Sunday, August 13, 2017

Stepping into the Storm (Matthew 14:22-33)

I know what it is like to be afraid on the water. I was nine or ten years old and my dad took me with him on a fishing trip with a work buddy. At the time we had a small boat, maybe 15 or 16 feet with a 50 horse power motor. We were at Lake Barkley catching crappie. It had been a good evening. We were in a school of crappie when dark clouds began to gather over the horizon. We were having such good luck we didn’t want to leave and as a consequence stayed on the lake too long. The storm came on us quick and we had to get across the lake back to the dock. It was slow going as waves pounded the boat. We were taking on some water from the the waves. Then the motor died. I had never seen my father afraid before. He made sure my life jacket was tight and then gave me some instructions on what to do if the boat capsized. The look of fear on his face terrified me. I can’t remember a whole lot about my life at that point in my history, I was probably 9 or 10, but I still remember those feelings of fear. Fortunately, my father was able to get the motor started again without too much delay. But I will never forget the fear I felt at that moment even though it was so very long ago. 

The disciples are caught in a storm. Some of them were seasoned fishermen. It’s what they did. They were on the water everyday. They knew how quickly a little vessel could be upended. The waves and wind are pounding them. Then they see something or someone coming towards them. The text says they were terrified.  Now, let me say here at the beginning that this is not a story about avoiding storms nor it is a story about avoiding the fear such storms produce. Fear is, first of all, a simple reaction to threat or danger. And sometimes it can be a constructive thing. It has its place in helping to keep our children safe. Most children that is. It never seemed to be much a deterrent for our son Jordan, who went tumbling down the basement stairs on two different occasions. One time he was on a three wheeler and it was intentional.

Some fear is necessary, but fear can also be debilitating and oppressive, when one lives in fear constantly. I suspect that many of the kids who cross our border illegally are sent here by parents who live in daily fear for their children’s lives. None of us should judge them and say, “How could a parent send their child out like that?” You and I don’t know what it would be like to have children faced with a lifetime of violence and poverty. Maybe we would do the same. Maybe we would say the risk is worth it?

This story is not about avoiding storms or the fear they evoke, nor is it about stilling them. There are some who are quick to point out that Jesus did indeed still the storm, and they draw the conclusion that if we just had enough faith Jesus would still our storms too. That, I think, is a misreading of the story. Stories have meaning on many different levels. At one time scholars thought that parables, the stories Jesus told were intended to convey a single meaning, though today that theory has been largely debunked and most interpreters would argue that stories of Jesus convey multiple meanings and we intersect and connect with these stories on different levels at different times in our lives. The same is true of the stories about Jesus and this story today of Jesus walking on the water and stilling the storm is more of a parable than anything else.  

On one level, this story reflects what Matthew’s church had come to believe about Jesus. The story may have been constructed around images in the Psalms. One Psalm reads: “You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.” When Jesus speaks to the disciples, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” he is echoing the name of God by which God identified God’s self to Moses out of the fire when God said, “Tell them ‘I am’ has sent you.” Matthew’s church, which many scholars believe was predominately Jewish, had come to see in Jesus God’s agent of healing and redemption for the world. And at the end of the story Matthew changes the ending of this same story in Mark. Mark’s ending highlights the spiritual dullness and immaturity of the disciples. Mark’s story ends with Jesus’ rebuke. In Mark they don’t have a clue what is going on. But in Matthew’s version of the story it’s just the opposite. Matthew concludes the story by saying: “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’” Matthew’s church is not claiming that Jesus was the one God, Creator and Father of all. But Matthew’s church is proclaiming Jesus to be God’s Son par excellent (not exclusively, but definitively) through whom God acts to heal and liberate the world.

So this is not a story about having enough faith to still storms or avoid storms. Nor does the story suggest in any way that God is responsible for the storms. Storms are an inevitable part of the climate we encounter on the journey. Author Philip Yancey launched his writing career with a book titled, Where is God when it hurts? He recalls receiving a phone call from a television producer just after Princess Diana had been killed in an automobile crash. He wanted Yancey to appear on his show and explain how God could possibly allow such a terrible accident to happen. (By the way, terrible accidents are happening every moment to God’s children.) Without much thought Yancey retorted, “Could it have had something to do with a drunk driver going ninety miles an hour in a narrow tunnel?” Yancey asks, “How exactly, was God involved?” God does not micromanage the planet or our lives.

There are some experiences of suffering that are simply tragic, and it is hard to find any redemptive value in them. On the other hand, we’re not likely to grow without battling some storms. Talk to any recovering addict who has been in a twelve-step program any length of time and he or she will talk to you about “necessary suffering.” They will tell you that it took what it took - coming to the end of themselves – to get them on a path toward healing and change. But “necessary suffering” doesn’t mean God causes or sends us suffering, it just means that it, unfortunately, often takes what it takes to get us moving in the right direction.

Paul, as well as other New Testament writers speak to the issue of necessary suffering, and they employ hyperbole in making the point. Paul tells the church at Rome, “we boast in our sufferings,” (that’s an exaggerated statement isn’t it?) Maybe a better choice of words would be: “We embrace our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” James, in his little epistle says, “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy (more hyperbole; who actually does that?), because you know that the testing of your faith (all forms of suffering, all hardship function as a kind of “testing”- that does not imply that God causes it or is responsible for it) produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.” Now, none of this is automatic. This outcome depends on our response. If we fail to face our sufferings in faith, suffering may just make us bitter and angry.

You may have heard the saying before, “Religion is lived by people who are afraid of hell. Spirituality is lived by people who have been through hell and come out enlightened.” Hell is not some place God sends people because they don’t believe or do the right things. Hell is what all of us have to live through to one degree or another in order to face our pride and ego, and confront the ways we need to grow and change. God’s deliverance is rarely a deliverance from; generally it is a deliverance through. Some suffering is necessary to prompt us to face the negative patterns in our lives which we tend to deny, ignore, excuse, rationalize, and minimize.

Matthew’s story differs from Mark’s in that Matthew brings Peter into the story. Peter is simply a disciple who represents all disciples. Peter takes a leap of faith into the storm. There is a wonderful scene at the climax of the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Indiana has to pass three supreme tests to reach the Holy Grail and save his father from dying. The first test is “The Breath of God” where he walks down a corridor and must bow at precisely the right moment to keep form having his head cut off. The second test is “The Word of God” where he has to walk on the right stones – the ones that spell God’s name in Latin – to keep from falling through the floor to his death. The third test is “The Path of God,” where Indiana comes to a large chasm – about a hundred feet across and a thousand feet down. On the other side is the door to the Holy Grail. The instructions say, “Only in the leap from the lion’s head, will he prove his worth.” Indiana says to himself, “It’s impossible, nobody can jump this.” Then he realizes that this test requires a leap of faith. His father says, “You must believe, boy. You must believe.” Even though every nerve in his body screams don’t do it, he walks to the cliff’s edge, lifts his foot, and then steps out into thin air. Instead of falling to his doom like Wile E. Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons, his foot hits solid ground. He lands on a hidden walkway, a hidden, solid stone walkway that supports him and takes him across.

God is often hidden, but solid nonetheless. God is with us every step of the way and will not abandon us. God may be hidden and disguised. Someone has said that God comes disguised as our life. We may not always or even frequently recognize God, but the Christ is with us always.
Many spiritual teachers drawing from their own experience have said, “When we find our true selves, our authentic selves, we find God.”

The Quaker educator, writer and activist Parker Palmer in his book, Let Your Life Speak tells about an experience he had while engaged in a program called Outward Bound at Hurricane Island off the coast of Maine. One of his tasks, a task that he feared the most, was to rappel down a 110-foot cliff.  As he slowly made his way down the cliff face he came to a deep hole in the face of the rock. Realizing he couldn’t go around it he suddenly found himself paralyzed by fear. He hung there in silence for what seemed to be a very long time.  Finally an instructor shouted, “Parker, is anything wrong?”  In a high squeaky voice he replied, “I don’t want to talk about it.” At that moment the second instructor jumped in and said to Parker, “It’s time that you learned the Outward Bound motto.” He thought, “I’m about to die, and she’s going to give me a motto.” But then she shouted ten words that have had lasting impact on his life. She told him, “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.” It’s like the advice given in the children’s story, “Going on a bear hunt.” I read that story to Sophie when she was little multiple times: “You can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, you can’t go around It, so you have to go through it.” As I said last week: Knowing that we are under a blessing and not a curse, knowing that we are God’s beloved daughter or son, knowing that the Christ is with us always, we can step into the storm in faith.  

