Sunday, September 23, 2018

A Different Kind of Wisdom (A sermon from Mark 9:30-37 and James 3:13-18)

On his journey to Jerusalem with his disciples Jesus makes three announcements of how he will be rejected, suffer, and be killed by the powers that be. And all three times the disciples do not hear what Jesus is quite plainly telling them. Last week’s Gospel text dealt with the first announcement. Today's text deals with the second announcement. And once again, as with the first announcement, the disciples are preoccupied with position and power and personal greatness. When Jesus speaks of his suffering and death, Mark says of the disciples, “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask.” The reason they didn’t understand is because they were not ready to hear. On the way to Capernaum in route to Jerusalem where Jesus would meet his fate, the disciples argued with one another regarding who was the greatest among them. They were preoccupied with thoughts of greatness.

So Jesus sits down, calls the twelve to gather round, and he says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” I suppose one could still read this with thoughts of greatness, and simply turn this around into a different kind of strategy for achieving greatness. This would be easy for us to do, because this is how we are conditioned to think in our culture. And we are no different than the twelve. It would be easy for us to misunderstand Jesus here and think Jesus is showing us how we can achieve personal greatness. We become great by becoming the servant of all. So we turn greatness into a prize – a reward for being the best servant. Certainly, it would be much better to serve others as the way to greatness, rather than exercising power over others, but it still misses the point. It misses the point because it does not change one’s fundamental attitude toward personal greatness. One might still take pride in being a better servant than others. What Jesus is saying is that the kingdom of God is not about personal greatest at all. It’s not about crossing the finish line ahead of everyone else to the applause of God. It’s not about winning. In this way the kingdom of God is very different than human systems of worthiness.

Author Robert Roberts tells about a fourth grade class that played “balloon stomp.” In “balloon stomp” a balloon is tied to every child’s leg, and the object of the game is to pop everyone else’s balloon while protecting your own. The last person with an intact balloon wins. It’s a game rooted in the philosophy of “survival of the fittest.” In this particular fourth grade class balloons were relentlessly targeted and destroyed. A few of the less aggressive children hung shyly on the sidelines and, of course, their balloons were among the first to go. The game was over in a matter of seconds. The winner, the one kid whose balloon was still intact was the most disliked kid in the room. 

But then, says Roberts, a second class was brought into the room to play, only this time it was a class of mentally challenged children. They too were each given a balloon. They were given the same instructions as the other group, and the same signal to begin the game. Well, the instructions were given too quickly to be understood completely. So, in all the confusion, the one idea that stuck was that the balloons were supposed to be popped. But instead of fighting each other off, these kids got the idea that they were supposed to help each other pop their balloons. So they formed a kind of balloon co-op. One little girl knelt down and held her balloon carefully in place while a little boy stomped it flat. Then he knelt down and held his balloon still for her to stomp. On and on it went, all the children helping one another, and when the last balloon was popped, everybody cheered. No one lost. No one was put out of the game. They all crossed the finish line together. They were all winners. That sisters and brothers is a picture of the kingdom of God.

After Jesus instructs them to forget about personal greatness and tries to focus their attention on serving all people, he gives them a live image of just what it means to serve all people. Jesus doesn’t just tell them just to be servants. He doesn’t give them a choice regarding who they will serve. He instructs them to be servants of all. And to make his point he takes a little child in his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” That’s true because God, Jesus, and the little child – or the ones the little child represents – are one. They are inseparably connected and united. To welcome one is to welcome all. To welcome the little child is to welcome Jesus and to welcome God.

We can easily miss the meaning and significance of this, because of the differences in the way many of us regard little children, and the way the world of Jesus and Mark regarded little children. Scholars have pointed out that in the Greco-Roman world of that day and time children had no legal rights and were generally held in low esteem. I’m sure parents loved their children as parents loved their children today, but children occupied an inferior place in society unlike today. There were no laws that protected them. They were the property of their parents. So when Jesus instructs the disciples to welcome the little children the symbolism is very clear. He is telling them to welcome and receive the lowest and the least, the weakest and most vulnerable among them.

Now, when I say “lowest and least” I am referencing the wisdom and outlook of the world, not God. Our world, our culture, the society in which we live devises a kind of pecking order. But in God’s world, God’s realm there is no stratification of society. There is no one who is “lowest and least” in God’s kingdom. All are God’s children. All are loved with an eternal love. But in our society, we have folks who are vulnerable. We have folks whom society disregards and marginalizes and oppresses. And these are the very ones Jesus takes in his arms and on whom he pronounces special blessing. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” says Jesus. Luke’s version simply says, “Blessed are the poor.” Blessed are those who are economically poor.” And “Blessed are those who are beaten down in spirit.” The very ones our society would denounce and reject, God blesses and welcomes with loving arms.

In one of the beginning scenes in the movie Forrest Gump Forest is mistreated when he gets on the school bus. Forest is wearing braces on his legs and he is different, and none of the kids want to give him a seat. As he starts toward a seat the kid next to the empty one says, “Seat’s taken.” Then he starts toward another, and the kid there says, “Taken.” Still another says, “Can’t sit here.” But then a little cute blond girl speaks up, “You can sit here if you want.” Reflecting later on this experience Forrest says, “You know, it’s funny what a young man recollects; I don’t remember when I was born. I don’t recall what I got for my first Christmas, and I don’t remember when I went on my first outdoor picnic. But I do remember when I heard the sweetest voice in the whole wide world.” Forrest says, “I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life. She was like an angel.”

As the story unfolds, however, the little girl whose name is Jenny always seems to be searching for something, but never finding—always turning away and leaving the one who loves her unconditionally. But in that scene on the bus, where she defies the pecking order of her contemporaries and welcomes Forest as a friend, she acts as God’s angel, God’s messenger. She is Jesus embracing the little child.

Jesus modeled and taught the wisdom of God, which is very different than the wisdom of the world. Jesus embodied and incarnated the wisdom of God. In the little epistle of James, the writer contrasts the wisdom of the world with the wisdom of God. James says that the wisdom of the world is marked by envy and selfish ambition. When the disciples were caught arguing about personal greatness they were reflecting the wisdom of the world. In the system of worldly wisdom some are regarded as worthy, others are deemed as unworthy. It sows disorder and injustice of all kinds. But the wisdom that comes from God, says James, is gentle and full of mercy, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. It’s sows peace and reaps a harvest of righteousness, where all that is done is good, right, just, and loving.

L. Gregory Jones was dean of Duke University Divinity School when he shared an  amazing story about Maggie in the Christian Century. Maggie’s story begins with the civil war in Burundi, when the Hutu militia came to her Tutsi community and massacred most of her extended family and many of her friends. She escaped with her seven adopted Hutu and Tutsi children, finding refuge with Hutus in the compound of the Catholic Bishop. Then a group of Tutsis came to the compound to kill the Hutus there. Because she was a Tutsi, she was spared, but as punishment for her adoption of Hutu children they stripped her, tied her up, and forced her to watch the massacre of 72 people. Eventually, she found her seven adopted children hiding in the church sacristy.

I can’t even bring myself to imagine going through such an ordeal. And I can’t  imagine how I would cope with such a horrorific experience. Maggie coped by becoming an agent of change. She decided that she would rebuild her village as a place of peace. Even though she had never married, she adopted 25 more children, paying a significant price to the militia for their freedom. She built huts for the children, developed a health clinic and a school, set up microfinance initiatives and instituted business training in hairdressing, auto mechanics and other vocations. She taught sustainable agriculture. She also built a swimming pool and a film theater. The swimming pool was constructed on the site of tunnels that had served as a mass grave for casualties in the war. She says that she wants those waters to cleanse the children’s imagination of the violence and immerse them in an alternative, joy-filled imagination. The film theater, she says, reminds the children that life is meant to be enjoyed, not merely endured, and that they are not simply victims of wars, but human beings with dignity. Maggie even found funding for “Hollywood-style” theater seats.

