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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Are you ready? (Romans 13:11-14; Matt. 24:36-44) Sermon for first Sunday of Advent

This text in Matthew is a text I remember from the days I clutched a Scofield reference Bible. Along with Scofield’s infallible notes I carried around a copy of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, you know, the premier text on the future of the world. He called it the late great planet earth because he believed that the earth was headed toward Armageddon, which would culminate in the Second Coming of Christ. He also believed, as was taught in the notes of the Scofield reference Bible, that the church would be raptured (not ruptured, the church has been continuously ruptured, but raptured) – that is, snatched away, evacuated into heaven before the tribulation and suffering that would engulf the earth. This view originated in Europe by a man named John Nelson Darby who later brought it to America, where it was spread through the preaching of popular American evangelists. It offered the kind of sensationalism many evangelists crave. It should come as no surprise that this was an invention of the Western world, where it found a home in Western, and especially American exceptionalism. We tend to gravitate toward a theology of comfort and privilege. How convenient that God would snatch us out of the world before all the tribulation and suffering starts right?   

This text in Matthew is part of Jesus’ end-times discourse. Actually, it may be more of the early church’s end-times discourse than it is Jesus’ discourse. As I said a couple of weeks ago, scholars are divided on how much of this actually originated with Jesus and how much of this originated with Jesus’ first followers. I read texts like this symbolically and metaphorically, which, I would argue, is the way religious texts should be read. The question I ask and the question many spiritual seekers ask is: What is the deeper truth, behind the end-times speculation? Here I think it is simply: Be ready!

The same theme is echoed by Paul in his words to the Roman church. I love the story about the little boy who learned to tell time by listening for the chimes of their grandfather clock. One afternoon he was playing in the house while his mother was out working in the yard. The clock began to chime; he expected three chimes. It chimed once, twice, three times, then four times, five, six, seven, eight, it just kept going – the clock had obviously malfunctioned. Totally disconcerted the little boy raced outside to find his mother, “Mommy, mommy, listen to the clock,” he screamed. His mother said calmly, “Billy, what time is it?” He exclaimed, “I don’t know, but it’s later than it has ever been before.”

It’s true, you know. It is later than it has ever been before. Paul says to his readers, “You know what time it is, it’s time for you to wake from your sleep. It’s time to be ready. For your salvation, your healing and the earth’s healing (this goes together; Paul tied our fate together with the earth’s fate in Romans 8), your liberation and the liberation of the planet, is nearer today than it was yesterday.” Of course, Paul, in his particular historical time and place, did not have the benefit of knowing what we know in our time and place. There’s no way he could have known that the earth has been around for billions of years and life emerged ever so slowly in stages. He couldn’t have known that. But what he says is still true, sisters and brothers. The deeper spiritual truths of sacred texts always transcend historical context, which is why our ancient scriptures still speak to us today. (Actually it is the Spirit speaking to us through our understanding and modern day application of the scriptures).

Rev. King said that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, but it bends slowly right? And there are always forces trying to push it back. And sometimes they do push it  back. But they cannot permanently stifle the force for good in the world. Because that force, that energy is inspired by and empowered by Spirit (capital S). Sometime it is three steps back before we move forward again. One of the great perennial truths these ancient apocalyptic texts teaches us is that deconstruction precedes reconstruction, that the line of progress is never constant, that sometimes the powers that be – the religious, social, or political powers – have to come unhinged like stars falling from the sky (as the text in Matthew says) in order for a new creation to emerge.

The prophets prophesied of a day of justice and peace, when the light of the Lord would shine brightly, but they also spoke of times of injustice and violence that would precede the new age. If you will remember the Gospel text from a few weeks back, Jesus warned that before the day of peace and justice arrives, there will be deception, calamity, persecution, conflict, and violence. (Do you remember that text?) In Matt 24:29 the text says, “Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heaven will be shaken.” This occurs before the coming of the Son of Man. All of this is symbolic language. The coming of the Son of Man is a symbolical way of talking about the coming of a new day for humanity, when humanity more clearly reflects the image of the divine, when the law of love becomes written on all our hearts and minds. And though that day may be a long time yet in coming, we are closer to that day  today than we were yesterday, even though there are days, months, and even years when that doesn’t seem to be true. We view progress from within our own limited, boxed in view of time. But if we are open to a larger vision, we can see that as a species we are slowly making progress.  And what Paul says is true, though in a deeper way than he intended I’m sure. Salvation is nearer. The darkness will give way to the dawn of a new day. That is our hope, which is rooted in the very narrative, the very story that is at the heart of our faith – the death and resurrection of Jesus.

If we judge Jesus by the visible outcome of his work we would have to say he was a failure. His anti-establishment critique and his positive vision of the kingdom of God landed him where? On a Roman cross. He was executed by the powers that be. When he died, according to the passion story in all three of the Synoptics, darkness descended over the earth. Now, whether that historically happened is irrelevant. The symbolism here is what matters. Darkness seemed to have engulfed the world. Hate had done its deed. It seemed as if injustice and evil would prevail. But then the tomb turned up empty. And Jesus appeared to his disciples. Then it became clear to Jesus’ followers that the darkness would not last forever. God raised Jesus giving hope to all who would dare to believe that love and justice would one day prevail, showing us that somehow, someway, when death seems to be the strongest, life springs forth. You can’t keep love down. Love springs up! Hope springs up! Faith springs up! And so the praying and preaching for a just world will not be silenced. The dreaming goes on. The work goes on. The teaching goes on. Hope springs eternal, because love is eternal.

And so our discipleship to Jesus compels us to be ready. To be ready to speak when the occasion calls for speech, and to be silent when the occasion calls for silence. Our duty is to be ready – ready to pray, ready to serve, ready to love, ready to work, ready to confront, ready to comfort, ready to do whatever it is that will further the cause of justice and peace and the common good that God wills for all of us. We must never give in to the darkness. We must resist the urge to respond to hate with hate, or to respond to violence with violence. Our calling is to embody the peaceful, nonviolent, compassionate but courageous way of Jesus.  

One aspect of being ready is that is that we must be ready to risk and suffer if necessary for God’s kingdom of justice and peace. Once there was a general who was infamous for his viciousness. He was brutal and without mercy. He went to attack a small village that lay in the path of his army. Everyone in the village, knowing the general’s reputation, ran away – everyone, except one man. When the general entered the village, he found this one man sitting calmly under a tree. So the general went up to the man and said, “Do you know who I am? Do you know what I am capable of? I can run my sword right through you without batting an eye.” The man said calmly, “Yes, I know.” Then looking at the general he said, “But do you know who I am and what I am capable of? I’ll let you do it . . . without batting an eye.” What are we willing to risk and suffer for the cause of justice and peace in the world?

Another aspect of being ready is that we must be ready at all times to be a channel of blessing to others.  John Philip Newell in his book The Rebirthing of God says that in the last months of his father’s life, as dementia was consuming his mind and memory, he witnessed a river of feeling flowing strong in his father. Throughout his father’s life, his father loved to extend what is sometimes called the Priestly Blessing that is found in Numbers 6:24-25, which begins: “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you.” As the current of feeling began to well up in his father, his father wanted to extend that blessing to everyone, everywhere, repeatedly.

During John’s last visit to his father in Canada before his father entered a nursing home, his sister asked him if he would help sell the family car, which his father was still trying to drive, illegally. So John called the local car salesman and set up an appointment for the next day. He made a point of saying to the car salesman, “When you meet my father tomorrow you will notice that he seems confused about all sorts of things. But please honor him by speaking to him, not me. This is his car. And I’ll be there with him.”