The hard thing about that is that stepping into the storm means getting out of the boat. It means letting go and leaving the place of security. That could mean a lot of different things depending where we are in our pilgrimage. It could mean deciding to stop being an enabler of negativity and life diminishing beliefs and attitudes of some group we are part of and from whom we derive support and friendship. Speaking truth in love could turn the group against us. That’s stepping into the storm. Maybe it means facing some hard truth about ourselves that we have been in denial about because it contradicts the image we have of ourselves. Maybe it means confronting an addiction. Or maybe it’s getting involved in some cause or engaging in some act of mercy that requires more time and resources and energy than we think we have to give. I think of the two women senators who stood against all kinds of pressure and threats to do what they in their hearts knew was in the best interest of the country and their states. They decided to step into the storm.

In the story Peter steps into the storm and begins to sink. We all do. In this context doubt means “to be divided.” At some point we are all divided, we all lose focus and energy and we start to question our motives and decisions. We all doubt and we all have “little faith.” That’s just part for the course. The point here is that Christ is out in the storm. That’s where Christ is. This is really a story about the presence of Christ with us in the storm. It’s a story more about the cosmic Christ than the historical Jesus. Some scholars think that this story was originally a resurrection story, which in the course of the oral tradition – the telling and retelling of the story – it got worked back into the narrative of Jesus’ ministry. Because it really is a story about the presence of the living Christ. So when the Christ comes to them on the water they exclaim, “It is a ghost.” They don’t recognize him, which of course, is a common feature in almost all the resurrection stories. This is a story about Christ’s living presence in the storm.  

Maybe what we first call a ghost is actually the Holy Ghost. I have no doubt that God, the Holy Spirit, the living Christ, (use whatever phrase you are most comfortable with) speaks to us in a rich variety of ways and forms and means, though they are not clearly obvious or overt or easily recognizable. But I also believe that once we learn to recognize the Christ within us, in our true self, our authentic self, we can learn to see, to discern the divine presence elsewhere, especially in human beings. We can discover that Christ’s presence in the laughter of a little child, in the wisdom of an elder, in the touch of a lover’s hand, in the beauty of a sunrise or sunset, even in the midst of the raging sea that threatens to capsize our small boat.

The challenge and invitation that comes to us today is not to hunker down in fear, not to flee, not to deny or conjure up “alternative facts” when the storm assails us. I believe that the challenge and invitation that comes from the living Christ is to step into it.  

As we now come to the table to share the bread and the cup, it’s good to be reminded that the celebration of Holy Communion is not only a celebration of the self-giving of Jesus unto death; it’s also a celebration of the presence of the living Christ who walks with us into the storms of life.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Facing Our Brokenness in a Broken World (Matthew 14:13-21; Isaiah 55:1-5)

Isaiah 55 reads as an invitation for anyone to share in the fruits of God’s new creation, the new world God is creating. The blessing is offered to anyone who will receive it. “Everyone who thirsts come to the waters” cries the prophet. God chose Israel to share that message. Not to be a people who thought of themselves as better than others, but a people called to offer life giving water to all the peoples of the world.

One of the New Testament readings listed for this Sunday, which we did not read, is Romans 9:1-5. In that text Paul speaks of his passion for the Jewish people, his own people, and he enumerates a number of things that set Israel apart – that constituted Israel a chosen people – the covenants, the Torah, the tradition of worship of the one God, and ultimately the Jewish Messiah. However, the privileges and advantages of being the covenant people of God were never intended for Israel exclusively. In the Isaiah text God’s steadfast love is not intended for just one nation or people group, it’s intended for all peoples. Israel was called to communicate blessing and chosenness to the rest of the world. All the world is God’s world. All people are God’s people. According to the prophet God made Israel to be a “witness to the peoples” of the earth of God’s “steadfast love.”

Being chosen doesn’t mean that God likes one person or group or nation more than God likes anyone else. In fact, the ones God often singles out for a particular service are generally quite flawed so that it is clear the calling is by grace. No one is more worthy than anyone else. Whoever God chooses for special tasks God chooses in order to communicate God’s love to everyone else. What at first feels like God being exclusive is actually God choosing a person or people to communicate God’s inclusive love and grace to all. The fact that so many Christians are locked in to claims of exclusivity (that God has blessed them but not others) simply demonstrates that we have a lot of growing up to do (that we are still very selfish and our selfishness is blinding). 

I believe the passage today in Matthew 14 of Jesus feeding the multitude offers us a way forward. It gives us a pattern that can lead us out of our immaturity. It shows us how our chosenness and brokenness go together and that when we learn how to live in the balance of that tension we find our place and calling.

The story is a familiar one. I read stories like this in the Gospels as well as the one that follows about Jesus walking on the sea and calming the sea not as historical reports of actual events, but as parables. A different kind of parable than the parables Jesus told, but parables nonetheless. Some scholars call them metaphorical narratives, which is really just another way of emphasizing their parabolic and symbolic meaning. That is to say that the stories are true in what they teach.

A great crowd of people follow Jesus out into a deserted place. He is trying to get away with the twelve for a time of rest and retreat, but he is pursued by hungry people – hungry for meaning and hope. How will Jesus feed this great multitude? Can he give them the hope and meaning they crave? Jesus takes a few fish and loaves of bread – he blesses them and breaks them and then gives them to a hungry people. What I want you to see today is the great spiritual significance of this pattern that shows up again when Jesus hosts the last supper.

First, he takes and blesses. As I have already pointed out this is not an exclusive blessing; it’s a blessing bestowed on all. It is true of all human beings whether they belong to our religious tradition or not. This is our original blessing. I love the way the late Henry Nouwen talks about this. He writes:

“We have to dare to reclaim the truth that we God’s chosen ones, even when our world does not choose us. As long as we allow our parents, siblings, teachers, friends, and lovers to determine whether we are chosen or not, we are caught in the net of a suffocating world that accepts or rejects us according to its own agenda of effectiveness and control.” Nouwen says that claiming this blessing, claiming our identity as God’s beloved daughters and sons is a life long task because we often have to battle low self-esteem, self-doubt, and self-rejection. And when we fall into this darkness – of self-doubt and rejection – we can be easily used and manipulated by people who want to use us for their own selfish ends.

Nouwen says that what we need to remember is this: “Long before any human being saw us, we are seen by God’s loving eyes. Long before anyone heard us cry or laugh, we are heard by our God who is all ears for us. Long before any person spoke to us in this world, we are spoken to by the voice of eternal love. Our preciousness, uniqueness, and individuality are not given to us by those who meet us in clock time – our brief chronological existence – but by the One who has chosen us with an everlasting love, a love that existed from all eternity and will last through all eternity.”

That is our original blessing – it precedes and is far more important than our original sin. In fact, our sin isn’t original at all. It simply part of what we have to live with and deal with in learning to claim our original blessing. Now if we trust and claim our original blessing as image bearers of God, as God’s beloved children in whom God’s Spirit abides, then there is no reason for us to try to conceal, deny, repress, or escape our brokenness.

And that brings us to the second part of the pattern: Jesus takes and blesses, then he breaks. We are all broken in some way. But that is not the first thing about us nor is it the most significant thing about us. The most important thing is that we are blessed. And when we claim our blessing, when we trust our chosenness, we find the courage and inner strength to face our brokenness. When we deal with our brokenness in the context of our original blessing then we are able to step toward our pain, our failures, our brokenness, rather than run from it. It’s by embracing our brokenness and living through our brokenness that we move toward healing and transformation.