On one occasion, rebel soldiers held the theater hostage. They demanded payment, or they would destroy the theater. Maggie didn’t have the money to pay them, so she invited them to watch some movies instead. The rebels decided to watch the movies, instead of destroying the theater.

The town has a hospital and a nursing school—and a morgue. The morgue is important to Maggie because she believes that one teaches people how to live, in part, by taking care of those who have died. Maggie draws upon the power and grace of God to foster reconciliation and create new hope and bring life out of death. This little village is called Maison Shalom (meaning House of Peace) and over 30,000 children have benefited from it. Some of the first children there have went on to become teachers in the schools and community leaders. The huts are set up so the older children can become the caregivers for younger children. Maggie tells people that Love made her an inventor.

Dr. Jones’ learned of Maggie’s story from colleagues who had visited the House of Peace. Those who told him about Maggie, also told him about Maggie’s driver, who first came to the House of Peace to kill Maggie. But Maggie somehow managed to talk him out of it, and convinced him that if he killed her, he would never be happy living in the bush and being defined by hatred and violence. So instead, she invited him to come and live in her community – to be her driver, and to help care for the children. And so he did.

Maggie, just like Jesus, is an incarnation of the wisdom of God. It’s wisdom that is pure and peaceable, full of mercy and good fruits. It turns the common, conventional wisdom of the world upside down. Alan Culpepper calls the teaching and actions of Jesus reflected in Mark 9 “revolutionary.” We could say the same thing about the life and work of Maggie, who created a community pervaded by love and service to all. I wonder to what degree this could be said about us? I can’t answer for you, but I know I spend too many days trying to cross the finish line first, and not enough days being the servant of all. I too often live by the wisdom of the world, rather than the wisdom of God.

O God, help us to resist and defy the wisdom of the world, and to be filled with your wisdom which is pure, gentle, full of mercy and all manner of good works. Help us to change – to let go of any need or desire for personal greatness, and find joy and peace and hope in being a servant of all

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Finding our true selves (Mark 8:27-38)

The beauty and power of sacred texts is that sacred texts can speak to us on different levels and have multiple meanings. I’m sure you have experienced this if you read the Bible devotionally. You may read a text today and find that a particular way of seeing (understanding, interpreting, appropriating) that text helps you in a particular way. Three years from now, you may read that text again, and discover something very different in the text that is a source of help to you at that point in your journey.

On one level this is a text that demonstrates how easy it is for us to misunderstand God’s will because we are so influenced by “group think.” This is true of all of us in varying degrees, of course. We can be blinded to what is good and true by popular cultural, political, and religious influences. Just before this passage (a couple of paragraphs back) in the story Jesus warns the disciples, telling them to “Watch out – beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” But the disciples don’t get what Jesus is saying. Jesus rebukes them saying, “Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?” Then, in the very next passage Jesus restores sight to a blind man in stages. At first the man just sees images when Jesus touches him. Then, when Jesus touches him again, he is able to see more clearly. That story is really a parable of how we come to see. It’s a process. The passage today is a story of the disciples thinking they see, but not really seeing at all. And it’s an example of how we can use the same words, employ the same language, but mean radically different things.

Peter acts as the mouthpiece for the group. He’s not offering an independent assessment. He is voicing the belief and perspective of the group. When Jesus asks them, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter speaks on all their behalf when he says, “You are the Messiah.” But then when Jesus tells them that as the Messiah he will be rejected and suffer and be killed by those in power, Peter, again acting on behalf of the group, rebukes Jesus. That’s not in their plan. Jesus, in turn, rebukes them, saying “Get behind me, Satan.” Jesus viewed the rebuke by the disciples as a temptation to  step off the path that is clearly God’s will for him to follow. Do you see what’s going on here? Jesus’ understanding of his role as Messiah was very different from what the disciples believed and what they perceived to be the work of the MessiahThroughout the course of my Christian journey, I have always claimed Jesus as Savior, but what I mean now when I confess Jesus as my Savior is very different than what I meant years ago when I was beginning my ministry. I use the same language, but I mean different things.

Many of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries, like his disciples, thought of their Messiah in narrow, tribalistic, and nationalistic ways. Somewhat similar to the way a number of Christians do today. They believed the Messiah would deliver his people, the Jewish people, from the Gentile powers that held them captive, and he would effect this deliverance in a forceful, even violent manner. Some thought he would do this through conventional means. Others thought he would do it through a supernatural intervention of power. There were early Christians who carried over this same belief into their Christianity. In the book of Revelation, which is a book filled with apocalyptic symbols and images, which some of you are reading with Dr. Bailey on Wednesday mornings, Jesus returns as a general riding a white horse leading forth the armies of heaven. The writer says that “from his mouth goes out a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God.” There is so much carnage that the vultures and birds of prey have a feast. An angel says to the birds, “Come, gather for the great supper of God, to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of the mighty, the flesh of horses and their riders – flesh of all, both free and slave, both small and great.”

How different is the portrait of Jesus in the Gospels from that portrait in Revelation 19? The Supper that Jesus shares with others in the Gospels is the opposite of the Supper in Rev. 19, except in one way – there is no distinction of persons. But in the Gospels all persons are recipients of grace and acceptance, not fury and condemnation. Jesus doesn’t wield a sword against his enemies. Rather, he models and teaches his disciples to love their enemies, to pray for them and do them no harm. He doesn’t ride into Jerusalem on a white horse to do battle with the Romans. Rather, he rides a young donkey staging a peace march in protest of all the violence and death with which the powers that be ravage the world. Jesus, in the Gospels, clearly does not come to rule the world with a rod of iron and a heavy hand, but to serve the world as God’s servant.

Three times in the Gospel of Mark  (this is true in Luke and Matthew as well) Jesus announces that he will be rejected, suffer, and be killed by those in power. And all three times his disciples do not hear him, demonstrating that we hear what we want to hear. After the second announcement the disciples get into an argument about who is going to be the greatest, who will wield the most authority in God’s kingdom. After the third announcement, two of the disciples ask Jesus if they can have seats of power as his top two power brokers seated at his right and left when he takes the throne. Jesus tells them that the nations of the world appoint rulers who lord it over them, and then he says, “But not so among you.” Jesus tells them that they are to be servants of all people, just like himself, the Son of Man, the human one, who was sent by God not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life up for the redemption and liberation of all.” How could they be so blind and deaf? Jesus wonders that too. Time and again he says, “How is that you have no faith? How do you not see or hear?” How could they not get it? Well, how is it that so many of us still don’t get it. I can’t make any kind of judgment or assessment about Christians in other countries, but here in America, it seems to me that the majority of Christians are drawn more to the image of Jesus in Revelation 19 than they are to the Jesus of the Gospels who is the servant of all. It seems to me that most American Christians want very little to do with a Messiah who is a humble, courageous peace-maker. They want a Messiah who will rattle some cages, break some bones, and spew out fury and wrath. They don’t want forgiveness and reconciliation. They want vengeance and retribution. They don’t want a Messiah who welcomes all to the table in mercy and grace. They want a Messiah who excludes forever those who are different than they are. We are just the like the disciples in the Gospels. We still don’t get it.

Here is a question. Don’t answer to me. Answer to yourself. Be honest. Are you drawn more to the image of Jesus as a warrior and vengeful Messiah or the suffering servant Messiah? How you honestly answer that question should tell you much about where you are in your own spiritual and moral development. It’s not difficult to understand why so many want a Revelation 19 Messiah is it? If we follow the Suffering Servant Jesus of the Gospels, then we will have to be the servant of all people too, even those we don’t like. And we may even have to suffer for the cause. This Gospel, Mark’s Gospel was written in a time of great trial and suffering. The consensus of mainline scholarship places the date of this Gospel either just before, during, or after the Roman war against the Jews and the destruction of Jerusalem. The Romans would have made no distinction between Jewish followers of Jesus and Jews who were not. And any Roman who confessed Jesus as Lord would have been considered disloyal to Rome, where Caesar is Lord. All of Mark’s original readers faced suffering and death as a real possibility, or perhaps in many cases, a real probability.

