people need to cast down their idols and have this God be the true God in their lives.

The segment about God being a Father and His people being sons and daughters comes from 2 Samuel 7:14 although Paul rearranges those words.  Paul is quoting all this stuff though to describe the intimate connection God wants with His children.  It is consistently this picture of a family.

This is a different picture from a non-personal idol.  Someone can go to a meal in honor of Poseidon and they can chant and pray and do whatever they do in order to try and get Poseidon to like you.  But who knows if Poseidon is going to like you and give you calm seas?  The Apostle Paul is reminding the Corinthians that God I.E. Jesus loves them and demonstrated His love by going to the cross.  Paul is describing God as coming to us, to humanity on a rescue mission rather than us desperately reaching out for some idol in a flailing attempt to get this idol to like us.

Verse 7:1:  Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.

 The ‘therefore’ signifies the conclusion of the entire preceding passage.  The promises referred to are the extraordinary promises of God:  that He will be our God and walk with us and graft us into His family.  God’s promise to us is wanting a personal connection, always welcoming us in His kingdom and embracing us regardless of what we have done and where we come from.

Paul calls us to cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and Spirit.  Paul views us as human beings as being holistic.  We recall that during this time, the gnostic religion held that spiritual was good and pure and the material body was bad.  Paul views us as holistic.  If a person went up to the temple of Aphrodite to have sex with a prostitute, he becomes one with her and unites Christ to the prostitute which is Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 6:16.  In service to that specific idol, body and spirit would be defiled.

So Paul calls us to holiness- a separateness from the sins of the world or in this case, an idolatrous culture.  He exhorts us to carry this on until completion, to strive for holy completeness.  The big word here is sanctification.  This means the continuous work of the Holy Spirit in our lives to make us more like Christ which will move forward (prayerfully) until the day we die.

Paul mentions that we do this in fear of God.  Fear can also mean a respect or reverance.

Matter:

We as believers today do not live in the Corinth culture but we live in a culture filled with idols none the less.  People have various definitions of idols:  when a good thing becomes an ultimate thing.  This is a haunting definition because it suggests that something in life that is a good thing, a positive thing, can become something that consumes us and blocks us from having a spiritual peace with God or healthy relationships with our families or with one another as believers.  Idols can cloud these good things, exalting them to a place in our hearts that they should not occupy and in the process being damaging to us and those around us.

Tim Keller says in his book, ‘Counterfeit Gods’:  ‘When anything in life is an absolute requirement for your happiness and self-worth, it is essentially an ‘idol’, something you are actually worshipping.’  He also says:  ‘An idol is something that we look to for things that only God can give.  Idolatry functions widely inside religious communities when doctrinal truth is elevated to the position of a false god.  This occurs when people rely on the rightness of their doctrine for their standing with God rather than on God Himself and His grace.  It is a subtle but deadly mistake…Another form of idolatry within religious communities turns spiritual gifts and ministry success into a counterfeit god…Another kind of religious idolatry has to do with moral living itself…Though we may give lip service to Jesus as our example and inspiration, we are still looking to ourselves and our own moral striving for salvation…Making an idol out of doctrinal accuracy, ministry success, or moral rectitude leads to constant internal conflict, arrogance and self-righteousness and oppression of those whose views differ.’

As we can see, idols can be good things and sometimes important things that become ultimate things and thereby become spiritually blinding.

There are a lot of idols in our culture at large and I talked about those in previous messages but I thought here that we can hone in on idols that we struggle with within the community of God.

Idols can initially appear to be fun or satisfying.  They can lead to a sense of moral superiority.  They can even bring success, on the form of higher influence and money.  In the long run though, we become slaves and our spiritual life is poisoned.

Thesis:  Paul asks us to not be yoked (partnered or committed) to temporary idols but to be yoked (committed) to the person of Jesus and the Christian community.

 Struggle:

Being yoked to idols is always such a great temptation.  We desire to be successful, recognized, to feel morally superior.  People are built to look always for something more.  Like U2’s famous song ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ on endless repeat, our thirst for something more is unquenchable.  We can always have more of everything.  We can always feed the idols of our souls.  We can always yearn after greater spiritual highs, struggling with a contentment to just be here in the moment God has given us in service to Him.

In our Seattle area, there are Eastern religions that are fairly popular including Buddhism.  Buddhism has varied expressions but one of its commonly observed ideas is nirvana.  Nirvana means a ‘blowing out’ or a ‘quenching’.  In this enlightened state, a follower of Buddhism is in a place of alleged non-suffering.  How do they get there?  By not desiring anything.  Buddhism ties suffering to human desire as one of its tenets.

Now, I’m trying not to do a total straw man here of another religion because there is a wealth of complexity to Buddhism, but the idea of reaching an enlightened state of non-suffering through not desiring anything is, in my view, absurd.  To be human is to desire.  We desire food.  We desire sex.  We desire comfort.  We desire shelter.  We desire a new video game or another house.  Desire defines the human condition.  It is imprinted on our DNA and flows through all the decisions and choices we make as people.  What if the problem is not eliminating desire but properly ordering it?  What if the issue is relying on the Spirit of God to help us temper desires for the appropriate times and places in our lives?  What if the major issue with desire is our ultimate pursuit as human being I.e.  what we are yoked to in our souls?  In our heart of hearts, what we are strongly tethered too.

As people, we are made to be slaves to someone.  We are made to serve someone or something.  Even atheists want to try and tap into something beyond themselves.  I listen to a podcast called ‘Waking Up’ with Sam Harris where he talks about meditation and experiences where he has been outside of himself.  Even people who believe in only material reality strive for transcendent experiences.  Believer or non-believer alike…another preacher once said, ‘our hearts are idol factories.’  There is no way we can be autonomous or individual.  We are always going to be yoked or intimately attached to something or someone.  No one spiritually goes it alone.

What is the big attachment in your heart or attachments?  Does that attachment satisfy you?  Is it worth it?  Will it matter?

The Corinthians were attached to these idols.  They would go to events and dinners in service to these idols.  They would desperately want these idols to favor them and be on their side…but there was no way to know.  In the massive shipping port of Corinth, one could sail out to sea but Poseidon is not going to be out there.  It is just going to be the waves and your boat.

Gospel:

Fortunately, Paul presented a different option to the Corinthians and therefore to us today.  He introduced the ultimate God who didn’t just stay up in a far away place from this world and this universe but He came near.  This God became flesh and blood in the person of Jesus.  And Paul presents this God as wanting to be a Father and to make us His beloved sons and daughters.

For some of us, the term father can be a hard one.  We may have had an earthly dad who left or was abusive or didn’t show us love.  Or a mother for that matter.  Perhaps we had parents who were not loving toward us and it is really hard to conceive of a God as a loving Father.

Paul writes in another place that God demonstrated His love toward us-unconditional love- in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Jesus told a tale of a father with two sons and one son went away to the far country and got into all kinds of trouble and probably brought shame to his family’s name.  However, when this son returned home, the father embraced him and through a huge party for him.  This is God the Father.  One of God’s central characteristics being love and grace.  Because of that grace, we have the opportunity to be yoked together with Him as His children.

