Sunday, August 12, 2018

Being Imitators of God (A sermon from Eph. 4:25-5:2)


Ten years ago we said as a congregation that our vision is one of experiencing and expressing God’s unconditional love. We could have easily come to that sense of vision by reading this letter to the Ephesians, that is actually, a letter to the church at large. In his prayer for the church the writer prays that they will understand and experience the immensity and magnitude of Christ’s love. In the passage we looked at last week the writer called upon his readers to bear with one another in love, to speak the truth in love, and to work together and build up the whole body in love. Everything is to be done in love. Now, in today’s passage we are called upon to be imitators of God by living in love. All the instructions and exhortations the writer gives to the readers in this text are expressions of what it means and what it looks like to live in love and thus, be imitators of God.

First, we imitate God and live in love by putting away falsehood and deceit, so that we can honestly and sincerely speak truth to our neighbor. The neighbor of course, could be anyone, even the one who wishes or even works for our harm. This is part of what it means to love our neighbor. We speak truth to our neighbor. Now, we sometimes do strange things with scripture to avoid this. In an article I read recently the reporter was interviewing people in a Southern Baptist Church and one woman said that to love your neighbor means your American neighbor. She also said that welcoming the stranger meant welcoming the legal immigrant stranger. That’s convenient isn’t it? I suppose we all selectively read scripture to one degree or another to justify our beliefs and practices, which is why I often say we need to be intentional regarding one’s biases. It’s foolish to pretend we don’t have them. I think the important question is what kind of biases are we going to have? Are they constructive or destructive? When Jesus told the story that we call the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus made it quite clear that our neighbor could be one of a different nationality and religion. Jesus made it clear that our neighbor even includes our “so called” enemy – the one who wants to do us harm. We imitate God by loving our neighbor and by speaking truth to our neighbor without deceit and deception.

Second, we imitate God and live in love by refusing to allow our anger at injustice to control us. The writer says, “Be angry, but do not sin.” Anger is not forbidden. In fact, anger is even expected. If there are things that do not anger us as followers of Jesus, then perhaps we are not actually following Jesus. How does a follower of Jesus not get angry over our government’s treatment of families seeking asylum? How does a follower of Jesus not get angry when we learn that over 500 children have not been reunited with their parents, and that it is very possible, that many of them may never be reunited? How does a follower of Jesus not get angry over the racism that pervades our country today and is being legitimized by our top government leaders? How does a follower of Jesus not get angry when the most vulnerable among us are beaten down and oppressed?

Jesus got angry. In Mark 3 we are told that Jesus entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and there was a man who had a withered hand. The religious authorities were carefully watching Jesus to see if he would heal the man. They didn’t care about the man. They cared only about their own power and authority and making Jesus conform to their rules. Just like our government leaders who care nothing about the families they criminalize who come simply seeking asylum. Mark says that Jesus “looked at them with anger” and that he was “grieved at their hardness of heart.” Anger can be righteous or it can be unrighteous. Much of that is determined by what it is that ignites the anger within us. The hypocrisy of the religious gatekeepers who cared about the rules more than they cared about helping and healing others, greatly angered Jesus.

One of the very best treatments I have ever read about God’s anger was written by the Hebrew scholar and mystic, Abraham Heschel, in his classic work on the prophets. He points out that God’s anger as expressed by the prophets is never an explosive, emotional outburst, but something that is purposeful and ultimately intended for good. It most often reflects God’s actions toward his people when his people mistreat the most vulnerable and take advantage of the widows, the orphans, and the aliens or non-Jews living in the land, who were the most vulnerable ones in Hebrew society. God’s anger, says Heschel, goes hand-in-hand with God’s mercy. It is intended to be corrective and redemptive, and thus temporary. Anger is not God’s settled disposition. Mercy and God’s steadfast love constitute God’s settled disposition.

This is why the writer says, “Be angry, but do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” We fail to imitate God if we allow anger to fester and grow. Anger must never become a settled disposition. Last week, I posted via social media something I said in my sermon. Namely, how we are obligated to speak the truth in love. I said that as followers of Christ we must speak out when we see injustice. But even as we speak out against injustice, we must not demonize those who support demonic policies and practices. One of my facebook friends commented on how difficult that is to do. She said, “When children are involved, I sort of lose my mind.” She was referencing, of course, the children who have been separated from their parents, and may never be reunited with their parents. Here is what I said to her: It is hard, but for our own sanity, and less we poison with our anger the people around us, we have to be able to let it go.” I said to her, “The more you care, and the more compassionate you are, the harder that will be for you to do. But you have to be able to find some joy, and some good, and some gratitude, and not let the injustice you are angry over steal your life.” God doesn’t hang on to anger. As the Psalmist says, “God’s anger is but for a moment, while God’s steadfast love is for a lifetime.” If we are to be imitators of God and walk in love we can’t hold on to our anger either. We cannot be perpetually angry.

Third, the writer says we imitate God and walk in love by engaging in constructive work and labor, so that we will have something to share with the needy. We work and labor in order to live – to support ourselves and our families. That’s a given isn’t it? But that is not what the writer says is it? Where does the writer place the emphasis? On what we get out of work? No. It’s on what we can give isn’t it? We work and labor, so we will have something to share with the needy. That’s a different perspective on work isn’t it? Because the emphasis is not what we can get. It’s on what we can give?

Fourth, the writer says we imitate God and live in love when we guard our speech, so that our words uplift and build up others and communicate grace. All of these instructions go together or build on each other. If we are carrying around bitterness and resentment, if we have not sufficiently diffused our anger and let it go, there is a good possibility our speech, our words, will tear down rather than build up. All of us, I suspect, have been guilty (I know I have) of using words to tear down, rather than build up. And sometimes our words, which we intend to build up, actually tear down, because we are not aware in the moment of our own frustration. Again, I speak from personal experience. In fact, I was guilty of this just this past week.

I love the story of the little girl who came skipping out of children’s church one morning. Her mother asked her what she had learned. She said that her teacher had talked about the verse where Jesus told his disciples to let their light shine before others in such a way that others would see their good works and glorify God. She said the teacher had taught them what when they let the light of Jesus’ love shine in their hearts and their lives, then their lives would a blessing to others and to God. Well, the very next Sunday this same little girl got in an argument with another little girl in the class. In fact, things got so out of hand, the teacher had to get her mom out of worship to come and settle her down. When her mom got to her she said, “Honey, what happened? What happened to letting the light of Jesus’ love  shine in your heart and be a blessing to others?” In tears, and totally frustrated the little girl said to her mother, “Mama, I guess I just blew myself out.” We all know about blowing ourselves out don’t we? All these instructions on walking in love are connected. If we are unable to let go of our anger, if we allow it to take root and grow, it’s not very likely our words will be gracious and constructive in building others up.

Fifth, we imitate God and walk in love when we strip ourselves of all negative attitudes and behaviors that are malicious and slanderous and hurtful to others, and put on attitudes and behaviors that reflect kindness, compassion and forgiveness. We put aside our grudges, as we forgive one another the way God in Christ has forgiven us.

Philip Gulley says that when he was a kid he lived about a mile from the dump. But there was a kid named Bobby who lived right next to the dump with his little brother and grandmother. For some reason, says Gulley, Bobby got picked on a lot and was always mad. He would come over to Gulley’s house in late summer and early fall, when football was starting, and they played football. Somebody would tackle Bobby and he would come up swinging, ready to fight.

One Saturday they were playing football and Bobby got mad at Philip’s brother, Doug, and hit Doug. But Doug didn’t do anything. All the kids were yelling at Doug to hit him back, but Doug wouldn’t do it. He refused to hit Bobby back. So, the rest of them kicked Bobby out of the game and made him go home. Afterwards, Philip asked Doug why he hadn’t gone after Bobby, because he knew Doug wasn’t scarred of Bobby. He knew Doug could handle Bobby. Doug told him how he’d learned that week that Bobby lived with his grandma because his parents had been killed and he figured Bobby had been hit enough in life. Philip was 11 years old, but that memory stayed with him, because it was the first time in his life that he became distinctly conscious of grace.

