Sunday, January 13, 2019

What does it mean to be baptized in the Holy Spirit? (A sermon from Luke 3:15-17, 21-22)

John, the Baptizer drew people from the villages and towns out into the desert to hear his message and to be baptized. As he baptized people he pointed them to Jesus, who would come after him, whom he said would baptize them in the Holy Spirit. What does a baptism in the Spirit of Christ look like or feel like? What does it involve?  

Luke describes John’s baptism in v. 3 as “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” It seems to be that any baptism that represents in some way a new beginning or chapter in our lives must include repentance and forgiveness. I think it is often assumed that forgiveness of sins is the receiving of forgiveness from God, but the text doesn’t specifically say that. In reality, forgiveness is never just a one-way street. If you look at the teachings of Jesus regarding forgiveness in the Gospels Jesus inseparably connects receiving forgiveness with extending forgiveness. The model prayer makes this connection clear. We pray, “forgive us our trespasses (or sins) as we forgive those who have trespassed (or sinned) against us.” The kind of repentance that leads to forgiveness is not just about confessing our sins to God and enjoying God’s forgiveness, it’s equally about changing our attitude and posture toward others within a forgiving framework. It’s just as much about acknowledging to others the hurt and offense we have caused them as it is confessing our sins to God. It’s just as much about letting go of grudges and resentments we have harbored against others, as it is about admitting these things to God. Forgiveness is never just about God forgiving us, it’s just as much about our forgiving others and our seeking forgiveness from others.   

At the heart of any baptism or immersion in the Spirit is the experience of sharing and receiving forgiveness. Forgiveness opens the door to new spiritual experiences. It can lead us into a deeper relationship with the God who indwells us and who equally dwells in everyone else. Because God’s Spirit resides in every human being, every new beginning with another person is always a new beginning with God. A relationship with God is always tied to our relationships with others. There is no such thing as loving God without loving others. We open ourselves to a new beginning with God when we find the courage and honesty and humility to forgive those who have hurt us and seek forgiveness from those we have hurt. We open ourselves up to spiritual renewal, to an immersion in God’s Spirit when we acknowledge and let go past hurts and grudges that we have harbored against others. The giving and receiving of forgiveness is at the heart of any immersion or baptism in God’s Spirit.

The text says that the one coming after John will baptize with or in the Spirit and with or in fire. The fire is “unquenchable” and will burn up the chaff, but leave the wheat. I believe that we totally misapply this text if we make the wheat and the chaff different groups of people, and if we make the fire, the fire of God’s wrath. The fire cannot be the fire of divine anger or judgment, because the fire is unquenchable. God’s wrath or judgment is not “unquenchable.” The fire of God’s judgment is momentary, temporary, and instrumental. It’s purpose is to correct and purify.

Abraham Heschel was a scholar of the Hebrew Bible and a Jewish mystic. He spoke as if he knew God intimately, and I have no doubt that he did. He points out in his classic work on the Prophets that the dominant purpose of God’s anger in the prophets and in the psalms is to bring about the repentance of God’s people. There is no divine anger for anger’s sake. It’s a temporary state. Isaiah declares, “In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, But with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer” (Isa. 54:8). The Psalmist bids us give thanks to God, “For his anger is but for a moment; his favor (steadfast, faithful love) is for a lifetime.” Heschel points out that the secret of God’s anger is God’s care. There is nothing greater than the certainty of God’s care. Isaiah speaking on behalf of all God’s people says, “For though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me. Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and will not be afraid, for the Lord is my strength and my might . . .” (12:1b-2). Whatever the symbolism of hell points to (and it is a symbol, it’s not something that is literal), it’s only temporary. It’s not forever. Only God’s love that binds us to God and from which no power in heaven or on earth can sever is eternal. Whatever hell is or may be, it is not eternal.

So the unquenchable fire that burns up the chaff is not the wrath of God, but the love of God. God’s anger is ultimately consumed by God’s love so that when the prodigal son or daughter comes home, he or she does not come home to a wrathful judge, but to a loving Father or Mother. Isn’t that what the parable Jesus told about the prodigal teaches. The prodigal comes home to a loving embrace. The fire of God’s loves consumes the chaff – the greed, egotism, the malice, the untruths, the pride, the lust for power, anything and everything that emerges out of the false self. It’s the false self that produces these destructive vices, because this is not who we really are. What the Spirit says to Jesus after he is baptized by John is what we will hear the Spirit say to us when we are baptized or immersed in the Spirit, namely, “You are God’s beloved daughter or son.” That’s who we really are. We just need to claim it, trust it, and live so that we become who we already are.

The late Fred Craddock tells about the time he ministered in a little community in southwest Oklahoma. There were four churches in that small community: a Methodist church, a Baptist church, a Nazarene church, and a disciples of Christ Christian church. Each had its share of the population, and generally attendance rose and fell according to the weather and whether it was time to harvest wheat.

The best and most consistent attendance in town, however, was not at the churches, but at the little café where all the pickup trucks were parked and where all the men gathered inside discussing the weather, their cattle, what kind of crop they were going to have, while their wives and children were in one of the four churches. The attendance of the churches wavered, up and down as church attendance goes, but the café consistently had good attendance every week.

Once in a while, says Fred, the café would lose one of their members because the wife or the kids finally got to him, and off he would go kind of sheepishly to one of the churches. But the men who gathered in the café on Sundays felt they were the largest and strongest group in town. These were not bad men, says Fred, they were mostly family men and hard working men, but did not see a need for the church.

The patron saint of the group at the café was Frank. Frank was 77 years old when Fred first met him. He was a farmer and a cattleman. He had been born in a sod house, and he had prospered. He was a real pioneer and with his credentials he was considered the patron saint of the café. One day Fred met Frank on the street. Fred had no intention of trying to convert him, but Frank put up his guard and took a shot at Fred anyway. Frank said, “I work hard and I take care of my family and I mind my own business.” He told Fred that as far as he was concerned, everything else was fluff. He was basically saying, “I’m not a prospect for your church, so don’t’ bother me. Leave me alone. I mind my business, you mind yours.”

So Fred left him alone, and didn’t bother him. But then one Sunday, Frank surprised everyone, especially the men at the café, when at 77 years of age he presented himself at the Christian church where Fred was serving for baptism. Some in the community thought Frank must have been sick, must have received a really bad health report and got scarred. Why else would old Frank join the church?  

So Fred asked him, “Frank, do you remember that little saying you use to give me, to keep us ministers off your back. You know, the one where you said, ‘I work hard, I take care of my family, and I mind my own business.’” He said, “Yea. I remember. I said that a lot.” Fred asked, “Do you still say that?” He said, “Yea, I guess I do still say that.” Fred asked, “Then what’s the difference now?” He said, “Brother Fred, I didn’t know then what my business was.” At 77 years of age Frank finally discovered what his business was.

Do we know what our business is? What is our business as God’s daughters and sons in the world? It’s pretty simple really. It is to love God and love others. In fact, the only way we can truly love God is by loving others, who are also the daughters and sons of God even if they don’t know it or live like it. When we love others we are loving God, because we are all one in the Spirit of Christ. Our business is to love each other because we all belong. Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Jesus of Nazareth embodied this unifying love in his teachings about loving others, and in his ministry to the sick and identification with the poor and the downtrodden, and in his common practice of inviting all to the meal table of fellowship. The man Jesus embodied love for others. As Christians, he is our definitive expression of what it means and looks like to love others. And, the living Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ makes this known to our hearts when we open our lives to God’s love and become immersed in Christ’s Spirit.

