Sunday, January 15, 2017

Come and See (a sermon from John 1:29-42)

In the first paragraph of our Gospel reading we have John’s counterpart to the baptism of Jesus. Here in John’s version it is cast in the form of John the Baptist bearing witness to Jesus. The story ends with John proclaiming, “I have seen and testify [bear witness] that this is the Son of God.” Then what follows is an encounter with Jesus by two of John’s disciples, who become followers of Jesus, and this leads to a third encounter. Two of the three disciples are named in the story, Andrew and his brother Simon Peter. They become disciples become someone bore witness. Both stories are about faith sharing.

The questions that are asked are full of spiritual symbolism and meaning. When Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?” we should read that as an invitation to look into our own souls and ask ourselves what we are looking for in life. What is it that we want? Some folks are so busy just trying to survive, to protect their family and loved ones from danger, to make sure they have enough to eat, or that they can get an education, or that they are safe, they hardly have the time or energy to explore any deeper existential and spiritual meanings. If life were fair, which of course it isn’t, everyone would have the same opportunity to explore the existential and spiritual meaning of that question, but life as we know is not fair. (And part of our work as disciples of Jesus is to do what we can to make it fair for people when the system is rigged against them.) Think about that question. What are you looking for in life? What are the people you are most close to and care most about looking for in life?

John’s disciples ask Jesus, “Where are you staying?” This is not intended to simply be understood as a question about where Jesus was living. The word that is translated “staying” is the very same word used in other places in this Gospel for discipleship. For example, it is used in John 15:4 where John develops the imagery of the grapevine to talk about discipleship. In that passage Jesus says, “Abide in me [that’s the word], stay in me, dwell in me, as I abide [there is the word again], stay, dwell in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides/stays/remains/dwells in the vine, neither can you unless you abide/stay/dwell in me.” So when they ask, “Where are you staying or abiding?” on a deeper level the question is, “Where do you find your source of meaning? From where do you draw your energy, your life force, your vitality, your passion? What inspires and empowers you and gives your life meaning and purpose and fills it with hope? What is it that makes you the loving person you are?

When Jesus responds by saying, “Come and see’” he is issuing an invitation to become something. The capacity to see – what we see, how we see – has deep spiritual significance and meaning in John’s Gospel, and not just in John’s Gospel, for this is true of the rest of the New Testament as well. What we see and how we see is the key to spiritual life and personal growth. Jesus is inviting them to explore for themselves, to experience for themselves, his source of faith, hope, and love.

So how do we go about entering into this sort of conversation with others? How do we bear witness? All of this relates to what Christians have generally called evangelism. What is evangelism and how should we go about it? Obviously, Christians have different opinions about what evangelism is and its importance. Your understanding of evangelism may differ from mine and that’s okay. No one speaks an infallible word on the subject. And I can only tell you what I have come to think about it and how I think we can best go about it.

First, let me say what I think evangelism is not. Evangelism is not simply maintaining or growing or expanding the institution. But let me quickly add, that doesn’t mean the institution is not important. As a church we function as an institution, as an organization. That may not be the essence of who we are or what we are about, but we exist as an institution, and there is something to be said about maintaining and growing the institution. That’s not what evangelism is, but it has its place. If the institution is a viable, helpful, enriching, life affirming institution, then maintaining and growing the institution has an important place. But that is not evangelism.

And as important as maintaining or growing a healthy institution may be, it’s important to distinguish the two. My first calling right out of seminary was to be part of the ministerial staff of a very conservative, Southern Baptist church not too far from where I grew up. My responsibility included teaching at their Christian school and pastoring a small satellite congregation that was considered a mission of the mother church. So while we were a separate congregation we fell under the umbrella of the main body. I thought things were going well at the congregation I pastored. We were healthy and attracting some new people. My wife was doing some great work with the children. In fact, when I resigned they were more upset that they were losing my wife than me. And really, we were doing quite well, I thought. The senior pastor didn’t think so. His point of contention was that we were not baptizing enough people. Now he and the church we were affiliated with subscribed to the theology that If you did not believe in Jesus as your Savior you would have to face eternal damnation. If you believe that, that indeed is a powerful motive for evangelism isn’t it? If you really believe that your loved ones will be damned forever if they do not believe in Jesus then you should be compelled to do anything and everything to get them to believe. Right? So we might understand why the pastor was so concerned about evangelism. However, that was not the main reason he was upset with me that we were not baptizing more. That was his theology, but that was not the reason. Our numbers at our little church contributed to their numbers, that is the numbers of the mother church. The people we baptized went on their church record. And it was clear that his intention was to put his church on the top ten list as one of the top churches in baptisms in the Kentucky Baptist Convention. Before I judge him too harshly, I have to pause to consider my own motives and admit that my own motives may not be as pure as I think they are. We all operate out of mixed motives.

So what is evangelism? If evangelism is not maintaining or growing the institution, as important as that may be, and if it is not saving people from eternal damnation (and some of you may believe that is what evangelism is, and if you do that’s okay, but personally I don’t), so I have to ask myself, “What is evangelism?” My very simple definition of evangelism is: Helping people discover who they are. And who are they? The same as who we are - the children of God. (Remember last week's sermon). They are children of God. We are all the sons and daughters of God, even if we don’t know it yet. So I define evangelism as helping people discover who they are, helping people discover that they are the beloved daughters and sons of God. I define discipleship as helping people become who they are. Evangelism is helping people discover who they are; discipleship is helping people become who they are.

So how do we do that? I loved the movie 42, The Jackie Robinson Story. In that movie  Branch Ricky, who is the general manager of the team, helps Jackie discover and become his best self, his true self. In many ways he mentored him, he encouraged him and empowered to be someone special, to be a model and inspiration to others. I have no idea if this was historically the case, but it was certainly so in the movie.

When Branch Ricky first calls Jackie in and invites him to be part of their organization, he is forthright and upfront about the kind of abuse that would be heaped upon him, as the first African American to play in major league baseball. Jackie’s first response is: “Do you want a player that doesn’t have the guts to fight back?” Branch Ricky says, “No, I want a player that has the guts not to fight back. People aren’t going to like this. They’re going to do anything to get you to react. Echo a curse with a curse, and they will hear only yours. Follow a blow with a blow they will say the Negro lost his temper, that the Negro doesn’t belong. Your enemy will be out in force and you cannot meet him on his own low ground. We win with hitting, running, fielding. We win if the world is convinced of two things, that you are a fine gentleman and a great baseball player. Like our Savior, [Branch Ricky was a devout Methodist] you have to have the guts to turn the other cheek. Can you do it?”

Branch Ricky, in a sense, was issuing a call, dare we say, a divine call? Dare we say that his voice was the voice of God calling Jackie to be the best he could be, to live out his identity as a son of God in very difficult circumstances. Jackie responds, “You give me a uniform. You give me a number on my back. And I’ll give you the guts.”

There is one scene where Jackie faces unrelenting verbal assault from the manager in Philadelphia. And Jackie almost losses his composure, he comes ever so close to giving in to his instincts to fight back, to return the wrath, blow for blow. Jackie is angry, and he retreats inside the doorway to the locker room and smashes his bat against the wall. Branch Ricky meets him there. He tells Jackie that he can’t fight, but he also tells him that he can’t quit, that there are too many people who believe in him and respect him.

Jackie asks Ricky if he knows what’s it’s like to live day in and out with all this hate and contempt poured out on him as a kind of scapegoat. Ricky says, “No, you’re the one. You’re the one living in the wilderness – 40 days – all of it, only you.”