Philip had experienced a lot of kindness in life, from his family, from teachers, from his friends, and he knew what that looked like and felt like. But this was different. His brother had every reason to settle the score; his brother would have been justified in hitting Bobby back, making Bobby pay the price for being a jerk, but he didn’t. He withheld and retrained his anger. He opted for mercy.

Bobby moved away the next year and Philip lost touch with him. But years later, Philip was at an event where a woman introduced herself and said that she had a nephew that used to live in the town where Philip grew up. When Philip inquired, he discovered it was Bobby. She said Bobby was married, had three daughters, and was very happy. Maybe Bobby encountered enough grace, enough forgiveness, enough love in his life to change him, and maybe some of it came through people like Doug Gulley, who opted to forgive rather than fight. We imitate God and live in love when we, like Doug Gulley, are tenderhearted, kind, understanding, and quick to forgive.

Lastly, we imitate God and live in love when we live sacrificially like Christ. Jesus didn’t die a sacrificial death in order to satisfy some need in God. God didn’t require Jesus to die so God could forgive sins. Jesus lived for God’s will and God’s cause in the world, and he gave his life sacrificially to that end. Jesus spoke truth to power in love. Jesus confronted the religious and social injustices within Judaism. Jesus did what was loving rather than what was lawful time and time again. And it got him killed. He lived sacrificially, so he died sacrificially – as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. The way he died became a symbol for how he lived. It’s all one piece. We are called to the same kind of sacrificial love and service. Jesus died a sacrificial death because he lived a sacrificial life. We are called to do the same.

So, how do we imitate God and live in love. One, we put away falsehood and deception, and we speak truth to our neighbor. Two, we refuse to allow anger to linger and fester. Three, we engage in constructive work, so we will have something to share with the needy. Four, we guard our speech, so that our words are seasoned with grace and serve to inspire and build up others. Five, we put away attitudes and actions that are slanderous and hurtful to others, and instead nurture tenderheartedness and kindness, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven us. And six, we follow Christ’s example of sacrificial service and ministry regardless of the cost. As we ready ourselves to share in the bread and cup in remembrance of the one who so beautifully imitated God and lived in love, let us ask ourselves: Am I willing to set aside my false self, take up my cross, and follow Christ on the path of sacrificial love and service. / Gracious God, open our hearts and incline our wills to do your good will and live in the love of Christ.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Called to Love (A sermon from Ephesians 4:1-16)

Paul, or someone within the Pauline tradition, begins this part of the letter begging his readers to live up to their calling. If Paul didn’t write this, whoever did is someone who reflects Paul’s passion. He once again emphasizes that our calling from God is about unity. It is about living as one people. He calls upon his readers to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Let me remind you, in case you have forgotten or wasn’t hear the Sunday I emphasized this, the unity this writer is talking about is not just the unity of the local church. Nor is it just about the unity of the universal church. It is a unity that includes everything and everyone on earth and in heaven. The writer laid this out in his opening words, namely, that God’s purpose, that has now been definitively revealed through Christ, is that all things on earth and in heaven will be gathered up, unified, brought together, made one in Christ. To say that all things are brought together in Christ is to say that all things are brought together in love, because Christ is love. The living Christ stands for and represents love incarnate. Christ is the Christian term for the divine love that pulsates though out the universe.

I love the story that I have shared a few times before that author and pastor Philip Gulley has shared about a time when he was much younger and called to pastor a small urban congregation in Indianapolis. The congregation was extremely caring and compassionate, taking on the demeanor of their two most active members, Lyman and Harriet Combs. When Gulley came to know the couple they were retired and had devoted their remaining years to caring for others. Lyman volunteered amost every day at a homeless shelter, and Harriet made it her practice to be available to anyone in need. She babysat, transported the elderly to their appointments, tended the sick, visited the lonely, and did so with such joy and good humor that being in her presence was an uplifting and inspiring experience.

What bothered Gulley, though, as a young minister was the church’s seeming indifference to numerical growth. He wanted to build the institution. One day when Gulley was particularly frustrated he asked Harriet why that was so. She said, “I guess it was never our goal to have a large church.” Well, that was not what he was wanting to hear as a young, ambitious minister. So he asked Harriet, “Then why are we here?” Smiling, she said, “To love.” Gulley says that while he was busy trying to attract the right kind of people – families with children, the influential, the gifted, financial donors, people who could grow the institution – Harriet was busy caring for those in need, never judging, never trying to gauge their worth, just accepting and loving them.

I will tell you, as pastor of this church, I care about the institution. And some of that, I will admit, is ego and self-preservation – because after all, my vocation and livelihood is tied to the institution. I will certainly not pretend that is not important to me. I want our church as an institution to thrive. There are better reasons, though, for the institution to thrive. I hope you give generously to the institution. Because the more you give, the more ministry and service in the community we can do. We want to be able to send our young people to camp. We want to be able to support our ministries here and support missions abroad. We want to be able to keep up our facilities in good condition, not just for our own benefit, but also for community service and use. We should all want the institution to thrive.  And if you know people who have given up on church because of what most churches believe and practice these days, then tell them about our church, because we are certainly not like most churches are we. They might find a home here.

But as much as I want the institution to thrive, and hopefully you want this as much as I do, we can’t lose focus about what our primary task is – and that is, to love. There is a lot about the church as an institution that we cannot completely control. But we all can love. In his prayer in chapter 3 of this letter the writer prays: I pray that you may have the power to comprehend (that is, understand), with all the saints, what is the breath and length and height and depth, and to know (that is, to experience) the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” Then, says the writer, you will “be filled with all the fullness of God.” Because God is love. When we are filled with love, we are filled with God. Our vision statement as a church is a simple one: To experience and express God’s unconditional love. The unity, the common good, the oneness that the living Christ wants for all creation will only be brought about through love.

I would like to hightlight three ways that our writer says is critical to this process of living out our calling to love and to bring everyone together in Christ. First, we must bear with one another in love. And the way we do that, says our biblical writer, is by relating to one another with humility and gentleness and patience. Some people need time, and we can’t force them to grow when they are not ready to grow. It’s taken me a long time to learn this, but I think I understand now.

Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek, once wrote about a time when he came upon a cocoon nestled in an olive tree. The infant butterfly was just starting to break through when Kazantzakis decided to shorten the natural process. He moved up real close and breathed on it. The warmth of his breath caused the butterfly to prematurely emerge from the cacoon, and when it did its wings were not adequately formed. So, unable to fly, it struggled and died. The young Kazantzakis learned a lesson that day. He had impatiently intervened and interrupted a process that he did not fully understand, and as a result of his intervention, he prevented life from fully forming, and did great harm to a living thing. I wish I had learned that lesson at the age when he learned that lesson.

Sometimes sisters and brothers we just have to back off, be patient, and wait. Sometimes we have to give people space to develop. Our part is to let them know we love them and care about them, but they have to work through their stuff. We can’t force them to become what they are not ready to become.

Now, this brings me to the second way we live out our calling to love, which is going to seem like a contradiction to what I just said. Everything depends on context. Situations are different. There are times when we wait too long, or times when we wait, when we should be speaking and acting and doing. There is a time to wait and be patient, and a time to act. There is a time to be silent, and a time to speak. There is a time to speak the truth in love.

When it comes to the big social and restorative justice issues of our time, now is not the time to wait. We live in a democracy, at least for now, and it is our responsibility to speak up. How can a follower of Jesus not be angry and outspoken about the way our government is treating refugees? I read the other day that some children may never be reunited with their parents. We are complicit in that injustice, because these are our elected representatives who are letting this happen. People who have come here fleeing violence and danger, looking for a safe place to live, we are treating as criminals. If we love God, and care about what is right and good and just, if we care about the well-being of our country, and if  have just a little of the compassion of Jesus, how can we not speak up and speak out, and not confront this injustice.