The young salesman totally got the point. There was a playful banter between them. Even in his dementia John’s father had not lost his sense of humor. There were, of course, absurd moments in the conversation. John’s father said to him one time, “Now, how much money do I owe you for this car?” The salesman responded, “No, no Dr. Newell. We want to give you money for the car.” John’s father looked at John and said, “This is very generous of them.” (And those of you with parents or other loved ones suffering from dementia you know how that can be).

At the end of the transaction, as the check was being handed over to John’s father, John said to the young salesman, “Whenever I part from my father or whenever we finish a telephone conversation, he gives me a blessing. And I think he would like to bless you now.” So, with the three of them standing in the middle of the car showroom, John’s father took the salesman’s hand, looked straight into his eyes and said, “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”

When John looked up at the young salesman there were tears streaming down his face. He would never forget that moment. You know, sisters and brothers, everyone of us carries with us every day the potential to be such a blessing to one another. There is a well-spring of potential grace and blessing within each of us that can flow out to others at any moment if we are ready to carry that blessing, if we are ready to be a conduit for the blessing of God to flow to another. Are we ready?

Now, for this blessing to flow freely we may have to get rid of some things. We may have to relinquish some things. It is not likely we will be much of a blessing to anyone if we keep carrying around old wounds and grudges. We will have to let go of our grievance stories that we keep playing over and over in our minds, like a video set on constant repeat. We will have to let go of our bitterness and resentment. And no matter how much we may dislike the actions and attitudes of another person or group, we can’t allow our dislike to become hate or be expressed through harmful actions. Are we ready to move beyond our own little stories, our personal agendas, our own self-interests to embrace the hurt, pain, grief, and suffering that another may be going through? 

In her little book titled, Earthly Good: Reflections on Life and God, Rev. Martha Stern tells about one time when she had taken her car to a body shop after her son drove it through the house. This unfortunately wasn’t the first time she had been to that shop. She says to the owner, “Roy, you see a lot come through here, don’t you?” He nods and says, “I see them come and go. And come back. And people get upset, you know. It really don’t matter if the wreck’s your fault, if the wreck ain’t your fault. Wrecks are upsetting business.” And by the way, that’s true whether you are talking about your car, or your marriage, or your family or an election, or a business deal, or your job, or your health, or whatever right?  Wrecks are upsetting business.

Roy pauses here, then he says, “I still remember one lady, must have been twenty years ago. She did what I believe y’all want to do. She laid right down, right out there on the asphalt. And she hollered.” Martha asks, “What did you do?” He says, “Well, we picked her up.”

Sisters and brothers are we ready to pick one another up? Are we ready to bless one another? Are we ready to encourage someone who may be very down? Are we ready to extend hospitality and grace to someone others may be ready to disregard or discard?  Are we ready to risk or even suffer with those who are marginalized and treated unfairly? Are we ready to dream, pray, speak, and work for the common good – for a just and fair world. Are you ready?

Our good God, help us ready ourselves for the opportunities that open up to us each day to be a blessing to others and to participate in your good will. Amen.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Having a Big Vision (Luke 21:5-19; Isa. 65:17-25)

We have two different end time visions here – one in Isaiah and the other in Luke. Before I preach these texts, before I draw spiritual truths from them, I need to say a word about them, particularly the text in Luke 21. First, when the biblical writers talk about the last days of the end-time, the end they are talking about is not the end of everything; they are not talking about the end of the earth. They are talking about the end of the present age, which they believed would usher in a new age, an age of healing and renewal, an age of peace and justice, not somewhere else, but on this earth. So the end is not the end of the earth, but the end of this present age, and the beginning of a new age on this earth. Thus the fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer: Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.

Second, the text in Luke 21 is extremely difficult to interpret from a historical perspective, and biblical scholarship is divided on it. As I have said many times before, Gospel stories are not historical reports, they are proclamations, and in many passages we don’t know what actually goes back to Jesus, or what originated with his disciples who read their interpretations and understandings back into the stories. This is literature of faith, not history.

So here is the problem with Luke 21. There is one group of scholars who argue that the historical Jesus believed the end of the present age and the beginning of the new age was upon them. So most of the sayings here in Luke 21 (and in the parallel texts of Mark 13 and Matt. 24) they argue go back to Jesus. Jesus, they say, was simply wrong about the timing of the new age. Another group of scholars argue that most of these sayings in Luke 21 and the parallel texts do not go back to Jesus at all. They argue that these teachings were the teachings of Jesus’ early followers, who believed, in light of God raising Jesus from the dead, that the end time was upon them. These scholars present the case that Jesus was not an apocalyptic prophet, but a prophet more like the classical Hebrew prophets.

Now, why do I point this out? I point this out simply bbecause I think it is important for you understand what the scholars are saying and to understand a little something about the difficulties historical scholars face in determining in the Gospels what actually goes back to Jesus and what was read back into the stories and teachings of Jesus by his early followers. It’s a real challenge for Jesus historians.

Okay, having said that, in my opinion, none of what the historical scholars say about this text actually makes a whole lot of difference when we read this text for spiritual truth. And the spiritual truth that I glean from Luke 21 is this: Tribulation naturally precedes renewal and that seems to be universal. It’s like what I talked about last week. Spiritual growth, the path we follow to moral and spiritual transformation always involves some necessary suffering and regression. It’s always three steps forward and two steps back. Sometime four steps back.

This text in Luke 21 tells us what we can expect in route to real transformation and renewal. There will be lots of false promises and deceptions and we don’t have to do any fact checking to know that. Hence the warning: “Beware that you not be led astray.” There will be wars and insurrections. There will be conflicts and violence as kingdoms rise against kingdoms. This is true of nations, it is true of political, social, and religious groups, and it is true of individuals. There will be natural calamities and disasters, because our earth is evolving too. And we inflict some of this on ourselves. We now know that our manipulation of our earth’s resources is having long term affects on the planet. Scientists tell us that humans are the primary cause of climate change. This text warns that people of faith can expect opposition and persecution. People of faith become an easy scapegoat for people’s angst and anger. But you know, sisters and brothers, the really sad thing is that so often, at least in American culture, it is one people of faith persecuting another people of faith. Which is religion gone bad. I have personally found many secular, nonreligious people more accepting and welcoming to me, than many Christian people who want to impose their brand of Christianity on me and the rest of us. Now, all of these things – deception, conflict and violence, natural calamities, persecution – none of this should come as a surprise. They are the birth pangs that lead to the arrival of a new era of justice and peace.

What this text teaches us, I believe, is this: Tribulation precedes jubilation. Suffering goes part and parcel along with our moral and spiritual development. We move from stages of immaturity to maturity, often through periods of great challenge and trial. This is true for individuals and it is true for larger communities. What this says to us is: Don’t lose hope. Don’t give in to despair. Deception, opposition, suffering, disaster, conflict and violence are realities we have to live through to get to a new and better place. The text says that those who endure will gain their souls. That is, those who maintain integrity, those who go not give in to despair, those who fight the good fight against cynicism and egotism and negativism will find healing and hope and become better rather than bitter. They will become grace-filled and grateful persons and communities.

And that brings us to Isaiah 65 where the prophet envisions a new earth and a new heaven. It’s beautiful and powerful poetry. The vision of course emerges out of Hebrew religious thought and faith so naturally there would be reference to Jerusalem as the symbol for all the great cities or kingdoms of the earth. It’s a vision of stability and peace. All premature loss of life though sickness or violence is banished. There is health and longevity of life. All inhabitants have not just enough to survive, but enough to thrive. Hate and harm and injustice are wiped away. And these blessings extend to all creation, because all life is sacred: “The wolf and lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox . . . and they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.” The mountain on which Jerusalem stands is the symbol here for all mountains, all cities, all kingdoms, and all peoples.