Jackie says, “There’s not a thing I can do about it.” Rickie says, “Of course there is, you can get out there and hit and get on base and score. You can win the game for us. Everybody needs you. You are medicine, Jack.” As the Dodgers take the field, Ricky puts his arm around Jackie and asks, “Who is playing first?” The question is, “Are you going back out there and take your position. Are you going to live out your identity?” Jackie says, “I’m going to need a new bat.” He goes out and ends up scoring the winning run.

I don’t know how historically accurate that is, but what a great illustration of how we can bear witness, how we can call out the best in one another, and how we can invite others to discover who they are.

Back in the 1990’s, Rodney Stark, a specialist in the sociology of modern religion, applied his methods to ancient Christianity. He discovered in his research that Christianity spread at a rate of about 40 percent per decade, which held steady over several decades. He discovered too, that people came to Christianity not primarily because they experienced dynamic worship or were hearing great sermons. It wasn’t great logic or compelling arguments that reached them. Rather, they entered into Christian faith through relationships. As Christians looked out for one another, took care of the poor, the sick, and the most vulnerable, valued the gifts and contributions of each member, especially widows and orphans, especially the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, their friends and neighbors took notice.

I love what Richard Rohr says. Rohr asks, “Why did Jesus come?” He says, “Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity. It didn’t need changing. God has organically, inherently loved what God created from the moment God created it. Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.”

Maybe one of the things we can do to help people discover who they are is invite them to consider a different image of God. That God is not primarily this stern Lawgiver who condemns and excludes people who do not conform to God’s holy standards. Rather, God is primarily a great Lover, who loves all his/her children unconditionally and wants their very best.

We can do what Jesus did. We can invite people to the table of fellowship and friendship. We can welcome people the way Jesus did. We can accept all people as God’s children no matter how different we all may be. And we can affirm their capacity to bear God’s image and reflect God’s love whoever they are and wherever they go. We can do our best to really love people with Jesus’ kind of love. We can do our best to treat one another with compassion and dignity and grace and say, “Come and see.” Come and experience for yourself the magnitude of God’s love and discover who you really are – God’s beloved daughter or son.

Our good God, give us an interest that goes beyond our own well-being and inspire us to participate in a story that is much greater than our own little story. Help us to have the passion, the courage, and the will to find ways to say to friends and others, “Come and see.” Give us a real desire to help one another discover and become who we are. Amen. 

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Who Am I? (A sermon from Matthew 3:13-17)

This baptism scene of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel functions as a declaration of faith or proclamation of faith in Jesus as the representative Son of God. Mark and Luke’s versions of the story serve this purpose too, but it’s particularly characteristic of Matthew. Historians read stories like this and wonder about what really happened, but the more important questions for people of faith relate to meaning. What does this mean for us and what are the implications for you and me?  

For all of us here Jesus is the preeminent Son of God. We may have differing beliefs when it comes to the specifics in understanding the deity and humanity of Jesus, but for all of us here Jesus is the quintessential Son of God. He’s the one we look to whether we call him Savior, teacher, prophet, Lord, or friend. Matthew’s story of Jesus birth was intended to set Jesus apart as one chosen by God for a very special work. Christians differ in their understanding and interpretation of that work, but without question, we all agree Jesus takes center stage right?

A number of Christians read into this description of Jesus as “Son of God” all that they have come to believe about Jesus, or what the creeds and Christian doctrine has said about Jesus as Son of God. And I suppose there is nothing wrong with that, though personally, I find it more helpful to read this passage in light of the ways this designation was used in the Hebrew scriptures and the way it would have been understood by Jesus’ first followers. So I ask: What did it mean for Jewish people in the time of Jesus to call someone a son of God?

In ancient Israel the king was called the son of God. And this was not unique to Israel. In fact, designating kings as sons of God was common throughout the ancient Near East. In fact, in other societies the king was even called God and the deification of the king was usually announced at the king’s coronation. Of course, in Israel, because of their monotheism, because of their belief in one God – “the Lord, our God is one” – they would never equate their king with God, but they did call their king the son of God, and apparently this designation was proclaimed at the king’s enthronement or coronation. In Psalm 2, which is believed to be a coronation psalm, the psalmist says speaking for God: “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.” Then he says of the decree of God: “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” The begetting of the king as God’s son was connected to his coronation, to his enthronement ceremony. So here clearly to be a son of God is to be a representative of God in carrying out some special work.  

Also, the covenant people of God collectively, as a whole were called son of God. In Exodus 4 Moses receives his orders from God and God tells Moses to say to Pharaoh: “Israel is my firstborn son.” Hosea in referencing God’s deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage speaking on behalf of God says, “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (11:1). So the people of God collectively were said to be God’s son.

Then too, in the Hebrew scriptures the heavenly hosts are called “sons of God.” The story of Job begins with the sons of God presenting themselves before the Lord. The NRSV says, “heavenly beings” but in the Hebrew it is “sons of God.” Also, in other ancient Jewish literature charismatic teachers and holy men are sometimes called “sons of God.”

Certainly the NT writers attributed to Jesus special status as Son of God. John’s Gospel calls Jesus the unique Son of God. But I find it helpful not to read later creeds and doctrines about Jesus that developed much later back into this title as the Gospel writers employ it. What Matthew is saying through this baptism story is that Jesus as son of God is set apart by God for a special mission and work. And while we regard Jesus as the quintessential or preeminent son of God, and look to him for guidance and instruction Jesus is not alone in being a son of God. In fact, Paul made this an important aspect of his gospel.

Paul tells the Galatian Christians that God sent his Son Jesus to engage in special redemptive mission. But then he tells the Galatians that they too are children of God. He says, “Because you are children, [that is, because you too are daughters and sons of God], God has sent the Spirit of his Son [that is, his son, Jesus] into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!” Abba was the way Jesus addressed God and it speaks of a close, personal, intimate relationship. The relationship that Jesus of Nazareth had with God as son of God is available and accessible for each us as well, who are also the daughters and sons of God. The Spirit of the Son resides in us. We are the daughters and sons of God. All of us – whether we know it or not.

So let me ask you? Do you see yourself as a beloved daughter or son of God? If not, why not? Unfortunately the Christian doctrine of original sin and what some Christians call total depravity I believe has contributed to the difficulty some Christians have in seeing themselves as God’s beloved sons or daughters. If one sees himself or herself as totally depraved or as nothing but a sinner, then it’s probably rather difficult for that one to see herself or himself as a beloved daughter or son like Jesus. And yet, that is who we are! That is our original blessing that comes before original sin. Of course we have all missed the mark. We have all failed and erred and fallen in one way or another. But the first thing and most important thing, before all of that is that we are God’s beloved daughters and sons.

I love the Greek legend about Helen of Troy. In this legend Helen is kidnapped and whisked across the seas to a distant city where she suffers from amnesia. In time she is able to escape from her captors. She roams the streets and becomes a prostitute in order to survive. Back in her homeland, her friends, however, refuse to give up on her. One admiring adventurer who never loses faith sets out on a journey to find her and bring her back. One day as he is wandering through the streets of a strange city he comes across a prostitute who looks strangely familiar. He asks her name and she responds with a name that he didn’t know. Then he asks if he could see her hands. He knew the lines of Helen’s hands. When he looks at her hands he realizes who she is. In great joy he looks at her and exclaims, “You are Helen! You are Helen of Troy!” “Helen” she says in a whisper. And when she speaks her name, her true name, the fog begins to clear and a sense of recognition comes over her. This is the beginning of her new life as she assumes the life of a queen she had been all along.