We American Christians don’t know diddly about persecution. None of us are persecuted. In fact, in many American communities, like Frankfort, we are the majority of the population. There are churches of every kind on every corner. The sad thing is that there are some Christians who think they are being persecuted. The reason they think they are being persecuted is because more recent court rulings have prevented them from imposing their religious beliefs and practices on the rest of society. Listen sisters and brothers, being prohibited from imposing one’s faith and morals on others is not suffering for Jesus. It is, however, a safeguard for our democracy, but I won’t go there.

After Jesus speaks of his suffering and death, he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.” He goes on to talk about losing one’s life in order to find one’s life. Originally, as I have pointed out, this was about persecution, suffering, and counting the cost. And as I also said the beauty and power of sacred texts is that they speak to us on different levels, in different contexts, in different ways. Wherever we find ourselves today, if we are to follow Jesus there is a “self” that we all must let go of and a “cross” we all must bear.

The “self” that we must deny or relinquish is the false self, and the “cross” we must take up is the path that will free us from the false self. Some of the great spiritual writers of our time have spoken and written rather extensively about the false self. Let me offer you a layman’s explanation. The false self is the self that we have been told we are by others, and that many of us actually believe we are. The others include parents, peers, teachers, all the people who have had some influence in our lives. This includes cultural images and stereotypes. First and foremost, the false self is the self operating out of the ego. It’s the self that craves recognition and acclamation. It’s the self that craves status and the applause of others. It’s the self that seeks glory and honor, power and position, prominence and place. It’s the self that gets easily offended and wants retribution rather than forgiveness. It’s the self that wants to always be right and be in control. It’s the self that is addicted to negative thinking and is easily swayed by “group think.” It’s the self that is attached to the opinions of others and is “up” or “down” depending on what other people say. It’s the self that compares itself to others and always needs to win. It’s the shallow self, the superficial self, the ego self, the little self. If we are going to follow Jesus, this “little, false self” has to go.

Sue Monk Kid tells about the time she slipped into her young daughter’s room at night to make sure she was covered, because she had a habit of kicking her covers off. She found her blanket at the foot of the bed. As she drew the blanket up around her, she noticed that her daughter was clutching a half-eaten lollipop – one that her grandmother had given her. It was one of those gigantic all day suckers that had turned into a two day affair. Now it had made a sticky purple splotch on her pillowcase and a few strands of hair were stuck to it. She managed to pry it out of her daughter’s hand and then tossed it in the trash. The next morning her daughter confronted her in a blaze of indignation. She screamed, “But it was mine, and I wasn’t ready to throw it away.”

All the stuff of our false selves is our stuff. It’s mine and it’s yours. We have picked up this stuff, we have picked up these thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, values, habits, patterns, attachments, and addictions from many people and places and made them ours. But that’s not who we really are. Buried beneath and behind all the stuff, all these layers of the false self is the true self. The true self is the divine self, the Christ self, the self I am in God. That’s who we really are. The task we have as followers of Jesus is to shed all the layers of the false self that hides and conceals the true self, the Christ self. Richard Rohr likes to say that we grow more through subtraction than addition.

There was once a country boy who had a great talent for carving beautiful dogs out of wood. Every day he sat on his porch whittling, working away, letting the shavings fall all around him. One day a visitor, greatly impressed at his work, asked him the secret of his art. He said, “I just take a block of wood and whittle off the parts that don’t look like a dog.”

Listen carefully sisters and brothers. We don’t acquire the true self. We find the true self by losing the false self. We whittle away, strip away the layers of our false self so that the true self we already are can emerge. We don’t acquire God’s Spirit. We don’t earn God’s Spirit. God’s Spirit is not a reward for being good or believing the right things. God’s Spirit is already in us and with us, essential to our very existence. Our task, our part is to relinquish, to uncover, expose, and let go of these layers of the false self, so the Spirit of Christ can love and work through us. So that our true self in Christ can flourish. Following Jesus is a journey of discovery and recovery. It’s a stripping away of all the layers pervaded by the ego, so the love, generosity, humility, honesty, authenticity, courage, grace and goodness of the true self, the Christ self can abound and thrive.

I believe the Christ is saying to us today, “If you want to be my disciple, if you want to be my follower, then you must become aware of, be willing to struggle with, and let go of the false self, so that you can become what you are, so that the Christ self can emerge.” Now the question is: Am I willing to be honest about my ego? Am I willing to open my spiritual eyes and see all the stuff that prevents the Christ self from emerging fully in me and being expressed through me? Am I willing to do the hard work, and enter into the struggle to be free of all that the false self feeds on and craves? Am I willing to stay the course and keep whittling away until the Christ that is in me shines through?

Our good God, give us eyes to see and ears to hear. Give us the courage and will to honestly acknowledge all the ways our false selves keep our true selves from shining through. May your love by our strength and guiding light. Amen.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Making Course Corrections (a sermon from Mark 7:24-30)

Well, let’s go ahead and admit it. This is a hard passage to hear. It’s a hard passage to hear because Jesus treats this non-Jewish woman so harshly. Mark says she was of Syrophoenician origin. Matthew calls her a Canaanite. But what both agree on is that she is a Gentile, a non-Jew. The hard thing about this story is that in Jesus’ initial response to this Gentile woman, he treats her with a harshness and a disdain that is so unlike the Jesus we read about in so many of the other Gospel stories. In story after story Jesus extends welcome and hospitality to all people, tax collectors and prostitutes, poor and wealthy, unreligious and religious, Samaritans and Gentiles.

In an attempt to lessen the impact of Jesus’ words it has been pointed out by some that “dogs” were pets and members of the family as they are today. And while that’s true, it’s fairly obvious Jesus does not use the word here in a positive sense. And the fact is, most often when this word in used in ancient Jewish texts it is used in a derogatory way. For example, in Matt. 7:6 Jesus says, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, do not throw your pearls before swine.”

It’s important to keep in mind that this is not Jesus’ first encounter with non-Jews, according to Mark. In chapter 5 Jesus enters Gentile territory and is confronted by a Gentile, a non-Jew, whom Mark says is possessed by an “unclean spirit.” He lives among the tombs and is clearly deeply disturbed and mentally ill. Jesus sets him free and tells him to spread the good news of his liberation among his people. Certainly Jesus has no racial bias against Gentiles. So what’s going on here? Why does Jesus seem so unkind and ungracious in his initial response to this non-Jewish woman who seeks help for her daughter?

One factor to consider is why Jesus is in this predominantly Gentile region in the first place. In the storyline this is right after a long period of ministry and Jesus’ encounter with the Jewish leaders. The fairly clear implication in the text is that Jesus needed to get away – to be in solitude, to be alone with God. Mark says “he went away” to the region of Tyre. Went away from what? He went away from where his primary ministry and mission was centered. He went away from the work and the crowd and his adversaries. Mark says, “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” Apparently that included the twelve as well, his most trusted associates. I suspect Jesus was exhausted. I suspect he desperately needed quiet and rest and silence. Jesus knows that it just takes one healing and he will be deluged with the sick and hurting, and he is not ready for that.

Another thing to consider is that Jesus’ primary mission was to Israel, his own people. That is not to say that Jesus didn’t care for those outside of Israel. But he knew that it was Israel’s mission to take the good news to the non-Jewish world. His people, however, were in no spiritual shape to do that work. He knew that it was God’s intent that the world be blessed through the seed of Abraham, but the seed of Abraham was not in a healthy or good spiritual place where they could fulfil that mission. Jesus was first and foremost a Jewish reformer and prophet to his own people. And what is implicit in Mark, is made explicit in Matthew. In Matthew’s version Jesus says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” His first and primary calling was to ready Israel, to prepare his people to accept and own their calling to live out the kingdom of God on earth and share that good news with the rest of the world.