This is the vision we must claim and lean into and not give up on no matter how bad things get. We have been warned. Bad things will happen. There will be many setbacks along the path to a new heaven and new earth. But it is promised. It is the goal for which we seek. And so we pray and work to that end. We work for peace. We work for justice. And we never give up.

I believe this is an inclusive vision. It includes everyone. It’s not restricted to just those who believe certain things and are members of a certain group. It’s a vision that includes all God’s children – me, you, your friends, your enemies, everyone. This is what Richard Rohr is referencing in the quote I included in your worship bulletin. Rohr goes on to say, “If your notion of heaven is based on exclusion of anybody else, then it is by definition not heaven. The more you exclude, the more hellish and lonely your existence always is. How could anyone enjoy the “perfect happiness” of any heaven if she knew her loved ones were not there, or were being tortured for all eternity! It would be impossible.” Rohr says, “If you accept a punitive notion of God, who punishes or even eternally tortures those who do not love him, then you have an absurd universe where most people on this earth end up being more loving than God.”

Of course, no one will be in heaven (that is, where God is) who doesn’t want to be. We do have to choose to be there. And that means we have to choose to love, because love is the one and certain law in God’s kingdom that everyone abides by. In fact, as one prophet envisions, it will be so embedded in us that it will be written on our hearts and minds. My belief is, my hope is, that in time, all persons will eventually choose to be part of a new heaven and new earth. My hope is that in time everyone will repent of their egotism and injustice, and choose to love their neighbor as themselves. My hope is that there will be no holdouts. That’s what I believe. You don’t have to believe that if you don’t want to. But I believe it. And that gives me hope. And it challenges me to find ways to love my enemies, to love the people I dislike very much, because they are my sisters and brothers in God’s family.

In the Lord of the Rings, Gollum, you will remember, is a scheming, pitiful, deformed little creature obsessed with possessing the ring. He wasn’t always like that. It was his possession of the ring that led to his life diminishment. And still he wants it back. The ring of power ends up possessing those who possess it. It eventually destroys them. Isn’t this how all destructive addictions work? We think we can’t live without them and they consume and destroy us.

Sam and Frodo find themselves traveling in circles lost in the Misty Mountains as they make their way to the Mountain of Doom where Frodo intends on destroying the ring. Here they encounter Gollum, who agrees to help them. All the while Gollum secretly plots to steal the ring back. Gollum might well represent the person you most despise, the person you most dislike. Sam despises Gollum and is harsh and demeaning towards him. Finally Frodo confronts Sam. “Why do you do that—call him names and run him down all the time?” Sam responds, “Because that’s what he is, Mr. Frodo. There’s naught left in him but lies and deceit. It’s the ring he wants. It’s all he cares about.” Gollum is the ultimate narcissist. Looking sadly at Gollum, Frodo says, “You have no idea what it did to him. I have to help him, Sam.” Frodo understands the destructive power and influence of the ring. Sam asks, “Why?” Frodo replies, “Because I have to believe he can come back.”

That’s powerful stuff, friends. I have to believe he can come back. I have to believe that no one is so lost, that no one is so gone, so evil, that he or she cannot be healed and liberated. I have already talked about necessary suffering. Everyone has their own purgatory to live through. It’s different for all of us. But we all have to live through the labor pangs to get to the new person, the new reality, the new vision. However, it is one’s decision to love that ultimately makes all the difference. The whole point of the birth pangs is to get us to the place where we choose to love, we choose to forgive and pursue life. When I invite people to choose Christ what am I really inviting them to do is choose love. That’s what all healthy religion leads to.

There is a wonderful scene in the movie The Hurricane, which is the story of professional boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, played by Denzel Washington. At the height of his boxing career in the 1960’s Carter is falsely accused of murder by a racist police force and sentenced to prison for the remainder of his natural life. 

While Carter is in prison, Lesra, a young black boy who has read Carter’s autobiography befriends him. As the friendship deepens the boy introduces Carter to some of his adult friends who become convinced of Carter’s innocence and who make a substantial commitment to helping him as his amateur lawyers and detectives. After twenty years in prison he is granted a new trial. As they await the verdict Carter and Lesra share their thoughts. Carter says, “We’ve come a long way, huh, little brother?” Lesra nods and says, “Rubin, I just want you to know that if this doesn’t work, I’m bustin’ you outta here.” “You are?” says Carter. Lesra retorts, “Yeah, that’s right, I’m bustin’ you outta here.” 
After a moment of silence Carter suggests that they were not brought together by chance. He says, “Hate put me in prison. Love’s gonna bust me out.” Lesra says, “Just in case love doesn’t, I’m gonna bust you outta here.” Carter laughs. He reaches out to touch Lesra’s face and wipe away a tear. Clenching Lexra’s hand he says, “You already have, Lesra.” That is the gospel. It is the power of love to heal and liberate and transform. As Christians we discover that through Jesus. Others may discover it through other ways. But anyone who finds authentic salvation, anyone who discovers real healing and liberation and transformation chooses to love. That’s the key.

The only thing that frees us of hell, the only thing that liberates us from the hate and prejudice and selfishness that keeps us in our private little hells is love. Love embodied in human touch, love embodied in human kindness, acceptance, and welcome, love incarnated in self-giving and sacrifice is what sets us free.

And as we join together eating this bread and drinking the cup we remember and celebrate and commit ourselves to love of neighbor, which love Jesus modeled and exemplified time and time again, a love that led to his cruel death by the forces of hate and religious and political injustice. So let us remember Jesus and commit ourselves once again to live by his teachings and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Amen. 

Monday, October 31, 2016

Living by Faith (Hab.1:1-4; 2:1-4; Luke 19:1-10)

Sara Miles, in her spiritual memoir titled, Take this Bread, explains how she came to faith. She was raised an atheist, but for some reason wandered into an Episcopal church one day in San Francisco, where everyone was welcomed and encouraged to take Communion. So she ate the bread and drank the wine and found that it somehow nourished her soul and quenched her thirst. She kept going back and grew into a disciple of Jesus.  

Being in California, she discovered that they had access to inexpensive fresh fruits and vegetables. So on Fridays, she started a food pantry – right in the middle of their beautiful Sanctuary. All are welcome. There are no forms to fill out. People come and choose what they want. The down-and-out, the addicted, the messed up, the homeless, all are welcome and all are treated with dignity. Sara and the other volunteers pray with those who want prayer, they listen and bless those who need a blessing. And those who come are considered part of their church community.

In her book she underscores that Christian faith is more about “orthopraxy” than it is about “orthodoxy.” That is, authentic faith is more about right practice than it is about right belief. She discovered that faith was not foremost about theology. It was not foremost about denominations or creeds or rituals. It wasn’t about liberal or conservative ideology. It was primarily about faith working through love. She writes: “That could mean plugging away with other people, acting in small ways without the comfort of a big vision or even a lot of realistic hope. It could look more like prayer: opening yourself to uncertainty, accepting your lack of control. It meant taking on concrete tasks in the middle of confusion, without stopping to argue about who was the truest believer.”

In other words she learned that growing into faith meant growing into a lifestyle of compassion and love of neighbor, and the neighbor could be anyone with a need. It meant growing in one’s capacity to trust God and trust other people. It meant growing in faithfulness to stay with the tasks that might help heal and encourage others.