What might it mean for you and me to live up to our identity, our daughtership and sonship as the daughters and sons of God? The first thing of course is to really believe it, to trust in our hearts that we are the daughters and sons of God. This is the first thing about us and the most important thing. I’m afraid that some folks have been told so often that they are sinners and deserve nothing good that it’s hard for them to accept that the first thing and most important thing about them is not that they are sinners, but they are children of God and loved by God unconditionally.

It’s interesting that in Matthew’s version the Divine Voice says to the crowd, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” But in Mark and Luke’s versions of the story the Divine Voice addresses not the crowd but Jesus. Matthew gives Jesus’ baptism a public setting and emphasizes the proclamation of Jesus’ sonship, whereas Mark and Luke suggest that this was a personal experience, maybe a personal epiphany, where the Divine Voice speaks directly to Jesus in the second person (not third person as in Matthew), “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” And maybe we need both experiences. Maybe the only way we can really hear the Divine Voice is by hearing it both within ourselves and by hearing it from others in order to really believe and trust it.    

If a person or group has been marginalized, treated as inferior, beaten down by bad religion or bad social law or custom, maybe that person or group needs to hear words of affirmation and welcome and acceptance from others before they can actually believe and trust that God welcomes and accepts them. Maybe we all need that to some degree.

Lillian Daniel, a UCC minister tells about having to move every couple of years when she was in school because of her parents work. She writes about how difficult that was:

You enter the school cafeteria and freeze. You clutch your lunch and wonder. Where do I sit? Will I be welcomed? Will I be ignored? The noise of the lunch room hits you like a bomb. It is so loud and full, but for you it is empty. All that chattering, shrieking, and laughing does not include you, and it never has. You are the outsider. You have nowhere to sit. . . .  “Is someone sitting here?” you ask at a table with an empty seat or two. You are greeted with a shrug. “Go ahead.”

You remember your last school where, when you asked, “Is someone sitting here?” they said, “Sorry, it’s taken.” So you sat somewhere else and then spent the lunch hour looking at that still-empty seat, and the girls around it whispering to one another, saying, “That was mean,” when their laughter indicated what it really was, to them: funny. After that, you wondered if you would always eat alone at this school. And now, sitting here, living this moment one more time, you sit down and wonder: Will they talk to me? Will I ever eat with these people again?

“What’s your name?” the girl I have joined at the table asks me. Another says, “Where did you move from?” And at her question, my heart fills with such gratitude that I fight to keep back the tears. They have welcomed me. I have a place to sit. I will not have to eat alone in the middle of a crowded room.”

Lillian Daniel finds God in such a welcome. As well, she should, because this is what God does. God welcomes all to the table of fellowship and friendship because we are God’s daughters and sons – all of us. God invites us to believe it, to trust it, and to live like it.

But you know, sometimes, some of us, maybe all of us, need to hear the voice of welcome and acceptance coming from others, before we can hear it as the voice of God.

And once we hear that voice, once we experience the power of that affirmation, then we want others to hear that voice as well. Do you realize that through the welcome and hospitality we extend to others, through our acceptance and affirmation, through our expressions of love and friendship, the recipients of these expressions of grace may just be able to hear and receive God’s expressions of grace and love and be able to respond to God’s invitation to friendship. Maybe through our voice they will be able to hear God’s voice saying, “You are my beloved son, you are my beloved daughter, in whom I am well pleased.”

Someone might say, “Well, I don’t think God would be pleased with some of the things I have said or done.” Well, that may be true. God may not be pleased with some of the things we say and do. But, that being so, God is always pleased that we are God’s daughters and sons. A loving parent may not always be pleased with a child’s words or deeds. In fact, caring parents may be deeply grieved and hurt and angry with a child, but those parents are always pleased that the child is their child. I know God is not always pleased with my words or actions, but I know in my heart God is pleased that I am God’s son. I hope you know that in your heart too. I hope you are able to believe that and trust it. And if you do know it and trust it, I hope you will see that God needs you to help others know it too.

Our good God, as we share in the bread and cup together as your sons and daughters may we hear your voice saying to us what Jesus heard, may we experience your grace, your welcome, your acceptance, and affirmation and know from that experience that we are your beloved children. And may we be compelled by your grace to want others to know this too. Amen. 

Sunday, January 1, 2017

When Christmas is Over (A sermon from Matthew 2:13-23)

Someone said that nothing is as over as Christmas when it’s over. A colleague told about an experience he had in college when he worked part time at a discount, department store. He was working on the day after Christmas when a woman marched in, threw something on the counter and lit into him as if he had made the thing personally with every intention of it breaking on Christmas day. She told him what she thought of him, the employer he worked for and said, "I will not rest until I get my money back.”  

When she finally paused, he said, "Mam, you’re right. This is a worthless piece of junk and I don't blame you for being mad. I don't know but what I wouldn't beat someone over the head with this and I can't believe anyone would sell you this, but if you will look (he turned it over) you bought this across the street. Their tag is still on it." She picked up the item, never said excuse me or I'm sorry, and blew out about as fast as she blew in. My minister friend said that he never did mind working Christmas Eve, but hated working the day after Christmas. Apparently the Christmas spirit doesn’t last very long. 

The themes that run through Advent are the themes of hope, peace, love, and joy and we always emphasize these themes in one way or another through the prayers, songs, scriptures, litanies, and sermons of Advent. But ask anyone going through a really difficult time, anyone who is in grief from the passing of a loved one, or one who is unemployed without any prospects soon of finding a job, or someone who is struggling with a physical illness or mental illness or dealing depression – ask them and they will tell you that it is much easier to sing or talk about hope, peace, love, and joy than it is to actually nurture these in our lives.

Recently I wrote this: What do you do when you begin to lose faith in humanity? [By the way, losing faith in humanity may be losing faith in yourself] Don't say, "I still have faith in God." That don't work. To lose faith in humanity is to lose faith in God - the Divine Goodness - who indwells each one of us. So what do you do? You look around for signs everywhere and you pray at least once each hour: "God, please open my blind eyes." 

When it comes to nurturing hope and faith in the midst of very difficult and challenging circumstances, much of it is about seeing with a different set of eyes. Here is a letter a college student sent to her parents:

Dear Mom and Dad, I am sorry to be so long in writing. Unfortunately all my stationary was burned up the night our dorm was set on fire by the demonstrators. I am out of the hospital now and the doctors say my eyesight should return sooner or later. The wonderful boy, Bill, who rescued me from the fire kindly offered to share his little apartment with me until the dorm is rebuilt. He comes from a good family so you won't be surprised when I tell you that we are going to be married. In fact, Mom, since you always wanted a grandchild you will be glad to know that next month you will be a grandparent. At the bottom it read: P.S.  Please disregard the above practice in English composition. There was no fire. I haven't been in the hospital.  I'm not pregnant. And I don't have a steady boyfriend. But I did get a "D" in French and an "F" in chemistry and I wanted to be sure you received this news in the proper perspective.

Perspective is important. How and what we see is important. How we see God and God’s involvement, God’s participation and engagement in our lives and in the world is a major factor in whether or not we are able to nurture hope and faith and love and even some joy in the midst of the tragedies and sufferings of life.