We also have the opportunity to be yoked or partnered with God’s people in the church.  This one gets a little trickier to be honest.  Church is not holy and perfect like God is.  If we are really being truthful, some of us here or maybe a lot of us have been deeply hurt by a church.  Strong-armed controlling leadership.  Manipulating people by taking Bible verses out of context.  Leaders failing to understand a complex situation and being knee jerk reactionary in response to it.  Yes.  Those things have happened.  Worse then those things, leaders in churches have abused people or kids.  We just had news of a major church leader being confronted with sexually harassing women and inviting married women back to his hotel room.  All kinds of bad has happened.  We all acknowledge that.

Seed Church desires to be different then that.  We want to take our call to know God and make a difference in the world seriously.  We will always be a community centered around knowing and teaching about Jesus but we invite all into our community who want to learn more about Christ and become more and more connected to Him.

In doing that, we as a community are yoked and partnered together under the cause of the gospel of Jesus.   Being partnered together can be messy but we want it to be authentic as we sincerely try to follow Christ and His Will for our church.

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Coen Marathon: Hail, Caesar!

Young man, you don’t follow for a very simple reason; these men are screwballs. God has children? What, and a dog? A collie, maybe? God doesn’t have children. He’s a bachelor. And very angry.”

“We have your movie star. Gather one hundred thousand dollars and await instructions. Who are we? The Future.

You must have very strong forearms. Is it hard squeezing it like that?

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Hollywood in the 1950s.  Big budget studio pictures based on Biblical epics.  Popular western movie stars.  Musicals galore.   Joseph McCarthy on the prowl for communists secretly sneaking propaganda messages into motion pictures.  Wasn’t it just a matter of time before the Coen’s put their stamp on this unique time in American history?

“Hail, Caesar”, the most recent Coen offering, is not the filmmakers best but it provides an interesting lens which we can use to get insight into the rest of their filmography as well as perhaps how the brothers see the world.

Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) starts his day as head of production at a studio called Capitol Pictures.  Unbeknownst to him, this day will feature a range of challenges that he will be forced to navigate.  The studio office wants to promote a B-western star, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), who does stunts on horses to the role of leading romantic star.  The sophisticated director of that romantic picture, Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), laments this decision and there is a hilarious scene where Laurentz is coaching Hobie on how to say lines.  He berates Mannix for this choice.

An aquatic musical star, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), has become pregnant and has problems fitting into her mermaid costume.  Also, she is not sure she wants to marry the father of the child which would create a public relations firestorm for the studio in the 1950s.

And if all of that is not enough, Mannix has to suffer through a meeting with different religious leaders (a rabbi, a Catholic Priest, a protestant minister, and an orthodox patriarch) to see if their depiction of Jesus “cuts the mustard” with audiences.  That picture, “A Tale of the Christ”, is starring the studio’s major star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney in his fourth Coen film).  Soon, Whitlock will be kidnapped by a group of communists called “The Future” and held for ransom.  They seen to be a bunch of mostly disgruntled screenplay writers who perceive the bourgeoisie studio heads as taking all their profits.

The Coen’s create lots of story threads to pull on and that ends up being a weakness of the movie.  There is a very episodic feel as the action jumps from one set to another and then attempts to have the communist kidnapping plot become the climax and focal point.  Some of these story threads end up not being fully developed.

Even with “Hail, Caesar” being a weaker Coen effort, oddly enough this is one of their funnier films.   The scene where the religious leaders argue with Mannix has hilarious dialogue and the aforementioned scene with director Laurentz and Hobie Doyle produces belly laughs.   Plus, seeing Clooney talked into being sympathetic to communism by the members of the Future has whisps of the trademark Coen irony.

What are they getting at with this film and with the setting mostly being the backlot of a 1950s movie studio where different stories/ genres are being produced?

Recently, I ran across a discussion between film critics Matt Zoller Seitz and Jeffrey Overstreet about the Coen filmography and theology.  It is a fascinating read and they discuss whether the Coen’s believe in God or anything transcendent to this world.  What are their views on good and evil?  Are the filmmaking brothers cinematic pranksters who can be imagined standing just out of view of your screen as they point and snicker at you?

It should be mentioned again that I don’t think Joel and Ethan Coen have addressed their personal beliefs anywhere.  Being raised Jewish, there isn’t much indication of what kind of role Judaism plays in their lives today.  Having seen “Blood Simple” to “Hail, Caesar”, in which the Coen’s have written and directed most of those pictures, I would peg the Coen Brothers as existential absurdists.  The thematic material of so many of their films swirls in themes of senselessness, chaos, random happenings, and failing justice.

What does that have to do with “Hail, Caesar”?  At the tail end of the 2016 film, Baird Whitlock playing a roman centurion looks up at Jesus on the cross and gives a moving monologue.  During this finale, the Coen’s are not mocking Christianity but seem to have a sense of respect for the religion.  Alissa Wilkinson, then a critic at Christianity Today, called “Hail, Caesar” a “passion play” of sorts.  One has to note however that the scene of Christ crucified was happening on a studio backlot on a Hollywood sound stage.

Therefore, the Coen’s can embrace their potential existentialism as the ultimate reality but recognize that human beings cannot live in a sense of chaos and hopelessness.  People have to tell themselves stories in order to bring sense and order to their lives.  The stories need not be true on any grand metaphysical level.  Just true to add some semblance of meaning to the existence of the storyteller and the recipients of the tale.

In “Hail, Caesar”, there are many stories or narratives that are featured.  There are the capitalists of Capitol Pictures telling tales of making a profit on producing movies that audiences will love.  There are the communists who have their own story, heroes and villains.  (In one scene, a communist leader is captaining a row boat out of a bay in Malibu to meet up with a Russian submarine.  He stands at the bow of the boat with one foot raised on the side of the boat.  A scene that is lifted from Emanuel Leutze’s famous 1851 painting of George Washington, “Washington Crossing the Delaware”).  The religious leaders meeting with Mannix in the film have their own perspectives and stories.  Christianity is a story, according to the Coens, that helps billions of people have hope and meaning in a chaotic world.

The final scene of the movie glorifies Eddie Mannix as the camera pans above the California studio lot and into the blue sky above.  Mannix is the most blessed of all. Why?  Because he is the head of production.  In other words, the guy who assembles all the pieces in order to tell the story.

Lester Lauding level:   3 (out of 5)

Ranking of Coen Bros Movie (so far):

No Country for Old Men (review here)

Fargo (review here)

A Serious Man (review here)

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (review here)

The Big Lebowski (review here)

True Grit (review here)

Miller’s Crossing (review here)

The Hudsucker Proxy (review here)

Raising Arizona (review here)

Burn After Reading (review here)

The Man Who Wasn’t There (review here)

Blood Simple (review here)

Inside Llewyn Davis (review here)

Hail, Caesar!

Barton Fink (review here)

Intolerable Cruelty (review here)

The Ladykillers (review here)

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Favorite Movies of 2017

Consistently, I always deliver my best movies of the year late because it takes awhile to see all the films that I think may be contenders.  Here we are in April 2018 with the best movies of 2017.

Note:  Have not seen “The Post” and “Phantom Thread” and a few others that may have be in the running.