Nouwen calls this living under the blessing rather than the curse. When we lose a family member or friend in death, when we fail in a relationship, when we go through a separation and divorce, when we lose a job or a dream dies, when we live through some act of violence that jars us and scars us, when some tragedy strikes – if we live this under the curse, then it’s easy to become bitter and resentful. It is likely we will become angry and depressed. But when we put all of this under God’s blessing, when we realize that none of this is a reflection of what God thinks of us, because God loves us with an eternal love, then the trial and tragedy we undergo can somehow be incorporated into our journey toward the realization of our full humanity. It can all be incorporated into the process of becoming image bearers of God.

There is a scene in Leonard Bernstein’s musical work simply titled Mass that illustrates this. Toward the end of the work, the priest, adorned richly in splendid liturgical vestments, is lifted up by his people. He towers high above the adoring crowd, carrying in his hands a glass chalice. Then suddenly, the human pyramid carrying him in his glory collapses (as all human aspirations of glory do), and the priest comes tumbling down. His vestments are ripped off. His glass chalice breaks and shatters into many pieces. As the priest walks through the debris of his former glory – barefoot, wearing only blue jeans and a T-shirt – children’s voices are heard singing, “Laude, laude, laude” – “Praise, praise, praise.” Suddenly the priest notices the broken chalice. He looks at it for a long time and then, haltingly, he says, “I never realized that broken glass could shine so brightly.”

When we embrace our brokenness, when we live through our brokenness in the light of God’s blessing, then our brokenness can reflect the mystery and beauty of God’s grace and presence. As we face our brokenness and bring our brokenness into the light of God’s blessing, we find meaning and the capacity to care for and extend love and grace to others. Here is the third stage of the pattern: Jesus blessed, he broke, and he gave. Giving is the final stage of the pattern.

Our Gospel story highlights the power of the Spirit that drove Jesus, that motivated and compelled him to do what he did – to challenge the powers that be, to confront injustice, to break down walls and barriers, to welcome the excluded and condemned, to heal the sick, liberated the demonized, and feed the hungry. The text says that when Jesus saw the great crowd of hurting, hungry people he had compassion for them. Jesus was living under the blessing of being the Beloved. He had heard the voice of the Father say, “You are my beloved son, on whom my favor rests.” He was living under that voice of blessing, which is the same voice of blessing that we need to hear and live under too.  

Jesus, no doubt, was weary. He was tired. He needed some solitude. He was trying to get away from the crowds. He is just one human being. As Luke says in Acts 2, “a man appointed by God” to do some great works, but a man nonetheless. I’m sure we would have been upset with the crowds hounding us for favors. But because Jesus lived through the human condition under the blessing of God he was able to draw from the compassion of the Spirit who empowered him.

It’s interesting to contrast Jesus’ response and the response of the disciples – which would no doubt be our response. When the disciples face the tragedy of the human condition, when they face the brokenness of the people, all they can see is what can’t be done. “Send them away” they tell Jesus. Maybe they can find some food, some help, some healing, some hope on their own. We have nothing to give them. And maybe they were right. Maybe they didn’t have anything to give them. Maybe they had not yet learned to face their own brokenness in the light of God’s blessing. But Jesus living under the blessing of God, living in the power of Spirit, the power of divine compassion says, “Bring them to me.”

We are not sit back and bask in God’s blessing, but rather, we are called to spread God’s blessing out of compassion and gratitude. We who are blessed and broken are called to give. And there are all kinds of ways we can do that. I would say: Just start where you are with the people you rub up against every day. Many of them are hungry for a more meaningful life. Some of them feel lost and alone. Some are struggling with feelings of worthlessness and self-doubt and low self-esteem. Some try to cover their faults and brokenness and appear better than they really are. Some are blind to the kind of humility and grace that could heal their souls and give them some real joy and peace. We pray to Jesus and Jesus looks at us and says, “You give them something to eat.”

We are called to give of ourselves in mercy and also in justice. No one was left out. There was plenty to go around. They had more than enough. The problem we face in our world when it comes to matters of justice, of everyone having enough not just to survive but thrive is not a resource problem. We have enough resources – at least at the moment. Our problem is a distribution problem. We are called to give indiscriminately, but if we follow our Lord, then we have a special obligation to give to, stand with, and advocate for the oppressed and impoverished and most vulnerable among us.

We might think of ourselves as a little piece of fish or piece of bread. What can we give? What do we have to offer? We tend to focus on what we can do, the talents we have to give, our special abilities, and so forth, and we often think we have little to offer. We tend to forget is that the greatest gift we can give is not so much about what we can do, but rather, it’s more about who we are. So the main question is not, “What can we do for each other?” But rather, “Who can we be for each other.” Am I willing to share the gift of who I am with others?

If we bring our lives under the blessing of God, if we claim our true identity as God’s beloved daughters and sons, we can face and embrace our brokenness, and our very brokenness becomes a means through which the blessing of God is extended to others.

It’s an interesting detail in the story. When they gathered up what was left they gathered up twelve baskets full. But the twelves baskets were not filled with whole loaves of bread or whole pieces of fish. Oh no. It was filled with broken pieces. God feeds the multitude, heals the sick, and liberates the oppressed with broken pieces. The Christ is able to multiply many times over what little we are and have, if we will just bring it all under the blessing of God and be willing to open our broken lives to others. Our brokenness confronted and embraced with the blessing of God will become a source of healing and help and hope to others.

Our good God, we sometimes look at ourselves and just see our sin, our failure, our weaknesses, our shortcomings and we tend to feel sorry for ourselves, or feel useless and of little value. Help us to look past all of that and see what we are by virtue of your original blessing, and help us to realize that nothing can sever us from that blessing, from the love you have for each one of us. May that love, your love, your welcome and acceptance, your compassion empower us to face our brokenness and give ourselves to one another and to our world – acting mercifully and justly whenever and wherever we can. Amen. 

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Trusting and Loving (Rom. 8:28-39; Matt. 13:31-33)

The movie A Beautiful Mind tells the story of John Nash, played by Russell Crowe, a brilliant mathematician who struggles with mental instability. His wife stood with him through years of illness and uncertainty. On the evening he proposed the conversation went like this: Nash says, “Alicia, does our relationship warrant long term commitment? I need some kind of proof, some kind of verifiable empirical data.” /  Alicia amused at his awkwardness says, “Sorry, I’m just trying to get over my girlish notions of romance.” Then she wonders out loud, “Hmmm . . . proof . . . verifiable data . . . Okay.  How big is the universe? / He says, “Infinite.” / She asks, “How do you know?” / He says, “I know because all the data indicates it’s infinite. / She responds, “But it hasn’t been proven yet?” / He says, “No.” / She asks, “You haven’t seen it?” / “No,” he says. / She asks, “How do you know for sure?” / He says, “I don’t. I just believe.” / She says, “It’s the same with love, I guess.

Can we trust that love will win? Can we trust that love will overcome all resistance and breakdown walls of hate and prejudice? Can we trust that at some point in our moral and spiritual evolution as a species, as image bearers of the Divine, that we will form a Beloved Community on the earth? Can we trust that love will change our world, beginning with ourselves?

The Romans 8 passage is a wonderful passage but I’m very disappointed with the way the NRSV handles verse 28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God . . .” No, we don’t know that at all. In fact, there are a good many things that do not work together for good. There are massive economic, political, social, and even religious systems in the world that diminish life more than they enhance life. All sorts of random things happen in life that are not good. I can’t accept that point of view. Fortunately there is a better rendering. The NRSV provides a footnote with an alternate reading and why these intelligent translators did not choose this reading as the main reading beats me: “In all things God works for the good in the lives of those who love him.” That is a word I can trust. God is good and God always works for our good, and that is true no matter what happens in our lives. In all things - no matter how bad or difficult it gets – God is at work for our good.