Our Scripture text today is an after Christmas text, but it is still part of the birth narrative in Matthew’s Gospel. The joyful news brought by the angel is now replaced by the loud weeping of the parents whose babies were killed in the wake of King Herod's rage. Matthew's Christmas pageant ends not with tinsel covered angels proclaiming peace on earth and goodwill toward all, but with Rachel weeping for her slaughtered babies. 

We sing on Christmas "Oh little town of Bethlehem / How still we see thee lie" but we don't have any songs for this part of the story. This is not singing. This is wailing, weeping, crying in agony. The days after Christmas return us to the real world - a world where there is danger and risk and hurt and evil and injustice. A world where places like Alepo exist. A world where children die senselessly. A world that can erupt in holocaust and genocide. A world where nature can erupt violently devastating lands and lives.  

Matthew tells us that what took place in Bethlehem “fulfilled” what Jeremiah had prophesied: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” Then at the end of the next scene where Jesus flees from Herod into Egypt and then returns to Nazareth, Matthew says, “There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

What do we do with this notion that somehow what happens here “fulfills” scripture? I do not believe for one minute that God planned or predestined or ordained or in any way arranged these events. This horrendous slaughter of innocent children is not the fulfillment of a divine plan. Whether or not the writer believed it was is another question. What Matthew may have believed is a historical question and an interpretative question, but it is not an application question. Not for me anyway. That’s not how I read it or apply it.

What this “fulfillment” language suggests, I think, is that the story of Jesus parallels and in some sense completes the story of Israel, that there is continuity between the old and the new, and that the God who was engaged in the life of Israel is now engaged in the life of Jesus to bring redemption and hope to our world. Regardless of what Matthew may have originally meant, this text reminds us that even when evil people do evil things and terrible tragedy, injustice, and suffering results, God is still at work in the midst of it all.

There is no answer – no good, satisfactory answer - to the question of why God permits so much unjust suffering in the world. And every so-called answer – without exception - creates its own set of problems, which ignites more questions. I remember reading a book in a doctrinal seminar on this issue and we had a fairly lengthy discussion about it. These days I simply avoid any discussion, because there is no answer. Though I think everyone has to wrestle with the question to get to the point where you can see that no solution is adequate. At the time, I needed that discussion. I needed to invest the time and energy into the question, so that I could get to the place where I could let the question go. You may be at a place where you need to ask that question and wrestle with it.

There are some who would like to think that some of us are exceptional, that some of us are exempt. At the Bible college I graduated from I remember having a class discussion about the rapture. Would it come before the tribulation that would overtake the earth in the last days? The professor in my class argued it would and I think everyone of us in the class accepted that view. Of course, if you don’t believe in a rapture or a final tribulation period before the second coming of Jesus then the question is really moot isn’t it. Today I find that question totally irrelevant, but it wasn’t when I was asking it. Now that I reflect on it I think one of the reasons so many Christians who believe in a final tribulation period and a rapture think that it will take place before the time of tribulation is because we would like to think that somehow God would spare us from all that suffering. But God doesn’t make those kind of promises. And this after Christmas text of horrendous suffering for the families whose babies were killed is a reminder that no one is exempt from great heartache, tragedy, and loss, and that our world can come apart any day for any of us.

When Sophie our granddaughter, who is now 6, was about 3 or so I remember her really liking the children’s story about going on a Bear Hunt. There are any number of versions of the story in print and on YouTube, but the theme is the same. Whatever the challenge, whether it is a forest or muddy swamp or snow storm, there is no going over it, there is not going under it, and there is no going around it, you have to go through it. Maybe that is a lesson in preparation for life.

Author and spiritual teacher Joan Chittister says, “There is no way to comprehend how to go through grief other than by going through it. There is no way to practice foregoing a hot rage that comes with feeling ignored or dismissed or found to be ‘essentially disordered’ – for any reason. There is no way to plan for the sense of abandonment you feel in a society that thinks differently from you; because your child is gay, maybe, or because you’re a woman and so automatically considered deficient for the work, perhaps, or because you’re not white in a white world, or because the person you thought was an eternal friend abandoned you.” She says, “Those things we need to figure out for ourselves, one situation at a time.”  In other words, there is no avoiding them, so we have to deal with them as they come. 

There are things that can only be learned by going through them. And there are things that we would rather not learn. Sometimes the events and experiences of life shatter us, and there is no putting the pieces back again, at least, not in the same way. And so we are left with doing the best we can with what pieces that are left and still work. 

There is a children’s story about a balloonist who is taking a trip over the Alps. He has his itinerary very carefully planned. But each day as he sets out, something happens to drive him off course. Instead of arriving a point A he finds himself at point B. But each day in a different place than he intended he is always able to find something positive. He says, “I didn’t know this place, but this is a wonderful place. Had I known about it, I would have planned to come here.” 

Now, we don’t live in children’s stories. And when our plans are thwarted and we are blown off course, we don’t always land in a “wonderful place.” We land in some hard, painful places. We plan on being at point A – and point A can be any dream or expectation pertaining to work, family, physical health, anything. But a storm blows us off course and we land in a very different place, maybe a place of real suffering. What do we do? What do we see? How do we respond?

Incarnation is about God with us. Yes, we celebrate a very special incarnation of God in the person of Jesus, but can we see that incarnation is not limited to one person no matter how special that person is. God is with us. God is there in Bethlehem when Jesus was born, and God is there in Bethlehem with all those mothers and families mourning the brutal slaying of their little ones. Can we trust God, can we be awake to the Divine Presence, can we invite God into the midst of our sin and hurt and pain and loss, even when healing and some measure of joy seems to have fled forever?

There is one other dimension to the story that we would do well to think about. In the suffering at Bethlehem we see a prelude to events that take place a little later when the one who escapes the wrath of this tyrant will not escape the wrath of another. It’s important for us who are followers of Christ to realize that the gospel of Jesus not about worldly power and control and success. In fact, the gospel of Jesus often puts us at odds with the powers that be. Often, the gospel of Jesus puts us at odds with the forces and powers that control government, the media, big corporations, and the economy. The symbol for our faith is not a scepter or a throne or a place of power, but a cross – the very means used for Roman execution. The cross is a symbol of humiliation and defeat that expresses vulnerability and weakness, and the cross is a major symbol of our faith.

In writing to the church at Corinth, Paul said that the very image of Christ crucified, the very idea of the Messiah executed, was to many Jews a stumbling block and to many Greeks foolishness. It made no sense. But to those “being saved,” said Paul, it is the very power and wisdom of God. That is, to those being changed by the spiritual power of cross, the cross represents the power and wisdom of God. The cross represents the power of love and the wisdom of doing what is right and just and good regardless of the cost.

Following Jesus doesn’t lead us to safe places where we avoid suffering. In fact, sometimes in our clash with the powers that be our discipleship leads us right into the middle of suffering. Our discipleship certainly always leads us to stand with and for those who do suffer from the policies and practices of the powers that be. Let’s not be afraid. Rather, let’s remember that God is Immanuel. God is with us at all times and in every place.

Our good God, may we know in the core of our being that you suffer with us when we suffer and that in our most difficult times, when beaten down for whatever reason help us to know that you are not out there, somewhere, separated from us, watching from a distance, but help us know that you are right here – among us, with us, in us, absorbing it all. Let us see and know that you are one with us. You are part of us. Your Spirit gives life to our spirit and we live because of you. Help us to see that while you do not offer us answers, you do give us your presence, and may we find in your presence, the hope and grace and faith and endurance to get us through.    