10) A Ghost Story- This is a quiet and meditative film that certainly will not be for every taste but I connected with it on a deep level.  Writer and director David Lowery has made an intentionally slow-moving tale about love, loss and grief.  At the center of the film are two lovers (played by Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck) who are separated by death.  Mara’s character goes on living in the house (at least for a time) that their love affair played out in. Affleck becomes a ghost, complete with a white sheet over his head, and he watches Mara in her pain while not being able to connect any more.  The story doesn’t just stop at this juncture.  It reaches for grand metaphysical heights spanning time and the different lives who end up living in this very space or on the land.  All of these lives commonly sharing this small sliver of reality.  In the middle of the movie is an epic, drunken monologue delivered by Will Oldham that adds color to the thoughtful themes.  No doubt this is the monologue of the year that waxes poetic on the meaning of life or lack thereof.

9)  Brigsby Bear- I hesitate to tell anyone much about this movie because when I watched it, I did not know anything about the plot.  This is a great film that never really got a fair shake.  Funny, surprising, original, and yes, strange, “Brigsby Bear” follows the perception of James Pope (Kyle Mooney) as his world changes rather drastically.  Not only that, this is a movie that celebrates and glorifies the process of making a film with collaborative friends.  Features a non-Luke Skywalker role for Mark Hamill.  If you watch the very beginning, you will think I’m crazy but stick with this one.  Highly recommended.

8)  The Killing of a Sacred Deer- In a movie that gave me the creeps, Colin Farrell plays Dr. Steven Murphy who as a doctor lives a decent life.  He lives with his wife Anna Murphy (Nicole Kidman) and kids.  Directed and co-written by Yorgos Lanthimos, Dr. Murphy is soon presented with an unthinkable moral conundrum requiring an ultimate sacrifice when a teenage boy he has served as a mentor too turns sinister.  The camera hovers above the characters with long tracking shots down white hospital corridors reminding us of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”.  Every minute of running time this movie goes on becomes more unnerving and the stakes terrifying.

7)  I, Tonya- Destiny has chosen me to like this film a lot because the entire project reminded me of the Coen Brothers.  Stupid criminals doing even dumber crimes.  “I, Tonya” has the dubious distinction of being based on a true story…well, depending on which version of the true story we happen to believe.  The latter point speaks to the genius of Steven Rogers’ screenplay.  Using a docudrama format, he has crafted a story that weaves in multiple perspectives on the now infamous drama of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan.  He and director Craig Gillespie openly mock the entire sport of figure skating but still have the audience come away with feeling tremendous empathy for Harding.  At one point, the movie stuns by indicting American culture in the rush to judgment and villainization of Tonya Harding.  This is a wickedly funny drama with the tone reminiscent of the Coen Brother’s good work.  Top rate performances from Margot Robbie as Harding and Oscar-winner Allison Janney as her abusive mother.  A surprisingly great film.

6)  Wind River– Taylor Sheridan is a writer/director who seems to be re-mixing and re-imaging the American Western.  He has written a trilogy of films with western-type themes that are all fantastic:  Sicario, Hell or High Water, and now Wind River.  Jeremy Renner portrays Cory Lambert who is a veteran tracker with the Fish and Wildlife Services.  He offers his assistance to the FBI investigation of the vicious murder of a young Native American Woman.  The film is not a murder mystery per se but there is a slow building tension as the audience discovers more details about the sadistic crime at the center of the story.  A big theme that Sheridan is communicating is the trope of predator and prey.  One of the re-imagined ideas featured is how Sheridan turns that concept completely on its head.

5)  Dunkirk- From the beginning, I must confess that I’m a Christopher Nolan fanboy.  I have enjoyed all of his films and would probably rate “The Prestige” as his weakest (but still pretty good).  Since writer/director Nolan plays so much in the science fiction world, I was surprised to hear him taking on a World War 2 period piece.  It has gotten to the point with World War 2 where I’m wondering how many more films we need on this subject from Hollywood but I’m please to report that “Dunkirk” is another great Nolan picture.  This is a movie where the suspense is unrelenting from beginning to end.  Capturing the miracle of the Dunkirk evacuation, Nolan focuses on the private ships sailing to rescue the British troops stranded on the beach in France, the troops on the beach awaiting the Nazi army to break through at any moment and British planes in the sky.  A sense of dread is all around.  Will the British army be wiped out effectively handing Germany’s forces a key victory in the struggle?  Nolan uses three separate timelines as a device to forward his plot.  The genius of the screenplay is how all of these timelines converge at the climatic moment.  After watching this, you will feel exhausted but I’m willing to bet you will be thankful for this experience.  This is a perfect movie to couple with “Darkest Hour” which shows the politics behind “Dunkirk”.

 4)  Lady Bird- From the opening scene where we witness a conversation between mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) and daughter Christine aka Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) as they drive down a California highway and Lady Bird suddenly opens the passenger side door of the moving vehicle while throwing herself out, we know we will be in for a quirky take on growing up. “Lady Bird” features a strong performance from Ronan as she navigates the perilous territory of high school and preparation for adulthood.  This is a funny movie, absolutely and it has such moving insight into the teenager process that is brought to life by truly great acting.  Sharp writing and directing (first behind the camera) by Greta Gerwig give this film a personal feel which is why it feels honest and timeless. As a Christian, I found a theme of faith in this movie very fascinating.  The story features Lady Bird as a senior at a Catholic High School.  At the end, her conception of what she feels as “home” is sincerely thought-provoking and powerful.  Not that this film is preachy. It is too good for that.  One of the better coming of age movies I have seen.

3)  mother! No doubt that this one will be controversial on my list.  “mother!” is one of the most divisive movies of 2017.  I wrote a review here and said:  ““Mother!” is a head trip of a movie that is contained to a singular house but reaches for grand metaphysical truth.  A story that is an environmental parable at heart but also well-versed in theology as it explores the nature of God.  An explosive indictment of humanity that centrally revolves around the toxicity in which domineering men treat women and abuse them.  The boiling anger all around the edges of this picture simmers at first until it builds into a mighty crescendo of rape, debauchery, theft and extreme violence.  By the time the fiery apocalypse comes around at the conclusion, a fate that is hinted at from the very first frames of the film, the viewers may well have made their moral peace with this decisive act of judgment.”  A bold and uncompromising movie from Darren Aronofsky.

2)  Logan- 2017 featured one of the best comic book genre films since Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight”.  Taking place in Fox’s X-Men universe and specifically in the series of Wolverine movie (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Wolverine), “Logan” is the very best of them all.  Director James Mangold finally decided to not pull any punches and go for the R-rating to feature the Marvel character who has adamantium claws shoot through his hands at will.  Hugh Jackman reprises his familiar role with his best turn yet.  At the inception of the story, Logan is hiding out in Mexico with his old mentor, Professor X (the great Patrick Stewart).  The USA has gotten hostile toward mutants and there is a giant wall on the southern border as we see in an early shot.  Logan, Professor X and a mysterious young girl receive word of an Eden for mutants that exists in Canada.  This is where the movie becomes a road film as the group journeys through America north to try and find Eden.    Of course, a team of mercenaries is tracking them.  “Logan” is filled with well-choreographed action sequences, car chases, loaded with subtle (and not so subtle) political themes and centers around a mutant struggling with what it means to be a hero.  A brilliant film, “Logan” should be a game-changer for future movies in the comic book genre.