Now here’s the catch. Speaking the truth in love, I believe, means taking on the demonic policy and practice, without demonizing the people who support it. And that, sisters and brothers, is a delicate undertaking. Everyone who is committed to speaking truth in love struggles with this. Just as humility is important in bearing with others patiently and in longsuffering, so humility is just as important when we speak the truth in love. In love we confront the  unjust and demonic policies, without demonizing and treating unjustly those who enforce and support those demonic policies. This is where prayer is so important, because prayer helps us to  attend to our own inner life and keep our ego in check.

So, we live out our calling to love, to bring all things together in Christ, by bearing with one another in humility, gentleness, and patience. And by speaking the truth in love. The third way our biblical text emphasizes, is by using our gifts and abilities to work for the common good. When it comes to specific beliefs about God or anything else, we will never have unity. That’s not the unity we should be striving for. The unity in Christ that we should be striving for is a unity in love, where we work together for the common good, whether that common good is for our families, our church, our community, our country, or our world.

Serving one another and our larger society for the common good has the potential to bring us together like nothing else. The newscaster Charles Kuralt, tells a beautiful story in his book A Life on the Road. It was the spring that Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed and several American cites erupted in flames. In June, Robert Kennedy was murdered. Kuralt had known them both. He was feeling depressed about the future of the country, as some of us are today. Then, in July, in Reno, Nevada, he ran across a woman named Pat Shannon Baker. Pat was a young white woman, the mother of three children. The night Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, she sat up late thinking she had to do something. But what could she do? She remembered a vacant lot she passed every day in the city. It would make a nice park, she thought. She went to see her councilman, who talked about their strained budget and the difficulty of passing a bond issue. So Pat Baker went to see people in the African-American community around the lot, and she went to see garden supply companies and cement companies and the heads of construction and contracting companies. Pretty soon, her idea was their idea too.

At seven-thirty on a Friday morning, a time when many Reno residents had not yet stirred from their houses, a crowd began gathering on that vacant lot. By eight-thirty, 2,000 tons of topsoil was being spread by front-end loaders operated by heavy-equipment operators not used to working for free. Kuralt stood and watched them. He could hardly believe his eyes. He watched a school custodian, a roofer, a garage mechanic and an unemployed teenager digging a ditch together. A junior high school boy assigned to saw two-by-fours to serve as cement forms sawed all day in the hot sun as if his life depended on it. A little girl carried water to the workers. Some Coastguardsmen, Marines and Seabees came by and helped. By noon, cement was laid for a double tennis court. A basketball court had been made by the time the sun went down. Dozens of people worked through the night.

On Saturday morning, a crowd of several hundred people showed up for work, black and white, young and old. An eighty-four year old man who came to watch spent the entire afternoon helping to plant trees. By Saturday night, the lawn had been sown, and on Sunday morning a sprinkler system was turned on. By Sunday afternoon, the park was finished, complete with walks and benches and trees and playing courts and grass. They named it the Pat Baker Park and asked her if she would like to say something. She said, “This was a great, big, black and white thing.” Kuralt went back twenty years later. He said the grass was neatly trimmed and the trees had grown tall and leafy. People were sitting on the park benches in the shade of the trees. Kids were playing on the basketball court. He thought back to the weekend the park was built. He remembered an elderly African-American, leaning on his shovel, looking around at what they had done and said that this was the best thing that ever happened since he had come to Reno. Not just the park itself. That was good, but he was talking about the building of it. The coming together for the common good.

I guess there is one belief we have to share if we ever hope to come together in unity. We have to believe in love – the kind of love that we see incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, who for us is the Christ. Perhaps this is how we should understand the biblical writer when he mentions one faith and one baptism. We must share a living trust in the transforming power of love and be immersed in such love. We have to believe that loving one another and building up one another is what we are called to do. And if we believe that, then we will want to patiently and gently and humbly bear with one another. If we believe we are called to love all people, then we will refuse to be silent in the midst of injustice. We will speak the truth and not be deterred by deceptive and deceitful religious and partisan arguments. And we will do something. We will use our gifts and time and abilities and energies to work for the common good in our families, our church, our community, our country, and our world.

O God, I pray, like our biblical writer, that we may all come to understand just how big – how wide and deep – is your love for all of us. And more than understand, I pray that we might experience this love first hand so that it takes root deep in our hearts and souls. So that we might be committed to your plan for the world. So that we might do what we can do – in bearing with one another, in speaking your truth, and in working together to see our families and our church and our community and our world come together as one people. Inspire us and empower us to be instruments of your peace and channels of your love. Amen.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

When a little goes a long way (John 6:1-15)


The late Dr. Fred Craddock tells about being called back to Oklahoma for a funeral while he was in Atlanta. The man who died had been a good friend in the little church he served there. It had been years 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 Fred went, and after the funeral and the meal, it was just the family. Kathryn was there. She was the oldest daughter. When Fred served that church, she was thirteen years old. Fred said, “I remembered her when I left, and 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.” Fred said, “Kathryn, you’re kidding.” And she went on to tell him something he had said in the sermon that helped her when she needed it most. Who knows? Who knows when an encouraging word, an act of kindness, a gift of time or personal attention will have an impact? Who knows when some word or deed or service on behalf of another will make a difference in their lives?

In our story a large crowd has been following Jesus and apparently they haven’t eaten in some time. Jesus points this out to his disciples and raises the question about how they might feed this great multitude. Philip seems overwhelmed by the need – and the need is great: “Six months wages could not buy enough food for each one just to get a little,” he says. But Philip doesn’t yet realize what God can do with just a little.   

Andrew chimes in next: “There is a boy here who has five barely loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Now, Andrew can be understood in a couple of ways. We could read Andrew’s question the same way we read Philip’s answer. The need seems too overwhelming to even consider. There is a boy here who has five loaves and two fish, but what is that in light of our enormous need. That’s one way to hear Andrew. Another way, though, is to read in Andrew’s response a more hopeful, positive possibility. Maybe he is saying: Well, the need is great. It’s huge. But we do have something. We have a little. Can we imagine Andrew looking at Jesus as he says this with a faint sense of hope and possible expectation of what Jesus might be able to with the little boy’s little bit of bread and fish? Maybe that’s stretching it. I suspect Andrew is just as overwhelmed at the need before them as Philip.   

Jesus has the crowd of people, whom John says numbers about five thousand, sit in groups on the grass. Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks to God for it, and then distributes it to the multitude. He does the same with the fish. When all is said and done, the people eat their fill, and the disciples gather up twelve baskets full of leftovers. Perhaps a basket for each of the twelve disciples to press home the point of what God is able to do with our little.

The writer of this story wants us, the readers, to clearly understand that this story is a “sign.” All the works of healing and the unusual feats of Jesus, which we call “miracles” such as Jesus walking on the water and here in the multiplying of the bread and fish – all of these things this Gospel writer calls “signs.” They are signs because they point beyond themselves to something else. The whole point of a sign story is to teach us something about what God wills and wants for our world and for our lives. Whether a story actually occurred historically is for all practical purposes irrelevant. The pressing question is. What is this a “sign” of?

My take on it, is that the point here is that God, the cosmic Christ, the Holy Spirit, our heavenly Father and Mother (use whatever image for God you like), the living Christ is able to take what little we give away to others and bless it to the good of others beyond our expectations. God is able to take that merciful deed of caring, that kind, encouraging word, that gift of money or personal time and attention, and put it to great use in making a difference in people’s lives.