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Word made Flesh (A Christmas day sermon from John 1:1-14)

Fr Richard Rohr shares a fascinating story he learned from a seasoned African missionary. When the priest first arrived in an African village he began by celebrating the Eucharist in a simple manner. He said to the people, “Now I’m going to celebrate a very simple means of sharing God’s love with you. Those of you who want to join in this meal are entering into God’s love.” Then he held out the bread to them and said, “Whoever eats this bread believes that your people are one people.” He explained to them the implication of this simple gospel, “That means you can’t hate one another anymore.” That’s how he shared the gospel.

Unknowingly, the priest had violated a custom of the tribe; namely, the men ate together, while the women and children ate separately. It was a disgrace for a man to eat with a woman. Unwittingly, the priest had gathered men and women around the sacred table and fed the bread to men and women as equals. This disturbed them, and the natives reacted quite vocally. The priest raised his voice over the murmurings and said, “In Christ there is no distinction between male and female.”

The people were dumbfounded at that statement. They wanted to know who this Christ was who made no distinction between men and women. The priest tried to explain, “He is the father of all. That means you are all brothers and sisters, and when you eat this bread, you are one in Christ.” At this, some began to move away, because it was humiliating for men to eat with women.

The great challenge for the priest was to communicate the gospel in their cultural context. For the priest the Eucharist struck at the very heart of the gospel, so his approach was to invite them to the sacred meal and as simply as possible explain to them, day after day, the meaning and implication of the ritual. He kept telling them they were one people and they were to love one another. In fifteen years, this created something of a social revolution in the tribe.

One day, the men came and literally laid their weapons at his feet, saying to him, “If the gospel you preach to us is true, if this Jesus, this Son of the Father, loves us in this total way, and if he is the Father of all the people in our village and the Father of the people in the village down the road, then we can’t kill them anymore.” Rohr comments, “In fifteen years this tribe learned what Western Civilization hasn’t been able to learn in two thousand years with all its complex versions of Christianity.”

The missionary told Fr Rohr that he saw no point in confusing these people by telling them about all the different denominations in Christendom. He just wanted to communicate Jesus’ and the Father’s love to them. After fifteen years, there were over ten thousand practicing Christians who were celebrating the Eucharist.

Then, a bishop of Rome assigned to investigate the situation asked the priest, “Do these people know that they are Catholics?” The priest responded, “No, I haven’t told them that yet.” The bishop tightened up and thought the situation was entirely out of control. He insisted that they had to know they were Catholic. The priest replied, “They are a catholic people. They are a universal people, open to all that God is saying and doing.” The bishop threw up his hands and returned to Rome.

The priest started thinking about how upset the bishop was and that perhaps he should teach them about the seven sacraments. So he gathered some of the elders together and explained to them that a sacrament is an encounter between God and humans, and that there were seven of these. All the elders looked puzzled, and finally one of them said, “But we thought there were at least seven hundred!”

It was at that moment the priest realized that he would be limiting their perception of Divine Reality if he were to insist that there were only seven moments when God encounters humans. These people were already sacramentally minded and more incarnational than even the most devout Westerners. They had no problem thinking that God communicates with humans through signs, symbols, rituals, and gestures; their  whole lives were filled with these things. They couldn’t imagine limiting these to seven. One of the great realities that the Christian religion has given to the world is the truth that God is here among us in many forms and expressions.

We who are followers of Jesus, we look to Jesus as the definitive, quintessential incarnation and revelation of God. Now, I do not insist that this must be so for all people, but for you and me who are followers of Christ, Jesus is our model and guide as to what God is like. We look to Jesus first of all.

And while we look to Jesus as a unique revelation of God, we need to remember that we are all unique, and the Divine character and goodness that was incarnated through the life and teachings, the death and resurrection of Jesus, can be incarnated in you and me in similar ways. Jesus shows us the human potential. According to John’s Gospel incarnation is the way God will save the world – that is heal the world, redeem the world, liberate the world, transform the world, and bring peace to the world.

The two particular aspects of the nature of God that are highlighted in John’s prologue are grace and truth: “The Word became flesh (and to keep this simple, the reference to Word or Logos is just another way of referencing the Divine) and lived among us, and we have seen his glory . . . full of grace and truth.” I think we are pretty clear on what grace is and hardly needs any elaboration, but our understanding of truth probably needs expanding and maybe even in some ways correcting.

Truth in John’s Gospel, and in early Christianity in general, is not doctrinal or factual or propositional. It became that later in church history when creeds became popular. In this Gospel, however, Jesus is the way that leads to truth and life. Truth pertains to life – God’s life – and in particular the life embodied and modeled in the way of Jesus. So truth is first and foremost about a way of life.

It’s not about getting your beliefs correct. In fact, there is no standard dogma in scripture or anywhere where we can determine correct beliefs. In early Christianity there was quite a bit of diversity. And of course, God is so much more than any of our beliefs. When I talk about beliefs I like to talk about healthy and unhealthy beliefs, life affirming beliefs and life diminishing beliefs, not about correct or incorrect beliefs. In my opinion, a false belief is a belief that if acted on diminishes our lives in some way.
Truth relates to life. To live truly is to live with integrity and generosity and humility. To live in truth is to live for what is good, just, and right for all people.

Our scripture text today says that the Word that Jesus embodied, we too can embody. Our text suggests that what Jesus received we too can receive, that what Jesus incarnated we too can incarnate, and we do that by learning and receiving from Jesus. The text says that as many as receive Jesus, as many as believe in his name, they receive the power to become children of God. The way I read that is that they receive the power to fulfill, to actualize what they already have and realize or fulfill who they already are.

We all bear the image of God and we all are God’s daughters and sons. We all have the Divine life residing in us. Paul told the philosophers in Athens in Acts 17 that we are all God’s offspring and that in God we all live, move, and have our existence. Here in John’s prologue we are told that the Divine Source of Life is responsible for everything that exists and that this life is the light of all people. This light enlightens everyone, says John. Human beings may acknowledge this or be completely blind to the source of this light. Different religious traditions give this Light different names, but it is the same light that we see so beautifully radiating from the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

According to this text we Christians access this Light and Life by receiving Jesus, by believing in his name, that is, we enter into the experience and flow of the light and life of God when we open our hearts and minds to the grace and truth that Jesus lived out for us. We receive the power to live out our sonship and daughtership to God, we receive the power to actually mirror the image of God, when we trust in the sufficiency and adequacy of the grace and truth embodied by Jesus, and when we commit ourselves to the values that Jesus fleshed out for us. We receive power to reflect the light of God’s grace and truth when we are faithful to live out and practice daily the grace of Jesus and truth of Jesus. This is what faith is. We believe in and trust in the way of Jesus and we strive to be faithful everyday to actually living out our commitment to embody in our lives and relationships the grace and truth of God.

I love the story the late Fred Craddock use to tell about the time he and his wife were on vacation in the Smokey Mountains. The had left the kids with grandparents and they had just set down in a new restaurant called the Black Bear Inn which featured a beautiful view of the mountains.

As they waited for their food they were engaged in conversation by an elderly gentleman. Fred learned later that the gentleman who conversed with them had been twice elected governor of Tennessee. When he found out that Fred was a Disciples of Christ minister he pulled up a chair and told Fred his story.

He grew up in the mountains there and his mother was not married when she had him. In those days there was a lot of shame in that. So the reproach that fell on his mother fell also on him. When they went into town he could see people starring at him and making guesses as to who his father was. At school the children said ugly things to him and so he stayed to himself at recess and ate lunch alone.