1)  Get Out- The best film of 2017 is a master class in storytelling while weaving in powerful and convicting themes. “Get Out” is a horror film that serves as a racial and social class critique on how an entire community is not only treated but perceived.  First time director Jordan Peele (who also wrote the screenplay) has crafted an engrossing, thrilling, and shocking debut.  It is a movie that is very relevant for the times we live in but also feels like a film that will be discussed long after its release. One of the best performances of the year was Daniel Kaluuya who plays Chris.  The girlfriend, Rose (played by Allison Williams) invites Chris home to meet her white parents for the weekend which births a growing sense of extreme unease.  Months after seeing this movie, I cannot get it out of my head.

Honorable Mentions:  The Florida Project, Detroit, Darkest Hour,

 Movies watched in 2017:

  1. Life
  2. Logan
  3. Split
  4. Get Me Roger Stone
  5. Beauty and the Beast
  6. Get Out
  7. Kong: Skull Island
  8. Ghost in the Shell
  9. The Circle
  10. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
  11. Spiderman: Homecoming
  12. Alien: Covenant
  13. The Lost City of Z
  14. The Big Sick
  15. The Case for Christ
  16. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
  17. Baby Driver
  18. Patton Oswalt: Annihilation
  19. The Wizard of Lies
  20. The Dark Tower
  21. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
  22. War Machine
  23. Wind River
  24. A Ghost Story
  25. The Beguiled
  26. Justice League
  27. Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2
  28. mother!
  29. Detroit
  30. Dunkirk
  31. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  32. Stranger Things 2
  33. Stronger
  34. American Made
  35. Dave Chapelle: Equanimity
  36. Battle of the Sexes
  37. Dave Chapelle: The Bird Revelation
  38. Stephen King’s It
  39. Blade Runner 2049
  40. Suburbicon
  41. The Killing of a Sacred Deer
  42. Lady Bird
  43. Last Flag Flying
  44. Roman J. Israel, Esq
  45. Kingsman: The Golden Circle
  46. The Mountain Between Us
  47. The Florida Project
  48. Breathe
  49. War for the Planet of the Apes
  50. Brigsby Bear
  51. Coco
  52. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
  53. The Punisher (Netflix) Season 1
  54. Una Mujer Fantastica (A Fantastic Woman)
  55. The Disaster Artist
  56. Darkest Hour
  57. Call Me By Your Name
  58. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
  59. Downsizing
  60. The Shape of Water
  61. Murder on the Orient Express
  62. Fargo (FX) Season 3
  63. Song to Song
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Coen Marathon: Inside Llewyn Davis

Play me something from Inside Llewyn Davis.”

“You mean like flying cars, hotels on the moon, Tang? You mean like move to the suburbs, have kids?  …If that’s what music is to you, a way to get to that place, then yeah, it’s a little careerist and it’s a little square and it’s a little sad.”

“Where’s its scrotum, Llewyn?”

______________________________________________________________

If you knew someone who had an immensely powerful dream about becoming a career musician and you realized the odds they were up against in consummating that vision, this would be the movie you would want to show them.  After a multi-month hiatus from my Coen Marathon, I finally got around to re-watching the Coen’s melancholy and fascinating take on the Greenwich folk rock music scene of 1961 in New York.  “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a complex film to approach because of the ambiguity of the lead character (as portrayed by Oscar Isaac of Poe Dameron fame).

He sings at the beginning “Hang me, oh hang me” which includes the lyrics:  “wouldn’t mind the hangin except layin in the grave so long.”  The lowkey but wonderful soundtrack is another teaming between the Coen Brothers and T Bone Burnett (of “O’ Brother Where Art Thou” fame).  Llewyn Davis has talent but as an industry gatekeeper will say later in the film, “I don’t see much money here.”  Davis keeps pursuing his dream while moving around to different friend’s couches.  Being beat up in alleyways outside of performance theaters happens a few times.  An ex-girlfriend, Jean Berkey (Carey Mulligan) hates his guts and is pregnant.  The baby could be his.

There is a unique brilliance to “Inside Llewyn Davis” where other critics would complain about a lack of character arc.  Davis is not exactly a guy that an audience wants to root for and this is not a story about him overcoming odds to win fame and fortune.  Stubbornly, he presses forward with his musical aspirations navigating the claustrophobic hallways of New York apartment buildings, staying in friend’s small apartments and hitchhiking across country with a jazz group that includes the Coen regular, John Goodman.  Another layer is added here:  what exactly is Davis doing all this for?  Does he want fame and fortune?  Is it just about the art or music?  The Coens lead character is an enigma.

Being that this is a Coen lead character, the brothers certainly enjoy tormenting him but maybe not as much as they did to Larry Gopnik in “A Serious Man”.  Being beat up, not having an adequate winter jacket and being denied by movers in the music industry brings some degree of empathy.  One of the more quirky Coen supporting characters is a cat who keeps showing up in Davis’ life.  Another character, perhaps as an analogy to Davis himself, holds up the cat at one point and says, “where’s its scrotum, LLewyn?”

After a performance in New York at the tail end of the film, Davis walks out into an alley just as we see a younger guy sitting down on a stool and playing guitar on stage.  Strapped around his neck is a harmonica and the vocals we instantly recognize as the most timeless of voices.  That man, inserted for just a brief moment in the movie, would go on to define an entire genre of music and a cultural generation.

Davis’ dream is an illusion.  A vision that is out of his grasp no matter how long he may chase it.  The dream is a car, speeding away down the street and turning the corner out of sight while someone else’s music becomes the soundtrack.

Lester Lauding Level:  3.5 (out of 5)

Ranking of Coen Bros Movie (so far):

No Country for Old Men (review here)

Fargo (review here)

A Serious Man (review here)

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (review here)

The Big Lebowski (review here)

True Grit (review here)

Miller’s Crossing (review here)

The Hudsucker Proxy (review here)

Raising Arizona (review here)

Burn After Reading (review here)

The Man Who Wasn’t There (review here)

Blood Simple (review here)

Inside Llewyn Davis

Barton Fink (review here)

Intolerable Cruelty (review here)

The Ladykillers (review here)

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Jesus Vs The Empires: Sermon on John 12:12-19

***This is a sermon I preached on Palm Sunday on March 25, 2018 at Seed Church.  You can listen here.

Say:

This message is called Jesus versus the empires.

Happy Palm Sunday to everyone.  The triumphal entry into Jerusalem before the cross and the empty tomb- the two most significant events in the history of the world- is what we are looking at today.

A large crowd welcomes Jesus going to Jerusalem by laying down palm branches as the homeless King rides on a donkey.  A lot of electricity was in the air as Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead and because of that (and other reasons), the Pharisees and their co-conspirators were plotting to kill Jesus.

We will look at this account verse by verse and then talk about the differing empires that Jesus is challenging.

Mean:

Verse 12:  The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem.

Jesus and this large crowd that had been following him around had come from Bethany.  Bethany is about 1.5 miles to the east of Jerusalem on the south eastern slope of the Mount of Olives.  Matthew’s gospel tells us (Matthew 21:1-3) that Jesus sent two of his disciples and told them:  ‘Go into the village in front of you,  and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her.  Untie them and bring them to me.’  Jesus asked them to do this on the Mount of Olives when they were at Bethphage.  Matthew, Mark and Luke are very similar in Jesus asking His disciples to get a donkey for Him.  These accounts go further stating that as they were untying the donkey, the owner asked them what they needed it for.  Their response was, ‘The Lord has need of it.’