God’s Spirit is the Spirit of Love. Paul said that “the fruit of the Spirit is love,” then what follows, all the other virtues and qualities listed after that are but expressions of love. Love is the ultimate virtue, greater even than faith and hope, says Paul in his ode to love in 1 Corinthians 13. “Above all,” says Paul, “put on love, which binds everything else together.” This is what baptism in the Spirit is about.

To be led by the Spirit is to move from places and positions of exclusion to an ever growing and widening inclusion. Jesus even instructed his followers to love their enemies. The Spirit moves us from a position of limited blessing to a place of universal blessing, for we realize that it’s not just us – our family, our church, our group, our nation – who are blessed, but we are all blessed, because we are all one people in Christ Jesus.

Paul was so passionate about this that he wanted to establish local “in Christ” communities, local churches that would express to the world this oneness so others could see through the windows of these “in Christ” communities what the kin-dom of God is all about. Paul must have been so hugely disappointed numerous times when the communities he formed had such trouble and difficulty and faced so many problems in living out their oneness. And that, of course, continues to be the challenge isn’t it? And it is a great challenge, an immense challenge facing us today because fear and divisiveness and scapegoating and exclusion are being preached in the halls of power. And a good many Christians today have decided to abandon the gospel of peace and love, and follow this non-gospel, this false gospel of safety and security by means of exclusion and seclusion.

When we are immersed in the Holy Spirit, we know what our business is. We know that we are not the only ones beloved of God, and we know God wants us to build bridges, open doors, tear down walls, invite all to the table, and share God’s unquenchable, eternal, steadfast love with everyone using every opportunity we have.

Our most loving Lord, give us eyes to see what is clearly our greatest purpose and calling as your children in the world. Help us to see that nothing competes with the calling to love others with your love. As we open our lives to you, inspire us and empower us to walk in your love. May your Spirit so fill us that our souls and bodies might become a wellspring from which your love endlessly flows out to refresh thirsty souls. Amen.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

When Christmas is Over it’s Over (A sermon from Matthew 2:1- 18)

I was sitting in my office working on this sermon with my door open, which is my policy. Jim and Betty show up as part of the team taking down all the Advent symbols and decorations. Jim yanked down my Christmas wreath on the door and said jokingly, or maybe not, “Christmas is over, get used to it.” I suppose nothing is as over as Christmas when it is over. We sing on Christmas "Oh little town of Bethlehem / How still we see thee lie" but we don't have any songs for what happens next in Matthew’s Gospel. It's not still anymore.

Matthew couples together the visit of the magi with King Herod’s wrath. In Matthew’s portrayal of the gospel’s beginnings, the joyful news heralded by the angel is now replaced by the loud weeping of the parents whose babies are killed in the wake of King Herod's rage. Matthew's Christmas pageant ends not with tinsel covered angels proclaiming peace on earth and goodwill toward all, nor with magi bringing gifts from afar, but with Rachel weeping for her slaughtered babies. 

The days after Christmas return us to the real world - a world where there is danger and risk and hurt and evil, a world where children die senselessly, a world where parents like those in Bethlehem live in fear and oppression, a world that sometimes erupts in holocaust and genocide. This is why the capacity to live without fear has nothing to do with our ability to prevent bad things from happening.

Matthew tells us that what took place in Bethlehem “fulfilled” what Jeremiah had prophesied about Rachel weeping for her children. Two other times (three in all) in this part of the story Matthew speaks of that which he writes as having “fulfilled” scripture. Matthew says that when Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus become refugees in Egypt they “fulfilled” the scripture that says, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” And then, at the end of the final scene when the holy family returns from Egypt they “fulfilled” the scripture that says, “He will be called a Nazorean.” Clearly, what Matthew means when he talks about the scripture being “fulfilled” is not what we usually mean when we use the word today. Matthew is NOT saying that God planned all of this to happen, rather, he is simply following a common Jewish practice of reading ancient texts in contemporary ways to show that the story of Jesus parallels and in some sense completes the story of Israel. Matthew is telling us that there is connection and continuity in the story of Israel and the story of Jesus. He is telling us that the God who was engaged in the life of Israel is engaged in the life of Jesus to bring redemption and hope to our world, and no amount of evil will change God’s mind when it comes to the redemption of God’s creation. Perhaps if we would spend some time reflecting we might find connections to our own personal and communal stories, because the Christ is engaged in our lives as well, whether we know it or not. Matthew reminds us that even when evil people do evil things and terrible tragedy results, God is not taken by surprise and in fact, God is still at work in and through the evil and suffering to bring healing and liberation to the world. No matter how bad things get God never gives up on any of us, and that is true for the oppressor as well as for the oppressed.

This part of the story gets real messy, but Matthew wants us to know that none of this is outside God’s engagement. While certainly this is not what God wills for the world, God is involved. Now, exactly how God is involved in all of this has been the subject of much discussion over the years, and some explanations are simply ridiculous, because they betray the character of God. Several years ago after the horrendous earthquake in Haiti where tens of thousands of people were killed and hundreds of thousands were left without food, shelter, and running water Pat Robertson of the 700 club proclaimed that the people of Haiti had made a pact with the Devil and brought this on themselves. Some Christian leaders say such crazy things.

When it comes to life’s tragedies and the magnitude of evil in the world, I do not find any consolation or hope in theological explanations that attempt to answer questions of “Why?” I spent a major portion of a doctrinal seminar struggling with this issue, and after a time of intense study and discussion I realized no explanation is without problems. There is no answer. No response resolves all the questions and tensions. It was then, I think, that I consciously decided such questions are largely a waste of time. But you see, and this is really important, I had to ask “Why?” and enter the struggle, before I could ever move on to a place where I didn’t need to ask “Why?” anymore. I had to struggle with the question before I could let go of the question.

There are some folks who would like to think that some of us are exceptions, that God gives some of us special provision or protection that God doesn’t give to others – because we have the right faith, or are born into the right family or country – that somehow we are exempt. But that is not true. The gospel does not enclose us in a safety bubble. We are not immune to random acts of violence or to common human suffering.

I used to express my gratitude for my situation in life by saying something like “I feel so blessed,” and I still use that expression sometimes, but I am very cautious and sensitive as to when I say it or how I use it, because I know there are those going through some really difficult times who do not feel so blessed.  So now I often say something like, “I feel so grateful” or “I feel fortunate or very lucky.”  I feel so blessed” could be understood to mean that others are not so blessed. I suspect that many who have used that expression don’t mean it that way, but that’s how it could very easily be understood. I don’t believe God favors some people over others, or blesses some people and not others, though God may have different assignments for us to do. Jesus could have only one mother who gave birth to him, right?

Sophie, our oldest granddaughter, who is now 8, liked for me to read her the story “Going on a Bear Hunt” when she was 3 or 4. I discovered that there are any number of versions of the story in print and on YouTube, but the basic storyline is, of course, the same in all versions. Whatever the challenge, whether it is a forest or muddy swamp or snow storm, there is no going over it, no going under it, and no going around it, you have to go through it. In a lot of ways it is a great story that prepares kids for the struggles and hardships of life that inevitably come our way.  