A third factor, which I was unaware of until I dug a little deeper this past week is this. The region of Tyre where Jesus retreated to was known for its socio-economic injustice. The wealthy Gentiles, the Greeks and Romans in the coastal cities depended on produce brought from Upper Galilee. The Jews in upper Galilee that provided that produce were often exploited and taken advantage of. (We know how this works in our time don’t we? Consider the sweat shops in other parts of the world that make the products we buy where the workers are working for a dollar a day in terrible conditions.) Well, the Jews had no way to protest such injustice. These Jews were basically the slaves of Rome. They were not Roman citizens. Jesus would have been aware of this injustice and that may have been weighing heavily upon him as he visits this region.

I think we can learn a couple of very important lessons in this story from both the woman and Jesus. This is the only story I can think of in the Gospels where another person outwits Jesus. In some stories in the Gospels Jesus outwits his opponents with clever responses. Some adversary of Jesus comes with a question to trap Jesus into saying something that can be used against him, and Jesus always ends up baffling and outwitting his opponent and winning the day. This woman is not, of course, Jesus’ opponent, but she is intrusive and she is part of a society that has oppressed Jesus’ own people. She comes begging for his help and breaks into his life abruptly, putting this demand on him when he so greatly needs rest and renewal. Jesus responds in an uncharacteristic manner by saying, “Let the children be fed first [obviously referring to his own people], for it is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” The “dogs” of course being a reference not to this woman in particular, but her people in general who were exploiting his people and treating his people like “dogs.

This woman does not take personal offense at Jesus’ words. This woman has one thing, and one thing only on her mind – getting help for her sick, mentally tormented daughter. That’s her determined purpose. And she is not to be deterred. “Sir,” she says, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She is desperate, and she is clever. She gets the best of Jesus. And Jesus says, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”

I am reminded of a story about Alexander Solzhenitsyn when he was in the Gulag, the Russian forced labor camp. All they did was shovel. He was exhausted from shoveling. One day, he just quit. Life wasn’t worth it anymore. He tossed aside his shovel and sat down on a rock with his head between his knees. He had seen others who quit and witnessed a guard taking the shovel and beating to death the one who cast it aside. He felt someone come over next to him and braced himself for the pain. He was ready to die. But it was a fellow prisoner. An old man. He took a stick and drew in the sand in front of Solzhenitsyn’s face the sign of the cross. Solzhenitsyn found strength in the cross. He understood, so he got up and shoveled.

Sometimes sisters and brothers, it just doesn’t pay to get angry or offended or give up. It may be your life on the line or your family or the life of someone you deeply care about. What is needed at that moment is to get up and shovel – to press on. Maybe it’s your own life hanging in the balance. Maybe you are the one who needs help, and unless you admit your need for help and seek that help, in an AA group or from some other person or community, you will keep hurting yourself and others.  

That’s something I learn from this woman in our story –determination and persistence. The importance of not giving up. But I also learn something from Jesus. Jesus is perhaps feeling the weight and burden of his people and is mentally, physically, and spiritual drained. This Greek woman intrudes into his space and Jesus reacts in a negative way. But when she meets his rejection with wit and wisdom, Jesus is quick to acknowledge her and reward her. He immediately recognizes her faith and courage, and he rewards her, knowing full well he will not get a break from the crowds. Jesus changes course. “The demon has left your daughter,” he says to the woman. Whatever physical or mental demon plagued her daughter, Jesus sets her free, and Jesus is now prepared to pay the price for granting that freedom.

When I look at the story this way, I don’t see in this story so much a flawed Jesus, as I see a spiritually mature Jesus. Jesus is human, and humanity comes with flaws. He is not perfect. But Jesus is called and knows he’s called to be God’s human agent for mercy and justice in the world. Jesus is filled with the Spirit of God. So even at his worst moment, when he is mentally, physically, and spiritually exhausted, he is quick to recognize his fault and make the correction.

Being spiritually mature does not mean we stop sinning. It doesn’t mean we never struggle anymore with a negative attitude. It doesn’t mean we completely overcome our addiction or addictions and that we never fall back and regress. It doesn’t mean we never again become attached to something that pulls us down or that we never again lose our temper or are quick to react. Being spiritually mature doesn’t mean that we will never say anything hurtful or negative again. We will never be perfect. You may want to disagree with me here, and that’s certainly okay, but I personally don’t believe we will ever be perfect, ever – even in the world to come. The word that is often translated perfect in the Greek New Testament, does not mean faultless or sinless. It means complete or mature. The word actually conveys a sense of fullness, not flawlessness. I don’t think we will ever be perfect, but what I do believe is that the more spiritually full, or complete, or mature we become, the quicker we are to admit our failures and faults, and make the necessary change and course correction.

The late Fred Craddock tells about running into a person who was a member of one of the churches in the Midwest that he got to know when he taught and ministered there. A grumpy sort, says Craddock, who was very controlling. Dr. Craddock gave Bible studies and preached in his church a number of times. Fred says that this man would act like he didn’t know much, that he was in the background, but he really knew everything and had his hand in everything and wanted to control everything as much as he could. He wanted to set the agenda.

Fred noticed that his friend looked different; he had a gleam in his eye, that he had never seen before. So he asked him how he was doing and his friend said, “Better than I’ve ever been.” Fred asked about the church and he said, “We’re in better shape spiritually and in every way than we’ve been in my memory.” Fred had never heard this man talk this way about his church. So Fred asked about their minister and he said, “We have a woman.” He never did give her name, but said, “We have a woman.” Then he said, “I voted against her, and all my family voted against her, but we got outnumbered.” Then he paused and said, “I was wrong. I was wrong in my estimation of women.” And then he looked at Fred and said, “Brother Fred, if I was wrong about her, I was probably wrong about a lot of other stuff too.”

There are different ways we can describe what happened in this man’s life. We could say that he finally heard the gospel. We could say that he had a born again kind of experience. And we could say that he finally grew up. There can be very little spiritual growth and moral development in our lives, until we are willing to see our faults, admit our mistakes, own our sins, confess when we are wrong, ask forgiveness and grant forgiveness, and make the necessary course corrections in our life. Jesus did it. We can too.

O God, may we be filled with the Spirit of Jesus. Not a spirit of perfection. But a spirit willing to accept and learn from correction. Help us to see more clearly, so we can adjust course more readily. And give us strength and endurance, so that we may stay the course that leads to life. Amen.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Getting to the Heart of the Matter (A sermon from Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23)

It is clear, I think, that this Gospel text is a denouncement by Jesus of the way many Jewish religious leaders in his day used their religious faith in harmful, life-diminishing ways. That much is obvious.

However, this is a text, in my judgment, that has been too often misread and misapplied. Some Christians use this text to draw, in my opinion, an inappropriate distinction between scripture and tradition. They generally lock on to verse 8 where Jesus is purported as saying, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” They argue that human tradition is bad, while the commandment of God, which they tend to identify as scripture as a whole is good. So they make this rigid distinction between tradition and scripture

The problem with that explanation is that the mention of “human tradition” in verse 8 is not a reference to all tradition. It’s a reference to the particular way these Jewish leaders were interpreting and applying that tradition. Scripture itself is part of that tradition. The Bible doesn’t stand apart from, separate from Christian tradition. It is part of that tradition. An important part, for sure, but a part nonetheless. Big difference.

In biblical usage, the word “tradition” simply means “that which is handed on.” In first Corinthians 15 Paul says that the death and resurrection of Christ is part of the tradition that was handed on to him, which he passed on to the Corinthians. Paul tells the church at Thessalonica to hold fast to the Christian traditions which he taught them. Our Bible is part of the Christian tradition. It is not separate from it.