Paul mentions in the text all sorts of bad things that can happen, and in fact, many of these things happened to him: hardship, distress, persecution, famine, impoverishment, perilous situations, and violence. Paul experienced all of that. God is not behind these things. God does not cause these things. God doesn’t exert power from without. God works from within. I believe that is what these two little parables in Matthew 13 teach. The divine energy and life is in the seed. The transformative power and catalyst for change is in the yeast. The seed and yeast carry their transformative power within them. The growth and change come from within, not without. There is no external, coercive force. The change takes place gradually from within. And therefore, it is a slow, hidden process.

God woos, lures, draws, and speaks in subtle ways. If we are not tuned in we won’t even notice. The growth of the small mustard seed into the “greatest of shrubs” even becoming “a tree” the text says takes place at a pace that is undetectable. In the parable of the yeast the woman “hides” the yeast in the dough. The translation says, “she mixed” the yeast in the dough, but the Greek word used here comes from a root word that means “to hide.” The woman “hides” the yeast in the dough. God is hidden in the world.

Years ago a rich widow who lived in New York City died and left her considerable estate to God.  Well, you can imagine the legal entanglements this created.  A summons was issued requiring God to file a legal response, which was given to the sheriff, whose responsibility it was to serve such papers.  The sheriff’s final report to the court read: “After due and diligent search, it has been determined that God cannot be found in New York City.”

Well, God is there, just like God is here, though we don’t see God the way we see one another. Look around. Do you see God? We should. God is present right now. Do you see God in the greeting, the smile, the face, the touch of your brother or sister? The divine life is hidden in the world and if you are not paying attention, if you are not aware, you will not see God at work. But God is at work and the divine life is within each of us. God works within the creation and God works within you and me to bring forth God’s own image in humanity. In fact, that is our first and primary calling, namely, to be image bearers of the divine.

The yeast is hidden in three measures of dough. Now, this is not synonymous with three cups. In first century terms we are talking about forty to sixty pounds of flour. It’s interesting that we have the same thing in the story in Gen. 18 where Abraham is visited by three strangers. As was customary he invites them to dinner. He says, “Let me bring a little bread.” Then he tells his wife to make ready three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Just a little bread? How about sixty dozen biscuits. A bit of hyperbole don’t you think? Jesus does the same thing quite often in the stories he tells. Jesus had a knack for employing shocking, exaggerated elements bordering on the ridiculous in his sayings and stories in order to make his point stick.

Jesus is telling us that the divine life that is in the world, the divine life that is in you and me though hidden and seemingly insignificant can result in expansive consequences. The late Fred Craddock recalls preaching in a university church in Norman, Oklahoma, some years ago, when a young woman came up to him after the service. He had preached from Mark 1 on the call of the disciples. She came up to Fred and said, “I’m in med school here and that sermon clinched what I’ve been struggling with for some time.”  Fred asked, “What’s that?” She said, “Dropping out of med school.” Fred asked her why she would want to do that and she said that she felt called to work in the Rio Grande Valley.

So she quit med school and went to the Rio Grand Valley, sleeping under a piece of tin in the back of a pickup truck some nights, teaching little children while their parents were out in the field. She dropped out of med school for this and her folks back in Montana were saying, “What in the world happened?” Fred didn’t have any answers for her parents. He said, “Well, I don’t know what happened. I was just preaching. I didn’t mean too.” There is transformative power in the seed and the yeast. Just let that seed take root in some good soil. Just hide that yeast in some dough and see what can happen.

The expanding life in the seed and the dynamic, transformative power in the yeast   should give us hope. Jerome Groopman, a professor at Harvard Medical School has written a book entitled The Anatomy of Hope. He says in the book, “I think hope has been, is, and always will be the heart of medicine and healing. We could not live without hope.” He says that even with all the medical technology available to us now, “we still come back to this profound human need to believe that there is a possibility to reach a future that is better than the one in the present.”

The power of the Holy Spirit is the power of love to effect change, and when we are in touch with and connected to the power of divine love/ Spirit, hope wells up within us. In Romans 5 Paul mentions how that our sufferings can actually help to stimulate hope, and then he says that hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. God is love, so when we are in touch with God, when we live in union with God, we know and experience God’s love, and that is what gives us hope, because we trust that love will one day overcome all.  

This experience of God’s love gives us the courage to hope and to trust that the life of God within us, within our communities, and within our world is slowly and silently and mysteriously at work and will in due time reveal itself. The growth is slow and incremental and hardly even discernable, but in time our lives and our world is transformed by it. So we have to trust the process and learn to wait. There is nothing we can do to rush the process. It is a natural process that takes time. And so we have to trust the process and learn to wait.

The late Henry Nouwen tells about some trapeze artists who became his good friends. They told Nouwen that when the flyer is swinging high above the crowd, the moment comes when he or she lets go of the trapeze and arcs out into the air. For that moment the flyer is suspended in nothingness. It is too late to reach back for the trapeze, she has let go and there is no going back. However, it is too soon to be grasped by the one who is doing the catching. She cannot hurry up the process.  In that moment, when she is suspended in air, her job is to be still and wait. One said to Nouwen, “the flyer must never try to catch the catcher. She must wait in absolute trust. The catcher will catch her. But she must wait. Her job is not to flail about in anxiety. In fact, if she does, she could die. Her job is to be still.  To wait.  And to wait is the hardest work of all.”

Yes, waiting is hard, but when we tap into the divine Spirit we experience divine love and that gives us the courage to hope and the endurance to wait. But we do not wait in idleness. God’s love empowers us to become agents of change – to actually be the body of Christ in the world.

In Madeleine L’Engle’s Love Letters Charlotte Clement remembers an incident from the past when she had gone downstairs to say goodnight to her widowed father, James Clement, a writer who cannot get his most recent books published. He is going through a time of doubt and depression and is feeling like a failure.  A conversation ensues.  He says, “Oh, Cotty, let’s not fool each other any longer. Why do I go on groping in the dark? Why can’t I accept the absurdity of existence and laugh, as the absurd ought to be laughed at? Why can’t I face the fact that it’s all an accident, that man is an unattractive skin eruption on an improbable planet, that what came gurgling up from the void will die down again into darkness.”[He stands up]. “Why does all of me reject this, Cotty?  Why must there be beauty and meaning when everything that has happened to me teaches me that there is none?”

What he is asking is, “How can I still have faith?” He tells her though, that in spite of all his doubt and despair he still has faith. Then he shares this little parable about the making of applejack: “You put apple juice in a keg and leave it outdoors all winter and let it freeze.  Almost all of it will turn to ice, but there’s a tiny core of liquid inside, of pure flame.”  Then he says, “I have that core of faith in myself. There’s always that small searing drop that doesn’t freeze.”

When we allow the promise of God’s love and our identity as God’s children to sink deep into our hearts – like seed into the ground and yeast into the dough – then that “tiny core of pure flame” begins to burn. As we allow the love of God to dwell in our hearts God’s love takes hold of us and begins to drive us and define us, and no amount of hardship, distress, persecution, famine, destitution, danger, or violence can quench that fire. The love of God becomes the light that sustains us and guides us through the darkness, the anchor that keeps us from being swept away by the strong currents of indifference and despair, and the strong arms that hold us tight and assure us how much we are loved when we want to break away from everyone into our own silent despondency. 

The more we allow the love of God to penetrate our defenses and pervade our conscious awareness and permeate our relationships, the more we will be able to say with Paul that we are convinced that neither death nor life, neither principalities nor rulers, neither things present nor things to come, neither height nor depth nor anything else will be able to separate us from the love of God that we have come to experience in Christ.

Gracious God, may we come to see and experience how your hidden, invisible, non-manipulative, and gracious power works in our lives and in our world. Help us to rely on that power, which is nothing less than the power of love that has been made known to us in such a beautiful way through Jesus. Give us the courage to trust your love and to wait for your love to do its work. And may we as a church and as individual followers of Jesus be available and ready and adept at being agents and representatives and instruments through whom you convey and communicate this love to our world. 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Parable of the Sower . . . or the Soil? (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)

It doesn’t take a seminary degree to observe that the parable itself in 13:1-9 puts the emphasis on the sower who sows the seed. It’s called the parable of the Sower in verse 18. But the interpretation that is given in verses 18-23 of the parable of the sower puts almost all the emphasis on the soil. If you give credibility to scholarly work on sacred texts as I do, it’s not difficult to understand what is going on.