When Habakkuk says in 2:4 that the righteous or just live by their faith he is not primarily saying that they live by a set of beliefs, though I don’t want to downplay the importance of healthy beliefs. It is certainly true that what we believe about God will impact and influence how we relate to God and how we relate to others. But what Habakkuk is saying is that the just or righteous continue to be faithful to God’s cause in the world no matter how bad things get. For the just to live by faith means that they continue to trust God and faithfully live out their commitment to do what is just, good, right, and merciful regardless of the obstacles and the challenges they face in pursuing justice and peace, and living out the social ethic of God’s kingdom which is love of neighbor. Living by faith is being faithful to God’s cause, not believing doctrines about God.

Habakkuk’s oracle begins with a complaint. Why, O God, is there so much injustice? Why is there so much violence and bloodshed? Why is it that the wicked hem in the righteous? Why is justice being so perverted?

What do we do when hell engulfs us? When we face wave after wave of hardship or difficulty? When we find ourselves up against a brick wall that impedes our progress? What do we do when things don’t go as expected, when our plans get thwarted, our dreams dashed, when our questions and our prayers go unanswered, just the way Habakkuk’s did? Can we continue to live by faith? Can we continue to believe that God is good? Can we continue to trust that God is with us and God is for us, even though we cannot feel or sense or see God’s presence and participation in our lives? Can we continue to be faithful to do what is just and fair and right?

Let me offer two responses that I have found helpful, so maybe you will too. First, we can look back with a sacred memory. Chapter 3 of Habakkuk takes the form of a psalm that was most likely set to music. And in this song of faith the prophet remembers and rehearses God’s past participation in the lives of God’s people. He remembers how God brought healing and liberation. “I have heard of your renown, and I stand in awe, O Lord, of your work,” says the prophet.

People of other faith traditions will have a different sacred memory than we do and there is nothing wrong with that. That doesn’t mean they are wrong, because God is a big God and God works in many diverse ways through many different mediators, prophets, healers, and teachers of wisdom. God can work through many different religious traditions. But for us Christians our sacred memory culminates and is centralized in the one we confess as Lord. We remember the life and teachings of Jesus, his death and resurrection, and that gives us the hope to trust in his living presence with us, among us, and in us. This is what we are doing when we share in the bread and cup of Holy Communion. When we come together and partake of the bread and cup we are remembering what God has done for us, how God has acted in and through Jesus to draw us into relationship with God’s self and to show us how to love and care for one another.

Heather Whitestone, you may remember was the Miss America who was deaf. Do you know what she did for her talent competition? She danced. I read somewhere that in her preparation she placed a special hearing device to her ear and played it very loud, which allowed her to faintly hear the music. She then memorized the music — every beat. When the time came for her to dance, she moved gracefully to the rhythm of the music she couldn’t hear, but she remembered. We too remember the music of past encounters and experiences, but especially we remember and celebrate the ways God has broken into our lives through Jesus.

For Habakkuk, the sacred memory of God’s past engagement in the lives of God’s people becomes the foundation for the prophet’s prayer and hope. He says, “O Lord, I have heard of your renown, and I stand in awe, O Lord, of your work. In our time revive it; in our time make it known.” God has acted and God continues to act. God continues to speak and participate in the human project. The prophet hears God say, “For there is still a vision for the appointed time . . . if it seems to tarry, wait for it.” In 2:14 the prophet shares what he sees. He says, “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”

So, if we are to live by faith, first it will be helpful to look back in sacred remembrance of a God who has acted and spoken. Second, we can also look forward in hope that the vision of a just and peaceful world will one day be realized because God is still acting and speaking. God is still drawing, luring, and moving humanity forward – inviting and inspiring us to grow, evolve, and become more like the God who loves us, who is with us and for us and will never forsake us or let us go.

One of the key ways God instills this vision and nurtures this hope is through you and me. God heals humanity through humanity. God saves humanity through humanity. As I have said many times the great truth Christianity brings to the world is the truth of incarnation. God incarnating God’s self in flesh and blood. It is the divine (Spirit) in you that speaks to the divine (Spirit) in me, and vice versa.

The story of Zacchaeus is a story of what is possible. It’s a story that inspires hope. The story of Zacchaeus skillfully picks us threads of previous stories narrated by Luke. One of the threads connects to the story of the rich ruler who comes to Jesus wanting to experience more of the kind of life that characterizes those who live in God’s kingdom. Jesus told him to give away all his possessions to the poor and follow him, and he would discover the abundance of God’s kind of life. He couldn’t do it and walked away dejected. Jesus then said, “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this they said in astonishment, “Who then can be saved? Who then can be healed and made whole? Who then can be liberated and set free? Jesus responded, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.”

Then next, we hear about Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector who is also rich like the rich ruler who walked away. He too seeks Jesus. Here is a man who virtually sold his soul for money. He was a collaborator with the enemy. A traitor. He was an instrument of the oppressive Roman government that imposed heavy burdens on his fellow Jews. He had wed himself to this unjust system in order to acquire power and possessions. And yet because of his encounter with Jesus that all changed. Money lost its hold on him. He was freed from his greed. None of what use to matter mattered anymore. He awakened to a whole new vision. He says rejoicing, “I will give half of all my possessions to the poor and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will make restitution fourfold.” Jesus proclaimed, “Today, salvation (liberation, transformation) has come to this house.” God working in and through the human Jesus did what the disciples thought impossible and the camel passed through the eye of a needle.

The conversation between Jesus and Zacchaeus is left to our imagination. We don’t get to listen in. Though I can’t help but feel that Zacchaeus was at a place in his life where he was questioning the course of life he choose, maybe questioning his own worth as a human being. He had become wealthy, but at what cost. His fellow countrymen would have despised him. Many would have had contempt for him. He probably thought God felt the same way.

But then, I can imagine, Zacchaeus hearing rumors about this prophet and sage from Galilee who was very different than all the holy people he knew. He would have heard how Jesus sits down to table with both the righteous and the unrighteous, with Pharisees and sinners. He would have heard how Jesus lifts up the downtrodden, heals the sick, gives sight to the blind, sets free the captives, liberates the oppressed, and how he compassionately welcomes all those who have been written off and condemned. Maybe that instilled some hope. Maybe he started to believe that there could still be a place in God’s kingdom for a greedy traitor who turned his back on his own kin.

One evening the Sci-fi channel was playing a movie based on Stephen King’s book, “The Stand” and I caught it about half-way through. I picked up the story line fairly easily. It’s a classic tale about the conflict between good and evil, with some interesting echoes and parallels with the Jesus story. There was a devil figure named Flag and a Christ or Savior figure, who was an elderly African American woman known as Mother Abigal. A young man, who becomes one of the inner circle (of disciples) and ends up playing a vital role in the story is a deaf mute. He is a very compassionate person, but he doesn’t believe in God. In one scene, Mother Abigal is talking about God and the role that this young man will play in accomplishing the will of God, when one of the members of their little group speaks up and says, “But he doesn’t believe in God.” Mother Abigal, not surprised at all, turns gently to the young deaf man and looking directly to him says, “That’s okay child, because God believes in you.”

I wonder. Who do you know or I know that might need to hear that message? Might there be persons in your family, in your workplace, in your neighborhood, in your network of friends who need to hear and know that you believe in them. And sensing that you believe in them maybe they can trust that God believes in them too. You see, God works through humanity, through you and me, to redeem humanity.