The contrast in this text in Mark 7 is not between scripture and tradition. Scripture is a part of the tradition. The contrast here is between a healthy, liberating use of the tradition and an unhealthy, harmful use of the tradition. Our traditions are intended to be a means by which we do the will of God, but unfortunately they can devolve into a means by which we subvert the will of God. That’s what was going in this passage. The Jewish leaders were using their tradition in a negative way to actually subvert the will of God.

Sometimes we practice our Christian traditions in ways that are not necessarily harmful or helpful. They are just mechanical and don’t really impact us or influence on a deeper level. There was once a Chinese holy man who was very poor and lived in a remote part of China.  As poor as he was, he understood that worship involves some sacrifice on our part. Food was his scarcest commodity, so every day before his quiet time of prayer and meditation he put a dish of butter up on the windowsill as an offering to God. One day his cat came in and ate the butter. To remedy this, he began to tie the cat to the bedpost each day before his time of worship. In time this man was so revered for his piety that others joined him as disciples and worshiped as he worshipped. Generations later, long after the holy man was dead, his followers placed an offering of butter on the windowsill during their time of worship. And furthermore, each one had a cat and tied the cat to the bedpost during their time of worship. It was all part of the tradition. We can become so glued to the tradition, that the tradition loses its meaning and impact. It’s not really hurtful or harmful, but it’s not all that helpful or beneficial either. However, the mere mechanical observance of a second-hand Christian tradition may actually insulate us and prevent us from having any authentic personal experience of God ourselves. Christian tradition was never intended to be static, but dynamic, and always evolving.

Sometimes the way we use our Christian tradition can be destructive or even deadly. Charles Kimbell, was at one time and maybe still is, a professor of religion at Wake Forrest University.  He wrote a book several years ago entitled, When Religion Becomes Evil. In his opening paragraph he says, “Religion is arguably the most powerful and pervasive force on earth. Throughout history religious ideas and commitments have inspired individuals and communities of faith to transcend narrow self-interest in pursuit of higher values and truths.  The record of history shows that noble acts of love, self-sacrifice, and service to others are frequently rooted in deeply held religious worldviews.” That’s true isn’t it? We have seen many examples of this in history. The civil rights movement led by Dr. King was born out of a transformative Christian faith that drew upon our rich Christian tradition of restorative (social) justice and activism.

But Kimbell goes on to say, “At the same time, history clearly shows that religion has often been linked directly to the worst examples of human behavior. It is somewhat trite, but nevertheless true to say that more wars have been waged, more people killed, and these days more evil perpetrated in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history." And that is equally true isn’t it? Our religious traditions can be the best thing in the world or the worst thing in the world.

In our text today the Jewish leaders are upset with Jesus and his disciples because they observe that Jesus’ disciples were not keeping the “tradition of the elders.” In particular, they mention the traditions pertaining to eating food from the market and the washing of hands. In their view, the failure of Jesus and his followers to observe these traditions defiled them. It made them unholy or sinful. In response to their judgment, Jesus offers a judgment of his own. He draws upon a passage in the book of Isaiah which talks about the hearts of God’s worshipers being far removed from God and about worshiping God in vain. He applies that to his critics here.

So assuming that Jesus is right in his assessment of the Jewish leaders, here we might ask: So why is the worship of these Jewish leaders vain? Why is their worship empty and futile? Why does their worship express how far or distant their hearts are from God? It is this: These religious leaders were using their religious tradition in ways that were opposite of what God intended. They were using their tradition – their scriptures, their interpretations, their laws and customs to regulate access to God. They set themselves up as gatekeepers and they used their tradition to monitor and control access to God. They made themselves judges of what was holy and unholy, acceptable and unacceptable, righteous and sinful, pure and defiled. And you know as well as I do that this same use of religious tradition abounds today in any number of Christian contexts.

I love the story that the late Fred Craddock tells about the time he and his wife attended a victory party after a University of Georgia football game. They didn’t know anyone there except the couple with whom they were in attendance. It was held in a beautiful home in a suburb of Atlanta – restored Victorian, high ceilings, adorned with expensive furnishings. A lot of people were there, says Fred, maybe thirty-five or so, mostly in their thirties, forties, and early fifties. They were all decked out in clothing that said, “How about them Dawgs?”

There was an attractive woman present – a little too bejeweled and overdressed according to Fred. And just as Fred and his wife were getting to know folks and getting into the spirit of the party, this woman suddenly rang out with, “I think we should all sing the Doxology.” And before they could even vote says Fred, she started in. She and a handful of her friends sang with gusto the doxology at a Georgia football victory party. Fred says some stood around and counted their shoelaces. Some tried to find a place to set their drinks down. Fred said it was very awkward time.

When they finished singing the woman said, “You can talk all you want about the running of Herschel Walker, but it was Jesus that gave us the victory.” Someone spoke up, “You really believe that?” She said, “Of course I do. Jesus said, ‘Whatever you ask, ask for in my name, and I’ll give it to you.’ So I said, ‘Jesus, I want to win more than anything in the world,’ and we won. I’m not ashamed to say that it’s because of Jesus. I’m not ashamed of the gospel.” And for an exclamation point she added, “I’m not ashamed to just say it anywhere, because Jesus told us to shout it from the housetops.” You to have admit, that’s an innovative use of Christian tradition don’t you think?

Fred along with some of the others retreated to the kitchen and tried to refocus on the game. They started to relive and talk about the game. When the hostess came into the kitchen carrying a plate of little sandwiches, things got quiet for few moments. Then one of the men said to Fred, “Do you think that woman was drunk?” Fred said, “Well, I don’t know. We just moved to Georgia last year. I was glad Georgia won, but I’m not feverish about it.” The hostess overheard this conversation and broke in and said, “If she doesn’t shut her blankety mouth, she’s going to ruin my party.” Fred said that it wasn’t like him to speak up, but he asked the hostess, “Are you a Christian?” She said, “Yes, but I don’t believe in just shouting it everywhere.” I get that, don’t you? I have to admit I get a bit irritated when I see a Quarterback giving God the glory after he throws a touchdown pass. I wonder if he is going to be giving God the glory on their next possession when he gets sacked for a fifteen yard loss and can barely lift himself up after a big old defensive lineman had just squished him on the turf?

We tend to be amused at such abuse and misuse of the Christian tradition, but we do the same thing. We just do it in more sophisticated and subtle ways. We use our tradition to support and defend our biases. We use our tradition to manage God and others. We use our tradition to determine who is saved or unsaved, who is in or out, who is excluded or included. We use our tradition to determine who is blessed and who is cursed. We use our tradition in ways that make us judges over God and over others. We have all done it, but hopefully we don’t do it now as much as we used to.

How we use our tradition really comes down to what is in our hearts. What is in our hearts is what matters. It’s what determines whether our faith, our tradition is a transforming reality in our lives, or a means we use to defend our biases, cater to our ego, and control God and others.

Obviously, because of the slant of our text, Jesus emphasizes the injustice and evil that finds its source in our hearts. . . . But the same can be said of that which is good, just, kind, gracious, and loving. Good works begin with a good heart. In the little parable of the trees Jesus tells, the tree represents the heart. A good tree produces good fruit; a bad tree produces bad fruit.

I love the story a mother tells about her three year old daughter who had this dialogue going on with her pediatrician. As the doctor is examining her ears he asks, "Will I find Big Bird in here?" The little girl says, "No." Then before examining her throat the doctor asks, "Will I find Cookie Monster in here?" Again, she says, "No." Finally, listening to her heart he asks, "Will I find Barney in here?" The little girl looks him directly in the eye and says, "No. Jesus is in my heart, Barney is on my underwear." I love the way my wife talks to our grandkids about Jesus. Whenever they do something kind or gracious or thoughtful, or when they are patient and generous and take care of one another, she tells them they are filled with Jesus. “You are filled with Jesus,” today, she says. I really like that explanation and what it teaches them about Jesus. I just wish they would be filled with Jesus a little more often.