There are some things we simply have to go through before we know and can see.  Maybe the symbolism of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the creation story is actually a blessing in disguise. One can’t really know either good or evil until one experiences good and evil.  Author and spiritual teacher Joan Chittister says, “There is no way to comprehend how to go through grief other than by going through it. There is no way to practice foregoing a hot rage that comes with feeling ignored or dismissed . . . There is no way to plan for the sense of abandonment you feel in a society that thinks differently from you; because your child is gay, maybe, or because you’re a woman and so automatically considered deficient for the work, perhaps, or because you’re not white in a white world, or because the person you thought was an eternal friend abandoned you.” She says, “Those things we need to figure out for ourselves, one situation at a time.”  In other words, the only way we can fully know them is by experiencing them and going through them ourselves.

Some of the pain we experience in life never goes away. A minister, writing in Christian Century, tells about the first time her mother visited in the church where she is the pastor. During the passing of the peace, what we would call the welcome, a woman, who realized that she was greeting the pastor’s mother, asked, “Just how many children do you have?” “Six,” her mother responded. Then she corrected herself. “Well, five who are living.” Then, as she turned to greet the next person her eyes filled with tears. Her firstborn had drowned more than 50 years ago when he was a small child. Even though that was so very long ago, that loss was still so very raw and real, that the most benign of questions could cause her to relive it at random moments – like during the passing of the peace at her daughter’s church. There are some tragedies and some losses we never get over. We learn to cope and get through, but we never get over them. Some pieces of our lives gets shattered and there is no fixing them. We simply have to learn how to do the best we can with the pieces that still work.

Now, the irony and paradox here is that from a spiritual perspective the one who hasn’t had to face in any real hardships or pain in life is at a disadvantage. This is part of the reason why Jesus says such strange things like, “Blessed are the poor,” or “Blessed are those who mourn,” or “Blessed are those  who are persecuted for righteousness sake.” It’s a different way of seeing.

One might think that there could be nothing worse than having to deal with too many problems and too many trials in life, and certainly, we can feel overwhelmed when the problems and sufferings of life fall upon us like raindrops. However, if we have eyes to see, we might realize that while having too many problems is a problem, it is a greater problem when we have so few problems in life that we come to feel entitled and never think of asking “Why?”

At this stage in my spiritual pilgrimage it is enough for me to know that God is with us in our suffering and that God suffers with us in our suffering – that our suffering somehow impacts and influences and affects God. Knowing that, I know enough. That’s part of what incarnation is about. That’s what “Emmanuel, God with us” is about. If we search our hearts deeply, if we listen intently to the Divine Voice, I believe that our hearts and spirits can intuitively grasp and know that wherever suffering is, that’s where God is (that’s where the Spirit is, that’s where the living Christ is). I’m convinced of two things. Wherever love is, God is, and wherever suffering is God is. Even though it may “seem” or “feel” like God is far away.

In the suffering at Bethlehem we see a prelude to events that take place a little later up the road at a place called Calvary, where the one called the King of the Jews bears the wrath of the powers that be. In the events that lead up to and culminate on Good Friday, once again, as at Bethlehem, violence and bloodshed and weeping break forth, but this time, Jesus does not escape. Jesus bears it all.

We need to understand, sisters and brothers, that the gospel of Jesus is not a gospel about worldly power and control and material success. The prosperity preachers have it all wrong. The symbol for our faith is not a scepter or a throne or a mansion is it? It is a cross – the very means used for Roman execution. The cross is a symbol of humiliation and rejection and defeat. It expresses vulnerability and weakness. And yet, this is the transforming symbol of our faith and the way to new life. There is no resurrection without death. As Paul so beautifully puts it in his first letter to the Corinthians, the wisdom and power of the cross constitute the wisdom and power of God for salvation. The wisdom of the cross is the wisdom of love and the power of the cross is the power of suffering. It takes both love and suffering to conform us to the likeness of Christ. The cross represents and symbolizes how far God is willing to go to show us the way through, which does not come by means of physical force or violence, but by means of endurance, forgiveness, and grace. Salvation is deliverance through our suffering, not from our suffering. This is even true of our sin. Salvation is not deliverance from our sin, but through our sin to a place of healing and liberation. / Today is Epiphany Sunday, and just maybe our greatest revelations come to us when we are living in the darkness.

Oh God, may we know in the core of our being that you suffer with us when we suffer. Help us to realize that you are not way out there, but right here – among us, with us, in us, absorbing it all. Help us to see that while you do not offer us answers, you give us your presence. And may we know, too, that the way through has been traveled already by Jesus, whose cross is always a reminder of and a witness to your great suffering love for each one of us.   

Sunday, December 30, 2018

An Evolving Faith (A sermon from Luke 2:41-52)

As far as my memories go back I remember being in the church house on Sundays. It did not always go well for me on Sundays. I can vaguely remember one Sunday when my parents and my best friend’s parents let us sit together during Sunday worship by ourselves. We decided to take the foil wrapper of a piece of chewing gum and make a little paper football. We had a whole side pew to ourselves so Keith slid over to one side and I to the other. We made goal posts with our hands and thumbs and kicked field goals. One of my kicks deviated from its intended path and landed inside a curl of the lady sitting in the pew directly in front of us. She was hard of hearing so we didn’t worry too much, but Keith got tickled and I got tickled, enough that our parents took note. Well, that was the last time we got to sit together for a very long time. I also remember as a kid sitting in worship as the preacher seemed to drone on and on thinking, “What person in their right mind would want to do this every Sunday – how awful.” Well, God works in mysterious ways.

Over the years my faith has evolved and changed. But I have no doubt that what I learned and what I was taught and the faith practices I participated in, even when I didn’t want to and when my mind was in some other place, nevertheless have had an impact on my faith formation. Clearly there are elements of my childhood faith I no longer believe, but please understand, I am very grateful for being brought up in the church.  

Jesus is brought up in the church, that is, the synagogue. Jesus is raised in the Jewish faith and is required by his parents to participate in the rituals and practices of Judaism. Jesus is carried into the temple before he can even walk. His parents are observant Jews who strive to do all that they believe is expected of them. On the eighth day they bring the infant Jesus to the temple to be circumcised and then less than a month later they consecrate him to the Lord in the temple.

So Jesus is brought up in the Jewish tradition and is faithful to the Jewish tradition. When Luke sets forth Jesus’s agenda by telling how he read from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue at Nazareth, Luke begins that segment by saying that Jesus “when he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom.” Luke is telling us that Jesus was faithful to his religious tradition.   

In our text today we see Jesus as a boy who is becoming a man questioning and discussing religious matters with the teachers of the Torah. In those days the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem was made by extended families and friends who traveled together in a caravan, so his parents would not have thought much about not seeing Jesus on the day’s journey. But then, when Jesus doesn’t show up that evening they get worried, and soon realize Jesus is not in the caravan. They find their son three days later in the temple discussing and debating with the teachers of the Law. When Jesus is rebuked by his parents as he should have been, Jesus responds with his own rebuke, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Only Luke has this story, and scholars wonder where it came from. Was this part of the oral tradition handed down to Luke, or did Luke come up with this on his own. Who knows? Personally, I think Luke tells this story here to show that even before Jesus fully entered adult life, he was passionate about the teachings and traditions of his faith.

But that’s not all of it by any means. There is an edginess and radicalness to Jesus portrayed here, that is a foreshadowing of things to come. In this story Jesus shows no concern about his parent’s anxiety over his well-being. It’s not even on his radar. So when his parents rebuke him for being irresponsible (and he certainly was being irresponsible) and for creating this situation he dismisses them and says, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” with an emphasis on “must.” What would you say to a teenage son or daughter who says that to you, after you spent three days trying to find him or her? I know what I would say and what I would do and it wouldn’t be pleasant.