The parable itself which is no doubt very close to the story as Jesus most likely told it was probably told as an encouragement to his disciples whom he sent out to preach the kingdom of God. He knew they would face opposition and he warned them that they would be like sheep among wolves. It would be easy to become discouraged in such a climate. The parable assures them that while, yes, there will be those who do not hear and receive their word, there will be some who will receive it. There will be some whose minds and hearts will be open and receptive to the message.

The interpretation of the parable goes in a different direction. According to the consensus of mainline biblical scholarship it is likely that the interpretation originated very early on when this story was being passed down orally – by word of mouth. In the course of this oral transmission this interpretation developed among Jesus’ followers. If Jesus had given a particular interpretation to his parables he would have defeated the purpose for telling parables in the first place, namely, to tease the mind and heart into active engagement with spiritual truth. He would also limit the meaning and restrict the impact of the parable by giving it one, particular interpretation. So it’s not likely this interpretation originated with Jesus. When the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written some 5 or 6 or even 7 decades after Jesus, this interpretation had become such an integral part of the tradition that it was incorporated into the Gospel story as the interpretation of Jesus, even though it arose in the church. That’s the consensus of mainline scholarship which you may or may not accept.

I do accept that explanation and on that basis I want to make a point here that I think is very important and I will begin with a common experience. Have you ever read a scripture passage, maybe you even studied the passage or pondered it at some length, and it impacted you in a certain way? You discovered such and such meaning in the text. You believe God spoke to you in a certain way through that text. But then later, maybe a year later, maybe 5 or 10 years later, you came back to that text, and that same text impacted you in a very different way. And you believe that God spoke to you through that text in a very different way than God spoke to you initially through that text. I’m sure many of you have had that experience.

Why is that? It is because sacred texts are fluid and dynamic. The symbolism and meaning in those texts can change for us as the Spirit makes use of these texts and as we are open and ready to receive what God is trying to communicate to us through them. There are scriptures that I read and apply today in a completely different way than I did a decade ago. Why is that? A lot of it has to do with the journey we are on. Maybe we are at a different place today than we were then – a different place spiritually, psychologically, theologically, and socially. God can use a text to speak to us in many different ways at different times and in different contexts in our lives.

That is the nature of God’s word. God’s word is not limited to scripture and it’s not a static thing. The word of God is God speaking. If you read a text of scripture and your mind and heart is not open to hear and receive what God may want to say to you through that text, then that scripture is not God’s word to you. The word of God is God actively wooing, drawing, enticing, revealing, and engaging us in a variety of ways.

Certainly, scripture is one of the key ways, one of the more important ways through which God engages us. This is why we give such great attention to scripture in our worship and in our study and mission groups. Sacred scripture is really important to us. And of course, we believe Jesus to be the living word par excellent. We believe that in the portrait of Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels, in out sacred scriptures we have been given a definitive revelation of what God is like and what God’s will is for humanity. This is why the lectionary puts such emphasis on the Gospels. Every Sunday there is a reading from the Gospels. The lectionary is structured around the life of Jesus. So scripture is very important to us. But the word of God is not limited to scripture. The word of God is God speaking and God can do that in any number of ways.

The word of God is a dynamic reality and we may never know the full impact of a word of God on a person.  Sometimes we write off people as having closed hearts to the word, but we never know really. The late Fred Craddock tells about the time he was teaching in Atlanta and was called back to Oklahoma for a funeral.  The man who died had been a good friend in the little church that Craddock served there.  It had been years since they had talked, but they were good friends. 

The voice on the phone said, “Ray wanted you to come and have his funeral, if you could?” Fred said, “I’ll come.” So he went, and after the funeral and the meal, it was just the family gathered around.  Kathryn was there.  She was the oldest daughter.  When Fred served that church, she was thirteen years old.  Fred says, “I remembered her when I left. She was the worst thirteen year old I had ever seen—noisy, in and out, pushing, shoving, breaking things, never stayed in the room, never paid attention.  When I left there, I could have said, ‘If there is one person that doesn’t know a thing I’ve said in the time I was here, it would be Kathryn.’”

Kathryn was now an executive with the Telephone Company.  She and her dad were real close.  Fred said to Kathryn, “I’m sorry, it’s such a tough time.”  She said, “It is tough.  When Mother called and said Dad had died of a heart attack, I was just scrambling for something.  Then I remembered a sermon you preached on the meaning of the Lord’s Supper.”  And she went on to tell Dr. Craddock something he had said in the sermon which apparently made a difference in her life. It gave her something to hold on to when she needed it most.

We just never know do we? And this is encouraging. Some seed land in good soil. And even when the soil may not be so good, some seed may stay put long enough to eventually do some good. This is a real encouragement to those in the business I’m in. We don’t know what might get through, and so we keep sharing the message, we keep teaching and preaching and writing and sharing because we never know. 

But this also should encourage you, because you are also sowing seed. We all are. One of the primary ways God speaks to people is through people. We are the body of Christ. We are called to scatter God’s love and grace. And we are not to discriminate. It is not for us to say who is good soil or bad soil. It’s not for us to say who is deserving or undeserving. There is a sense in which none of us are deserving and there is a sense in which we are all deserving. We are all God’s children. We all bear the image of God, no matter how marred that image may be. The Spirit resides in all of us whether we know it or not. Who knows when a closed heart will become an open heart? Our job is not to judge. Our job is to scatter the seed.

Whenever you offer hospitality and welcome you are scattering seed. Whenever you stand with and for the most vulnerable you are sowing seed. Whenever you do some work of mercy or share some word of kindness, or whenever you give of your resources and time to others, you are scattering and sowing the word of God. God is revealing God’s self through you. God is speaking through you. We are all sowers of seed.

And if we are not sowing good seed, there is a good possibility we are sowing bad seed. Jesus also told a parable about a good tree bearing good fruit and a bad tree bearing bad fruit. Are we sowing love or hate? Are we sowing inclusion or exclusion? Are we sowing affirmation or condemnation? Are we sowing courage or fear? Are we sowing humility or pride? We are all sowing seed.

We are also different types of soil at various times in our lives. The interpretation of the parable by Matthew should cause us to ask, “What kind of soil am I? So on the one hand we ask, “What kind of seed am I sowing?” And then on the other hand we must ask, “Am I the kind of soil in which the seed can flourish?” We can be different kinds of soil from one hour to the next.

Please don’t read this parable from the perspective of your own ego. If you do, then you will think of yourself as good soil and you will place others in the different types of soil. The people who believe like you do or think like you do or practice their faith the way you practice your faith you will designate good soil. If you do that, you might be anything except good soil. If we assign people and groups to various types of soil we will have then set ourselves up as judges and gatekeepers and our hearts will be just as closed as the religious gatekeepers in the day of Jesus.

We don’t need to be labelling or categorizing anyone. We need to look at our own hearts. Because the fact is, on any given day or moment our minds and hearts may be like any of these different types of soil. Let’s be honest. Some days we are like the hardened footpath. The seed doesn’t have a chance. There are days I know I am hard soil. And there are days I know I am preaching to hard soil.

One Sunday the preacher announced his sermon title as “Ignorance and Apathy.” A church member leaned over and asked his wife: What does he mean by ignorance and apathy. She replied: “I don’t know and I don’t care.” Unfortunately, there are some days where that’s where we seem to be. And the seed doesn’t have a chance.

There are other days when our minds and hearts are like the soil that is shallow and full of bedrock. There are days when disappointment or disillusionment set in, when our physical or emotional suffering becomes a barrier of bedrock preventing the good seed from sinking down into the depths of our hearts. Suffering may make us better or bitter. Some days it makes us bitter.

There are other days when our souls are full of weeds. These weeds are identified in the interpretation as the cares of the world and the lure of wealth. We know about these weeds don’t we? The lure of wealth may not be the wealth itself, it may be the power and position and place that comes with wealth. These cares could be anything – not necessarily bad things, but preoccupations and concerns that distract and keep us from doing what is really important like loving others. These cares and aspirations choke out the life of the good seed.