What fills our hearts? That’s what really matters because that’s the heart of the matter. What’s in our hearts determines how we read and apply scripture and how we make use of our Christian tradition. Are we ego driven or love driven? Are we using our faith tradition to grow in love of God and love of neighbor? Or are we using it to manage God and control others? To make us look good or feel special while we treat with disdain and contempt those who believe differently, look differently, and act differently than we do? Are we using our faith tradition to value, welcome, and affirm others? Or are we using it to exclude, marginalize, and reject others? Do we use our faith tradition to claim a chosenness that others don’t have, that we reserve for ourselves and our group that breeds pride and entitlement? Or do we see in our faith tradition an unconditionally loving God who has chosen all of us, the only difference being that there are some who know it and have claimed it, while others are still unaware of how loved and chosen they are? All of this, sisters and brothers – how we imagine God, how we treat others, how much we care about what is right and good and just and loving – all of this is ultimately determined by what is in our hearts. So may our hearts be more and more filled with the love of Jesus.

Gracious God, help us to see that being Christian, living within the Christian tradition, is no automatic guarantee that we are going to be like Christ. Help us to see that we can be just like the religious leaders in our text today, and use our tradition in hurtful, selfish, controlling, and demeaning ways. Show us what is in our hearts and give us the desire, the will, and the determination, to open our hearts to your Spirit so that your love, the love of Christ, might fill us and overflow into all that we say and do, and all that we are and are becoming.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

What we can learn from being offended (A sermon from John 6:56-69)

Most of us, I think, consider Jesus’ ministry with the common people to have been a great success, and it was the religious leaders that Jesus upset so much that they found a way to kill him. His works of healing attracted large crowds. Others were drawn to his teaching. But in our Gospel text today, John says that many of his disciples came to a point where they found Jesus’ teaching offensive. And John says, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” Many (not a few, not some, but many) of his disciples stopped being disciples. Many of his followers, stopped following. We are not told why they were offended, other than saying, “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it.” John doesn’t tell us why they found it difficult. Maybe they were offended because of what Jesus was asking them to do.

This passage in John 6 is a very difficult passage to wrap our minds around. Now, I know this is a sermon and not a class in New Testament Introduction, but I think it’s important you know a couple of things about the Gospel of John. Anyone who reads all the Gospels carefully should observe that the Jesus portrayed in John is different than the Jesus portrayed in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. According to the consensus of mainline biblical scholarship in John we are not reading the actual words or teachings of Jesus, but rather, what John and his church believed about Jesus. We are reading the teachings of John and his church about Jesus. The claims Jesus makes in John’s Gospel he does not make in the Synoptic Gospels. Jesus doesn’t speak the same way in John’s Gospel as he does in the Synoptic Gospels. All four Gospels in our Bible are primarily proclamations, not historical reports, and what is characteristic of all the Gospels in general, is even more characteristic of John’s Gospel in particular. John and his church project their Christianity, their Christian theology and spirituality into the words and teachings of Jesus. Biblical scholars emphasize (and this is important) that in doing that – projecting their interpretations and beliefs into the life and words of Jesus – John and his church were not being deceitful or untruthful in any way. That’s how they proclaimed what they had come to believe and experience. We shouldn’t read our standards of historicity back into these ancient Christian writings. They were proclaiming a life-changing message about what they believed, and this is how they communicated their message.
Biblical texts like our passage today are to be read metaphorically, not literally. That’s really true of the whole Bible, but it’s especially true of John’s Gospel. All  religious language is metaphorical language and symbolical language. When John has Jesus talk about eating his flesh and drinking his blood he is obviously speaking metaphorically and symbolically.

So what is John talking about here when he speaks about eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood. Some interpreters hear an echo of the Christian practice of the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion, but I seriously doubt that’s the emphasis here. What John is talking about, I think, is assimilating the life of Jesus. Eating and drinking the body and blood of Jesus is a metaphorical way and symbolical way of talking about Christian discipleship – about being sustained, nourished, and empowered by Jesus’ life and teachings. To eat and drink in the life of Jesus is to eat and drink in the love, grace, and truth of God that Jesus incarnated in flesh and blood, that he embodied – fleshed out – in his earthly life.

It’s interesting to note that John uses the word “flesh” in at least three different ways in the sixth chapter of John. Earlier in this chapter Jesus says, “This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” In that context “flesh” represents the total life of Jesus given for the world, a self-giving of his life in the cause of God and for the good of others that ends in death. He died a sacrificial death because he lived a sacrificial life. That’s one way John uses the word “flesh.” A second way John uses the word flesh is in the way I just described. When he talks about eating his flesh and drinking his blood he is talking about Christian discipleship – about being sustained and nourished by his life and words. Still another way, a third way John uses the word flesh is when he says (attributing this to Jesus of course) that the spirit gives life, but the flesh is useless. The first two ways John uses the word “flesh” are positive, but this use of the word is clearly negative. Here he uses the word much like Paul does when Paul writes about the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit. The Spirit promotes grace, truth, and love; while the flesh promotes just the opposite. In this negative sense, the flesh is an anti-life force that is present in our world and in our lives that opposes God’s love, grace, and truth. And we see this negative, anti-life force very much at work in our national culture and life setting today don’t we?

That’s my lesson in biblical interpretation for this Sunday. But since this is a sermon, let me now pose a more practical question. What is it that causes us to become offended and turn away? Dr. Fred Craddock was for a brief time dean at Phillips Seminary. While acting as dean a woman from the community came to see him. She asked him to come out to the parking lot. This made him a little nervous, but he went. She opened the back door of her automobile, and slumped in the back seat was her brother. He had been a senior at the University of Oklahoma, but had been in a bad car wreck and was in a coma for eight months. She had quit her job as a school teacher to take care of him. At this point almost all of their resources were exhausted. She opened the door and said, “I would like for you to heal him.” Can you imagine? What would you say? Fred said, “Well, I can pray for him. And I can pray with you. But I do not have the gift of healing.” She got behind the wheel and said to him, “Then what in the world do you do?” And she drove off. She took offense and left. Why did she take offense? Clearly she had some different assumptions and expectations than Dr. Craddock on what a minister should be doing. Just like many of you probably have different assumptions and expectations about what a minister should be doing?

I suspect that those who walked away from Jesus, walked away because their discipleship to Jesus was not working out the way they assumed and expected it would. I’m guessing Jesus was not fulfilling their expectations. John tells us that earlier in this chapter many of these followers wanted to make Jesus their king, but Jesus would not conform to their wishes. He refused to fulfill their expectations. Jesus didn’t come to be king. As he tells his disciples in Mark and Matthew, he came not to be served like a king, but to serve as the Servant of God, and to give his life in service for the healing and liberation of many. It’s easy to see why they are so offended and walk away.

In 1977 when I walked in to Dr. Coker’s New Testament Introduction class at Campbellsville College carrying my New Scofield Reference Bible, with not only an infallible text, but with infallible notes as well, Dr. Coker wasn’t impressed. He didn’t concede to all my certitudes and absolutes. He wanted me to toss out my Scofield Bible and think for myself, and it was just too difficult to do. I was offended and I walked away.

But then, as I have talked about before, at a crossroads in my life, a window opened in my mind and I began to realize that all my certitudes about what the Bible says were actually my assumptions and biases that I brought to the Bible. Here’s the way it works for all of us. We are either born or converted into our faith. We are either raised in a particular religious tradition or we are converted into that tradition. Either way, we get indoctrinated, socialized, and enculturated into our particular Christian tradition.