Let’s think for a moment what Luke may be trying to say by telling this story. Luke seems to be suggesting that Jesus’ passion for God and God’s will emerged out of his own personal experience of God. He calls God “my Father.” Well, God was looked upon as father by the Jews, but generally this was more of a formal kind of relationship grounded in a theology of covenant. The Jews looked to God as the God who had entered into covenant with them and so was the father of the Jewish people. Jesus, however, speaks of God on a more personal level. Jesus uses the Aramaic term “Abba” to speak of God and pray to God, which was an expression that little children used to speak to their fathers. It was a word that reflected the intimate, personal experience between a child and loving parents. Keep in mind, too, this was a patriarchal culture where the divine-human associations “Abba” implies could just as easily be applied to mother. The point here is that Jesus claimed a personal experience and relationship with the God who entered into covenant with Israel. It is Jesus’ experience of God as “Abba,” as loving father and mother that ignites his work and ministry. It is his personal experience of God that compels him to confront and challenge some of the narrowness and injustices he found in his religious faith and traditions. This is why he frequently provokes his fellow Jews, especially the religious leaders. Here, his provocation of his parents anticipates what is to come.

Right out of the box in Luke 4 Jesus confronts the elitism and exceptionalism and favoritism and nationalism that pervaded the Judaism of his day. We face a similar context today in our culture. I don’t think the nationalism and favoritism and prejudice are as pervasive in our culture today as it was in Jesus’ culture, or even in American culture prior to the civil rights movement, but these negatives forces are certainly present, especially in the halls of power. When Jesus is teaching in his hometown he makes a case from their own Scriptures (the Hebrew Bible) that God does not show favoritism and sometimes chooses non-believers, non-Jews to do God’s will. It’s a fascinating story. At the beginning the people are praising the gracious words coming out of his mouth. However, by the time he finishes Luke says the people are in a rage trying to hurl him off a cliff.
Again, we face similar opposition on this front today in Christianity that Jesus faced in Judaism. It’s not all that different. Most Christians think they are the only ones on God’s side and the only ones God saves. I know because I use to be one of those Christians. They think you have to be a Christian to know God or experience God’s grace. They think God’s healing, redeeming grace is exclusive to Christians. That’s what I was taught and what I believed for a number of years, and I suspect many of you did too. Sisters and brothers, we don’t need to covert the world to Christianity, we need to covert the world to the experience of and embodiment of the love of God. If this comes through Christianity, great. If it doesn’t, that’s okay too. Of course, this kind of conversion has to begin in us. Too many Christians are running around trying to convert others, who themselves need converted. Actually we all do, every day. There are many days I need a fresh conversion and commitment to a lifestyle of God’s love. So when you think about it, we face a situation today in Christianity that was not much different than what Jesus faced in the Judaism of his day and what Jesus confronted in his hometown synagogue.

I think any Christian who questions the things that Jesus questioned will face some degree of opposition. Hopefully, they won’t try to hurl us off a cliff like they did Jesus. I shared once before the opposition I felt when I preached at a Southern Baptist associational meeting. You might be thinking: Why did you do that for anyway? Well, I was asked. For many years our church has supported Jack and Wilma Simmons, who are Southern Baptists, in their work at West Point, Kentucky. Even though today we have no connections at all with the SBC we have continued to support their work in that poor community, which I think has been a good thing. We can certainly help people who may have some different beliefs than we do can’t we? Of course we can. One time after we had conducted a free fair in West Point Wilma asked me if I would preach at their annual meeting. I tossed this around in my head and concluded, wrongly, that if she really didn’t know how progressive I am and what I believe, then most likely no one else in her association did either. So I decided to go ahead and preach something safe, rather than try to explain to her why it might not be a good idea for me to speak at their Southern Baptist associational meeting. Well, apparently the pastors and leaders in that association did know something about me. What I felt in that church on that particular evening was unlike anything I have felt before. I have had people oppose me before and disagree with me and get angry with me, as I am sure I will again, but nothing like what I felt that evening. When I got up to speak the intensity of the opposition I felt in that building at that moment was almost palpable. It was like a fog in the air – unlike anything I had experienced before or have experienced sense. I really believe that anyone who tries to reform his or her faith will face something similar to that from time to time.

Whenever I talk to people who are ready to abandon their Christianity because of the hypocrisy they see in the church, or because of the teaching and doctrine they can no longer intellectually accept and believe, I try to convince them to not leave their faith, but rather, to dive deeper into it, which is what Jesus does within the Judaism of his day. Jesus never abandons Judaism. He goes deeper into it, beyond the misuses of it and the superficialities, and becomes passionate about reforming it. And as you would expect, he faces some stiff opposition. Jesus is pushed to the edge of Judaism by the religious establishment, but Jesus sticks with it, even though his critique and prophetic voice eventually gets him killed. It’s the Jewish leaders who conspire with the Roman authorities and persuade Pilate to execute him.

This little glimpse into the life of Jesus as a young man captures some of the passion and edginess of Jesus that we see displayed over and over again in the Gospels, and in particular, the Gospel of Luke. Jesus tells one would-be follower who was busy making arrangements for his father’s funeral to abandon his plans and join him. He says to him, “let the dead bury the dead, you come and follow me.” That’s on the edge however you slice and dice it exegetically and theologically. Who would say that to a man or woman preparing for the funeral of a loved one?

In Luke 14:26 Jesus turns to the crowd and says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Now, clearly, we would all concede I think that Jesus is employing hyperbole as he often does. Jesus often inserts shocking elements into his teaching and stories to grab people’s attention, but still, this is pretty radical isn’t it? You have to hate your loved ones to be my disciple.

I don’t think we are all called to go about the Lord’s business the same way Jesus did. Those who do, often end up dead like Jesus. But on the other hand, God, I believe, expects all of us who claim to be followers of Jesus to speak up and stand up for what is true and right and just and good. And that will take some courage. We don’t have to be a Martin Luther King Jr, or a Romero or a Ghandi, but God expects us to do justice, practice mercy, and walk in humility. And if you do that, you are going to get into some trouble from time to time. It is inevitable. If your faith has never got you into trouble with anyone, then, in all likelihood, you are not taking it seriously enough, or maybe you are too much a product of group think. That was my problem. I took my faith seriously as a young man, but I didn’t know how to think for myself, and maybe also, I was too afraid to challenge the group.

Jesus didn’t come to his sense of calling and his understanding of God all at once. He grew into it, according to Luke. Luke says, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom and the favor of God was upon him.” Like Jesus we must question and grow and not be afraid to challenge the status quo or the teachings of our tradition when it becomes clear to us that our traditions and practices are doing more harm than good. And we do that best not by abandoning our religious faith, but by moving deeper into it.

Faith is not and will never be something that is static. As life is constantly evolving so must our faith be evolving. I hope for each of us this coming year that we will make some progress – that our faith will grow and be ever expanding. In his letter to the Galatians Paul says, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision or uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (5:6). The only thing that counts is faithfulness to the way of Jesus that is expressed through our love for others. Our beliefs, our traditions, our rituals, and our common practices of profession of faith, baptism, and Communion, count for nothing, unless they inspire us and lead us to be more loving persons. What we need today is an evolving faith that translates into an evolving love – a love that is more inclusive and expansive, a love that is more welcoming, accepting, forgiving, and affirming, a love that mirrors the love of Christ.  