This is our calling as the body of Christ. To act in God’s stead. To represent the Christ. The Spirit in us, speaks and works through us connecting with the Spirit in the other. Everyone has the Spirit, everyone bears the image of God, even though many do not know it.   

Well, let me end where I started and say to those of you who may just be tempted to throw in the towel because the storms you have had to face seem overwhelming. Don’t give up. Keep remembering how God has given us Jesus and showed us God’s love through him and in numerous other ways. Keep trusting and hoping because even though we might not be able to see, sense, or feel God in our midst, God hasn’t left. And maybe when one of us is down, God can use the other to left up the one who is down.

Write down the vision, says the prophet. Make it plain. Live by faith. God still speaks. God is at work. The glory of the Lord fills the earth. If we just had eyes to see. So be faithful. Do good. Act justly. Pursue mercy. Walk humbly. Keep loving and caring.

Let’s sing with God’s prophet the final stanza of his song of faith: “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vine; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.” And that is my prayer for all of us. Amen

Monday, October 17, 2016

How long will it take? (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Luke 18:1-8)

How long, Lord? I suspect we have all asked that question haven’t we? We may have asked that question after weeks or perhaps months or maybe even years of our own struggle or a loved one’s struggle with a serious illness. We may have asked out of the despair of a deep betrayal or a marriage or partnership driven and tossed upside down by one conflict after another. Or it may have been after months of trying to find work related to our skills and training. How Long, Lord? We cry.

The widow in our story who was a victim of injustice must have felt that way? “Grant me justice” she keeps crying out to the unjust judge. It’s interesting that Luke interprets this parable as a call to pray always and not lose heart, which reminds us of Jesus’ earlier teaching on prayer in Luke 11 where Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened.” Asking is an important part of any relationship and it’s an important part of our relationship with God. And just as we ask of God, God asks things of us. It’s a mutual relationship.

Now, I have to be honest with you. I don’t begin to know how this works. And no one else really knows either, though some may claim to know. I make requests of God. I intercede for others. As a church we pray for one another. We pray for healing and wisdom and all sorts of things. Sometimes we think our prayers have made a difference, other times we are not so sure. Why is that? I don’t know. What I don’t believe is that God hears some prayers and not others. I believe God hears all our prayers. I also believe (and this may surprise you) that there are spiritual, non-physical, maybe even psychic forces at work  in our lives and in our world (maybe at the quantum level) that influence and impact our lives, and our prayers may activate these forces in some way. I am enough of a mystic to know that not everything has a rational explanation. But I also don’t think it is God’s practice to intervene into our lives in some direct way either. So, I don’t know how this works, but I still pray.

This story in its original form probably was not about prayer at all, but this is how Luke interprets the story and applies it. But it’s not just any prayer that Luke has in mind. It is a particular kind of prayer that is in view. It is a prayer for justice. “Grant me justice,” cries the widow.

Why do you think the one who is crying for justice is a widow? In that culture widows were extremely vulnerable. They did not automatically inherit their husband’s property, there were no social programs in place, and for the most part there were no opportunities for independent employment. Widows were easy prey for predators of all types. This widow’s cry is for justice.

By justice, I do not mean, “Getting what one deserves.” Unfortunately, that’s how many Christians understand it. Jesus’ kind of justice is restorative and redemptive. The biblical word can be translated either as “justice” or “righteousness.” To pursue justice or righteousness is to pursue that which makes for right relations and good will between human beings, between human beings and God, and between human beings and all creation. It basically means being in right relationship or pursuing right relations – with God, each other, and everything else. Justice is about making everything right, whole, just, and good. It’s about the healing and liberation of individuals, communities, societies, and putting in place structures and systems that truly advance the well-being of all people, not just a few people.

This is why, sisters and brothers, we must care about such things as basic human rights and freedoms for people of all countries (though there may be little we can actually do about it). But here in our country we do have a vote and a voice. So we must care about immigration reform, climate change, fairness laws, equality in the work place, bringing positive change to an unjust social and economic system that produces poverty and the huge disparity between rich and poor. We must care about fairness in our criminal justice system, and fairness in law enforcement. We must care about creation care, eliminating oppression in all its forms, and everything else that affects the wellbeing of individuals, societies, and planet earth. These are all issues and concerns related to the biblical concept of justice.

The logic in the story moves from the lesser to the greater. The logic is that if an unjust judge who does not fear God or have respect for people is compelled to act justly on behalf of a widow who pesters him day and night, how much more will God, who is compassionate and good, act justly on behalf of the oppressed? The point here is that God is not like the unjust judge at all. But if an unjust judge can render justice, how much more our good and just God.

Now the question is: How long will it take? The story teller asks: “Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.” In the historical context of the first disciples the coming of the Son of Man quickly probably reflects the belief that Jesus was going to come back in some fashion to bring this about. It’s also fairly clear from a number of passages in the New Testament that these first disciples believed this would happen relatively soon, very possibly in their lifetime. Of course, they were mistaken.

Some theologians believe God will intervene at some point in human history to bring about justice in the world. This is usually identified with the second coming of Jesus, which was clearly the dominant view of the early Christians. However, in light of some other documents that have come to light (such as the Gospel of Thomas for example) we now know that not all early Christians believed this. Many did, probably most, but not all. Other theologians believe, as I do now now, that God’s justice will come about in God’s way and God’s time at the end of human history after human evolution has run its course.

I am convinced that the future of human life on this planet resides in us. That is barring some unforeseen catastrophic event like a meteor strike. I believe it is God’s plan to work through human beings to save human beings, to bring peace and justice to all people and God’s creation.

I guess the big question is: Is this possible? Will we ever learn? Will we ever grow up? Will we ever realize our human potential? How long will it take? Hard questions. And when we ask, “How long?” we are obviously coming at it from a temporal point of view, rather than an eternal one. Most certainly, God has a different relationship to time than we have. I love the story about the economist who read the text in 2 Peter that says with the Lord a thousand years is like a day. He asked   “God, wouldn’t it also be true that a million years to us, would be like a minute to you?” And God said, “Yes, I do not experience time the way you do.” Then he asked, “Wouldn’t it also be true that a million dollars to us, would be a like one penny to you?” And God said, “Well, yes.” So then the economist asked, “God, could I have one of those pennies?” And God said, “Yes, Wait here—a minute.”

If 98% of the scientists in our world are right, it took approximately 13.8 billion years (give or take a few million years) for life to evolve to its present state. Surely, God has a much different relationship to time than we do. And I would guess that at this stage in our moral and spiritual evolution as a species we cannot be much past adolescence can we? I mean look at us.  America is considered to be one of the most developed nations in the world and just look at the state of our democracy right now. The question is: Will we destroy ourselves before we wake up? Unfortunately our technological expertise has evolved faster than our moral will and spiritual wisdom. We have fashioned enough weapons of mass destruction to destroy all of life on this planet several times over. So, in light of our destructive capabilities and tendencies, this question of “How long before justice prevails on the earth?” is an extremely urgent one. How long will it take for us to wake up? To be enlightened? To be transformed?  How long will it take for us to develop the spiritual wisdom and moral will to make the pursuit of justice for all our top priority?

Jeremiah envisions such a time. Jeremiah envisions a day when the law of God, the will of God, the restorative justice of God that brings peace and life to all people will be written on our hearts. We will not need written codes or legal rules and legislation to tell us how to live in right relations with one another and with creation, because we will just know. The knowledge will reside in our hearts and we will have the moral will and courage to act on that knowledge.