We are taught what the Bible says, we are told what the Bible teaches, even before we actually read the Bible ourselves. So, when we do start reading the Bible, we are already conditioned to read and interpret the Bible in a certain way. The Bible will say whatever you want it to say. The Bible will teach whatever you want it to teach. We all read and interpret the Bible from a particular point of view – that is our bias. It’s unavoidable. You will find what you want to find in the Bible. The real question sisters and brothers, is not what the Bible teaches. The real question, the most important question is: What do you want the Bible to teach? Because the Bible will teach what you want it to teach.

Now, the big challenge we face is that most of us are completely blind to our assumptions and our biases. Those who claim to have no biases are living in the thickest kind of darkness of all. We all read the Bible and interpret our faith according to our assumptions, biases, expectations, and desires. The key to spiritual growth is becoming aware of this. That’s the first step – awareness. The second step, is intentionality – being intentional about the assumptions, biases, expectations, and desires we have. You can read, make sense, interpret, and apply the Bible with a bias for exclusion or inclusion, for grace or punishment, for welcome or rejection, for exceptionalism or universalism, for judgement as correction or judgment as retribution, and on and on and on. You can find all of these opposites in the Bible. And what you see in the Bible, how you understand it, and how you appropriate it will depend on the agenda you bring to this process complete with all your assumptions, biases, expectations, and desires.

Why is it that we are so blind (I am preaching to myself as well as you) to our assumptions, biases, expectations, and desires that impact so much of what we think, what we believe, and what we do? Why are we so blind to the things that cause us to be so easily offended? Is it fear? Is it insecurity? Is it ego? As I reflect on my own journey I think it has been mostly about my ego and being overly invested in my image or my reputation or my sense of competence. So when I thought those things were being called into question, it was easy for me to feel offended. That’s my journey. It may be completely different for you or someone else. Who really knows why we do what we do.

Have you ever been looking for something and looked in a closet or drawer and couldn’t find it. Then later, you go back to that same closet or drawer and there it is. And you think, Why could I not see that before? How did I overlook this? How did I miss this? oWho knows? I say that all the time about any number of things, especially those things that relate to my faith journey. Why we become offended is not nearly as important as acknowledging that we are offended and then learning and growing from the offense. And as we grow, we become more aware of why we become offended. I regret that I was offended by Dr. Coker and walked away. I wish I had been aware of my biases and assumptions that led me to be so certain that I had the answers, that I had the truth – that I was right and he was wrong. But what would be far worse, sisters and brothers, is that after all these years, I would still be in the same place – being offended by those who question my beliefs. What would be far worse is after all this time I would still be unaware of my assumptions and biases.

Now, back to Dr. Fred Craddock and the woman who wanted him to heal her brother. Remember the story I shared earlier. She definitely had certain expectations based on a bias about what ministers should be doing. And when Fred could not meet those expectations, she was offended and left. Well, Fred was offended too. But he had a different response. The woman asked Fred when he could not fulfill her desires and meet her expectations, “Then what in the world do you do?” Obviously, Fred knew that his responsibility was not to heal her brother. Of course he knew that. But he let the question get inside his ego. He went back into his office and he couldn’t get the question out of his mind, “What in the world do you do?” He didn’t turn his offense toward the woman at all. He turned it inward and questioned his own motivations and expectations and calling as a minister.

When I became offended at Dr. Coker for challenging my beliefs, my assumptions, and my biases about the Bible, God, and all things holy, what if I had turned my attention inward and began to look more deeply into my own soul. Instead of viewing Dr. Coker as the problem, what if I had looked inward and asked, “Why do I believe what I believe?” “Why am I so frustrated and angry and offended that Dr. Coker has challenged my beliefs?” Had I turned my offense inward maybe it wouldn’t have taken me so long for me to become aware of the role my ego was playing in my certitudes. I saw Dr. Coker as the problem, when in reality, it was my ego that was the problem. I couldn’t see how defensive my ego was, and I couldn’t see how biased I was. And there are times that is still true. My ego still gets me in trouble. I’m not sure we ever completely overcome our blindness, but there are levels and degrees of blindness and enlightenment.

I’m not sure any of us really become so God-like and divested of ego that we don’t get offended. So the question is: What are we going to do about it? If I react in a negative way maybe I need to ask forgiveness. Or maybe I need to be forgiving. And what I certainly need to do when I am offended is to look carefully at my own biases and expectations and be more aware. And then, I need to be intentional about learning and growing from the experience.

God, help each of us to look deeply into our souls to see why it is that we become so easily offended when our beliefs and our biases and our expectations are challenged. Help us see those areas in our life where we need to grow. Help us to be intentional about the biases and expectations we have – of ourselves and of others. Give us the will to change our biases and expectations so that they inspire us and empower us to become more gracious, more generous, more loving, more Christ-like persons.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Developing the habit of gratitude ( A sermon from Ephesians 5:15-20)

Maybe you heard about this monastery where all the brothers took a disciplined vow of total silence. They were not ever to speak a word; their silence was their call to listen only to God. There was, however, one exception. Once every five years, they were allowed to speak two words to the Abbot who was the head of the order. A new monk arrived at the monastery to begin his service. After five years, he went into the Abbot’s office to speak his two words. He said, “Food bad!” He then got up from his chair and left. Five years later, he returned to speak again.  This time, his words were, “Bed hard!” And after still another five years, he returned for a third time. On his third visit he said, “Want out!”  “I’m not surprised,” said the Abbot. “All you’ve done since you’ve been here is complain.”

When we complain and grumble our words feed a growing spirit of ingratitude in our hearts that is indicative of our failure to see and discern God at work for our good in whatever situation or circumstance we may find ourselves. I doubt if a spiritual life is even possible without some measure of gratitude.

In our text, Paul or someone writing in the Pauline tradition, connects gratitude, giving thanks, to the filling of the Spirit. But the filling of the Spirit is not something that just comes upon us after we ask or pray for it. The biblical writer draws a contrast with intoxication. One doesn’t become intoxicated after one drink. It’s after several drinks. Choices are made that lead to intoxication. Choices that, in some instances, become habitual and addictive. When one is intoxicated one is under the control of the alcohol. When one is filled with the Spirit one is under the control of the Spirit. One comes under the control of the Spirit, however, not simply by asking for it, though asking is important. But it is also important to make the right choices – choices that become habitual. Gratitude is a blessing, both to the one who is grateful and to those who experience it in others, but it is a blessing that requires our diligent attention and effort. We make choices and develop patterns of thinking and reacting and relating that either nurture a life of gratitude or a life of complaining and grumbling.

Diana Butler Bass says that her first job out of graduate school was teaching theology and church history at a small Christian college in Santa Barbara, California. The college community, she says, expected a certain kind of conformity in regard to doctrine and personal piety that discomforted her. For four years she struggled not only with conflicting expectations of who they wanted her to be and who she was, but also with a hostile tenure committee. After a lengthy process of evaluation the president called her in his office. He said, “I’m going to have to let you go.” When she asked why, he assured her that it wasn’t her teaching and he thought she was an excellent teacher, but he said, “You just don’t fit here.” He went on to say, “This wouldn’t be a good place for you. One day you will thank me for this.” “Thank him?,” she thought. She wanted to throttle him. In less than two months, she would be without a job and a paycheck, with few prospects for work in a weak academic job market.

A week or so later she was telling a friend about this exchange and she said, “Can you believe the nerve of him saying that I would thank him for letting me go?” She expected her friend to rush to her defense. Instead he said, “You know, he’s right.” He said, “Years ago I lost a job. It was painful, and I was angry. It didn’t seem like a favor. But eventually it was the event that made me understand I was an alcoholic. And that led me to get sober. Eventually, I understood that it was what I needed for my life to change. Not that it was easy.” She retorted, “But I’m not an alcoholic.” He said, “I get that, but we all need to look at ourselves more honestly. To figure out who we are and where we are really heading. To correct course. Sometimes that only happens in circumstances like this. One day, I bet you will thank him.” He told Diana that he wasn’t able to thank the one who fired him right away, but eventually he could thank him, later in life, after he learned gratitude.