Lord, help us to realize that a living faith is always growing and a dynamic faith is always evolving, and sometimes, may even have an edginess to it the way Jesus’ did, because if it is authentic faith then it will always empower us to be more loving persons, and love always stands for and speaks up for what is good and right. Help us to have the courage to question, and go deeper into our faith in ways that inspire us and empower us to be more inclusive and affirming, to be more caring and compassionate, and to be more passionate about what is just and right and good. In the name of Christ, I pray. Amen.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

A Vision of Love (a sermon from Luke 1:39-55)

Elizabeth says of Mary, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” The mention of “fulfillment” anticipates a new kind of world. It looks forward to the time when the kingdom of God pervades the world fully or completely, when the will of God is actually done on earth as it is in heaven. As some theologians like to point out the kingdom of God is now, but not yet. It’s here, and always has been here, but not fully, though in Jesus it has come to us in a definitive way. The kingdom of God, like our own souls, is in the process of becoming. And it takes a lot of faith and hope and courage to trust that it will come in fullness, especially after you watch the evening news. Because there is still so much fear and hate and prejudice and greed and evil and injustice in the world, and even in our own souls.

Mary, of course, has a major role to play. She carries the one in her womb who will show the world what the kingdom of God looks like lived out in human flesh. She gives birth to Jesus, cares for him as an infant and teaches him as a child. Think of the calling given to Mary and Joseph. They taught Jesus right from wrong, they grounded him in the best of the Jewish scriptures and traditions, and when he went astray as all children do they corrected him. A major factor in Jesus becoming the person he became was the guidance and loving nurture of Mary and Joseph. All of us know how important it is to receive love and good instruction in those early formative years don’t we? Mary and Joseph did that.  

The song of praise by Mary that follows the greeting by Elizabeth is a litany that scholars believe was recited, sung, or chanted in the early Jewish Christian communities. It seems to have been composed based on the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2. It proclaims a message that is an important theme in Luke’s Gospel, namely, the kingdom of God will turn the kingdoms of the world upside down. The first will be last and the last will be first. The kingdoms of the world take pride in power and position and wealth. Not so in God’s realm.

Mary begins by rejoicing in God her Savior and the Savior of all who “fear” God, that is, all who reverence God and reverence the values and ways of God, which are the values and ways of mercy and justice. Then, the song celebrates how the proud will be scattered, the powerful brought down from their thrones, and the rich sent away empty. But the hungry will be filled with good things, and the lowly will be lifted up. Why does God scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, and send the rich away empty? I suspect it’s because they, unlike Mary, see no need for a Savior. They have everything they need – so they think. They are in control – so they think. Some people think faith is the entry point, the starting point. It’s not. The entry point into participation in the kingdom of God is humility. Faith that is not born out of humility is not faith. We cannot be faithful to the values and ways of God’s love in the world if we are proud and arrogant and think of ourselves as better than others and like to lord it over others. There’s no place in God’s new world for that sort of thing.

We all need God as Savior, though God doesn’t do the work of salvation alone. Jesus called disciples and sends them out to do the very works of salvation he was doing. Jesus models what God wants for all of us. The way we love God is by loving others. The invitation to trust in God as Savior is an invitation to be participants in God’s salvation.

One of the themes we sometimes highlight during the Advent season is the need to patiently wait for Christ’s coming – into our lives in new and fresh ways, and for the time of fulfillment. But make no mistake sisters and brothers, we do not wait in idleness. While we wait, we are to be busy praying, serving, and loving the world with the love of Christ. We don’t just dream of a world made whole, we are called to participate in making the world whole. That’s how God works. From the time of the Big Bang or whatever set the whole creative, evolutionary process in motion, that’s how it has always been. We are not pawns waiting to be moved, we are movers, players, and participants in the unfolding story of God’s loving relationship with humanity and all creation.

At times this can be a lot to bear, but there is no escaping it. To trust God as Savior is to heed God’s call to be God’s agents in the healing and liberation of the world. I have to admit it was a lot easier when I believed that Jesus would come back one day and take care of everything in one colossal move. I believed, and many Christians still believe, that in giant swoop Christ is going to make everything better. Paul and many of the early Christians seem to have believed this in the early stages of the Jesus movement. In Paul’s earliest letters he seems to think this could happen just any day. In his first letter to the Thessalonians he even suggests that he will be alive when this happens. We are left with a similar impression in his correspondence with the church at Corinth. But by the time we get to the final letters of Paul, Ephesians and Colossians, if Paul did indeed write those letters, he seems to have changed his tune a bit and also seems to imply that the body of Christ in the world will be instrumental in this process of gathering up all things in Christ. As much as I may wish it wasn’t so, I’m pretty much convinced at this stage in my spiritual journey that if this world is going to ever be made right, then a lot of us are going to have to learn how to be better conduits of God’s ‘Spirit, through whom God’s love can flow out into the world.  

If the prophetic vision of a transformed world is to ever become a reality, if God’s kingdom is to come on earth, then our kingdoms have to go. One way or another our kingdoms have to go. Our pride has to go, and we must allow the Spirit to grow roots of humility that sink deep into our hearts and lives. Our lust for position and power and prestige have to go, so the Spirit can nurture within us a love of neighbor and a passion for service. Our love of money and possessions have to go, and we must trust the Christ to ignite and foster a spirit of generosity in our lives and churches that is expressed in the way we use our material and immaterial resources to help others and serve God’s cause in the world.

In 1991 Dr. Wayne Ward, who taught theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary back when it was still a credible institution, shared a story in a sermon he preached at Walnut Street Baptist Church in Louisville. I was doing a Doctoral seminar there at the time and somehow got hold of a copy of the sermon. In the sermon he shared this story. In the summer after his high school graduation his high school track coach who was Superintendent of Education in Northeast Arkansas entered his summer class at Arkansas State College with an urgent plea. He said, “We have got an emergency situation. Hundreds of little children in Black River Bottom and in the hills of Crowley’s Ridge in the Lemons School District have no one to teach them. The pay is low. Will you help us?” There was a long silence. Finally, Wayne Ward spoke up, “Coach, I’ll go.” He passed the test that gave him an emergency teaching certificate and off he went to Hickoria School in Black River Bottom.

Wayne Ward fell in love with the mostly poor, ragged, and usually dirty kids that made up his class. They looked to him with yearning eyes to learn and they soaked up his teaching like a sponge. The little boy that touched him most was “Eggie Eggenspieler—the most deprived child in the class. He wore the same patched bib overalls and same tattered shirt everyday. Mr. Ward would set him by the “pot-bellied stove” to dry out as he began class. He was so skinny he was concerned about Eggie having enough to eat. One day Mr. Ward slipped into the cloakroom and opened his little molasses bucket lunch pail, which probably was an invasion of privacy. He found one soggy biscuit with mold on it, covered in a sticky bob of molasses. Says Dr. Ward, “Emily Post, in all her etiquette books, never had instructions on how to meet a challenge like that.”