I’m sure you have all heard by now the recording of Donald Trump bragging about his sexual exploits, which, in the way he describes it amounts to sexual assault. Now the question supporters of Mr Trump have to ask is this: Was this recording of his braggadocios claims of sexual assault an exception to what is really in his heart or was it a reflection of what is really in his heart?

And we need to point this back at ourselves. What am I really like in the core of my being? Now, I believe we are all children of God. But that reality doesn’t mean we live like children of God does it? So the question is: Will I live out who I am? Will I incarnate that reality? And much of that depends on whether or not I am undergoing spiritual and moral transformation? Am I on a path that pursues compassion, equality, healing, and liberation for all people, not just a few people.

This passage in Jeremiah envisions a time when the people of God are truly transformed. They pursue justice, they pursue the good, they love God and love neighbor, they express empathy and compassion, they give of themselves in service to others, not as an exception to who they are, but as an expression of who they are. They seek to live in right relations with all people. They pursue what is right and good and loving and just, because this is who they are, it’s what’s in their hearts. They pursue God’s dream for justice in the world because this is what is in their hearts.

The final question posed by Luke in response to the parable of Jesus is an important one: When the Son of Man comes will he find faith on the earth? This, of course, as I mentioned earlier reflects the belief of the early Christians that Jesus is going to come back in some sense to bring justice to the world. But what I want emphasize here is that faith is better understood as faithfulness – it’s the same word in the Greek. This is not, “Will he find people who believe in God?” That’s not really the question. Rather, the question is, “Will he find people who are acting, living, and thinking like God?” Will he find people who are being faithful to God’s calling to pursue what is right and good and loving? Will he find people committed to the healing of the hurting and the liberation of the oppressed? Will he find people living out God’s justice? That’s the issue.

One of the great teachings that Christianity has given to the world is the teaching of incarnation. And the teaching of incarnation at its best says that God dwells with and in the creation, especially his human creation. Much privilege and responsibility has been given the human creation to care for the rest of creation and to care for one another in order to fashion a world of justice and peace. 

Now, if you don’t get anything else out of this sermon I hope this will stick with you: I have very little doubt that God intends for humanity to be the answer to the prayer of humanity. God intends for us to be the answer to our prayer. We pray for justice, and God says, “Act justly, pursue mercy, live humbly.” We pray for justice, and God says, “Love one another and do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We pray for justice, and God says, “Lay down your lives for the liberation of others.” God lives and acts through people committed to justice.

How long will it take? I suppose as long as it takes for us to wake up and realize who we are and to live out our calling as God’s daughters and sons in the world. God has given us models. We have living examples and incarnations of divine justice. For those of us who are Christians, Jesus is Lord. Jesus is our primary embodiment of what God’s justice looks like. Jesus is our model. God’s justice looks like the grace, compassion, mercy, generosity, and sacrifice of Jesus.

Let’s keep praying for justice, let’s keep praying for peace on earth, for reconciliation of enemies, for equality, for the elimination of poverty and oppression, for healing and liberation. Let’s keep praying. But how long will it take for us to realize that we are God’s answer to that prayer?

Our good God, help us to wake up. Help us as a species, as a people created in your image to live more true and faithful to our calling to bear and reflect your image. Our world desperately needs more image bearers. There is so much potential for good all around us. Help us to live out that potential. Give us a passion for your kind of justice. Not the selfish kind that seeks revenge or retribution, but the kind that seeks redemption and healing and restoration. Empower us to be the answer to our prayer. Amen.  

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Putting the Common in Good (Jer. 29:1; 4-7; Luke 17:11-19)

The text today from Jeremiah is really quite remarkable when you think about it. Some texts, of course, simply perpetuate the status quo, even offering justifications for national exceptionalism, violence, and the stratification of society. But other texts turn the tables. There are texts that critique, confront, and challenge the status quo. These break out texts tend to transcend historical context and culture. When I look at scripture I see degrees and levels of inspiration and authority. My take on it is that some scriptures are more inspired that other texts and advance the ball way down the field.

Today’s reading from Jeremiah is a break out text. The word that the New Oxford Annotated Bible uses to describe this text is revolutionary. The reason that word is used by the author of the comments on Jeremiah in the Oxford Annotated Bible is because the text seems to move far beyond where most of the people were at that stage in Israel’s religious evolution and development. Instead of the typical: Israel is holy. Babylon is unholy. Therefore, come out and be separate from them. Don’t eat their food or adopt their customs (which we get that in other scriptures like the book of Daniel for example). Here we have a text that says to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon: Live among them, marry their sons and daughters, and pursue the well-being of the city and country where you dwell. In other words, pray for and work toward the common good. The reason the Oxford Bible calls this “revolutionary” is because this is such a leap ahead of its time. Think about it. This text moves us beyond religious exceptionalism, beyond religion elitism, beyond the dualism of in group/out group religion and challenges us to pray and work for the common good.

Of course, we can choose to ignore these break out texts and simply dwell upon those texts that maintain the status quo of the culture at the time. I did this in the first part of my Christian journey. At that stage in my religious development I had no interest at all in the common good. Why? Because of the kind of Christianity I was socialized and indoctrinated into it. It’s as simple as that.  

I was taught to divide the world between the saved and the unsaved – I was in, of course, because I believed the right things and was part of the right group, but so many others were out. And the only way they could get in was through salvation in Jesus. That is, salvation in Jesus as I understood it and preached salvation in Jesus. I had the truth and there was only one way the “unsaved” could be numbered among the saved. They had to accept my plan of salvation. Of course, I didn’t call it my plan, I called it God’s plan. I had the answers, or so I thought.

Another reason I had no interest in the common good is because I pushed salvation almost completely into the future. I believed at the time that it really wasn’t about making this world better. Oh, it’s okay if you want to make the world better, but it’s really a waste of time. I carried a Scofield Reference Bible and believed Hal Lindsey spoke the infallible word on the end times, so I believed the world was racing toward Armageddon. The world was headed for disaster and there was nothing we could do to prevent it. So, really, the main thing for us to do was to be prepared for heaven and try to take some people with us by getting them to become like us.  

If you read one of my sermons that I preached then (which would have been a snapshot of my faith at that stage in my religious development) and compare it to a more recent sermon now (a snapshot of my faith now), you would say, “There’s no way this came from the same person.” (By the way that’s really what our sacred texts are – snapshots of the faith of the authors). So what happened? I evolved. I grew. I have become more than I was, though I will be the first to admit I have a long way to go. And sisters and brothers, I am convinced today more than ever, we must keep growing as individuals and as a species. We must keep expanding our view of God and God’s relationship to the world, not just for our sakes, bur for our world’s sake. Our world needs persons and groups and communities of faith to lead the way in bringing diverse people and groups together to work for peace and fairness and equality and justice and to promote beliefs and practices that will further the common good.

So, what can we do to promote the common good? We can begin right where we are. Within our network of connections and relationships we can respect everyone, and not feel like we have to convert them to our way of thinking. We can treat everyone as God’s beloved daughters and sons regardless of what they believe or don’t believe or the particular group they identify with. Acceptance does not depend on agreement or sameness or conformity. Acceptance can thrive in diversity. We can recognize how we share a common humanity and how we all, in some sense, bear responsibility for one another, regardless of how different we may be.

As a Christian I believe that in the religious development of humanity we reach a pinnacle (the biblical concept here is fulfillment) in Jesus’s life and ministry in the Gospels. Clearly in the life of Jesus inclusion trumps exclusion. Jesus is always tearing down walls and breaking boundaries to extend God’s compassion and love.

