Sunday, March 19, 2017

Living Water for the Thirsty (a sermon from John 4:5-42)

Last week a prominent Jewish religious leader had a meeting with Jesus where Jesus talked about wind and Spirit and eternal life. Nicodemus approached Jesus from a place of theological and religious privilege. Jesus told him in no uncertain terms that his privileged religious heritage did not make him any better than anyone else – he still needed a spiritual awakening, he needed the Divine Spirit to touch his human spirit in a way that would lead him into participation in God’s life and love, which is what this Gospel calls eternal life.

This week we read about another person who has a conversation with Jesus about spiritual reality who is, for the most part, the opposite of Nicodemus. Jesus’ conversation partner today is a woman. From the perspective of most Jewish males in Jesus’ day that alone would have disqualified her from receiving religious instruction from a rabbi, just as in a number of Christian circles today being female disqualifies one from certain types of ministry. Not here of course, but certainly in many churches. She is also a Samaritan and would have been considered by most Jews of that day outside the loop of God’s blessing and redemption. In evangelical Christian language she would have been designated as “lost” or “unsaved.” But Jesus, as we see in the story, is no respecter of societal and religious conventions and norms. From Jesus’ vantage point this Samaritan woman was not any more lost or any more in need of spiritual awakening than Nicodemus, the Pharisee. So, by bringing these two stories together the Gospel writer shows Jesus breaking down the wall of separation between the so-called “chosen” people and the so-called “rejected” people, as well as the conventional barriers of “gender” and “race.” Now, if we aspire to follow Jesus we too will be in the business of crossing borders and barriers to meet people where they are, rather than constructing them. Nicodemus’ religious privilege made him no better and this woman’s lack thereof made her no worse. Both are in the same boat. They are equally children of God and equally in need of divine grace. Both are in need of an awakening generated by God’s Spirit and both in need of the intimacy that comes with God’s fellowship and friendship. Jesus meets both the Jewish religious leader and the Samaritan woman in the same place – no one is any better or worse. The need that Jesus speaks to is a universal human need.

Last Tuesday I attended the program on immigrants and refugees sponsored by the Kentucky Council of Churches in the Capital annex. Did you know that Kentucky Refugee Ministries is doing some great work and that since opening its doors in 1990 has resettled over 15,000 refugees, representing 50 nationalities and ethnic groups? The state of Kentucky is 14th in the nation in annual refugee arrivals. Did you know that the application and screening process takes an average of 18 to 24 months and that refugees are the most thoroughly vetted individuals to enter the US? After one year they can apply for permanent residency and after 5 years can become naturalized citizens. I am hoping that our church will be able in some way to participate in this ministry in the future, though most all of the refugees are resettled in Louisville or Lexington. Right now, however, there are no new refugee arrivals. Our president has put a ban on all refugees entering our country for four months and that includes all nations, not just certain Muslim nations. However, last week the court struck down that ban just the way they did the first one, so we will have to see how this plays out. But even if the ban is allowed to remain, it will not remain forever. The political landscape will change because of the outcry from peace and justice loving people.

At the meeting I heard from Zena, a Muslim refugee from Iraq who is here in Kentucky with her husband and two children. She proudly informed us that both her children have a 4.0 grade average in school. She was a computer engineer in Iraq and she worked with people of other religious faiths and nationalities. Well, a terrorist group in Iraq decided to target her and those who worked with her. Two of her friends were killed. And she likely would have been too if she remained in the country. A reminder that refugee bans result in people being killed. Her and her family found refuge here in the US. She pointed out in her talk that Muslim radicals/terrorists target peace loving Muslims just as they do any other group. Muslim terrorists are no more authentically Muslim than Christian KKK members are authentically Christian (and I hope you get that because a lot of Christians don’t). She believes as we believe that the heart of true religion is love your neighbor as yourself and she pointed to our common humanity as the basis for such love. We are sisters and brothers. She had to be careful with her words but I suspect she also would say that not only do we share a common humanity, we share a common connection to and identity in God, even though we may go about nurturing that connection in some very different ways.

Nicodemus the Jew and this woman, a Samaritan, share a common humanity and a common connection to the Divine that transcends gender, race, and religion. Christians and Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus and people of diverse faiths and good people of no faith have much to teach and offer one another. We can learn from them and they can learn from us.