Then in his early teens he began to attend a little Disciples of Christ church back in the mountains called Laurel Springs Christian Church. They had a minister who was both attractive and frightening. He had a chiseled face, a heavy beard, and a deep voice. He would go just for the sermons. He told Fred he wasn’t sure why, but his sermons did something for him. He would arrive just in time for the sermon and hurry off quickly afterward. He was afraid a boy like him might not be welcome there.

One Sunday some people queued up the aisle before he could get out and make his way to the door, So as he stood there kind of pinned in he felt a big hand on his shoulder and he knew it was that minister. He turned around and looked him in the face. The minister paused and he just knew the minister was going to make a guess as to who his father was. A moment later the minister said, “Well, boy, I know who you are. You’re a child of . . .” then he paused again and continued, “Boy, you are a child of God. I see a striking resemblance.” Then he swatted him on the back and told him to go claim his inheritance. He told Fred there in that restaurant, “I left that church house a different person. In fact, that was really the beginning of my life.”

I can imagine that there were some in John’s church who felt like that when they opened their lives to the grace and truth of God embodied in Jesus. The challenge for us is to do that daily. To daily trust in the power of God’s grace and truth that we have come to experience in Jesus and then nurture this grace and truth so that the life of Jesus grows in us and is expressed in our relationships, in our attitudes and actions, and in all we say and do.

Our good God, we celebrate this Christmas day the Word made flesh. We give thanks for the grace and truth made visible in the person and life of Jesus of Nazareth. And we commit ourselves anew to live and embody the grace and truth of Jesus every day. Open our eyes so that we can see where we need to grow, where we need to let the light of your grace and truth shine into our own hearts, and may we then let it shine for others to see.

Monday, December 19, 2016

God With Us as Guide and Liberator (An Advent sermon from Matthew 1:18-25)

They shall call him Emmanuel, which means, God with us. Christians of different traditions may utilize different images and words to talk about how Jesus incarnates the Divine, but all of us see in Jesus a representative of God with us. When I look at Jesus I see a special revelation of the goodness and grace of God, whose life and teachings serve as a guide for my life and as a means of liberation.

Let’s talk first about God as Emmanuel being our guide. Joseph is not a dominant figure in the birth stories, but here, in the way he responds to Mary’s pregnancy Joseph functions as a kind of model for all of us.  

What do I mean? Consider how Joseph responded when he discovered that the wife he was pledged too was pregnant, and of course he assumed she was pregnant by another man. He assumed that she had been unfaithful. The text says that Joseph “being a righteous man (or just man) and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” Matthew says that Joseph was “a righteous or just man.” What does that mean? For the scribes and Pharisees and other devout persons that would have meant that Joseph kept and obeyed the law of God, just as for many Christians today being righteous or just is understood as obeying scripture. Now that sounds good, right? But the deeper issue here is this: Is slavish obedience to the law – or scripture in general – always the right thing to do? Is doing what the Bible says always the will of God?   

What does the law tell Joseph to do? In Deuteronomy 22:21 the law says quite specifically what to do regarding a woman who has been found to be unfaithful: “She shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house.” That’s what the Bible says. The Jews under Roman rule did not have the authority to carry out capital punishment, but Joseph could have made life extremely difficult for Mary. But Matthew says that because Joseph was “a righteous man” he wanted to handle this quietly so as not to bring public shame and disgrace to Mary. In other words, because he was a righteous person he decided not to obey the Scripture that judged and condemned her.

In one of Richard Rohr’s daily meditations he wrote: "God restores rather than punishes, which is a much higher notion of how things are “justified” before God. The full and final Biblical message is restorative justice, but most of history has only been able to understand retributive justice. Now, I know you’re probably thinking of many passages in the Old Testament that sure sound like serious retribution. And I can’t deny there are numerous black and white, vengeful scriptures, which is precisely why we must recognize that all scriptures are not equally inspired or from the same level of consciousness."

A favorite preacher of many preachers is the late Fred Craddock. Dr. Craddock was a New Testament scholar and homiletician who taught aspiring ministers how to both read their New Testaments and preach. In a sermon on this very text Dr. Craddock says: “Joseph is a good man, and he rises to a point that is absolutely remarkable for his day and time. He loves his Bible and knows his Bible and bless his heart for it. But he reads his Bible through a certain kind of lens, the lens of the character and nature of a God who is loving and kind. Therefore he says, ‘I will not harm her, abuse her, expose her, shame her, ridicule her, or demean her value, her dignity, or her worth. I will protect her.’”  Craddock then asks, “Where does it say that, Joseph? In your Bible? I’ll tell you where is says that. It says that in the very nature and character of God.” What is Dr. Craddock suggesting?  He is saying that the Bible doesn’t always give us a reliable picture of the true nature and character of God. Certainly there are texts that are highly enlightened and reflect the highest level of human consciousness, but there are others texts which are more deeply entrenched within the biases of their culture.

Who was Joseph listening to? He was listening to the God who was with him. He was listening to the God he had come to personally know and experience. Joseph decided not to listen to the scripture that said to stone Mary, in order that he could listen to the voice of Divine Mercy and Grace.

Jesus did the same thing. In story after story in the Gospels we see Jesus practicing inclusion, practicing love of neighbor, identifying with and welcoming the marginalized, the poor, and the oppressed. In story after story we see Jesus reaching out to the most vulnerable people in his society, healing the sick and liberating the demonized.

In Nazi Germany a Jewish fugitive fleeing for his life came to a small town. He sought out the house of the Christian pastor, hoping to find refuge. He knocked on the door and when the pastor opened it, he told his story and asked if he could stay a few days until it was safe to travel again. The pastor invited him to step inside and wait. The pastor knew that if this young man was caught hiding there the whole town would be held accountable and suffer greatly. So immediately he withdrew to his prayer room and closed the door. He asked God for guidance and then opened his Bible. He happened to come upon the verse in John’s Gospel that says, “It is better for one man to die, than for the whole people to parish.” He knew he had his answer. So he sent the man away. Later that night an angel appeared and asked, “Where is the fugitive?” The pastor said, “I sent him away as the Holy Book instructed me.” The angel said, “Did you not know that he was the Christ? If you would have looked into his eyes, instead of first running to the Book, you would have known.”

If we will look into the face of Jesus to see what God is like we would realize that God always prefers mercy to judgment, that God is always more interested in inclusion than exclusion, that in God’s world human need always take precedence over some legal code or law.

Or if we would just look into the faces of our sisters and brothers all around us we could see the longing and heart of God. We can look into the faces of the sick and see God’s longing for a world where sickness and disease or some other kind of human suffering cannot snatch away a child or loved one in the prime of life. We can look into the face of the destitute and see God’s longing for a world where everyone has enough to thrive, not just survive, a world where one group is not allowed to lord it over another group or have too much when another group has so little. We can look into the face of someone put down and demeaned and we can see God’s longing for a world that puts an end to all the marginalization and condemnation of other religions and races. We can look into the faces of the impoverished and displaced and those dying from explosions and gun fire and see God’s longing for a world free of poverty and war.

If we will allow it, God is with us as a guide to show us how to use our sacred texts to inspire love and mercy, rather than judgment and condemnation. And sisters and brothers if we just open our eyes to what is buried deep in our own hearts we would see that God longs to save us from our prejudices and greed, from our own fears and frustrations, so that we can be more grace-filled and merciful.