There was a tremendous buzz around Jesus and a growing popularity.   John 11:45 tells us that many Jews (and presumably Gentiles) were believing in Jesus.  Maybe this was one of Jesus’ ministry high moments.  A lot of response to His message and people joining His spiritual kingdom.

The large crowd was hanging out with Jesus at a dinner with Lazarus in Bethany.  Everyone wanted to see and talk with Lazarus.  The account of Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead was spreading like wild fire.  The anticipation would have reached a crescendo when they heard that Jesus was coming for the Passover celebration.  Jesus was greeted by Passover-type multitude and they came pouring out of Jerusalem’s eastern gate to greet Jesus.

Excitement and word of mouth were informing people that Jesus’ was coming to Jerusalem.

Verse 13:  So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him, crying out, ‘Hosanna!  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!’

The crowd had cut fronds from the palm trees to add to their celebration of Jesus coming to Jerusalem for Passover.  Palm trees, in that time, lined the road from Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives.  In Psalm 92:12, the palm tree is a symbol of the righteousness and spiritual flourishing of God’s children.  Holding the palm branch with myrtle and willow branch and shaking it is referenced back in Leviticus 23:40 as how Israel during the Feast of Tabernacles expressed joy.  So the people lining the road outside of Jerusalem and waving these branches were celebrating that salvation had come and triumph.  Here is where many people, including many of the disciples, misunderstood.  Their idea of triumph was overthrowing Rome.  A popular Jewish conception of the Messiah in this Day was a figure sent by God to end the Roman rule and Israel’s oppression under the Romans.

If Jesus had just raised a guy from the dead, a part of the massive excitement was that they believed that this guy had the powers.  He was the super hero.  He was going to fulfill their conception of taking power back, over throwing Rome and establishing a new earthly kingdom.  If Jesus could raise people from the dead, what were the limits as to where this thing could go?

When they began their chant of Hosanna, the two crowds had become united.  The crowd from Bethany and the crowd from Jerusalem.  A merging.  A mass of people rejoicing in what they believed was a coming triumph of the Messiah King who would re-establish the Davidic dynasty.

The phrase, “Hosanna!’  They shouted means ‘save now’ or ‘save, pray’.  A person who declares this is asking God, convinced that the proper time for full deliverance had come.  Hosanna!  Save now!

They also shouted, ‘Blessed is He who is coming in the name of the Lord!’  This phrase is from Psalm 118:26.  It is a very common Psalm that is quoted in the New Testament and is a Messianic Psalm.

They also hailed Jesus as the King of Israel, their great joyous hope of being the mighty miracle worker who would re establish the throne of David.

Verse 14-15:  And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, ‘Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.’

Jesus riding on a donkey is a fulfillment of prophecy from Zechariah 9:9.  The daughter of Zion is understood to be Jerusalem and and its inhabitants.

The donkey is a symbol of peace.  The Prince of Peace riding on a donkey.  The horse is commonly associated with war.  The Prince of Peace comes to bring salvation so the daughter of Zion will not be afraid.

A note about the donkey.  The donkey is not a symbol of weakness and as a matter of fact, it was used by kings before Jesus.  Notice how the crowds are not saying, ‘Oh, blessed is Jesus the lowly.’  They are saying, ‘the king of Israel!’

In this ancient world, the donkey was viewed with a symbol of kingship as early as the third millennium BC.  There are references to kings and donkeys in Sumerian texts.  Archaeologists have also dug up donkeys hitched to royal chariots in the tombs of Ur.

 In the Bible (Judges 12:14) Jair the Gileadite is described as having 30 sons who rode of 30 donkeys corresponding to 30 cities ruled by each.  Absalom rode a mule in 2 Samuel 18:9.  When Solomon was anointed as the king, he rode a mule in 1 Kings 1:38.

Horses would most certainly symbolize a ready for battle type posture but just because Jesus was riding a donkey, does not mean this takes away at all from His identity and image as the King of Israel.  He did not refuse this crowds worship or accolades.

Verse 16:  His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to Him.

And now we come to the disciples who did not understand any of this.  If Jesus has this extraordinary power, even raising people from the grave, why was he riding on a donkey (presumably unarmed) symbolizing peace?  If the Romans were going to be defeated, they didn’t need palm branches.  They would need weapons and horses.  If they wanted to defeat the empire, it would be a brutal battle.  In this moment, John’s gospel describes them as lost (not spiritually).  Those closest to Jesus would not realize this fulfillment of prophecy and the staggering meaning behind this episode in Jesus’ life until He was glorified.

Verse 17-18:  The crowd that had been with Him when He called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness.  The reason why the crowd went to meet Him was that they heard He had done this sign.’

John swings his narrative back to the crowds and mentions again that the people in the crowd who had seen Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead continued to bear witness.  In other words, they could not stop talking about this event and word was spreading like wildfire.  Members of the crowd, pilgrims that had come to Jerusalem for the Passover, went to meet him as well because they heard He had done this deed.  There was a convergence of the crowds.

I read a book last year (audio book) called “Did Jesus Exist?  The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth’ written by Bart Ehrman.  As a committed agnostic who is not a believer in Jesus, he argues thoroughly and persuasively for the historical existence of a homeless man in first century Palestine.  One of the more interesting things he says in the book is that Jesus had the reputation of being a miracle worker.  Now, obviously, Ehrman does not believe in miracles but he argues people who encountered Jesus back then totally believed that Jesus could do them.  Scholars have to have an explanation as to why Jesus became so famous.

This convergence of the crowd were many people who didn’t see the miracle but who believed that Jesus had done it based on the word of mouth and Jesus’ reputation back then.

Verse 19:  So the Pharisees said to one another, ‘You see that you are gaining nothing.  Look, the world has gone after him.’

The killjoys of our triumphal entry party were already at work planning to have Christ killed.  Their power was threatened.  The way the crowds were responding to Christ and believing in Jesus had the Pharisees worried that they would lose standing with Rome.  The Lazarus miracle had them furious and that rage was based in fear of what would happen if Jesus’ work continued.  Their statement here may suggest that radical Pharisees were trying to convince more moderate Pharisees that Jesus was bad news.

Matter:

What is Jesus doing here?  He rides into Jerusalem with, by all accounts, a large crowd on a donkey.  This was not a coincidence.  In other gospel accounts, Jesus asked his disciples to go and secure a donkey for Him to ride. Jesus was mindful of the symbolism of Peace (Him being the Prince of Peace) while horses connotated war.

The triumphal entry of Jesus that we celebrate every year prior to the incredible events of Good Friday and Easter was a challenge to empire.  Jesus was pitting himself against empire.  Jesus versus the empires of the world.

This is further shown by the Pharisees response.  The religious leaders were freaking out.  Crowds and people were gravitating toward Jesus.  Their power was being directly threatened.

Throughout Jesus’ life, He was a threat to the powers of the world.  When Jesus was born, a despotic and psychotic King Herod killed baby boys under the age of 2 because Herod had heard a king had been born in Bethlehem and he would have His soldiers slaughter babies to hold onto his Roman throne.

During the sermon on the mount, Jesus taught to turn the other cheek when His followers are struck.  There are a few different readings and interpretations of Jesus teaching.  One of them doesn’t seem widely understood but makes sense within the culture.  Let’s say you were going about your business one day and a Roman soldier came up and struck you for no reason and knocked you down.