John makes it clear that this is a sign of the kingdom of God, a sign of God’s will and way in the world. John says, “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This indeed is the prophet who is come into the world.’” From the perspective of John’s Gospel this is a sign of what God wants to do and can do with our little.

Alan Bean is the executive director of Friends of Justice, an organization that, among other things, is committed to building a moral consensus for ending mass incarceration and mass deportation. At one time he pastored in the Texas Panhandle community of Tulia, Texas.

On the morning of July 23, 1999, 47 alleged drug kingpins were arrested on the poor side of Tulia and charged with selling little baggies of powdered cocaine to a single undercover agent by the name of Tom Coleman. Coleman had no evidence to corroborate his stories, but on the basis of his testimony alone local juries handed down the stiffest sentences allowed by law. One young man received six 99-year sentences, to be served consecutively.

Then they learned that Tom Coleman had been arrested on theft charges in the middle of this 18 month undercover operation. And before taking the Tulia job, he had worked as a deputy in another West Texas town, leaving in the dead of the night owing local merchants $10,000. Bean called another West Texas sheriff who hired Coleman even further back. He said, “If I had people in jail on that man’s uncorroborated word, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.”

Well, Alan and his wife Nancy were at a crossroads. They could pretend nothing happened and get on with their lives. They could say to themselves, “What little we can do can’t possible make a difference.” Or they could offer up what they could. They decided to do what they could do.

They started holding Sunday night meetings in their living room where the children, parents, and loved ones of the sting defendants gathered to sing gospel songs, dance, read letters from prison, and plot strategy. They packaged the story for journalists. They reached out to advocacy groups across the nation. They got in touch with the governor’s office and made repeated trips to Austin to visit with legislators, handing out brochures that read: Moses, the Apostle Paul, and Jesus agree: no one should be convicted on the word of a single witness.

Gradually their efforts were rewarded. Two sisters in New York published a documentary on the story. Two international law firms saw the documentary and signed on to represent the defendants on a pro bono basis. ABC’s 20-20 sent a team to investigate. Even Bill O’Reilly covered the story on Fox.

Then came the backlash. Nancy, Alan’s wife, was shunned at work by her fellow teachers. The brake lines were cut on their automobile. Their phones were tapped. Denominational officials told Alan that he was too radical to recommend to their churches. They were betrayed by friends. You see, sisters and brothers, sometimes even the little that we can offer up to God’s kingdom on earth and give to others can be extremely costly and risky.

After four years of struggle, a judge ruled that Tom Coleman lacked credibility under oath. All charges were dropped, prisoners were released from prison and eventually pardoned by the Governor. Tom Coleman was found guilty on aggravated perjury and the defendants and their lawyers received millions of dollars in reparation payments. A law was passed by the Texas Legislature demanding corroboration for single-witness testimony. The Department of Public Safety replaced unaccountable, and often corrupt, narcotics task forces. God used the little that Alan and Nancy Bean had given when they decided to speak out for truth and defend those charged unjustly. God multiplied it beyond, I suspect, what they ever dreamed. And yet even so, Alan says he and his wife had been so beat up, they found it hard to celebrate. Sometimes, sisters and brothers, we can take a beating for doing what we can do, for giving what we can give, for saying what we can say. Maybe that’s why Jesus sometimes told would-be disciples to count the cost. Because there is a cost. I suppose Jesus was preparing us for that when he pronounced special blessing on those persecuted for justice’s sake.

To be honest with you sisters and brothers, I sometimes wonder if it is worth it? I do. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed at the injustice in our world and in our country, and even in my own complicity in it. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed at the problems I see all around me. People who lack the resources to live a thriving life. People who are sick without adequate medical care. People who face great suffering due to illness or injustice or circumstances beyond their control. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed at my own lack of will and want to do more or be more compassionate. And to be honest, I am just like Philip and Andrew. What are five loaves and two fishes in view of such massive need? It’s discouraging. And it would be easy to go the next step and give in to despair. It takes stories like this one in our Gospel text to remind me that God hasn’t abandoned any of us. That God is present and deeply and intimately active in a world which God loves and cares about. It takes stories like this to remind me that even though we might not be able to see it, God takes the little we bring – of our resources, of our time, of our abilities – and uses it in ways that we can hardly imagine. God can take our service to others, our kindness to others, our helpfulness to others and make it a “sign” of what God wills and wants for our world. And surprisingly God can use it to make a difference in people’s lives.

Sometimes we preachers like to remind our congregations that we are the body of Christ. That we are the arms, the hands, the feet, the voice of Christ in the world. That God uses people like you and me to do God’s will for mercy and justice. And if we don’t do it, God has no other way of getting it done. But we sometimes forget to emphasize that we just never know when and where and how God is going to do something in someone’s life or in some community that seems miraculous. It is, as Paul said, God who is at work in all of us both to will and to do according to God’s plan to bring everything together in Christ. God wants to reconcile all things together in love, and God is at work in each of our lives to that end – to change us and grow us into loving, gracious, more giving and caring persons and communities.

Our text concludes today with some who witnessed this “sign” trying to force Jesus to be king. Perhaps they thought with Jesus in control there would be no more need, no more hunger, no more want. Of course, we can’t force God to do anything and God cannot force us. Our journey with God is always a cooperative venture. It’s about working together. It’s about being in partnership. That is the way it is and always been from the first time life emerged on this planet millions of years ago. God has always worked in cooperation with the creation. And that sisters and brothers, is the only way any problem, from poverty to cancer to corruption in government is going to be solved. Working together with God and with each other is the only way any need will ever be met, whether it’s our personal need for courage and moral strength, or society’s need for a more equitable distribution of resources. Can we give our little and trust that God will bless it to bless others?

Great God in heaven and on earth, give us the will, and help us find a way to partner with you in bringing everyone together in your love. Give us the want and will to give to others and to your cause for their good and your good in the world. If enough of us gave what little we have and are, perhaps this world would look more like what you envision this world to be. Stir our hearts to offer our little so all your “little ones” will be cared for. Compel us, O God, to give away our five loaves and two fishes that the hungry might be fed, that the downtrodden might be lifted up, that the oppressed might be liberated, and that we might all come together in your love. Amen.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Breaking Down Walls (A sermon from Ephesians 2:11-23)


New Testament scholars are about evenly divided on whether Paul or one of Paul’s followers, who perhaps knew Paul and worked with Paul wrote this letter. Clearly there is some development in Paul’s thought from his earlier letters. In this letter Paul, or someone writing within the Pauline tradition, is writing not to address some local church concerns or issues, but rather, the writer offers a universal vision of God’s plan for humanity and the church.  In the first couple of paragraphs of this letter the writer lays out God’s universal hope for humanity, and for all creation. This writer claims that from the beginning God’s plan that will be realized in the fullness of time is (and I am quoting from the NRSV) “to gather up (that is, unify, or reconcile, or bring together) all things (not some somethings, not just what some would regard as holy things or holy people, but all things) in Christ, things in heaven and things on the earth.” This writer envisions all reality coming together in Christ.

The great challenge and obstacle faced by Christ followers in that day and time was the hostility and divisiveness between Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews). This wasn’t just one local church issue. It was the issue that all churches faced in that day and time. The description of Gentiles or non-Jews in v. 11 of our text is how, unfortunately, many Jews of that time regarded non-Jews. And this is what makes for division and hostility. When one group of people looks upon another group of people as “aliens” and “strangers,” “without God,” and “without hope,” – when one group sees another group as unworthy and unwelcome and unacceptable, and regards them of lesser value and worth, that, of course, creates division marked by hostility. This is a major issue we face today, and is one reason some people support a zero tolerance immigration policy. By labeling and deeming people and groups in exclusionary ways, they feel justified in their rejection and condemnation of that people and group.