Our Gospel text for this Sunday in Luke 17 is about one of ten lepers healed by Jesus. The leper healed in our story returns to thank Jesus and praise God for his healing. I have used this text a number of times to preach and teach on gratitude. And I have no doubt that gratitude is an important theme of this story.

Jesus says to healed leper returning to give thanks, “Your faith has made you well.” One could just as easily translate this: Your faith has saved you, healed you, or made you whole or complete.” In the Gospels salvation is always about healing and liberation from some oppressive power – whether it’s the systemic injustice of the religious or political system or ones’ own personal sin like greed or selfish ambition or resentment or some form of addiction. It’s about being made whole. So what Jesus is saying then is that gratitude is a vital part of our healing and transformation. Personally, I don’t think it’s possible to live a spiritual life without some measure of gratitude.

So, in one sense this story in Luke 17 is about the importance of gratitude for living a spiritual life, but there is more to it than that. Luke clearly intended more. Luke tells us that the man who returned to give thanks was a Samaritan. Not a Jew, but a Samaritan. A man of a different race and religion than Jesus and his disciples.

Clarence Jordan was the founder of an interracial community in Americas, Georgia, before the civil rights movement. He and his community suffered ridicule and persecution from the surrounding community. Jordan liked to retell the Gospel stories using a contemporary vernacular and by setting them in his own context. These readings have been published as Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospel.

Listen to his Cotton Patch reading of this story in Luke: While Jesus was on his way to Atlanta, he went through the ghetto of Griffin, where he was met by ten winos who stood at a distance and yelled, “Mister Jesus, have mercy on us!” When he saw them he said, “Okay, go show yourselves to the doctor.” And as they were going, they were cured. Now one of them, realizing that he was cured, turned around and shouted at the top of his voice, “Praise God! Praise God!” Then he got down before Jesus and thanked him. This particular one was a black man. So Jesus said, “Weren’t there ten of you that got healed? Where are the other nine? Well, well. So didn’t any of them come back here to praise and thank God except this black man, huh? He said to the man, “Get up and go. Your trustful action has been the making of you.”

In Jesus’ context it was a Samaritan. In Clarence Jordan’s context it was an African-American. In our context today it might well be a Muslim. In fact, substituting Muslim for Samaritan provides a good parallel. You see, the Samaritan not only represented a different nationality, the Samaritan also represented a different religious faith. And yet Jesus says he was saved, he was healed, he was made whole, simply for expressing gratitude, simply for having the right spirt expressed in grateful praise.   

I love the story news reporter and commentator Peter Arnett tells about the time he was in Israel, in a small town on the West Bank, when an explosion went off. The screams of the wounded seemed to be coming from all directions.

A man emerged from this chaos, running up to him holding a severely wounded little girl in his arms. He pleaded with Arnett to help him get her to a hospital. He cried, “Please Mister, help me. The Israeli troops have sealed off the area. No one can get in or out. But you are press. You can get through. Please, help me,” he begged.

So Arnett put them in his car, managed to get through the sealed area, and rushed the girl to a hospital in Jerusalem. The whole time he was hurtling down the road to the city, the man with the little girl in his arms was pleading for him to hurry, “Can you go faster. I’m losing her. I’m losing her,” he screamed.

When they finally got to the hospital, the girl was rushed to the operating room. Then the two men retreated to the waiting area, where they sat on a bench in silence, too exhausted to talk. After a short while, the doctor emerged from the operating room with the news that the girl had died.

The man collapsed in tears. Arnett went over and put his arm around him to comfort him. He said, “I don’t know what to say. I can’t imagine what you must be going through. I’ve never lost a child.” The moment he said, “I’ve never lost a child,” the man looked at Arnett in a startled manner. He said, “Oh Mister, that Palestinian girl was not my daughter. I’m an Israeli settler. She was not my child. But, you know, there comes a time when each of us must realize that every child, regardless of that child’s background, is a daughter or son. There must come a time when we realize that we are all family.” (Campolo, 121-22)

In the next paragraph of Jordan’s Cotton Patch version of Luke, Jordan writes, “Some of the church members asked him (Jesus) when the God Movement (kingdom of God) would get up steam. He answered them, “The God Movement doesn’t get up steam by appointing a committee to study it. Nor can you say, ‘It’s here’ or ‘It’s there,’ for evidences of the God Movement are all about you.”

Listen sisters and brothers, there is no more evidence of the God movement than when we treat all people with love and respect and compassion. I don’t care what that Israeli settler believed. When he took that little Palestinian girl in his arms he was being Jesus, he was acting in the Spirit of God. Who cares what he believed at that moment. What mattered is that he acted in the compassion of God. He was serving as an instrument of God. And that’s what matters now.

We are going to partake of communion together is just a minute. I hope this beautiful expression of community will help us to realize that we are not just one body in this place as disciples of Jesus, but we are also one body with everyone else. We share a common identity with everyone else – Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Syrians, Chinese, Koreans, it doesn’t matte – whatever religion or nationality. We all bear God’s image and we all are God’s children.

O God, Jesus said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life for the liberation of many.” He told the disciples who were arguing about position and place that there place was to be servants of all. Help us to see how valuable each of us is no matter how different we may be and give us the compassion of Jesus that we might pursue the good of all people. Amen.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

What Do We See? (Luke 16:19-31)

The late Ken Chafin, who was a Baptist professor, minister, and something of a statesman, tells about a friend in college who use to preach a lot in some of the small country churches not far from the campus. Chafin would get a card from his friend saying something like: 35 saved in rival at the Mossy Bottom Baptist Church. Chafin thought that was pretty good since they only had about 25 members. This pricked his curiosity, so one evening he drove out to hear him preach. It was a Friday night and his friend’s sermon that evening was on the Great White Throne Judgment. The text came out of the book of Revelation. The preacher was decked out in white: white suit, white tie, white shirt, white belt, and even white shoes. He thundered from the pulpit that if you didn’t become white as snow through the blood of the lamb you would find yourself literally in one hell of a predicament, a hell of fire and brimstone. Chafin said that he didn’t think he was going to get home that night until the preacher was sure that all 52 people present had decided to purchase fire insurance.

Years ago I remember a youth revival where the evangelist used this story from Luke to preach on hell. If I remember correctly he preached this message each night of the revival. Let me say very clearly, that is not what this story is about. Now, this story does have something to do with the afterlife, but this story is not about where you go when you die or what the afterlife will look like or be like. That’s not what this is about.

One of the major themes of this story, however, that does relate to the afterlife is vindication. This story is not really a parable like Jesus’ other parables, and it’s not unique to Jesus. This story is more of a fable or legend that made its rounds in the ancient world. It pops us in different forms in several different cultures. It can be found in slightly different forms in the writings of several ancient Jewish rabbis. Some scholars think it may have originated in Egypt. So Jesus draws upon a familiar legend, adapts it for his purposes to teach what he wants to teach. And one of the things he wants to emphasize with this story is that there will be vindication for those who have had a really hard life.

Playing on the theme of reversal that Jesus talks about in other places in Luke, the roles of the rich and the poor are reversed. The rich man ends up in misery, whereas the poor man finds comfort by the side of Abraham. Abraham says to the rich man, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.” Their roles are  reversed. The point seems to be that the poor, the oppressed, and the downtrodden will be vindicated.

There are folks who have in life been dealt a really bad hand. In fact, the whole deck of cards are stacked against them. And I know you are aware of this. School teachers can identify kids who, because of their home life, because of the difficult circumstances in which they find themselves, they have almost no opportunity to succeed in life.