If this happened to you, you would think about two options.  1)  You cower in fear at the soldier above you and don’t dare get up.  2)  You get up and attack the soldier which would very likely get you killed.

Jesus was suggesting another way.  Stand up but don’t react violently.  An act of defiance against the empire.

In John chapter 4, Jesus met the woman at the well.  Obviously he was a Jew and she was a Samaritan.  It was a cultural taboo for them to be speaking.  This is an account that a lot of us have heard presented in the past but I don’t think speakers/ teachers quite have this right.  Usually this passage is presented as a slut-shaming toward this Samaritan woman.  Jesus says she has had 5 husbands and she is currently not married to the guy that she lives with.  This woman is often portrayed as a loose woman running around town with all these guys.  However, notice a couple of things:  one about the passage and another about the culture and the status of women.

Jesus in this passage never condemns this woman for any behavior that she exhibited  The final thing is:  keep in mind that women in this society had no rights.  They were not trusted as reliable court witnesses.  Women in this culture had little to no recourse to divorce their husbands.  Our church has been going through Corinthians.  During that series, we had seen that Corinth men could go to a temple, have their time and a woman didn’t have much recourse to divorce a man who was doing this.  On the flip side, if a woman were to behave this way, she could be stoned to death or the man could absolutely divorce her.  And a man could divorce a woman for any reason pretty much. Food cold at dinner.  Grounds for divorce.  Talking back. Grounds for divorce.  When a woman was divorced, she often was thrown out of the house and didn’t have anywhere to go.  She would be in poverty.  This was a very Patriarchal society.

So, five guys had thrown this woman out (divorced her) and now she was living with a guy maybe as a means to have shelter.  So is Jesus condemning her?  Here is what he says, ‘Go, call your husband and come here.’  The woman says, “I have no husband.’  Jesus says, ‘ I know you have had 5 husbands and are now living with a guy who is not your husband.”  He never condemns her but he acknowledges her story and the abuse she has felt in this culture.  Jesus in this account is challenging cultural empire.  The bare bones definition of a culture is ‘a way of life’.  A culture has ideas, philosophies, and assumptions that they make about life, gender, race and about people.

At the beginning of John 4, the Pharisees are hot on Jesus’ tail so he ducks out and intentionally goes to Samaria to meet this woman.  He is flagrantly challenging cultural authority and rebelling against.  He is criticizing cultural empire.

There were empires in Jesus day obviously.  Rome was an occupying force and the Jewish people and oppressed community.  Samaritans often had things worse then the Jews.  The Pharisees and Sadduccees had a religious empire that they carefully navigated to maintain their power.  Cultural empire divvied out who had power, influence and authority and who had none of those things.

Our time has empires too.  We live in a massive empire.  Bigger then the world has ever known.  And we should be thankful for that.  It is not a bad thing all the time.  Our country spends more on our military then any other country, I think by 20 times more then the next competitor.  We have bases all over the world.  The reach and influence we have is astounding.

Not only is there military might, we have a massive global influence.  Trade.  Movies and music being exported to other countries.  Western philosophies and ideas going global.  The internet makes the reach beyond what any person would have thought a hundred years ago.  There is good there for sure but also ideas getting exported such as our materialistic obsessions and our hedonism.

There is a macro empire, our political country and its standing in the world, a cultural empire that makes assumptions about where people stand based on whether they are rich or poor or black or white or male or female.  Then there are personal empires.  The things that we value truly in the center of our being.  Our idols.  The things we hide and lie about.  The addictions and demons we have a hard time escaping.

Well, today is the day of the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem.

Thesis:  The homeless guy from Nazareth is coming for our empires while riding on a donkey and our only response should be unconditional surrender.

 Struggle:

He is coming to challenge the empires.  He is coming to overthrow the tables.  He is coming to dismantle and take apart the wicked structures, beliefs and vices that we have held on to and participated in.  Everything will be rearranged.  Things will be made right.  Nothing will be the same.

I remember this lyric from a song by Beck from the song ‘Sea Change.’  He sings, ‘in the sea change, nothing is safe.’  I love this as a undertow of the ocean can be strong and suck you out to see.  The tides of the ocean can direct you any which way.  So much is out of your control and the weather can change quickly.  Everything can be washed away in an instant.

Now, this is a struggle to come to terms with.  We love our idols.  We love the empires that we have structured in our souls.  What is there in the core of your soul?  Greed.  Selfishness.  Racism.  An immoral relationship.  A porn addiction.  A sense of massive discontentment until you get that next big thing.

Some of these things we know are damaging to ourselves and others but just like back in Jesus’ day where a city constructs walls around its perimeter to guard the metropolis, we construct our own walls via justification to protect these things that we know are bad and other things that we want to continue to do because they are fun and we think we can get a lasting satisfaction from them.  Some of these vices are tricky to navigate because they could involve good things.  Greed, for instance, can be tricky to deal with in the area that we live.  Taxes are up.  Housing costs are up.  So many of us scramble and try to work hard (and sometimes long hours) so we can get a more comfortable life for our families.  And that is a good thing.  However, where is the line where a solid and good value like working hard becomes an ultimate thing and begins to intrude on the sacred areas of our life:  our relationship with God, our families and our communities.

Other things we have complicated responses too.  One of the things in my life is dealing with anger toward a situation that happened a few years ago because a boss at a previous place of employment literally called my current employer and told lies about me.

Now, you see how I can justify the anger.  What happened to me was wrong and yet when I think about it, even to this day, I just get furious about it.  And you know what Jesus is saying to me and this empire that I have built around my soul and my justification to continually just be angry about it?  ‘Let it go.  What happened was wrong and it is right to be angry for a time.  But to continue to harbor and focus on this anger is going to be destructive to you and distract you from the things that you should be focusing on right now.  Let it go.’

Gospel:

What empires in your heart need to be challenged and thrown down?

There is a big buzz word right now, deconstruction.  People are talking about deconstructing their faith or other ideas.  People believe things and perhaps come to a point where they start to question the assumptions.  In the case of our empires, we have believed things that our culture has preached to us all our lives.  Billions and billions dollars of advertising that we have seen or consumed over our lives have led us to accept a reality and believe things.  Much of what we have believed in our American cultural universe and empire are lies and a warping of deeper truths.  Jesus’ kingdom is upside down to the values of worldly empires.

Jesus wants to come in and deconstruct these poison assumptions that we have made.  The materialism, the greed, the selfishness, the violence of our culture, the lack of seeing sex as a sacred gift, the obsession with hedonism and endless pleasure are all things that Jesus wants to deconstruct.

One of the issues with deconstruction, particularly with deconstructing faith, is that once you deconstruct something sacred like faith, what are you left with?  A lot of people deconstruct things and then have nothing to turn too.  Everything is swept away.

When Jesus deconstructs your empires, He will never leave you with nothing.  You may have to let go of things that are painful to get rid of.  Change is extremely hard.  However, when Jesus casts down and dismantles our worldly empires, He will start to build something new in its wake.  Jesus, among many things, was an apocalyptic preacher.  A lot of people think that apocalypse is an ending, which it is, but it is also a new beginning.  What is old passes away and here comes what is new.