We see this played out in many formats today and on many levels. When one person deems unworthy or unwelcome another person of a different social status, or nationality, or sexual orientation, or religious faith, or political affiliation, such disdaining and denouncing creates walls of hostility. According to Paul, or whoever wrote this letter, the solution to such division begins with the recognition that we are all one people in Christ. Christ here is the cosmic Christ, the Holy Spirit, who resides in every human being and connects every human being to every other human being.

These dividing walls of hostility can begin to come down when we accept and trust that in Christ we are all one people, that we all belong, we are all connected, that in the biblical writers words, we are “one body” and “one new humanity” and that all of us “have access in one Spirit to the Father.”

It’s important to understand that division is not the same thing as diversity. We can form one new humanity, one body, one beloved community and be extremely diverse. Unity does not mean uniformity, nor does it mean agreement in all things. To be at peace, to be in a constructive, healthy relationship with others, does not mean that we have to see through the same set of eyes or adopt the same perspectives. We do have to be committed to mercy and justice. That’s fundamental.

The biblical writer argues that the Mosaic law with its commands and regulations has been set aside. The real problem, however, is not the law itself; it’s the way the law was used, and the way religion in general is used today to manage holiness and to establish degrees or levels of worthiness. The real problem is the hostility and enmity behind the application of the law that excludes and marginalizes and condemns others, and deems others “strangers” and “aliens” who are “without God” and “without hope.” That’s the problem.

The real barrier, the real dividing wall that polarizes and condemns others is the dividing wall of hostility. It’s not our beliefs that divides us. It’s the prejudice and hostility behind them. It’s the hostility that is the problem, that is both the cause of exclusion and the consequence of exclusion The problem is not that we don’t see things the same way, that we have different views and understandings and perspectives on God, on life, on ways to solve problems in society. The problem is the hostility that demonizes the other and exalts our group as superior.

Some of the most deadly kind of prejudice and violence, and the most difficult to overcome is religious prejudice and violence. Religious violence, violence that people think is justified and condoned by the God they worship, can be the most lethal kind of violence and the most difficult kind to defuse. People convince themselves that by excluding and denouncing and destroying others they are doing God’s will. According to Paul’s own testimony, when he tracked down and persecuted Christians and consented to their murders, he felt no guilt whatsoever. He had convinced himself that he was doing God’s will. That kind of religiously motivated hostility that is rooted in one’s personal or group sense of chosenness and self-righteousness is really evil and extremely difficult to overcome. When our Attorney General and our Vice-President used scripture and used their religious faith to legitimize and justify the mistreatment and condemnation of migrants coming to our country seeking asylum and refuge, that’s really bad stuff and extremely difficult to diffuse because they convince themselves, just like Paul did before his encounter with Christ, that they are doing the will of God. They divinely sanction and justify their prejudice and hate. They think God is on their side. Jesus always took the side of the downtrodden.

How do we deal with such hostility? How do we counter it in a positive way? How do we diffuse it to give peace a chance? We begin that process  when we claim and trust that we are all one people, one body, one humanity – that we all are sisters and brothers in the household of God regardless of all our diversity. That’s difficult for people to do, because if you believe that truly, and are committed to that, then you cannot be silent when the marginalized of society are mistreated. You have to speak out. So that’s where we begin, and then we can learn from the way Jesus responded to such hostility how we, his followers, should respond to hostility.

Twice in our biblical text the writer references Christ’s death as somehow being instrumental in this process of tearing down walls of hostility and bringing people together. The writer, however, doesn’t tell us how this works. What did Jesus do on the cross to remove these walls of hostility and to bring about peace? For one thing, Jesus became a scapegoat to put an end to all scapegoating. He became a sacrifice to put an end to the sacrificial system, that whole system of offering up the innocent victim. Spiritually, socially, and psychologically humans have always needed to find some way to deal with their guilt. Historically, sacrificial systems were employed to that end. In ancient systems of religion, human sacrifices were offered to turn away the wrath of the deity (so the virgin, or the first born, or the only child was sacrificed, but never the adult man, because these were patriarchal cultures). Then, in the progression and evolution of religious consciousness, animals eventually took the place of humans. We see this in the beginnings of the Hebrew faith. I believe a great turning point in the history of Christianity that greatly diminished the Christian message of peace occurred when Christianity incorporated this scapegoat mechanism within its tradition. Think about it. When Christians adopted a theory of the atonement that made Jesus the victim necessary (required and demanded) to satisfy God (in the sense of paying off a penalty, or satisfying diving justice, or upholding God’s honor, etc.) then Christianity began to look and feel very similar to those ancient religions that required a sacrificial victim. And as a consequence it made the Christian God look awfully petty and punitive.  

Jesus, in his death, is not a scapegoat because God required a scapegoat. Rather, the killers of Jesus are the ones who required a scapegoat. God doesn’t require a scapegoat. We are the ones who want a scapegoat. What Jesus does on the cross is that he exposes the whole fallacy of scapegoat religion, and the evil of scapegoating in general. In bearing the evil, in bearing the sin, in bearing the hate of his killers Jesus exposed the evil and the hate of his killers, and in a larger sense the evil and hate present in humanity, because the evil and hate of Jesus’s killers represent the evil and hate in all of us. In his death Jesus unmasks the hostility behind the evil, much the same way the civil rights marchers who crossed the bridge in Selma, Alabama, unmasked and exposed the illusion of white supremacy and the sin of racism. The unmasked the hostility behind the laws of segregation. . Jesus’ death, for those who have eyes to see, exposes the sin and evil of scapegoating others. It’s evil to scapegoat anyone. It’s the very same evil that scapegoats migrants today.

A second way Jesus’ death functions to break down walls of hostility, and make peace between persons and people groups possible, is in the way he forgives his killers. Luke’s Gospel makes this explicit by having Jesus on the cross say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” He bears the enmity and animosity that is being poured out on him, without lashing out and without returning it. He absorbs the hate and evil without projecting the hate and evil back on his killers.

Only forgiveness can break cycles of hate and vengeance, making peace possible. In 1492, two prominent Irish families, the Ormands and Kildares were in the midst of a bitter feud. Besieged by Gerald Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare, Sir James Butler, Earl of Ormand, and his followers took refuge in the chapter house of St. Patrick’s cathedral, bolting themselves in. As the siege wore on, the Earl of Kildare came to the conclusion that the feuding was foolish. Here were two families, worshiping the same God, in the same church, living in the same country, trying to kill each other. So he called out to Sir James and pledged on his honor to end the conflict.  

Afraid of “some further treachery,” Ormond did not respond. So Kildare seized his weapon, punched a hole in the door, and in a daring act of peacemaking thrust his hand through the opening. It was a bold, daring, risky gesture. He could have easily lost his hand or his arm. But instead it was grasped by another hand inside. The door was opened and the two men embraced, thus ending the family feud. From Kildare’s noble gesture of peacemaking came the expression, “chancing one’s arm.” Forgiveness can be as daring as “chancing one’s arm.” It is a bold, difficult, risky process. But it is the only way many of the walls of hostility we have built between ourselves and others, as individuals and groups, will ever come down. Who do you need to forgive today in order for the walls to come down? And from whom might you need to seek forgiveness in order for the walls to come down. I suspect that all of have built some walls that need to come down.

Forgiveness is the only path to any lasting personal healing and peace as well.  Jean Vanier tells about a friend who wrote to him about her grandfather, an Australian who had served in the First World War. He had been gassed by the German army and was left permanently impaired. He remained terribly bitter toward all Germans for the rest of his life. As is often the case, his bitterness poisoned his whole family and was passed down to the third generation, to Vanier’s friend who wrote to him about the ways she had absorbed her grandfather’s attitudes and been influenced by his hate. “All my life,” she wrote, “I’ve tried to get rid of the prejudice against German people that has been programmed into me.” It took this woman a long time to break free from all the hate and prejudice that she absorbed over the years in her family. She would have continued to poison her own soul, as well as the souls of her loved ones and friends, had she not chosen a course of forgiveness. It was a difficult process, and there were setbacks and failures. It didn’t always go smoothly. But eventually her struggle with forgiveness led to her own personal liberation, healing, and peace.  