Most days of that cold, rainy fall during recess Mr. Ward was out with the kids sloshing through mud and water trying to play kickball or “capture the flag.” At lunchtime they opened their paper sacks or molasses buckets, climbed up on the woodpile and gulped down their soggy biscuit sandwiches. One kid though, whose father ran the country store, had a beautiful lunchbox with a thermos bottle. Mr. Ward often observed the other children looking longingly as Buddy Baker poured out his steaming hot chocolate. Buddy’s closest friend was, as you might guess, Eggie. He stuck with Buddy like his shadow. As Christmas approached, Buddy began to have an occasional orange in his lunchbox. Eggie had never seen an orange before. Buddy, sitting on the woodpile, would solemnly peal his orange and hand the peelings to Eggie, who gulped them down like they were some kind of delicacy.

Mr. Ward would silently pray that Buddy would give Eggie one section of a real orange; but he never did. Mr. Ward felt a resolve forming in his heart and decided to see to it that Eggie and all his little brothers and sisters got some real oranges for Christmas or he would die trying. On Friday, before Christmas, as Mr. Ward was dismissing school he told Eggie that he needed to see him. Eggie turned pale, “What have I done?” he asked. “Nothing,” said Mr. Ward, “I’m going home with you.” Eggie objected, “You’ll get drown-ded Mr. Ward!”

And he was about right. Mr. Ward drove down an abandoned railroad “dump,” trying to keep out of the flooded bottomland. He parked his old “free-wheeling” Plymouth on a built-out siding which railroad handcars had used. When he opened the trunk and began to load Eggie and himself down with bulging sacks of oranges, apples and toys Eggie’s eyes started flashing like strobe lights. On the first step off the railroad dump they went bobbing for apples. When they got going again Eggie said, “Follow me, Mr. Ward, I know where the high places are” and so he did.

When they got to his little shack that Eggie called home, raised a few feet out of the water, ragged kids came running out to meet them. Inside was a distraught mother with more kids than she knew what to do with and there was no Daddy to be seen (he was in prison). Mr. Ward took an orange and broke off a section and insisted Eggie try it and he watched as his face lit up like the sun. Dr. Ward said in the sermon that even though he has told that story many times and every time he retells it he gets a lump in his throat because it was that experience when he learned the blessing and joy that comes with being generous.

But not only did Wayne Ward learn this, Eggie learned this too. Shortly after Christmas Mr. Ward was asked to referee the Junior High Basketball games, but he didn’t have a whistle. One morning he arrived at school and there was a little package waiting for him, in paper that had been requisitioned from the wastebasket. As he opened the package he could sense two big blue eyes looking intently at him waiting for his reaction. Inside was a beautifully carved willow whistle. Mr. Ward shouted, “Beautiful!” and gave the whistle a blow that rattled the windows. Eggie’s face lit up the room. You see, he too had learned the joy and blessing that comes with giving. Blessing begets blessing. That’s how we spread the love of God.

I don’t know if this vision of love will ever be fulfilled (fully realized) in the world. But what I do know is that it has to start with me. I have to be the change I hope for and pray for. The kingdom of love has to pervade my heart, my soul, my thoughts, attitudes, actions, and relationships before it can ever pervade the world. My responsibility is to keep this vision alive as best I can by welcoming the Spirit of Christ into my life every day, so that my pride will give way to humility, so that my lust for power and position will give way to service, and so that my greed will give way to generosity. I readily admit I have a long ways to go before this vision is ever fully realized in my life. But I plan to keep at it, because I am convinced that our calling as disciples of Christ and as human beings who bear God’s image is to keep living and spreading this vision of love as best we can.

O God, help us to fan into a flame in our own lives this vision of love that Jesus so beautifully embodied. Let it grow inside of us and let it be manifested and expressed in all our relationships and in all that we say and do. Help us to realize that whatever any of us might believe about the future, it is our responsibility right now to be the change we pray for and hope for. There is a kind of waiting that is useless and a kind that is useful – may we wait not idly, but prayerfully and actively doing all we can to spread the vision of your love. Amen.  

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Fruits of Joy (a sermon from Luke 3:7-18)

We are wired in such a way that we find our greatest joy when we become a blessing to others. We are created in God’s image. We are stamped with divine DNA. And because God indwells us, because we share in the divine life and divine nature, we will never find true happiness apart from consciously living out of our oneness with God. We are at our best, and we are most joyous and fulfilled, when we allow God’s Spirit to flow through us – when we allow God’s love to fill our lives and overflow into the lives of others. When we bless others, we bless ourselves, because we are doing what we have been created and called to do. Whatever happiness we may have as a result of self-serving actions is always fleeting and temporary. And once it runs its course it leaves us feeling empty, because it’s not real happiness. It doesn’t reflect who we really are. Repentance then, is a realigning of our actions and attitudes and desires with who we really are as God’s children and that brings joy.  

John and Jesus have parallel birth stories in Luke’s Gospel. And clearly, while more emphasis is given to Jesus, John has a significant role as the one who prepares the way for Jesus. Both John and Jesus were filled with the Spirit, and were blessings to others, though in different ways.

Some people think that John and Jesus were opposites. That John was all about judgment, whereas Jesus was all about grace. And to be honest, that was my view for a time, and you may even recall me teaching or preaching that. Well, I have come to see John differently. It is true that John emphasized judgment, whereas Jesus emphasized grace, but there is grace in John’s proclamation of judgment, and there is judgment in Jesus’ preaching and embodiment of grace.

It seems to me that how one understands John and Jesus’ preaching of judgment, and in fact, all the judgment texts in the scriptures, depends on one’s understanding of the character of God. If one sees God primarily as a Judge and a lawgiver, who cares more about order and control and and law-keeping than God does about the brokenness of God’s children, then it is quite natural to think of judgment as retribution. If God’s judgment is punitive, it is because God is punitive. That’s how a lot of Christians think of God. However, if God is primarily a  caring Father or Mother, as Jesus suggested when he used the Aramaic word “Abba,” to pray to and refer to God, then we do not have to afraid of God’s judgment. Because whatever judgment may involve, whatever pain or suffering go’s along with it, it is ultimately designed for our correction and redemption. If God’s love is truly unconditional, then none of us have to be afraid of being cast aside as worthless to be excluded forever from God’s presence.

Actually, if the Christian mystics are right, there cannot be any separation from God. If God dwells in all of us, if it is true as Paul said to the Athenians in Acts 17 that in God we live, move, and have our being, then we could never actually be separated from God. We might feel separated from God, but we could never actually be separated from God, for to be separated from God would mean “none existence.” Our spirits are infused with the life of the Divine Spirit. We are one. If God is unconditional love, then God’s judgment is for the purpose of transformation, not condemnation. If judgment is about satisfying the law and about retribution, then God is not unconditional love. It really all comes back to the character of God.

John talks about the Messiah, the one who fulfills God’s salvation, separating the wheat and the chaff. I’m sure you have observed that any person or Christian group who interprets the wheat and the chaff in this text to be persons or groups of persons, inevitably place themselves among the wheat that will be gathered into the granary. I did this in the first part of my Christian pilgrimage. No one wants to think of themselves as chaff. Who can blame them? But I’m convinced that we misread this if we make the wheat and the chaff persons or groups of persons. I think the wheat and the chaff represent the good works and unjust works we do, and the good intentions or evil intentions that fill our hearts. The fire of God’s judgment is intended to burn up all our unjust works and evil intentions, so that we will be able to love God with are whole being and love others as we love ourselves.