For many of us it doesn’t take much to distract us and turn us away from the wisdom and truth that could make a huge difference in our lives. C.S. Lewis in his Screwtape Letters describes a man who goes into the library to read and think. His mind is suddenly opened to thoughts of God and what that might mean in his life if he took God seriously. But then, his attention is drawn to the sounds on the street, to the newsboy calling out the latest news, and to the fact that he is hungry. And that’s all it takes to get his mind off of God. He, then, becomes consumed once again by the cares of the world.

Keeping the weeds out requires fairly constant attention. I have a goldfish pond in my backyard and I have some plants and rocks as the setting for it, and I have a heck of a time keeping the weeds out. It requires a little bit of attention every other day. If I let it go several days which I often do, weeds seem to sprout up everywhere. The same is true of our souls. This is why some spiritual writers insist on the practice of contemplative prayer or centering prayer, because it’s a way we can quiet our hearts and open them to the Spirit. In order for the divine life that is within to flourish it needs some space to set down roots and grow. That falls on us. We must make some space and invite God to speak and work in our lives. If we are focused on getting more stuff, or making a name for ourselves, or if we are constantly worried or anxious, there is no space in our lives for the life of Christ to live and thrive.

The Apostle Paul said, “To live is Christ.” How often can we say that? Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and God’s justice, and all these other things will fall in place.” Jesus asks us to move from being torn and divided about many things to being committed to the essential thing – God’s good and loving will for humanity and the creation. 

We can’t make the seed grow, but we can clear away some of the stuff that prevents the seed from growing. So much of the spiritual life is about subtraction, it’s about letting go – letting go of our many worries and fears, letting go of our infatuation with our own importance, letting go of our need to be in control and on and on it goes. We must let go of those things that prevent the life and love of God from growing in our lives.

So these are the two critical questions we face today. First: What kind of seed am I sowing? We are all sowing seed. Am I sowing good seed or bad seed? And second: What kind of soil represents my heart and mind most of the time? Is my mind and heart closed? Is it distracted or preoccupied? Or am I open, receptive, and ready for what God wants to show me and teach me?

Gracious God, may our hearts be open to receive your word to us. Help us to make space for your word to take root and grow. And help us to realize too, that just as you speak to us through others you speak to others through us. Empower us to sow seeds of peace and hope and love everyday. In the name of Jesus I pray. Amen. 

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The way of wisdom (Matthew 11:16-19; 25-30)

Bass fisherman talk about active fish, neutral fish, and inactive fish. There are periods of time, actually fairly long periods of time where big bass are dormant. They suspend in open water or they hover deep in cover, but either way, they are uncatchable. If you could precisely locate where one is and dangle a bait right in front of its nose, it will not take the bait. When a big bass is inactive, it is an uncatchable fish.

In our text today, we are introduced to some uncatchable fish. You may remember that Jesus employed a fishing analogy when he called some fishermen to be his disciples. He said, “Follow my way and I will teach you how to catch people in the net of God’s kingdom.” I suppose if you are fishing by means of a net it’s a bit different, but even then, I can imagine fish residing in cover that the net cannot penetrate. While disciples feel a sense of mission to share the wisdom of the way of Jesus with others, we know that there are folks who simply will not bite. And there are, I’m sure, all kinds of reasons for that, but all these reasons are reflective of the state of one’s heart. If one’s heart is closed, it is closed, and it cannot be forced or pried open.

Our Gospel text begins with a depiction of closed hearts. John and Jesus both come preaching the kingdom of God. John’s understanding of certain aspects of the kingdom of God no doubt differed from Jesus. John roared and thundered. He emphasized God’s judgment and called his hearers to repentance. He dressed like Elijah, had a strange diet of locusts and wild honey, and drew people out into the desert to hear him. He baptized those who welcomed his message. On the other hand, Jesus baptized no one. He traveled all around Palestine. He dressed like a rabbi and taught the way of wisdom. Though he, too, functioned as a prophet and called people to repentance he told stories and utilized short, witty, sometime shocking proverbs and sayings to make his point. He was known not for his thunderous speech, but for his compassion, for eating and drinking with “sinners” – those judged as unworthy by the religious establishment.

Now, I suppose it would be easy to say that Jesus’ approach was the right one and John’s not so much, but I’m not so sure that is the way to look at it. I think there are times we need both. Sometimes we may need to hear a hard word, a stern word, a challenging word; sometimes we may need to be hit over the head with the truth. Someone may need to shake us awake. Then, there are other times we need a more a sensitive, caring, gentle, and compassionate invitation. Both John and Jesus called their hearers to change, though they went about it in different ways. But some folks, like so many of the religious gatekeepers in Jesus’ day, are calloused to either approach. They are not going to bite. Their hearts are closed.

Today’s text echoes in several ways two strands of ancient Hebrew teaching and tradition. One is the tradition dealing with Moses and the law. And the other is the tradition dealing with wisdom. In several Jewish sources, including Proverbs in our Old Testament, divine wisdom is personified as a woman who assumes divine characteristics and attributes. This is what some teachers are referencing when they speak of Sophia or Lady Wisdom. Sophia is the Greek term for wisdom, which is feminine. The writer of Proverbs, for example, introduces the wisdom of God this way: “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice . . . How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? . . . Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you.” That’s from Proverbs 1. Divine wisdom is personified as a woman. She invites her listeners to give heed to what she has to say. And when you consider the patriarchal culture of ancient Jewish society this is pretty radical stuff.

I can understand why wisdom is personified as female. I was in my study on Wednesday working on this sermon, and Matt, our custodian, came in and said, “You have a net in your car?” I said, “No, why?” He said we have a bird in the fellowship hall.” I said, “Ok, I will run home and get one.”  I came back with two nets. I have one I use in my kayak to land those big bass I rarely catch, and I have a long net I use in my goldfish pond at home. When I walked in with the nets I noticed the doors to the fellowship hall were open and Karen and Betty were standing there. I said, “Did the bird fly out?” They said, “Yea, we opened the windows.” Duh! Now, can you just Imagine me and Matt chasing a bird around the fellowship hall with fishing nets. Probably would have made a great “You tube” video though. I thought of this passage where Lady Wisdom says, “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?”

What this passage is suggesting is that Jesus drew from both the law and the wisdom traditions in Judaism. He summarized the law as the law of love and he embodied and taught the way of wisdom. But not all were ready to receive and emulate his love and his wisdom. In fact, Jesus says that the way of wisdom is hidden from the wise and the intelligent, but revealed to infants.     

Now what does that mean? Wisdom hidden from the wise and the intelligent? It means that enlightenment and wisdom are only given to those who have the humility to receive these gifts. No one who overly cares about position or place or power, no one who wants to control others, can receive these gifts. The religious elites, the religious gatekeepers in Jesus’ day were closed to the wisdom of God. Why? Because they lacked the humility and readiness needed. They were not about to welcome truth from John or Jesus. They had the truth. They had the answers. They were the gatekeepers. They said who was “in” and who was “out.” They were the gatekeeper of a worthiness system. They labeled and categorized people according to who, in their judgment, was worthy and unworthy. And you know sisters and brothers, there’s a lot of religion, particularly a lot of Christianity just like that today.

Without humility, without recognition that we are all infants in need of being nurtured and taught the way of wisdom, there can be no growth. Wisdom cannot be received by the proud, by the know-it-alls, by those who think they are better or smarter than others. This is just how grace works sisters and brothers. The grace of enlightenment, the grace of wisdom, the grace of being able to understand and receive and live the way of Jesus is given to us in response to our awareness of how desperately we need such grace, how desperately we need the wisdom of God.  

Christians talk a lot about grace, but I’m not sure we all get it. Barbara Brown Taylor tells about becoming irate one afternoon when she was at Yale Divinity School in the 1970’s. The books she wanted she couldn’t find in the library, even though there was no record at the front desk that they had been checked out. When she asked the librarian what was going on, he told her that the Divinity school had the highest theft rate of any graduate school in the university. Barbara said, “How embarrassing. Why do you suppose that is?” “Grace,” he said, with a rueful look on his face. “You guys figure all has been forgiven ahead of time, so you go ahead and take what you want.”