Forgiveness is the way forward. Of course, forgiveness does not always lead to reconciliation. It does not always work in breaking down walls of hostility. We cannot change the heart of another person or group. But we can allow God to change our own heart. We can do what we can do. We can let go of our hostility. We can pray and work toward healing and peace. We don’t have to carry around a burden of resentment and bitterness. And if you have ever carried that around you know it is a burden isn’t it?

In all our differences and diversity we are one people. We are all connected. We all belong. All of us in this church and outside this church, all of us in this country and outside this country constitute one body, one humanity, one family, one dwelling place for God. We all need to let that reality impact us and let God show us the walls that need to come down.

Gracious God, help us to see that regardless how different we may be from others, we are one people. Help us see that the hurting people who travel here at great risk to find safety for their family and some hope for a better life are members of your family, and hence, our sisters and brothers. May we not be blinded by our biases and prejudices, or our own personal longings for safety and security. Help us to forgive those who have hurt us, as difficult as that may be. And give us the courage to seek forgiveness from those we have hurt. Give us a desire for peace and healing that is greater than our desire for revenge or condemnation. Help us to be a light in dark places that points the way to your grace and love. Amen.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The God of the Ark and the God of the Earth (A sermon from 2 Sam. 6:1-15 and Psalm 24)


In 2 Samuel 6 David is now king over Israel. David has successfully brought the northern tribes and the tribe of Judah together, and he has established Jerusalem as the new capital and wants to bring the Ark of the Covenant there. The Ark was Israel’s most ancient symbol of the presence of God among the people. It was a chest made of wood and plated with gold. Its lid of solid gold was called the mercy seat. Two cherubim, which were angel like figures stood at opposite ends of the mercy seat. The Ark had been shelved for a long time in the house of Abinadab and now David wants to bring it to Jerusalem.

The story in 2 Samuel 6 begins with dancing and ends with dancing, but in the middle there is mourning. God rains death on the parade when Uzzah is struck down trying to steady the ark when it wobbles on the cart it is being transported on. That, of course, brings a sudden halt to the celebrative procession. David is both angry and afraid. David tells everyone to go home and the Ark is stored in the house of Obed-edom. I bet brother Obed thought, “How did I get so lucky?” But the storywriter says, “The Lord blessed Obed-edom and all his household.” The ark brings cursing and blessing, death and life.

If we read this story as a historical memoir it would present some real problems. The same could be said about the creation stories, or the flood story, and many other biblical stories like the story of Ananias and Sapphira in the book of Acts who fall down dead suddenly by the hand of God. If I were God I would have no problem, I think, zapping a few people here and there, but thankfully, God is much more longsuffering, patient, gracious, and slow to anger than I am.

This story is not a lesson on how God works in the world. So why was it written? What did the storywriter want to teach by telling this story? According to OT scholar Walter Brueggemann, David’s act of bringing the ark to Jerusalem hints at political calculation and manipulation. Brueggeman observes that by making Jerusalem the center of power, David is breaking from the old order. As such, this action of David stands in “urgent need of legitimation.” Most likely, suggests Brueggemann, this is a calculated political move which David promotes as divinely sanctioned.  

Interpreters have also pointed out that in transporting the ark Mosaic regulations were disregarded. It was supposed to be carried by Levites using poles inserted through rings attached to the Ark. Here David and Abinadab employ the latest Philistine innovation – an ox cart to transport the Ark. Now, what all of this seems to suggest is that the spiritual significance of the Ark is being trivialized in the interests of legitimizing political and religious power. We know how this works right? We see it played out all the time. There are many Christians today who would sacrifice the souls of whoever else it takes to get conservative judges on the Supreme Court. Right? I’m sure there are liberals who do the same.    

It would seem that the storywriter tells this story to warn us, his readers, about the danger of trying to manage and manipulate God for our own religious or political purposes – whether that be for ourselves as individuals or for our particular religious or political group. We are tempted to do this in any number of ways are we not?

We can use God, the scriptures, and our religious tradition to legitimize a life of luxury while we do relatively little to address the poverty all around us. We read rather frequently about popular religious leaders and mega-church pastors who use religion to amass great fortunes and wield great power.  

We can use God, the scriptures, and our religious tradition as a way to exercise authority and control over others, so they will do our bidding. We can preach and teach the scriptures in such a way to get people to believe what we believe, vote the way we vote, and support what we support. I don’t know of a religious leader who does not do that to some degree, and I am including myself in that indictment.

Some use God, the scriptures, and their religious tradition to legitimize all sorts of death-dealing “isms” in our culture, like militarism, nationalism, sexism, racism, consumerism, materialism, and exceptionalism. Scriptures have been used to support slavery, the subjugation of women in society and in church, and to mistreat and condemn our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. Within the last few weeks our Attorney General appealed to scripture to defend this administration’s horrific zero tolerance immigration policy.        

In the very first church I pastored out of seminary I had a deacon tell me that at the wedding supper of the Lamb when Christ returns to claim his bride, the bride he will be claiming are Baptist Christians. The guests at the banquet, he said, would be other Christians who just happen to get in by the skin of their teeth. I know this sounds like a fictitious character out of one of Flanner O’Conner’s short stories, but this was a real, live, flesh-and-blood, Baptist deacon who said these things and really did believe what he said. He is dead now and I suspect has come to see by means of a greater Light that God is not the projection of his own biases. I suspect we will all have to be awakened to that truth to one degree or another. 

I have no claim on God, nor do you, that is any different than anyone else’s claim on God. Our God has no intention of only blessing Americans or Christians to the exclusion of other nations or religious groups. If you happen to be in to bumper sticker theology, why not post one on your car that says, “God bless us every one.” Isn’t that what Charles Dickens has Tiny Tim say at the end of the story: “God bless us everyone.” That’s a true Christian prayer.

How do we guard against this? How do we safeguard from using our scriptures and Christian faith to advance our own interests and self-serving purposes or that of our Christian group or political group. All of us are tempted to do this, and in varying degrees do it – we employ our faith for personal ends, and not even realize what we are doing. I include myself. I know I’m guilty too. Most of the time we are blind to the ways we use God and manipulate the Bible to support our bias or position on some issue. Maybe one way we can move in the right direction and come to a greater awareness is by taking very seriously what the Psalmist tells us in Psalm 24 that the God of the Ark is the God of all the earth and all that inhabits this earth. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it,” says the Psalmist.

As I have been sharing over the last several Sundays, through the writings of John Phillip Newell I have discovered a little bit about the wonderful world of Celtic Christianity that emphasizes God’s pervasive presence in the world and in creation. Celtic Christian spirituality understands that the land cannot be owned and the Spirit cannot be divided, that the earth and all its inhabitants belong to God. Celtic Christianity emphasizes that we are called to live in harmony and at peace with all that is.

One implication of that truth is that borders and countries are all man-made, not God made. I hope you realize that it is not unpatriotic to acknowledge that America is man-made, not God made. Europeans had no divine mandate from God when they came to this new world and took this land from the native Americans. In fact, the way Christians legitimized killing native Americans and possessing their land is another tragic example of how we have used religious faith for our self-serving or group-serving or nation-serving purpose. We shouldn’t be proud about that history. We should be humbled and repentant, learning from the sins of our past.

Celtic Christianity emphasizes humankind’s original goodness and the goodness of creation, as the Psalms often do. Neither Celtic Christians, nor do the Psalms, deny sin or underestimate the power of evil and injustice to deceive, enslave, and destroy. Celtic Christians, however, would say that our sin and evil is not the deepest thing about us. They would say that at the heart of humanity is the image and goodness of God. We are all born with an inherent goodness – and yes, in our development as human beings this original goodness is quickly and easily marred, obscured, and distorted. Yet, nevertheless, our inherent goodness and value as human beings is deeper and truer than anything else about us. I believe the great challenge and task before humanity today is to reclaim this inherent goodness and let it shine through our lives and relationships. The great challenge and opportunity for all of us, is to allow our inherent goodness, our true self, to radiate from all that we say and do.