Some of you are following Jesus and love Jesus but there are still areas that you need to give over to Him.  Maybe some of you have never surrendered to Jesus as Lord and Savior.  You have never welcomed His proverbial triumphal entry into the core of your soul.

It is time to surrender our empires to the guy from Nazareth riding on a donkey.  The King that has told us about a kingdom that is from another place but is breaking into this world through the work Jesus is doing in the lives of those that follow Him.

A surrender to this King is an avenue to find lasting hope, meaning and joy in this chaotic world that we live in.

 

 

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The Weight of Glory Sermon: 2 Corinthians 4:7-18

**The following is a sermon I preached at Seed Church on February 25, 2018.  You can listen to the message here.

Verses 7:  But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. 

 The Apostle Paul just got done talking about the glorious light of the gospel as he and other believers proclaim Jesus.  Now, the Apostle talks about the very common vessels which proclaim the good news.  Jars of clay.  In most homes in the ancient Middle East, there were common earthenware vessels or vases.  These were inexpensive and easily broken.  Stored in these vessels might be common everyday items for that day and sometimes human waste.  These would be contrasted against metal vessels or glass ones.  Metal could be repaired and glass could be melted down and used for another purpose.  The earthenware vessels were cheap and again, easily broken and often when they were broken, they were discarded.  Consider the contrast that Paul is using as an analogy here to himself and us.  Human beings are frail and we are easily broken but God delights in empowering us to share His gospel and kingdom values.  This relationship and exchange proves the surpassing power and glory is from God as He works in and through the ordinary and easily broken to change the world.

The word glory gets thrown around a lot.  Let’s define it.  Glory is ‘high renown or honor won by notable achievements…magnificence or great beauty.’  This would be like when you get a new shirt or new clothes.  When you go to work and people notice you and compliment you, you may feel a little bit glorious.

We may feel like jars of clay which would be the opposite of glorious.  Ordinary and easily broken.  How can we as believers make a difference?  Because God is at work, shining his light through all of us as the jars of clay that we are and showing His glory in this strange way.

 Verse 8-10:  We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.

 These verses are incredible.  This is not a man writing talking about his surrender to Jesus and subsequent happy life where he becomes affluent and everything starts going amazingly well in his personal life.  These are the words of a man going through hell on earth in some of these circumstances and writing to a church that he loved but would identify with this grief, pain and suffering.  From this writing, it almost seems like he is on the razor’s edge, doesn’t it?  He is saying he would absolutely fall into despair if not for knowing Christ.

Paul has to die to himself.  Die to his own personal desires to carry forward what God has for him to do and the message God has for him to preach.  This identifying with Jesus’ death in the body, as Paul puts it, allows Jesus to be fully manifest in his life to carry him forward even in the darkest of times and most painful of experiences.

Paul went through a lot of painful experiences while on his missionary journey’s sharing the gospel.   Here is a summary (a resume if you will), in his own words, of the suffering he went through for the gospel:

Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one.  Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers;  in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.  And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.”  From 2 Corinthians 11:23-28.

Who wants to sign up?

Verses 11-12:  For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.  So death is at work in us, but life in you.

In doing Paul’s work and with the Corinth church joining him in sharing the gospel, death is all around in very specific ways as a consequence of the message they are trying to get out.  They are challenging Greek and Roman gods and religions.  They are challenging the notion of empire as they are bowing their knee to Jesus and not to Caesar.  Death is all around and their physical bodies may succumb at any point and with any persecution incident that may arise.  Through living through these trying times, Paul and these early Christians can contemplate and greatly identify with Jesus’ death.  Paul ominously notes ‘death is at work’ and could come seemingly randomly at any time but Paul adds that life is at work too.  Believers have been awakened to the gospel.  Their spiritual lives in Christ are being renewed by this holy message.  There is bad news all around for the believers but at the core of their souls, there is better news.  The greatest of news.

Verses 13-14:  Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, ‘I believed, and so I spoke,’ we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into His presence. 

At the beginning of verse 13, Paul is loosely quoting Psalm 116:10 and therefore is identifying himself with the faith of the Psalmist while under a lot of suffering.

The Psalmist writes in that same chapter, verse 3:  ‘The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish.’  Then the Psalmist goes on by saying that he called upon the name of he Lord.

Obviously Paul was familiar with this Psalm and most of the Old Testament.  He was communicating to these fellow believers that striving to have faith among incredible suffering was nothing new but had been a struggle for fellow believers before.

Then Paul mentions the hope of the resurrection.  There is a reason why we as Christians trust in Christ and proclaim His holy gospel.  God will raise us also with Jesus and we will be brought into His presence.  Resurrection is a gateway to immortality in the presence of the true God.

Evangelicals have been criticized for being escapist, rightly in my opinion.  In preaching and teaching, there has been an emphasizing on getting out of this world rather then trying to make a difference here and try to implement Jesus’ kingdom values in our lives and communities of faith.  To be fair, Paul sounds a little escapist in his verse.  However, we should consider the context.  We talked about Paul’s persecution and everything he was going through.  Going through this intense of suffering and painful experiences, it may be understandable for someone to greatly look forward to their own resurrection and being in the presence of Jesus post-mortem.

Verse 15:  For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

Grace is such a crucial element in Paul’s presentation of the gospel.  By proclaiming Christ, Paul obviously had the message of mercy- we escape the eternal consequences of our sinfulness.  In other words, what we deserve is not what comes about because of the work of Jesus.  Grace is a different aspect of the gospel from mercy.  Grace is unmerited favor.  We get or inherit what we don’t deserve.  Things are even better then merely being spared certain consequences.  We inherit something, the kingdom of Jesus, in which the author of Hebrews exclaims that followers of Jesus are co-heirs with Christ.

Writing here, Paul says as grace extends to more people it will increase the thanksgiving to God.  This is amazing.  Paul and his fellow believers are going hell and suffering to get this gospel message out so more and more people can experience this radical grace.  So the whole world, prayerfully, would experience the grace of Jesus.  Even within this context and first century world of suffering and pain, it would translate to greater thanksgiving for who God is and what He has done on our behalf.

CS Lewis in his famous sermon ‘The Weight of Glory’ talks about how God views us which is vitally important, at the heart of what grace is and should elicit a lifestyle of thanksgiving:

I read in a periodical the other day that the fundamental thing is how we think of God. By God Himself, it is not! How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important. Indeed, how we think of Him is of no importance except in so far as it is related to how He thinks of us. It is written that we shall ‘stand before’ Him, shall appear, shall be inspected. The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God. To please God…to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness…to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son — it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.”

Verse 16-18:  So we do not lose heart.  Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.  For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comprehension, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.  For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

The early Christians and Paul are not losing heart even though they may die at any time and their body wastes away as the years go by.  Compared to eternity with God, Paul compares the intense persecutions to a slight momentary affliction.  Believers in Christ are focused on the whole picture.  A transcendent God and His kingdom that has broken and is breaking into the world.  Christians believe in a kingdom unseen and a heavenly realm and God as a Spirit.  This is the eternal weight of glory.  Each Christian, by following Christ, has this weight that becomes a part of our spiritual DNA.  The Spirit opens our hearts and makes us mindful of what really matters.

Matter:

So how does this matter to us today?  How does an early Apostle and missionary’s intense commitment to spreading the gospel while experiencing some of the worst persecution imaginable fit in with believers today?  What about us being jars of clay and sensing deep in our souls this weight of glory while desiring everyone to experience God’s grace?