Terrible isn’t it? That sense of entitlement is not grace at all. It’s interesting how many Christian folks get this all screwed up. I am going to venture into the health care discussion for a moment or two. I am not going to name any names so don’t worry too much, but there is a point here that needs to be made about grace. As you well know Congress is trying to push through a bill to repeal and replace the ACA that will, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, give a number of tax breaks to the wealthy while it will over the next decade push millions (not thousands, millions) of low income persons and families off of health insurance. Health insurance will be so costly that low income folks won’t be able to afford to get it or what they can afford will be so bad, it would be like not having any coverage at all. Here’s the point I want to make about grace. Some (not all of course, but some) who support this bill argue that the people who will be pushed off of health insurance don’t deserve it any way. They argue that they don’t deserve it because they haven’t worked as hard as those who deserve to have the tax breaks. They argue that somehow those who get the tax breaks deserve them, while those who are struggling just to make it from day to day are, for whatever reason, not entitled to receive government subsidies to help them get decent health coverage for themselves and their families. The people who make this argument, many of them Christians, may talk about grace in their churches, but they have no idea, no clue what grace really is. By the way, in my judgment for what it’s worth is that adequate health care should be no different than public education. It should be the right of everyone who lives in this country.

The worthiness system that Jesus challenged and contended with in his day in his own religion is really no different than the worthiness systems we experience today in Christianity, and I’m sure other religious traditions in their own way contend with this  too. Life transforming faith, authentic faith, faith that heals the broken, that forgives and restores sinners, and that liberates and frees the oppressed is never about being worthy, it’s never about rewards and punishments.  Worthiness systems close and harden the heart to true grace. They turn faith into a system of comparisons and competition. They divide and label and offer condemnation rather than salvation. Worthiness systems spread fear and insecurity and they produce anxiety.

But the way of wisdom, the way of grace, the way of true enlightenment and transformation nurtures the very opposite. The way of Jesus is rooted, not in a system of meritocracy, not in a system of rewards and punishments, but rather it is rooted in the unconditional love and graciousness of God who abolishes all exceptionalisms and elitisms. The way of Jesus breaks down barriers of division and brings us all to the same table to share the same meal as sisters and brothers in one family.

And yet the wisdom of God while freely given does not come without some costs, which is why Jesus also advised his would-be followers to count the costs. The way and wisdom of Jesus is called a “yoke,” but it is also called an “easy” yoke. Now, it’s not “easy” in the sense of what this wisdom asks of us. Jesus said, “If the world/the system persecuted me, it will persecute you (his followers).” Jesus said, “If you want to be my disciple, if you want to walk in the way of wisdom, then you must deny yourself (your ego self, your little self), and take up your cross and follow me.” "I’m headed toward a cross, says Jesus, and you must be willing to follow me there.” How is that easy? That is not easy. And yet, here’s the paradox (almost all spiritual truth is paradoxical) when one truly encounters real grace and comes to see just how gracious God is and how connected we all are and how beautiful life is, then following the way of wisdom is an “easy” decision that brings “rest” to our weary souls.

If you are unsure whether or not you are operating out of a worthiness system or whether you are living out of the experience of divine grace you may want to engage in a little self-inventory. Ask yourself these questions: Does my faith cause me to feel better, more special, more chosen, more blessed than others? Do I think others are excluded because they don’t believe or live like I do? Do I feel some fear and anxiety in practicing my faith? If you say yes to any of these, then there is a possibility you may be caught up in a worthiness system.

But if you are walking in the way of wisdom, if you are living out of a sense of union with God and connection to everyone else, if you are living and experiencing grace, then you will know something of the deep “rest” of God. You may be going through hardship, you may be encountering suffering and living under great stress, you may face opposition and rejection, but paradoxically and inexplicably you will also know at a deeper level peace and gratitude and feelings of generosity and thankfulness – what was called in a recent film I watched “collateral beauty.” For such is the burden that is light and the yoke that is easy that comes with the way of Jesus.  

So sisters and brothers, whether it’s Lady Wisdom of the ancient Hebrews beckoning all to listen, or whether it’s John the Baptizer thundering repentance out in the desert, or Jesus of Nazareth healing the sick, liberating the demonized, and throwing dinner parties for sinners, the way of wisdom invites us to receive grace and be part of something much larger than ourselves. The invitation may even come from some crazy preacher on a Sunday morning in July, 2017. If we would just open our hearts to the wisdom of God in humility and generosity, in trust and compassion, then we would know at a deeper level, below the surface of the waves that beat upon our lives every day, the peace and gratitude and joy of Jesus, then we would find true “rest” for our souls.

O God, as we now come to this table in thanksgiving for grace given and incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth, our Lord and Christ, open our hearts in humility that we might receive your wisdom and experience our connection to you, each other and all creation. Amen. 

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Rethinking Sin (a sermon from Romans 6:1-11)

Renowned New Testament scholar W. D. Davies, a number of years ago wrote a book intended not for the scholar, but for the lay person interested in the New Testament.  In his section on Paul he has a chapter entitled “The Ancient Enemy.” He begins with a story about President Coolidge, who had just returned from a service of worship one Sunday morning. When he was asked what the minister preached on he replied with one word: “Sin.” The minister preached on sin. When he was further pressed, “What did he say about it?” He responded, “He was against it.”

Over a half century ago, theologian Paul Tillich said that the great words of our Christian tradition cannot be replaced. He argued that there are no adequate substitutes for them – for words like “sin.” Though I’m sure he would have argued that we have to explore multiple meanings of these words.

One of the beautiful things about religious language is that it is symbolical language. It is metaphorical language and can touch us on many levels. The beauty and power of religious language is that words can take on new meanings in new contexts. I am not suggesting that we throw out the old meanings, but we need fresh and more nuanced understandings. This is particularly true when we talk about the language of sin.

Pastor and author John Ortburg tells the story about the time he and his wife sold their Volkswagen Beetle to purchase a really nice piece of furniture.  It was a pink sofa, but for the money spent to buy it, it was called a mauve sofa. The man at the sofa store gave them careful instructions on how to care for it. Ortburg said they had very small children in those days and the Number One rule in the house from that day forward was: “Don’t sit on the mauve sofa! Don’t play near the mauve sofa!  Don’t eat around the mauve sofa! Don’t touch the mauve sofa! Don’t breathe on the mauve sofa! Don’t even think about the mauve sofa! On every other chair in the house, you may freely sit, but on the mauve sofa you may not sit, for on the day you sit thereon, you shall surely die!”

Then one day - the “Fall.” There appeared on the mauve sofa a red stain, a red jelly stain. His wife called the sofa factory, and unfortunately it would be a permanent blot on the mauve sofa. So she assembled their three children in front of the mauve sofa to look at the stain:  Laura 4, Mallory 2 and a half, and Johnny, who was less than a year. She said, “Children, do you see that? That’s a stain.  That’s a red stain. That’s a red jelly stain. And the man at the sofa store say’s it’s not coming out, not for all eternity. Do you know how long eternity is, children? Eternity is how long we’re all going to sit here until one of you tells me which one of you put the red jelly stain on the mauve sofa.”

For a long time they all just sat there until finally Mallory cracked. She said, “Laura did it.” Laura said, “No, I didn’t.” Then it was dead silence. Ortburg says, “I knew none of them would confess to putting the stain on the sofa, because they had never seen their mom so mad and because they knew if they did they would spend all eternity in the ‘Time Out Chair.’” And then he says, “And I knew that none of them would confess to putting the stain on the sofa, because in fact, I was the one who put the stain on the sofa, and I wasn’t sayin’ nuthin! Not a word!” 