So, what I am saying that this story is saying and what Jesus is teaching is that God takes notice. The poor and forsaken are not forsaken by God. God will vindicate them. There is more to come. Wrongs will be made right. Justice will prevail. Love will win. The poor will not always be poor. Now, what will that look like? What form will that take? We don’t know. The point here is simply; God will make things right. I believe that.

But the next point is just as important and may be the purpose for Jesus telling it. If God takes notice, then shouldn’t we? The story functions as an indictment on the huge disparity that can develop in societies between the rich and the poor. Much has been said recently about the 1 percent in this country controlling 40 percent of the income, while the number of people living in poverty is increasing at an alarming rate. And this story by Jesus paints the contrast in the most vivid, starkest colors.

The rich man engages in conspicuous consumption. He dines at the most expensive restaurants, he dresses in the finest clothes, his gated, luxurious estate is filled with every convenience. The impoverished man at his gate is covered in soars. He has no health care. No hospital will take him in. He can’t even find an open soup kitchen to get a meal. Congress has cut off his food stamps. The rich man is living in the lap of luxury while Lazarus is living in abject poverty.

Maybe you noticed this in the reading, maybe you didn’t: The poor man is named in the story. We know the poor man by name as Lazarus. That’s a significant detail. The very ones who are no-names in society, God names, God gives special consideration and attention. On the other hand, the rich man, who on earth everyone would have known, has no name in the story. You see, their roles and fortunes are reversed. As Jesus says elsewhere, “the first will be last, and the last will be first.” This is why Jesus tells his disciples to host dinners and invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. These are the ones God takes special interest in. God loves everyone, but God gives special attention to the most vulnerable and the disadvantaged. And we see this concern incarnated in the life and teaching of Jesus. And if we are followers of Jesus this must be our concern too, right? This is how Jesus defined his ministry in Luke’s Gospel in terms of Isaiah 61: to bring good news to the poor, to preach freedom for captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to set the oppressed free. This was Jesus’ agenda according to Luke.

How did we get so far away from this? Think about it. Just look at the success of present day Christian ministries who actually teach just the opposite. Of course, Jesus and his followers had to contend with such opposition in their day as well.

In Luke 16:14-15 a couple of paragraphs before the story of the rich man and Lazarus Luke says, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this (that is, they heard what I talked about last week, what Jesus said about not being able to serve God and money; that money is a rival god, and so forth), and they ridiculed him. (They didn’t like what they heard). So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.’”

How did they justify themselves? How would this rich man have justified living in conspicuous luxury while the poor man lived in abject poverty? How did the religious leaders justify their love for and accumulation of money? It wasn’t that difficult. In the Bible there are theologies and counter theologies. There are biblical texts that either directly teach or indirectly suggest that material wealth is the blessing of God and disease and impoverishment is the result of God’s judgment. It’s terrible theology, but you can find it in the Bible.

And it was apparently a popular theology during the time of Jesus. Jesus’ own disciples seem to have been indoctrinated in it and had to unlearn it. Remember in John 9 when Jesus’ disciples stumble upon a man who was blind. They ask Jesus, “Did this man sin or his parents?” They assume his blindness was some form of divine punishment. If there were no biblical texts to support this bad theology of blessing and cursing Joel Osteen and some of his colleagues who share his views about money would not have the largest churches in America. They go to the Bible to support their bad theology and to justify their vast accumulation of money.

The rich man would have no doubt appealed to this theology and these scriptures that promise wealth to the righteous and curses on the unrighteous to justify his lack of response. He could have quoted scriptures to say that Lazarus’s condition was due to the judgment of God, so if he tried to alleviate his poverty or bring some relief to his suffering, he would be interfering with God’s will. He could have justified his inattention and do-nothing response with scripture. And people still do today. We appeal to the same scriptures. Another way we avoid our responsibility to the most vulnerable among us is by pushing everything into the future. We make salvation about heaven and hell, rather than about healing, wholeness, liberation, and transformation now. In the Gospels salvation is about healing and liberation now and in the future. It starts right now. But by pushing it all into the future, we can avoid caring for the poor now. I can’t recall in the Christianity of my youth one sermon about taking care of the poor. I can’t recall one sermon about Jesus’ agenda as outlined by Luke.

So, there is this bad theology that religious people use to justify themselves. But, there is also a counter theology to this in the Bible that reaches its pinnacle in the life and teachings of Jesus. And we can find it all through scripture. We find it in the Law. For example Deut. 15:7-8 reads: “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of the towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.” (This is the same book that gives us the theology of blessing and cursing).

We also find this counter theology all through the prophets. Isaiah says: “Is not this the fast that I chose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free . . . ? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself . . .” (58:6–7)  

So, bad theology and good theology, religious rationalizations for greed and commands to care for the poor are all part of our sacred tradition. What we need, sisters and brothers, is the wisdom to tell the difference. If we stick with Jesus we should be able to don’t you think?

One aspect to this story that should give us all pause is this: The fate of the rich man is not tied to what he did, but what he didn’t do. So often the prophets announced judgment on those who exploited and took advantage of the poor. But here, the indictment against the rich man is not because of what he did to the poor man; it’s because of what he didn’t do. He didn’t come to his aid. Jesus seems to be saying that to do injustice one doesn’t have to directly exploit the poor. To do injustice one simply has to do nothing to alleviate their poverty. And this hits us all doesn’t it? This makes us all complicit to some degree.

I am reminded of the man who rides a commuter train back and forth to work everyday. The train goes through an extremely impoverished section of the city. When the man first became aware of the desperate plight of the residents there he felt some compassion and thought about how he might invest some resources to help them. But then, you know, life happens. He got caught up in his work, in his family, in his daily routine and responsibilities, in his own agenda, the way we all do, the way I do right? So now when the train takes him by that section of the city, he pulls down the blinds.

That man is me. Maybe that man is you too. Maybe we are all that man. And one could argue quite legitimately I think that we have to do this or we would be inundated with the suffering of the world because there is so much suffering and poverty. And there is some truth in that argument. But here is also where we need to be careful, because it is so easy to excuse ourselves of our responsibility isn’t it? This is a kind of unresolved paradox we have to live with. We have to find some balance.

There is one final point I want to make. I remember the preacher years ago in the youth revival being fixated on the mention in the story of a fixed chasm separating Lazarus from the rich man.  Here’s what I think about that: It’s fixed only as long as we allow it to be fixed. We can break through that chasm anytime. It opens from the inside. And the combination that unlocks the door will always involve some humility, honesty, and contrition. This is what opens our eyes and enlightens us to see. This is what will change us. We can memorize the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Baptist faith and message (take your pick) and we can sing Jesus songs all day and all night but unless we have some honesty, humility, and contrition in our lives none of that will make one bit of difference.

I don’t believe God ever shuts the door and locks it from the outside. If we are willing to walk the path of true repentance then the chasm collapses. God is like the shepherd and the woman in the parables of Luke 15. God searches until God finds. God never gives up. God is like the waiting father in the parable of Luke 15. God runs to meet us on our journey home. And should we find ourselves in the far country today, all we have to do is set our hearts toward home and God will welcome us with open arms. God will come running out to meet us.

O God, we are so grateful, as Paul said so beautifully, that where sin abounds, grace does much more abound. There is nothing that can keep us from you, if we would only be humble and honest and contrite. O God, we fail daily and often come short of living out the values of Jesus. Thank you for being patient with us and forgiving us time and time again. Empower us and embolden us to do more, to open our eyes and see those who are hurting and afflicted around us. Help us to find constructive ways to help. In the name of Christ. Amen.