Diana said to him, “You learned gratitude. Isn’t gratitude just a feeling? How do you learn that?” He asked her to name one thing she was grateful for. He told her to do that every day, and to write it down in a journal. Diana decided to follow her friend’s advice. She wrote down one blessing each day, no matter what, even though some days it wasn’t easy.

Diana says that as the months passed she noticed that the balance began to shift. Sometimes she wrote down two or three blessings. There were days of outright surprise and joy, appreciation for simple pleasures, for the kindness of others, for the richness of life. This was no magic bullet, of course, but over a three year period of developing this habitual practice of giving thanks her perspective shifted. She learned to look at life differently, in ways that formed her into a more forgiving and hopeful person. She says that she learned two really important things. One, she discovered that when she intentionally looked for things to be grateful for she found them. Two, she also discovered that gratitude expands as you practice it – that gratitude begets more gratitude. The lesson for us is to be intentional about practicing and expressing gratitude.

Gratitude takes practice. I think this is what the biblical writer is getting at when he talks about singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs from the heart. He is calling on us to develop some sort of practice or discipline that cultivates the grace of gratitude. It may be singing or composing music, or writing poetry, or keeping a journal, or simply doing something you love or enjoy, and expressing thanks for getting to do it.

Sometimes we have experiences that help us to nurture this habit. That help shift our perspective. Not long after I came here as pastor I attended a Kentucky Council of Churches event in Owensboro, Kentucky hosted by Third Baptist Church. The main meeting, the center of attention was focused on our worship service Saturday night. A guest speaker we all looked forward to hearing was on the program. It was a day of heavy thunderstorms, all afternoon into the evening the tornado siren had been going off. In fact, it had sounded so many times that people were simply ignoring it. I was in Wendy’s eating dinner and the siren went off. I guess that was about the fourth time. Nobody budged. So I didn’t either. Later that evening at Third Baptist we were well into the program when the siren went off again. We continued with our program for about five minutes, the siren continuing to sound. Then the pastor of the church who had went out when the siren started, came in and said that we needed to move downstairs. I remember walking next to a lady on the way out of the sanctuary who said, “I think we should stay right here.” I guess about five minutes later, after we had all moved downstairs to wait, suddenly the building shook, the lights went out, and dust filled the air. The dust was so thick we had to get out of the building. Outside, some cars had been moved around, a couple were upside down. That ended our meeting. The next day I went by the church on my way out of town. I knew the pastor. He showed me the sanctuary, where we had been just before the tornado touched down. It was a direct hit on the sanctuary. Ruble everywhere. Overtop where I had been seated there was a massive hole in the sealing, and debris was piled up fifteen feet high. There had been a huge pillar in the back of the sanctuary where I had been seated. That pillar was completely gone. Had we remained in the sanctuary five more minutes I would not be here today, and I suspect most of us in that sanctuary would not be here today. All of us in that sanctuary had a brush with death. As I drove home the next day that experience had a profound effect on my shift in perspective – in the way I viewed life. I was grateful to be alive.

Brother David Steindl-Rast says, “Everything is gratuitous, everything is gift. The degree to which we are awake to this truth is the measure of our gratefulness.” Sometimes an experience, a sudden brush with death, a new lease on life after a long battle with a life threatening illness like cancer, can open our eyes and jar us awake to the gratuity of life. Developing the habit of gratitude calls us to see life more generously, graciously, and forgivingly. It involves being mindful of the value of life and being able to assess experiences and relationships in the proper perspective.

Robert Fulghum wrote about the time, just out of college, when he worked at a resort in northern California. The job was a combination of night desk clerk in the lodge and helping out with the horse-wrangling at the stables. The owner was Italian-Swiss with European notions about conditions of employment. Fulghum regarded the owner as a fascist who wanted peasant employees, and the owner considered Fulghum a good example of how democracy could be carried too far.

One week the employees had been served the same thing for lunch every single day. Two wieners, a mound of sauerkraut, and stale rolls. And the cost of the meals was deducted from their check. Well, Fulghum was outraged. One night he unloaded on the night auditor, Sigmund Wollman. Fulghum went on and on about how he was tired of it.  Fulghum says to Sigmund Wollman: “I am sick and tired of this crap and insulted and nobody is going to make me eat wieners and sauerkraut for a whole week and make me pay for it, and who does he think he is anyhow, and how can life be sustained on wieners and sauerkraut, and this is un-American, and I don’t like wieners and sauerkraut enough to eat it one day for God’s sake, and the whole hotel stinks anyhow, and the horses are all nags and the guests are all idiots and I’m packing my bags and heading for Montana where they never even heard of wieners and sauerkraut and wouldn’t feed that stuff to pigs.”

Fulghum raved on for twenty minutes or so. As Fulghum pitched his fit, Sigmund Wollman sat quietly on his stool,  watching him with sorrowful eyes. Wollman had good reason to be sorrowful. He was a three year survivor of Auschwitz. A German Jew. He liked his night job, liked being alone, gave him space and quiet. In the death camp he dreamed of such a time.

He let Fulghum wind down and then he said: “Fulghum, you think you know everything, but you don’t know the difference between an inconvenience and a problem. If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire—then you got a problem. Everything else is inconvenience. Life is inconvenient. Life is lumpy. Learn to separate the inconveniences from the real problems. You will live longer. And will not annoy people like me so much.” And then in a gesture that combined dismissal and blessing he waved Fulghum off to bed. “Good night,” Fulghum. Fulghum says that Wollman simultaneously kicked his butt and opened a window in his mind. And you know sisters and brothers, that’s really the key to developing the habit of gratitude, or for that matter, any kind of spiritual growth – opening a window in the mind. A window that let’s new light in, new grace, new perspective, new understanding in.

This is all part of living wisely. The biblical writer says, “Be careful how you live, not as unwise people do, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.” There is plenty of injustice, corruption, and evil in the world. But that’s no excuse for not being grateful. If we, God’s sons and daughters, are to become what we already are, if we are to live into our identity and calling as God’s children, then we must do whatever it takes to nurture a spirit of gratitude in our lives.

Maya Angelou put it this way: “If you must look back, do so forgivingly. If you must look forward, do so prayerfully. However the wisest thing you can do is be present in the present . . . gratefully.    

There is a wonderful story about a monk who was away from the monastery in a desolate place where a hungry tiger took notice of him walking along the path. The monk spotted the tiger in the distance and could tell he was in danger so he began to run. He found himself at the edge of a cliff with the tiger not far behind. He could see a rope dangling from the side that someone had used to shimmy down the side, so he leaped over the edge and latched hold of the rope just as the tiger’s ferocious claws whipped past his face. As he started to make his way down, he soon discovered that the rope only went about half way and at the bottom lay a quarry with large, jagged rocks. As he hung there suspended between the tiger above and the sharp rocks below he observed two mice about ten feet above him nibbling at the rope. Just then as he turned to his side he spotted directly in front of him the largest, most beautiful strawberry he had ever seen. He plucked it, turned it around slowly in his hand admiring it, he lifted it gently to his nose taking in the aroma, then he lifted it bit into it, savoring its sweet taste. He remarked to himself, “Undoubtedly this is the best strawberry I have ever tasted.” And he gave thanks to God for that special blessing.

How many of us would be able to enjoy and be grateful for the strawberry? Maybe that’s what being filled with the Sprit looks like. The wisest thing we can do is live joyfully and gratefully in the here and now.  

Good God, help us to forget and forgive the past. And not to worry and be anxious over what’s ahead. Help us to open a window in our mind and heart, so the Spirit can shape our perspective. Give us grace to see the grace in life, to see all life as a gift, and to be grateful in this present moment. In the name of Christ I pray. Amen.