The truth about us, of course, is that we have all stained the sofa. As Paul says earlier in this letter, “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.” One time when Barry Larkin, who played for the Reds, hit a game winning home run off of Cubs relief pitcher Bob Patterson, Patterson described the pitch he gave Larkin as a cross between a screwball and a change-up. He called it a screw-up. Maybe a more contemporary way of saying what Paul meant when he said, “we have all sinned” is that we have all screwed up and struck out. We have all stained the sofa.

All of us get this. We all know about individual sin. We do enough of it don’t we? We have screwed up and struck out many times. We have failed to be loving persons we know we should be. We have hurt others with our words and actions. We have failed to live up to God’s expectations, our own ideals and expectations, and the expectations of others. In any number of ways our attitudes and actions come way short of living out God’s loving will for our lives. We know this. It’s a given.

What we may not know or realize with equal honesty and awareness is our participation in corporate or collective or systemic sin. We all participate in systems of injustice and sin, often without being aware.

For all Paul’s talk about sin, Paul doesn’t give a whole lot of attention to specific attitudes or behaviors that we would identify as “sins.” Rather, when Paul refers to sin, which he most often speaks about in the singular rather than plural (sin not sins) he often has in mind a kind of enslaving power; a force that entraps human beings and which almost always diminishes our lives in some way. It’s a kind of anti-love force that works in our lives individually and in society collectively to tear us apart – to divide us from one another and to divide our own hearts. This is what Paul is talking about when he uses phrases like “the old self” and “the body of sin”- he is speaking theologically, psychologically, and socially. Individually we can think of sin as destructive addictions, as false attachments to power or pleasure or pride, and as negative patterns and habits of thinking and living. Corporately or communally, we are also complicit in systems of sin – systems of injustice and evil. And these systems which we are all part of have enormous shaping and forming power in our lives. They are like force fields that limit our movement.

Think of how we have all bought into a system that keeps us wanting more, wanting what is bigger and better even though we don’t need it. We don’t even give it much thought because it’s what runs our economy. We are all affected by our consumeristic culture. How many big priced glide baits do I need to catch that big bass? How many expensive drivers do you need to hit that little white ball down the fair way? And no matter how much you pay for the drive you still can’t hit it straight, in the same way that I can’t catch that big bass. How much square footage does a family need? You see my point. We hardly even think about these things because they are such a common part of society. When the bass at Cedar Creek started hitting on plastic brush hogs I went out and bought 10 packages of brush hogs in all colors. Did I need 10 packages of brush hogs? Of course not. Now, I will agree though, some of you do need lots and lots of golf balls, but I won’t go there. Such is the power of the system as it appeals to our lesser desires. Think of how the system shapes our wants and desires when it comes to the clothes we wear, our houses and furnishings, our yards, our automobiles, and on and on it goes doesn’t it? So both individually and systemically we get caught in the power of sin.

In this section in Paul’s letter to the Romans, sin is personified as an oppressive regime. It can rule or lord it over a person. It is likened to a master or a tyrannical ruler. You know there is a lot of powerful spiritual symbolism in the Lord of the Rings by Tolkien. Bilbo Baggins is the Hobbit who finds the Ring of Power. Everything turns on the Ring of Power. Bilbo is unaware of the power the ring exerts upon him, much the way we are unaware of how deeply we are entrapped to our ego and the patterns of our culture. And through the years, the captivating power the ring has on him grows.

So as he makes plans to leave the shire for good, he intends on giving the ring to his nephew, Frodo, as part of the inheritance he leaves to him. But as the time approaches for him to depart the shire he has second thoughts. He cannot seem to let go of the ring. The ring has this strange hold on him.

Gandolf, the wizard, has observed for some time the strange power of the ring and he encourages Bilbo to give it up. In one scene, as Gandolf prods Bilbo to leave the ring behind, Bilbo’s demeanor changes. Greedy and grasping he snarls, “It’s mine! My own! My precious.” Gandolf does not back down and Bilbo is compelled by Gandolf to relinquish it, to let it go.   

When they learn the secret of the ring and Frodo and his companions begin the journey to Mordor, to destroy the ring in the fire at the Mountain of Doom, the ring begins to exercise its overriding power on Frodo.  And at the end of the journey, Frodo arrives at the mountain with the sole purpose of dropping the ring into the pit of fire, but then he cannot do it. He can’t let it go. It’s why he undertook this perilous journey. In the end it takes providence; it takes an intervention from Gollum, the pitiful creature who possessed the ring for many years. The power of the ring had destroyed his former self. Ever since he lost the wrong he has been consumed with getting it back. So Gollum tries to take the ring from Frodo. Gollum is able to wrest the ring from Frodo, but then loses his footing and falls into the fire with the ring, thus completing the mission that Frodo had consented to do.

The ring of power is a poignant symbol of both individual and systemic sin. It exposes the power that our addictions and false attachments have over us, as well as the power of the system to control us. So how do we break free? Where do we find freedom? How are we liberated?

Paradoxically, it is by dying that we enter into life. And by the way, this is not unique to the Christian faith. All the great religious traditions teach some form of dying to self, dying to the ego, and letting go. Paul connects this to Christian baptism which he interprets symbolically as our dying with Christ to sin’s power in order to live in the newness of life symbolized by God raising Christ from the dead. The point that I want to make here, which I think is really important, is that dying to sin, letting go of the old self or the false self, breaking free from what Paul calls this “body of sin” is never a once-for-all experience. It is a process and a journey.

There are some experiences that are decisive and may turn us around or change our direction and set us on a different journey or mission, such as Paul’ encounter with Christ when he was a persecutor of Christ followers. But, dying to our negative attitudes and behaviors, letting go of old habits and learning new ones that are more loving and life-giving is a process. When Paul says in verse 11 of our text, “So you must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus,” he is talking about a process that must be repeated daily, just as Jesus says, in Luke’s version of the saying, “Take up your cross daily.” It’s a day by day process. To say this theologically, salvation and sanctification are just different ways of talking about the same reality. Salvation is continual. It is on-going. It is a process of becoming. It is a daily journey of dying and being reborn.

Some spiritual teachers speak of this process as a process of shedding the false baggage  we have acquired and discovering our true selves created in God’s image. In a Hasidic tale, a rabbi named Zusya dies and stands before the judgment seat of God. As he waits for God to appear, he grows anxious imagining what God may ask him. What if God asks him, “Why weren’t you Moses or why weren’t you David or why weren’t you Elijah?” But when God appears God asks the rabbi, “Why weren’t you Zusya? Why did you not discover your true self? Why did you not become who you are?

Maybe redemption and transformation is about allowing the Spirit who indwells us the freedom to shape us into the likeness of the image already stamped upon us. I like the story about the country boy who had a great talent for carving beautiful dogs out of wood. Every day he sat on his porch whittling, letting the shavings fall around him. One day a visitor, greatly impressed, 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.”

For Christians the art of soulmaking, the process of becoming who we really are and were created to be means whittling away the parts that don’t resemble Jesus. It means whittling away the parts not in sync with the loving, compassionate healer and liberator of the Gospels known as Jesus of Nazareth, the one we claim as Lord.

It’s not easy though. Negative patterns of thinking, what Richard Rohr calls “stinking thinking” and self-serving patterns of behavior are hard to overcome. Especially when the system we live in and the culture we are part of encourages bad thinking and behavior. This is why we have to be patient with one another, and patient with ourselves. It’s a journey. Growth is sometimes very slow. We don’t let go of egocentric attitudes and actions overnight. But as Paul says, “Where sin abounds, grace does much more abound.” Sometimes the process is painful. There are setbacks. There are times it’s really tough, but God will see us through. As Paul says in another letter, “The one who began this good work in us will bring it to completion.”

Our good God, sometimes our growth, our liberation from sin, from the old self, from systems of injustice, is like a snail’s pace. We confess our own entanglement in unjust systems, and we acknowledge how often we are ego driven rather than love driven. Help us to be aware of our sin. Help us to be aware of our ensnarement by the system. And give us the grace to ask your help and the patience to be persistent, to keep getting up every time we fall, so that we might whittle away at all the negativity and selfishness in our lives, and become more of the humble, loving, serving, compassionate persons you have called us to be.