This matters because we are not all that different from Paul and those early Christians.  Thankfully, we don’t experience the same persecution they did but we still have pain and grief in our lives. We still have struggles in trying to comprehend the fleeting reality of life and our inevitable deaths.

The gospel that the Apostle Paul is still relevant to ourselves and our culture.  The vital message of grace being still life changing and the avenue to find hope and peace with God.

Thesis:  Even though we may feel ordinary and have the same frailties as any human being, God can still work through us as we seek to bring His message of grace to this dark world we live in.

Struggle:

Like Paul and the Corinth believers, we feel afflictions in our lives.  We sense death and decay around us in our bodies and in our culture.  If we are honest, when we turn on the news these days, some of the words that Paul uses here in this passage may come to our minds.  The stories circulating in media can be perplexing and tempt one to despair when we consider our culture.  A lot has changed in the world since Paul and the Corinth church existed but the capacity for darkness has not.

We have yet another school shooting that has happened in Parkland, Florida.  Grief, outrage, suffering and unspeakable pain is broadcast through our televisions and social media feeds.  In April, it will be 19 years since the Columbine massacre in 1999.  This keeps happening in our culture.  Not just at schools but at country western concerts, at churches, at movie theaters and other places.

The big debate in our culture right now is about guns.  Obviously a contentious issue.  We are not going to wade into the gun debate from the pulpit here at Seed Church as we have people from across the political spectrum that attend here and we want everyone to feel welcome.  Ultimately, we are about Jesus and we want everyone whether conservative, liberal, libertarian, socialist or communist to hear His gospel.  The Bible obviously doesn’t speak about guns.  Whether you are for gun rights generally or favor more restrictions and regulations are firearms, maybe we can all agree on one thing this morning.  There is something at the spiritual core of our society that is really, really wrong. At the spiritual center of our society is something dark, perverted, twisted and evil.

Like Paul dealing with forces of darkness in his time and even forces of darkness in the spiritual realm like what Brian Bailey talked about last week:  Satan literally blinding people to the truth of the gospel, we have these forces wrecking devastation in our culture.  People are blinded to avenues of hope, peace and justice.

Nothing is going to be the one silver bullet to such a complex problem and there are many areas that need to be addressed to get to a place where are society is healthy however since we deal with the spiritual here at Seed, we should deal with this aspect of the problem.  Doesn’t it seem like one of the issues at the center of this massive problem is the general devaluing of life?  I mean, students getting continually gunned down in schools sometimes just warrants a few days of media coverage and then everyone moves on and it happens again.  What does that show about what we value?

Unborn children, are their lives valued?  How about elderly people that come to be seen as a burden to take care of rather then as members of the family?  The dehumanizing element is everywhere.  It is in our politics where if you are a liberal, you are tempted to view conservatives as the enemy.  As an evil group of people that is going to destroy the country.  If you are a conservative, you are tempted to view liberals similarly.  We dehumanize people we disagree with on policy.  As a side note:  social media seems to be pushing these things farther and farther.  As long as America exists, there will be disagreements about politics.  That is in the nation’s DNA however there is a way to do this without turning the opponent or friendly competition into Hitler or Satan incarnate.

With race, we have long had problems.  Stereotyping people of another race irrationally. Our economic system where there are winners and losers and how do we treat those losers?  How are lower classes viewed?  All of this becomes a system of dehumanization.  When we get online, we can cycle into our own groups and vent our outrage and righteous fury at the other groups we believe but, may never say out loud, are inferior.

Now, you are probably thinking to yourself that you see all this going on.  We see the contentious in the media and online.  We see these dark elements in society and you say to me or more say to yourself, ‘I’m just a jar of clay.’  ‘I am ordinary.’  ‘I’m not a celebrity and I’m nobody special.’  Yes, and look around the room.  So are all of not most of us.  We are easily broken, frail, weak and sinful so therefore spiritually weak.

If we are jars of clay and this is our status, what literally can we do about this massive perverse darkness at the center of our culture?  How can ordinary people make any kind of a difference?   Can you really do anything about school shootings, these horrific tragedies and crimes, and the sheer rage that impacts so many in our country right now?

Moreover as Christians we do sense this weight of glory that Paul talks about.  We know and believe that this life is not all there is.  We know that God’s Kingdom is breaking through and one day will be fully manifested when Jesus comes back.  There is something at is transcendent to this world and universe that we find ourselves in.  We attempt to have the perspective of the unseen, of eternal things, as a guide to find hope and meaning today.  But often times this weight of glory we turn into a burden.  We shame ourselves and feel guilty that we cannot do more to bring this message of Christ’s gospel to this culture of ours that at times seems to be spiraling out of control.  We beat ourselves up and proverbially keep telling ourselves that we are just ordinary.  An earthenware vessel and nothing more.

Gospel:

Fortunately for us, Paul doesn’t just stop with our description as jars of clay.  He also says, ‘…to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.’  We always forget that God’s kingdom values are often upside down from this world’s.  As kids when you picked your kickball team at recess, you would often want to choose he very best player first, right?  You would pick the person who could kick the ball the furtherest or could play great defense.  Well, God doesn’t always choose the most talented or most gifted.  A lot of the time He chooses earthenware vessels.  Billy Graham was not technically one of the greatest speakers ever but he ended up preaching the gospel to more people then anyone else in history.  Some scholars believe Moses may have had a speech impediment.  Jonathan Edwards, the well known Puritan pastor and giant in American history, used to reportedly read sermons monotone.  Rosa Parks was 42 years old when she said, “Today, I’m not going to the back of the bus.” They were all jars of clay but God had them do extraordinary things.

Again, in reality we probably will not attain the heights of those people.  This will cause us to feel ordinary.  But in the end, with God’s work and with this weight of glory that we sense as Christians, are we really ordinary?  Is the person sitting next to you ordinary?  Here is CS Lewis again from his same sermon:

“It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner — no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

Here is what we can do.  How many people do you engage or interact with on a daily basis?  Your family members, your literal neighbors, your co-workers, people at the grocery store, others you meet at a party or volunteer work that you do.  What if you let Christ empower you with His grace in your daily, ordinary interactions with others?  Paul says in this passage ‘….as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving.’  Who is that one co-worker that really pisses you off?  How can you show them grace this week?  How about grace to your spouse and kids?

The goal being that it would exalt and overwhelming attitude of thankfulness to God.  When we receive grace, unmerited favor or things that we do not deserve, it tends to move us into a posture of thanksgiving.

Let’s be idealistic hippies for a moment.  What if we became a community that received the grace of Christ and in turn were empowered by the Holy Spirit to give grace to those in our lives?  What if others were inspired by this display because they saw the hope and meaning in life that can come by living this way for Jesus?  And what if this perspective spread across our culture so at the center of our culture was not a dehumanization of the other but a perspective of thankfulness that they are our neighbors in this place live?  What if the scorn, hyper partisanship and rage that exists in our culture right now was replaced by a thankfulness to God because of His grace?  A thankfulness that we are alive.  A thankfulness that we live here in this country.  A thankfulness for God that loves us, died for us and rose again.

It’s a dream.  A pipe dream probably but with God, anything is possible.  It starts here with us.  The jars of clay extending grace and celebrating the value of thankfulness.

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