And this brings me to my next point. God is with us as a guide to show us how to love and God is with us as a liberator to set us free to love. According to Matthew’s story the angel instructs Joseph to name the child Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. The kind of salvation many of the Jews in Palestine longed for during Jesus’ day was salvation from the Romans. The Romans were the oppressors. The Jews of Palestine were under the heavy arm of Rome. The Jews were in servitude and were heavily taxed, even though Rome permitted some measure of self-governance, particularly with regard to their religious laws and social customs. But the Jews had no rights. Rome could pretty much do as they wished. So you can see that what many Jews longed for was a Messianic figure who would rescue them from Rome – a kind of rebel leader who would rally the people and forcefully lead them in defiance of and liberation from Rome.

Jesus, of course, was not that kind of liberator, but we would be greatly amiss to think that God’s salvation does not involve liberation from oppression. In fact, later in this very Gospel Jesus offers some very specific examples of how his people might creatively, nonviolently stand up to Roman oppression, though it still carried considerable risk. When Jesus told them to stand their ground when they were slapped and humiliated by a Roman citizen or some Roman authority by offering the other cheek, or when he instructed them to carry a Roman soldier’s bag an extra mile after being pressed into demeaning service, he was giving them a creative strategy for nonviolently standing up to and protesting injustice. Certainly Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God included salvation from all those oppressive forces and systems that stood in the way of creating a just and good world.

Did you know that the word that is translated “save” in the Gospels is most often translated “heal” or “make whole” or “make well?” It’s the same word in the Greek. To be saved is to be healed. To be saved is to be made whole or well. To be saved is to be liberated from destructive powers, whether that’s physical or mental illness, oppressive systems and structures, or one’s own personal demons and sins. Salvation is about being healed, liberated, and made whole spiritually, psychologically, physically, socially, and relationally.

So in light of this broad understanding of salvation, what might the significance be of this saying announced to Joseph by the angel: “He will save his people from their sins.” The Jewish Christians who first read this may have been thinking, “What we need is salvation from Roman oppression?” Maybe the point is this: Just as important as liberation from oppressive forces from without, is liberation from entrapping forces from within.

When there is a change in power, when situations reverse, when the oppressed people come to a place of power, what is to prevent them from oppressing other peoples the same way they were oppressed? Consider how often in history when there has been a change in power, when the people on the bottom have risen up and took control, think how often the new people on top oppress their enemies the same way they were oppressed. So the cycle of hate and violence continues.

Who is mature enough to say, “Enough! No more oppression? No more violence”? Who is spiritual enough to say, “No more hate”? It would have to be those who have been and are in the process of being healed and liberated from their sins. It would have to be those who have been and are being liberated from their inner fears, anxieties, prejudices, and insecurities. Who is morally strong enough and courageous enough to resist the urge to return violence for violence and stop the cycle? It would have to be those who have been and are being freed from their inner demons, from their hate and greed and their hirst for revenge. Only then would Abraham’s seed or, for that matter, any of us be ready and able to be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth.
These are the peacemakers who preach and practice forgiveness. These are the pure in heart who embody lives of simplicity and honesty and generosity.  These are those who hunger and thirst after restorative justice, who know that no one is truly free and whole until all people are free and whole. These are the humble and meek of the earth who know that we all need the same things in order to thrive in God’s good creation. These are the faithful and diligent who sense a great responsibility to care for and manage well the creation, because they know that all life is sacred.

What if Christianity in the West had understood and emphasized this broader understanding of salvation that is depicted in the Gospels? What if Christianity in the West had realized that God’s salvation is about God’s healing and liberation of both individuals and whole communities from all these negative, life-diminishing forces within and without? What if Christianity in the West had come to see God’s salvation as peace within and without, in the heart and between persons, communities, and nations? Maybe Western Christianity would have had a greater impact for good and developed a better reputation in the world.  

God is with us sisters and brothers. Always has been, always will be. As Paul says in his letter to the Romans nothing can sever us from God’s love as made known to us in Jesus the Christ. God is with us as a guide into the way of love and peace. God is with us as liberator from all those life-diminishing powers that would oppress us physically, spiritually, socially, and psychologically. God is with us – all of us – to guide us and redeem us.

O God, let us open our minds and hearts and bodies to your healing and liberating presence. May we be led by your loving wisdom and life-affirming Spirit. May we find healing and wholeness. May we be freed of our inner demons and sins. May our lives be witnesses to your healing and transforming grace. Amen  

Monday, December 5, 2016

Breaking Down Barriers to Peace (Romans 15:1-14)

Some of us who have been following the tweets of Bana Alabed, a seven year old Syrian girl living in Aleppo, have been emotionally impacted by the ravages of war as told by a child. Late last Sunday night she tweeted that her house had been bombed. She said, “Tonight we have no house, it’s bombed and I got in rubble. I saw deaths and I almost died.” On Monday her mother posted an update that her family was on the run. What is their chance of survival? Not very good. When we hear and see these first-hand accounts of the devastation and deaths caused by war we realize how broken our world is. On this second Sunday of Advent we pray for and hopefully will commit ourselves anew to work for peace.

Our scripture text today from Paul’s letter to the Romans speaks to this longing for peace. Prior to this passage Paul has been dealing with tensions in the fellowship, offering instruction on how these tensions should be resolved. Hear once again he urges them to live in harmony with one another. He wanted the church to be a model of the future age when justice and peace would prevail in all segments and sectors of human life. In the OT text passage from Isaiah for this Sunday in Isaiah 11, the prophet paints a poetic picture of how he envisioned such a time. Isaiah says that the one who will fulfill their hopes for peace will bring justice to the poor and he will decide with equity for the meek of the earth, that is he will equalize things out and those who have been beaten down will be lifted up. One of Jesus’ favorite sayings in the Gospels is that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. All violence will abolished. They will not hurt or destroy on the Lord’s holy mountain, says the prophet. The prophet’s vision of peace cannot be dislodged, it cannot be disconnected from justice. So peace and justice go together. Any peace without justice, without fairness, without healing and liberation for all the people is a false peace.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans he urges them to live in harmony, to be at peace, and to be a model of what a world filled with God’s love and a world doing God’s will would look like. I think there are some things that stand out as barriers to peace that Paul would like to see toppled.

One barrier to peace is unforgiveness. Now Paul doesn’t specifically speak about forgiveness in this passage, but he does hold up Christ as our model and he says that Christ did not please himself but sought the good of others and was even willing to bear the insults of others without any bitterness or resentment or need to retaliate. In Luke’s version of the passion story Jesus says from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  

There can be no pathway to peace – in our families, in our communities, in our societies, and in the world – unless there is forgiveness. Someone has to say, “I am willing, we are willing to absorb the offense without responding in kind, without becoming bitter and resentful, without hurting you in return.” Forgiveness is not a simple act, it is more like a complicated process. Forgiveness does not mean there will be no consequences. There may still be consequences and working through those consequences may require multiple acts of forgiveness. Forgiveness does not automatically mean there will be reconciliation and of course, reconciliation can take different forms. Forgiveness may not be enough for peace to result, restitution may be required. So you see, forgiveness is not a simple process, but it is a necessary process. Forgiveness does not automatically result in peace, but there is no peace without it.

Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche’ communities, wrote about being in Rwanda shortly after the genocide. A young woman came up to him and told him that seventy-five members of her family had been assassinated. I can’t imagine or don’t want to imagine what that would be like? I’m not sure I could ever recover from something like that. She said, “I have so much anger and hate within me and I don’t know what to do with it. Everybody is talking about reconciliation, but nobody has asked any forgiveness. I just don’t know what to do with the hate that is within me.”