The Divine Spirit who is in each of us gets pushed aside and God’s love quenched by our negativity and self-serving patterns of sin. As Paul says, we grieve the Holy Spirit by our sin and involvement in injustice. God is grieved when God’s children take advantage of one another and hurt one another. But the Spirit of God doesn’t leave and go somewhere else. Our very existence is sustaind by the Divine Spirit. As Paul said to the Athenian philosophers in Acts 17, we are all God’s offspring and in God we live, move, and have our being. If we can learn to tune in to the Spirit’s voice we can know God’s will and consciously participate in the original goodness and harmony of creation.

John Philip Newell says that during his days at Iona Abby in the Western Isles of Scotland his family had a Border Collie named Jo. Jo was true to his deepest instincts the whole of his life. Jo lived and breathed to round up, and if he was not rounding up sheep, he would try to round up children or tractors or even birds in the yard.

Jo’s favorite day of the week on Iona was Wednesday, which was pilgrimage day. Some Wednesdays upwards of a hundred people would walk the seven-mile route around the island reflecting on their lives and their place in the world while praying for peace. Joe was excited from the beginning of the day. He knew it was Wednesday long before Dr. Newell would take his shepherd’s crook to lead the walk. Jo was delirious with joy all day as he rounded up pilgrims and circled endlessly in the heather.

Dr. Newell says, “But it was not frenetic running. His instinct was fine-tuned. It had a purpose, a goal that he was sensitive to. It was to hold us together. So as we approached in silence the hermit’s cell (a circular stone ruin) at the heart of the island . . . Jo quieted down, still attentive to anyone who might be straying or falling behind but intently quiet in his work.” Newell says that when they finally would all gather in the circle of the hermit’s cell for prayer, Jo would enter the cell, lie down in the center, and go to sleep. Someone suggested to Dr. Newell, “Of course he lay down. His work was finished. He had brought you together in a circle.” Joe’s deepest instinct was to bring them together. It’s an instinct that has been particularly bred into Border Collies. But it’s also an instinct that originates from the Source of all life. It’s an instinct that comes from our Creator, who said of human beings created in the Creator’s image, “This is very good.”

This longing for unity, for oneness, for reconciliation is deep within us all. Some of us may have to dig deep to uncover it. It may be buried underneath what the writer of 1 John calls the “the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life.” This longing may have been quenched and smothered by our selfish interests, and all the ways we have tried to manipulate faith, people, and circumstances for our own ends. But it’s in our hearts somewhere. It’s part of our true self. It’s the longing of the living Christ; it’s the longing of the Holy Spirit who dwells within. There are many things that we allow into our lives that quench this longing and stifle the Spirit’s whisper. But if we listen carefully we can hear the Divine Voice. This sacred longing that is innate to our original goodness can be reawakened no matter how long it has been dormant.

The psalmist asks, “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?” Psalm 24 is a psalm of ascent and the temple, of course, is being referenced here. But as the Psalmist has already made clear – the whole earth is God’s temple. We may set aside a certain place for worship and call it a holy place, but every place is potentially a holy place, because God is in that place. Even in the darkest, dreariest, deadliest places God is there.  
         
I love the words attributed to Jesus by John in John 4. As part of a conversation Jesus is having with a woman of Samaria, she asks Jesus about holy places, whether one should worship at the holy place on mount Gerizim or the holy place on mount Jerusalem. Jesus says that it does not matter. Jesus says that God is Spirit, so all that matters is the kind of spirit that permeates and pervades our lives. Those who truly worship God, says Jesus, are those who worship God in spirit and in truth. Now, regarding that last line, those who worship God must do so in spirit and truth, there is the question among interpreters whether spirit should be understood as the human spirit (little s) or the Divine Spirit (capital S). I think the answer is both. Here’s the great Mystery. Our human spirit is one with God’s Spirit. If we will, we can uncover and nurture this divine longing for oneness.

This is what the Psalmist says: Who shall stand, live, dwell in union with God? The answer: “Those who have clean hands and a pure heart, and who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.” That’s not complicated. God is accessible to anyone whose actions and attitudes, whose works and motives are not laced with deceit or falsehood, but rather are sincere, authentic, true, honest, and centered on the good. That which is happening in our country today is evidence of how few Christians are living in the love and power of the divine Spirit. When we live in the power of the Holy Spirit we long for unity and peace rooted in mercy and justice. We walk in humility and integrity. Our lives abound in mercy and kindness. We work for justice and equality. We long for the redemption and reconciliation of all people and creation.

One of the first theologians representing the Celtic tradition was Palagius, who lived during the time of Augustine. Because the theology of Augustine won the day, Palagius has too often been misrepresented by traditional church historians. Palagius put the emphasis on original goodness, not original sin. He believed that when you looked into the face of a newborn child you were looking into the face of God. In a letter to a new Christian, he said, “You will realize that doctrines are inventions of the human mind, as it tries to penetrate the mystery of God. . . . It is not what you believe that matters; it is how you respond with your heart and your actions. It is not believing in Christ that matters; it is becoming like him.” That’s what matters. That’s what God wants for all of us.

Gracious God, we celebrate your goodness, a goodness that is part of us, basic to who we are as humans. Whenever we hurt someone, or say something mean, or do something that is offensive help us to realize that that is not who we are. And whenever we as a country inflict suffering on the oppressed and turn aside those seeking refuge and asylum, help us to stand up and say, “That’s not who we are.” Help us all to uncover our original goodness and live out of that goodness as we grow into your likeness. For you are not a God who lives in a box, even when that box is the Ark of the Covenant.  You are not a God who can be confined to one temple or one place, one tradition or faith. You are a God who inhabits this whole world. Amen.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Finding God in the Ordinary (A sermon from Mark 6:1-13)