I challenge you to do a study of the judgment texts in the Bible, especially in the New Testament. Every single judgment text in the Bible is about what we actually do and how we actually live that flows out of the good intentions or evil intentions of our hearts. Every single text. I don’t know where we ever got the idea that simply trusting in Jesus protects us from God’s judgment, because I don’t’ know of one judgment text in the Bible that actually teaches that. Even in the Gospel of John where the writer puts so much emphasis on believing in Jesus (and I think many Christians misinterpret what John means when he talks about believing in Jesus), but even so the one text in that Gospel that speaks of a final judgment says this: “The hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice (the voice here is the voice of the Christ) and will come out – those who have done good, to the resurrection of life and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.” The judgment texts in the Bible are always about what we do and how we live and what fills our hearts, not about what we believe.

So when John speaks of judgment and calls the people out to the desert to repent and be baptized, he tells them to bring forth fruits worthy of repentance. The crowds ask John, “What then should we do?” John doesn’t says, “Well, first you have to believe this or that.” He says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” One might respond, “You mean even that undocumented person, that migrant, that person of a different religion from a different country? “Yes, indeed,” John would say, “Anyone means anyone.”

Then some tax collectors asked, “Teacher, what should we do?” I can imagine the religiously devout taking exception with John here: “How can you permit these Jewish traitors who collaborated with the enemy to be baptised? How can you let in to the kingdom of God these greedy Jews who sold their souls to the Romans? John baptizes them and says, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed to you.”

Then, lo and behold even the enemy shows up. Roman soldiers come out to be baptized. I can imagine real resistance here from both the common people and the religious leaders, because all the Jews had felt the wrath and mistreatment of the Roman soldiers. But when they ask, “What should we do? John says, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” And he plunges them into the waters of baptism too. I hope you can see here that John’s fiery preaching of judgment is filled with grace.

I don’t know how I ever missed it. John’s preaching of judgment is filled with grace, and completely based on what we do. Some Christians identify themselves on the basis of what they believe. Some even adhere to fundamentals that they claim one has to believe to be a Christian. They have a checklist: Mary was a virgin. Jesus was God. The Bible is inerrant. And so forth. But in John’s call to repentance there is not a single word about what one must or should believe. Every single thing John mentions as a fruit of repentance relates to what we do.  It’s about love of neighbor and the golden rule. It’s about how we care for one another, and treat one another with respect and understanding. John says, Be generous. Be fair. Be merciful. Treat people right. When you go through these waters of baptism, says John, you pledge to be a different person, you are making a commitment to love your neighbor, rather than take advantage of your neighbor.

John has one thing in mind out there preaching repentance and baptizing all sorts of unlikable people in the desert. John is getting them all ready to be immersed in the Spirit of Christ, which is nothing less than the Spirit of love. He’s out there baptizing in water, but the Christ will baptize in the Holy Spirit. He’s teaching them how to love others, so when the full embodiment of love comes along after him, they will be ready to be immersed in that love and shower that love on others.

You see, sisters and brothers, the unquenchable fire of the Spirit is the Spirit of love that burns up all the chaff, all the greed, all the hate, all the jealousy, all the pride, all the egotism in our lives. We all need God’s judgment. We all need God’s fire to consume the selfishness and evil in our hearts, so that we can love one another the way God loves each one of us. Wouldn’t it be great if we were so immersed in God’s Spirit that no one would have to tell us to love others? We wouldn’t even need a commandment to tell us to love others, because loving others would be the most natural thing in the world
Once there was an old priest who presided over a great cathedral in a once–prosperous city. The kindly priest spent his days praying in the vestry and caring for the poor. As a result of his tireless work, this holy place was known as a place of safety and sanctuary, and a constant stream of people seeking shelter were drawn to it. The priest welcomed all and gave to all completely without prejudice or restraint. His pure heart and gift of hospitality were widely known. No one could steal from him, for he considered no possession his own. One evening in mid–winter, while the priest was praying before the cross, there was a knock on the cathedral door. The priest stood, went to the entrance, and to his great surprise, found there a terrifying demon with unyielding eyes. “Old man,” the demon hissed, “I have traveled many miles to seek your shelter. Will you welcome me in?” Without hesitation, the priest bid the devil welcome and invited him into the shelter of the sanctuary. Once across the threshold, the devil spat venom onto the tiled floor and attacked the holy altar, all the while uttering blasphemies and curses. During this rant, the priest knelt on the floor and continued in his devotions until it was time for him to retire for the evening. 

“Old man,” cried the demon, “where are you going?” “I am returning home to rest, for it has been a long day,” replied the kindly priest. “May I come with you,” asked the demon, “for I too am tired and in need of a place to eat and sleep?” “Why yes, of course,” replied the priest, “come, and I will prepare a meal.”

On returning to his house, the priest prepared a meal while the devil smashed the artifacts that adorned the house. He ate the meal provided by the priest and then asked, “Old man, you welcomed me into your church and then into your house. I have one more request. Will you welcome me into your soul?” “Why of course,” said the priest. “What I have is yours and what I am is yours.”

So the devil entered his soul, but there was nothing in the old man for the devil to cling to, no material of which to make a nest and no darkness in which to hide. All that existed in the old priest’s soul was light. And so the devil turned from the priest in disgust and left, never to return. In fact, the devil, not long after his encounter with the priest, retired from his devilish work altogether, for there was something in the old man that so affected the devil that he lost his edge for it and had to give it up.

If only we could be like this priest, and be so immersed in the Holy Spirit, so full of the light of divine love and grace that there would be no place for darkness to reside or evil to hide. There would be no room for greed, for prejudice, for pride, for favoritism, for jealousy, for envy, for contempt, or any evil intention or desire.

Whatever the fire of God’s judgment might be, that’s where it is headed sisters and brothers. That is the goal. A baptism with the Spirit so full and complete, a baptism of love so pervasive, there’s just no room for anything that would put down another or hurt another or take advantage of another. The fire of love would burn too hot and too bright.  

Oh God, may we invite and welcome your Spirit into our hearts, to expose our evil intentions and selfish attitudes and negative patterns so that they may be consumed by the fire of your judgment, and we might be free to truly care for and love one another as the Spirit of Christ fills us. Let us be immersed in the Spirit of Christ, O Lord, so that your immense love can expand our hearts and open our minds and incline our wills to do what is good and right and just and merciful. Let us not reap the fruits of our sinful ways, but let us reap the fruits of the loving kindness, forgiveness, and service we shower upon all those around us. For then we will know the lasting and enduring joy for which we were created. In the name and Spirit of Christ I pray.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

What does the reign of Christ look like? (John 18:33-37)

On the church calendar, and I don’t mean our church calendar that appears in your Connections, I mean the ecumenical church calendar that follows the Christian year as reflected in the Revised Common Lectionary, today is called Reign of Christ Sunday. The question I want to address today is asked in the title: What does the reign of Christ look like? What is it about? What are the primary characteristics of the reign of Christ? These are very important considerations.

In our text today Pilate questions Jesus about his kingship. And in response Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from this world.” What does that mean? I’m sure we all realize that words have multiple meanings. A trunk could be a box-like container, or it could be the back part of your car that holds your luggage, or it could be attached to a tree. What the word means is determined by the context in which it is used. Biblical words are no different. Consider the word “world.” When Jesus says my kingdom is not of this world, what does he mean by world?