Vanier said, “I understand. I understand.” What do you say to a young girl who finds herself all alone because all her family has been killed? Her problem, wrote Vanier, was the guilt she felt because she didn’t know how to forgive. So she got caught up in a world of hate and depression. Vanier said to her: “Do you know that the first step towards forgiveness is ‘no vengence’? He asked her: “Do you want to kill those who killed members of your family?” She responded: “No, there is too much death.” Vanier said, “Well, that is the first step in the process of forgiveness. The first step.”

I can’t imagine having to struggle with the demons this young lady has had to contend with. But she decided “no vengeance” and she took the first step toward forgiveness and finding peace, finding peace within herself and finding peace with others.

A second barrier to peace is the pursuit of power. There are some people who will sell their soul for a seat at the table of power. This will always be a barrier to peace, whether in the international and global arena, or within our own families. Jesus, again, is our paradigm. He is our representative and example. Paul says that Christ did not please himself, he emptied himself of all need for control and power. He did not need homage or accolades or praise. He did not need to control anyone or anything. God has never been about control. God loves freedom too much. God is present with us and the rest of creation, but God doesn’t control us or anyone or anything else. Paul says Jesus became a servant on behalf of the truth. Jesus never pursued power; rather, he spoke truth to power, which of course, ultimately landed him on a cross.

What do you think it means to be a servant on behalf of the truth? In Ephesians, which has been attributed to Paul, the writer says, “Speak the truth in love.” How do you do that? That is something that is very heavy on my heart right now. How do I speak the truth in love? How do you speak truth in love? It helps to remember who we are? We are God’s beloved daughters and sons, who are called to be servants of the truth.

Jesus resisted all temptation to acquire power and he often spoke truth to power. He tried to teach his disciples what was really important. On one occasion James and John came to Jesus seeking positions of power. They apparently imagined God’s kingdom like they thought of worldly kingdoms (like us they were very slow to catch on). So they ask Jesus if they could share the platform with him, sitting on his right and left. One version of the story says that they sent their mother to make the request. Jesus rebuke’s them by saying, “You know that the rulers of the world aspire to lord it over others. But it is not so among you. Whoever wishes to be great or to be first among you, must become the servant of all.” Mark’s version of this story emphasizes service to all – all people without distinction. And that brings me to a third barrier to peace.

A third barrier to peace is exclusion and discrimination. Discrimination and exclusion can, of course, be expressed overtly, or they can be expressed in more subtle ways. I get the sense that possibly some form of this was finding its way into the Roman church. Paul makes a special point to affirm the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s plan to bring peace to the world. He quotes four Hebrew scriptures to make this point. Two from the Psalms: “I will confess you among the Gentiles”; and “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the people praise him.” He quotes one from Deuteronomy: “Rejoice, O Gentiles with his people.” And he quotes one from Isaiah: “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”

It’s not possible to recreate the historical situation, so we can only guess what was going on. I wonder if perhaps there were some Jewish brethren who, in very subtle ways were saying to the Gentiles, “You know, we were God’s chosen first. We have priority.” Paul reminds them that it was God’s plan all along to bring everyone together. If God blessed Abraham and Abraham’s seed it was for the purpose of extending the blessing to all people, which is what the Abrahamic covenant says, right. “From you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” Paul argues earlier in this letter in chapter 5 that Christ as the representative human being through his act of righteousness or justice (which I interpret as a reference to his life that culminated in his death) justification and life comes to all.

Apparently, this is how Paul’s followers understood him, because the writer of Ephesians says that God’s plan in Christ was “to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and on earth” (1:10). The writer of the book of Colossians, which also bears Paul’s name, says that through Christ God was pleased to reconcile all things to himself, whether on earth or in heaven (1:20). So God’s plan according to the Pauline tradition is to bring together, to reconcile, to unify, to make one all people and creation in Christ. Christ is the symbol here for the means and way all things will be brought together. In other words, when we can love like Jesus, when we can trust like Jesus, when we can live like Jesus, then we can all be brought together as one, reconciled to God and to one another and to all creation.

Paul wants the church at Rome and all churches to live in such a way that in their life together they become a foreshadowing, a harbinger, a preview of God’s future kingdom, God’s world of justice and peace. Paul believed that the church should be living right now the peace and justice that will prevail in God’s future world.

So, if a local church and the church universal is supposed to model for the world, that is, give the world a taste of God’s world of peace and justice to come, then we all, I think, would have to admit that we have for the most part failed haven’t we? Many churches reflect more of the culture around them, the biases and mores of the day, than the values and qualities – the peace and justice – that mark God’s future world. However, that is no reason to quit or despair or give up the dream.

Martin Buber was a great Jewish philosopher and a deeply spiritual man who lived in a different age. He died in 1965. He said, “I do not believe in Jesus but I do believe with Jesus.” What was he saying? He was saying, “I don’t believe the same things about Jesus you Christians believe, but I believe in living the way he lived and loving the way he loved.” What if the missionary endeavor of the church in the West took that approach? Instead of insisting that peoples of different cultures and religious traditions believe what we believe about Jesus. What if we rather encouraged them to live and love the way Jesus lived and loved? I wonder if we would have had a much more positive influence. Gandhi taught that our distinctive religious traditions were given to us not to convert the world to our particular religious tradition, but to bless the world.

Last week I shared a story from John Philip Newell’s book, The Rebirthing of God, about the time his father who was struggling with dementia “blessed” the car salesman (and if you missed that story the sermon is posted on my website if you want to read it). Here is another story he tells about his father during his father’s last days on earth. The people that visited his father most frequently during his father’s final days were a Muslim couple, Sylvia and Boshe. His father’s vocation involved working to provide relief for refugees. Years earlier when this couple had escaped from war-torn Bosnia, his father helped them find sanctuary in Canada. They referred to him as “father” because he had been so central to their birth into freedom and safety. Dr.Newell says that his father had always been a deeply compassionate man, but (and this will sound familiar) he had also been a very conservative man in his religious beliefs. So, while he worked with refugees the world over, at the end of the day, he thought they would be much better off if they adopted his Christian beliefs.

Dr. Newell says that even when his father was in the latter stages of dementia, he loved to pray with the people visiting him. Somehow, his words would flow when he prayed, even though in ordinary speech he would struggle for words. One sunny afternoon, Dr. Newell, joined this Muslim couple in a visit to his father. Dr. Newell asked his father to pray. They were seated in a circle and joined hands. His father prayed, “Without You, O God, we would not be. And because of you we are one family.” Dr. Newell looked up and saw tears streaming down the faces of Boshe and Sylvia. Dr. Newell says, “They knew they were one family with us, but they had never heard my father say it. His religious ego had now collapsed. The barriers had broken down.”

I dream of a world like that sisters and brothers. Can we do anything to help bring it about? Sure we can. One, we can commit ourselves to a process of forgiveness. Two, we can daily practice being a servant of all people. And three, we can recognize and admit our own tendencies toward discrimination and exclusion, and work toward inclusion, welcome, acceptance, and unity, not by focusing on beliefs that divide us, but on the compassion and love that can bring us together.

Our good God, there is too much hate, too much injustice, too much prejudice, too much ego, that divides us and even threatens our survival as a species. Cast these demons out of us, O Lord. Help us dream of a world of peace and justice. And empower us to work toward its realization – by forgiving, serving, accepting, and welcoming all who would come to the table to talk peace and work for justice.