Jesus is limited in what he can do in his hometown of Nazareth. The healing and liberating power of God is not irresistible. We can resist and reject what is good for us. Because of the resistance Jesus encountered in his hometown he could not do many good works there. While many were astounded by the wisdom with which he taught and the good works they had heard Jesus had been doing, Mark says that Jesus could do no more than heal a few people. They say, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And then Mark says, “And they took offense at him.”
Why are they offended? The implication in the text is that Jesus was just too common and ordinary. He had not been to theological school. He had not been trained by a prominent rabbi. He was a carpenter, a common craftsman like many of them. He was one of them. They knew his family – his brothers and sisters were among them. So how could the great “Other,” the transcendent one, the Holy One of Israel choose and call someone so common and ordinary to do his work? And they took offense.
Mark says that Jesus was “amazed at their unbelief,” that is, their inability to see and trust that the works he was doing were of God. These were religious people. Nevertheless, their bias, their preconceived notion of what God could and could not do, their predetermined notions of who God chooses to do his work blinded them to what anyone trusting common sense and a sincere intuitive sense of the Divine would have seen quite clearly. A second-hand faith that never reaches the level of personal experience of Divine love and mercy can blind us to what is.
I have been reading and re-reading some of the writings of Dr.John Philip Newell, who has spent considerable time studying and writing about Celtic Christianity. He recalls preaching at St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh a number of years ago. Standing in the pulpit that hugs one of the thousand-year-old central massive pillars, he began his sermon by saying that there would be a time when that building would be no more. There would be a time when our Scriptures would be no more. And there would be a time when Christianity would be no more. At which point a woman in the congregation shouted out, “Heresy!”
This is when the rest of the congregation woke up. Newell could see them whispering to one another, “What did he say?” The woman had been sitting in one of the cathedral’s box pews. (Special seating I guess?) She decided to leave in protest. She opened, then slammed shut, the little door at the end of her pew as she headed off, stomping down the central aisle with her hard-heeled shoes, and shouting one more time, “Heresy!”
Labeling a teaching as “heresy” and the propagator of the teaching as a “heretic” is just another form of exclusion and projection of one’s own fears and insecurities onto the other person or group that challenges one’s beliefs and perspectives. Instead of viewing our religious faith as a road sign that points beyond itself, in our limited view we too often see it as a stop sign. When we do that we confuse our capacity to see, our limited understanding and vision of God with the actual reality of God, the Ultimate Reality, who is so much bigger and larger than what we can see with our flawed, limited, and biased vision.
Last week I shared a story that Dr. Newell told about his father who suffered from dementia in his final days. During that time the people who visited his father most frequently were a Muslim couple, Sylvia and Boshe. His father’s vocation involved working to provide relief for refugees. Years earlier when this couple had escaped from war-torn Bosnia, his father helped them find sanctuary in Canada. They referred to him as “father” because he had been so central to their birth into freedom and safety. Dr. Newell says that his father had always been a deeply compassionate man, but he had also been a very conservative man in his religious beliefs. So, while he worked with refugees the world over, at the end of the day, he thought they would be much better off if they adopted his Christian beliefs.
Dr. Newell says that even when his father was in the latter stages of dementia, he loved to pray with the people visiting him. Somehow, his words would flow when he prayed, even though in ordinary speech he would struggle for words. One sunny afternoon, Dr. Newell, joined this Muslim couple in a visit with his father. Dr. Newell asked his father to pray. They were seated in a circle and joined hands. His father prayed, “Without You, O God, we would not be. And because of you we are one family.” Dr. Newell looked up and saw tears streaming down the faces of Boshe and Sylvia. Dr. Newell says, “They knew they were one family with us, but they had never heard my father say it. His religious ego had now collapsed. The barriers had broken down.”
I like how Dr. Newell describes what happened in his father’s life. He says his father’s religious ego collapsed. It is mostly our ego and the ego of our particular faith group that keeps us from seeing the larger world where God is at work in diverse ways through diverse means.
As you well know I often say that religion can be the best thing in the world or the worst thing in the world. When our religious faith limits what God can do and the persons and communities through whom God can work, our faith can easily become detrimental and harmful to what God is doing in the world. An exclusionary Christian faith can quite easily lead to Christian exceptionalism and elitism. If God only works with people of our faith tradition and practice, then we have a basis for exclusion, for denouncing and condemning others who have a different faith and tradition, and who see God differently than we do. And when you meld  a sense of privilege and chosenness to desires for power, position, and prominence, which temptations we are all subject to, then religion (an in particular, Christianity) becomes the worst thing in the world rather than the best thing in the world. Then we, just like the people in Jesus’ hometown, may well take offense when others of a different faith and tradition claim to know God and do the works of God. I have little doubt that Christian exclusivism is helping to feed the meanness and hatred toward immigrants and refugees that is coming down from the WH and supported by a considerable number of people. Christian exclusivism may not be the main cause of support for the merciless zero tolerance immigration policy being enforced by this WH, but it certainly feeds into it.
Jesus’ friends and relatives in his home town could not imagine how God could use him in such a remarkable way. Jesus was just too ordinary. Too common. Too human. But, you see, sisters and brothers, that’s where God is and how God works – through ordinary people like you and me.
When President Obama spoke to the nation after the Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage he urged respect for the opponents of same-sex marriage. He recognized that there were people with different views. In his  comments, he took no credit for it, even though his support for same-sex marriage was a major factor in changing the tide of public opinion. In his comments he said that the Supreme Court decision was “the consequence of the countless small acts of courage of millions of people across decades who stood up, who came out, talked to parents, parents who loved their children no matter what, folks who were willing to endure bullying and taunts, and stayed strong, and came to believe in themselves and who they were, and slowly made an entire country realize that love is love.” The President concluded by saying, “What an extraordinary achievement, but what a vindication of the belief that ordinary people can do extraordinary things.”
Ordinary people can do extraordinary things. But then, in another sense no one is just ordinary. We are all extraordinary. We all have the divine life pulsing through our soul and body. I love the way the little epistle of 1 John puts it, “See what love the Father (our Abba, our Compassionate Guardian) has bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” The reason, the biblical writer goes on to say, that the domination system does not know us (that is, the reason it does not recognize how extraordinary we are) is because it did know him (the domination system did not recognize how extraordinary Jesus was either).” John goes on: “Beloved we are God’s children now; what we will fully be has not yet been revealed” (3:1-2a). The reason it has not been fully revealed what we will be is because we are still growing into what it means to be God’s sons and daughters. Our growth as God’s sons and daughters takes faith and effort on our part. But our sonship and daughtership is pure grace. We are God’s daughters and sons right now! There is nothing to earn, there are no hoops to jump through, no doctrines or religious creeds to believe, no rituals to perform. We are, right now, the very children of God in whom the divine nature, the Spirit of God dwells. That was true yesterday, it’s true today, and will be true tomorrow.
Now, as we claim and grow into this reality we will most certainly come to believe some things. We will most likely participate in some spiritual rituals and practices. We will certainly engage in acts of kindness and works of justice and peace. But, sisters and brothers, we do not in any way merit or earn our identity as the children of God through our beliefs or through our works. That’s simply who we are. We belong to God and one another by pure grace. And by virtue of that identity we are of infinite worth and value. So no matter how ordinary we may seem, we are each one extraordinary.
So ordinary people, who are extraordinary, can do extraordinary things. We see this in the next unit in our biblical text. Jesus sends out the twelve to do the very works he had been doing – these common, ordinary folks – fishermen, a tax collector, a former insurrectionist – unschooled, average persons – healing the sick, liberating the oppressed, and proclaiming the kingdom of God. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
Once upon a time a small Jewish boy went to his rabbi and said that he didn’t know how to love God. “How can I love God when I have never seen God,” asked the boy. The rabbi said to the boy, “Start with a stone. Try to love a stone. Try to be present to this most simple and basic thing so that you can see its beauty and goodness. Start with a stone.” “Then,” said the rabbi, “try to love a flower, be present to a flower and let its beauty come into you. You don’t need to pluck it or possess it. Don’t destroy it. Just love it there in the garden.”
Next the rabbi singled out the boy’s pet dog and told him to love his dog. Then he said, “Try to love the mountains and the sky and the beauty of creation. Be present to the creation in its many forms. Let creation speak to you and come into you.” Then said the rabbi, “After you have loved the creation try to love a woman. Try to be faithful and give yourself sacrificially to another.” Then said the rabbi, “After you have loved a stone, a flower, your little dog, the mountains and sky and creation, and a woman, then you will be ready to love God.”
What do you think the Rabbi was trying to teach the boy? I think what the rabbi was trying to teach is that the way we consciously enter into the experience of God and communion with God is through all that is. We learn how to love God by loving the world in all its variety and beauty and messiness. Paul says that a vital part of what it means to reach maturity is coming to trust that God is “all in all.” If we can trust that, we can find the Christ everywhere. If we trust that God is “all in all” then we can encounter God in all reality. We can be led by the Spirit anytime all the time.  
In our celebration of the Lord’s table may we be reminded that Jesus didn’t just teach truth, confront injustice, heal the sick, and free the oppressed for one particular group of people. Yes, he was a Hebrew and he was a Jewish prophet and teacher and reformer. But he is the world’s Messiah. His life and death was for the world. As Paul says in his letter to the Colossians, “God was pleased to reconcile to God’s self all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the cross.”
Oh God, as we eat this bread and drink this cup, may we know that our communion is not only with our sisters and brothers here in this place on this Lord’s day, but with all creation, and all our sisters and brothers the world over.