In this Gospel the writer uses that word in both a positive way and in a negative. This Gospel affirms that God loves the world. The world is God’s “good” creation. In the first account of creation in Genesis 1 after each creative act God declares that what was created is good – “and God saw that it was good.” And after God creates the human couple in God’s image, the story ends by saying, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” Original goodness takes precedence over original sin. God loves the world. God dwells in the world. God dwells in each of us. Each of us possesses divine DNA. John’s Gospel emphasizes over and over the truth of the indwelling God – a God who incarnates God’s self in flesh and blood. Jesus is for us the definitive incarnation, but God dwells in each of us just like Jesus, and we are called to be like Jesus, incarnating the grace and truth of God. The world is good, and loved, and indwelt by God and therefore sacred, but it is not flawless. There is, of course, injustice and evil in the world and in our lives. So it’s vitally important to live within the healthy tension this creates. Some overemphasize our sin, and cannot see our goodness. While others see the goodness, but not the sin. It’s important to see both and acknowledge both.

When John proclaims that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, he is not saying that Jesus’ kingdom is heavenly rather than earthly. The kingdom of God is both heavenly and earthly. When we pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” we are praying that the way the kingdom of God operates in heaven, in that transcendent realm, will operate the same way on earth, in this temporal realm. God’s kingdom encompasses both heaven and earth – it’s not confined to heaven.

Also, when John says that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world he is not saying that Jesus’ kingdom is spiritual in contrast to the kingdoms of the world that are political. Because the kingdom of God is both spiritual and political. When the early followers of Jesus confessed Jesus as Lord they were making both a spiritual and a political statement. They were saying Jesus is the final authority in all matters – things spiritual and political. When they said Jesus is Lord, they were saying Caesar is not. Lord was a title attributed to Caesar. They were saying that their first allegiance was a commitment to do the will of Christ, rather than the will of Rome. They would be obedient to Rome when they could, but if being obedient to Rome meant being disobedient to the will of Christ, then they refused to be obedient to Rome, and were willing to live with the consequences. For followers of Jesus it’s always about what is moral, not what is legal.

What John means when he says that the kingdom of Christ is not of this world is that God’s kingdom does not partake of the values, morals, principles, and practices of the world that are contrary to the values, morals, principles, and practices of Christ. It doesn’t mean that there is no good in the world; there are people who do the will of God and don’t even realize it. But it does mean that Christ’s kingdom does not share in the injustice and evil that is also present in the world.

The late Walter Wink calls the world, when used in this negative sense, the domination system. The domination system is an unjust system. The writer of 1 John says in 2:15-16, “Do not love the world or the things in the world.” He is not telling his readers to not love the creation or even the evil people in the world, after all Jesus commanded us to even love our enemies. Rather, he is telling us to not love the unjust, domination system, because the unjust, domination system is dominated by “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and pride in riches.” He is saying that covetousness and greed, as well as the selfish ambition and egocentric pride are the values at the cord of the domination system.

This all becomes clearer when Jesus clarifies what he means. He says, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews” (that is, the Jewish leaders, who want to kill him). What John is saying is that Christ’s kingdom does not partake of the violence and hate and prejudice of the world. The kingdom of Christ does take control of others by force, but rather serves and gives to others out of love.

Do you remember what Jesus says to his disciples in the Synoptic Gospels when he caught them arguing about who is the greatest. Jesus tells them that’s how the rulers and kings of the earth operate. They lord it over others. That is, they seek to control others by force and manipulation. But the kingdom of God operates on different values and principles and under a different kind of power. The power of Spirit is the power of the kingdom of God, and the power of Spirit is the power of compassion and love. This is why Jesus says, “You are not to control others, but to serve others. For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life for the healing and liberation of many.”

Pilate asks Jesus, “So you are a king?” Jesus says (and this is actually what John’s church is saying), “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to bear witness to the truth.” Then Jesus says, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” What John means in this Gospel when he talks about truth is the truth that Jesus embodied. It is incarnational truth. There are some Christians who would like to narrowly interpret truth to mean what they believe. We are not talking about doctrine here. We are talking about the truth of God that Jesus incarnated. It’s the truth of God’s grace and mercy and passion to heal the broken, uplift the downtrodden, welcome the stranger, and liberate the oppressed. That’s the truth of God that Jesus lived and taught. Pilate is confused about such truth. So he asks, “What is truth?” The domination systems of the world are blind to this truth.

The truth is that the kingdom of God is generally unlike the kingdoms of the world. Because the kingdom of God is really the kin-dom of God. It’s about loving others that flows out of our common life and connection to each other. I love to tell the story that 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) That man just bore witness to the core truth of the kin-dom of God. We are all connected. We are one family. We all belong.

In our text Pilate represents the unjust, and often violent domination system of the world. Jesus represents the just and peace-seeking kin-dom of God. The two kingdoms are often at odds. Throughout history there has been a clash between them. This conflict is being played out right now on the Mexican border as a pilgrimage of migrants come seeking asylum.

Our president has told them to go back where they came from. We don’t want them, he said. He has tried to caricature them as a gang of hardened criminals in order to justify his hate-filled rhetoric and actions, when in reality they are mostly poor families fleeing violence, oppression, and poverty. He has deployed troops to the border costing millions of dollars, and would love to use brute force to turn them away. He has told our military to shoot anyone who throws rocks. Now, fortunately, most of our military leaders are good and decent people who have some compassion, and would never shoot poor migrants seek asylum. But they have been deployed. They are on the border carrying weapons of war. Take a good look, sisters and brother, for that is the domination system of the world. We are not to love that system, according to John. We are not to conform to that system, says Paul (Rom. 12:1-2).

But the kin-dom of God is there as well. I read a letter this past week signed by 570 faith leaders, representing 145 faith-based organizations across religious traditions. The letter was only a couple of pages, but when I sent it to the printer it just kept printing and printing. It was printing all the leaders and organizations that had signed the letter. The key points the letter makes are these: 1) We call on Congress to reverse course and see that the U.S. complies with its own laws and international obligations to welcome those seeking protection. 2) The U.S. must stop facilitating displacement and should partner in remedying the root causes of forced migration. 3) It is a human right to seek asylum. 4) We oppose using the plight of migrants, children, and families as leverage to enact dangerous policies. 5) Asylum seekers, families, and children should never be separated or locked up. 6) Congress has opportunity to reverse course by limiting funding for detention, deportation, and border militarization. There is a paragraph devoted to each of these points in the letter. The Baptist Alliance, who we affiliate with, signed the letter.

These faith groups and others are mobilizing as well. Coalitions and alliances are being formed to support the migrants to deliver everything from basic necessities, such as food, water, clothing, and basic medical care to legal, spiritual, and psychological support. Our own Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is working to funnel supplies and money raised in the U.S. to supportive ministries already in Mexico. Such is the work of the kin-dom of God

The kin-dom of God counters exclusion with inclusion. The kin-dom of God counters prejudice and alienation with acceptance and affirmation. Instead of adding to their burdens, tearing people and families apart, oppressing them even more, the kin-dom of God offers healing and hope. God’s kin-dom welcomes the stranger; it doesn’t lock them up or send them away. The reign of Christ is simply a reign of love. If we are not committed to a reign of love, then we are not committed to the kin-dom of God.

Our good God, may our ears and eyes be open to hear the words of truth and see the life of truth lived out before us in the life of Jesus, our Lord. So that we may advance your agenda. So that we may take your side, which is always the side of the oppressed and the vulnerable. So that we may be instruments to help fulfill your dream for the world and be active participants in the work of you kin-dom on earth. Show us how to love others the way you love them, and to realize that we all belong to one another and to you.