Not long ago I shared a story that Philip Newell tells about one of the teachers he has worked closely with over the years, a rabbi whose name is Nahum. It’s a story worth sharing again. Several summers ago Philip and rabbi Nahum were teaching separate classes at a Conference in New Mexico. They usually co-taught the same class, but here they were teaching different classes. One morning Philip’s group was reflecting on the passage in John’s gospel where Mary comes to the tomb and sees Jesus and tries to hold on to him. As Philip reflected on that passage with his group, he thought about how Christianity has tried to “hold on” to Jesus and make him exclusively ours. He decided to share this theological observation with Rabbi Nahum. Philip sat with Nahum at lunch and as he shared this observation he began to inexplicably weep. Instead of being just a theological observation, it became a confession to his Jewish friend how we Christians have tried to make Jesus an exclusive Christian possession, when in reality he belongs to all of us. Dr. Newell writes, “Jesus was born a Jew, lived a Jew, and died as a faithful Jew. He was not a Christian. Christianity came later. How can we both love him and, at the same time, not clutch him possessively? How can we cherish the gift of his teachings and not claim them solely as ours?”

In this story from John 4 some of the Samaritans in the village are deeply impacted by the woman’s testimony and decide to meet Jesus for themselves. After experiencing Jesus themselves they conclude that truly he is the Savior of the world. If Jesus is in indeed in some sense the savior of the world then he cannot be simply the savior of Christians. If Jesus is the savior of the world then he is not exclusively ours. This also means that mediators, prophets, mystics, teachers, and reformers in other religious traditions are not exclusive theirs. We have much to learn from one another and teach one another.

There is a point in the conversation between Jesus and the woman where the topic of worship comes up. In that interchange Jesus makes clear, it seems to me, that what matters most is not place or form of worship, not religious creed or ritual. What matters most is our common need to be awakened, led, and filled with the Divine Spirit who is everywhere and in everyone. God is Spirit says Jesus. And our great need is to experience the Spirit – to know, connect with, and be filled with Spirit. The Spirit is living water. God is living water – Spirit is just another image of God, another way of talking about God. The Spirit bestows and generates life.

Now, we Christians partake of the living water by following Jesus. Jesus is our gateway into the experience of living water. Not exclusively so, but preeminently so, primarily so. When we trust God the way Jesus trusted God and when we love others the way Jesus loved others, then we too like Jesus become wells for living water to gush forth. Our lives become a source of life and blessing to others.

Now, it seems to me that if any of us are to become wells of living water, if we are to become fountains that shower blessing on others, then we must thirst for it, we must nurture an interest in and acquire a passion for the living water, for life in God.  We are not going to drink if we do not thirst. True religion is not about keeping rules and believing doctrines, it’s about falling in love with God. It’s about becoming a fountain for the divine love and life to flow out. So, a critical question is this: What is it that makes a person thirsty for living water? How is this thirst for living water nurtured? I wish I could tell you. There’s a lot of mystery here.

I can understand, though, why some people have not acquired a thirst. One reason, I think, is because of our tendency to equate the spiritual life with organized religion. Organized religion can be good or bad. Healthy religion guides people into life. Bad religion turns people away. Bad religion doesn’t quench spiritual thirst, it crushes it. As I have said many times, religion can be the best thing in the world, but it can also be the worst thing.

I love the story that the late Fred Craddock tells about being at a church ministering when a young lady, maybe 15 or 16 approached him after the service with a question. What she asked was this: “Will I go to hell for not wanting to go to heaven.” He said, “Why in the world are you asking that?”  She said, “Well, my mother’s real suspicious.  Every time I go out I hear ‘Where are you going? Who are you going with?  What are you going to do?  Or when I come in I get, ‘Who were you with? What’d you do? Where have you been?’ All the time suspicious.  And the way she tries to get at me is: ‘If you do this or if you don’t do this then you won’t go to heaven!’ That’s what she tells me, ‘You won’t go to heaven.’” Fred didn’t know what to say; he was kind of at a loss. He had said to his son several times, “You are grounded,” but he never meant it in any ultimate sense. But for this young lady, if heaven meant living with Christians like her mother then she didn’t want to go.

I can understand why some folks have never acquired a thirst for living water, because the so called living water that was offered to them was not living water at all – it was more like ditch water. It was contaminated water. The living water of the Spirit spreads grace and gratitude and fullness of life wherever it flows. It’s life-giving and life-affirming, not life-diminishing or condemning. I wish I knew what to tell you to do to stimulate your thirst for living water. Unfortunately, there is no magic formula or single sure-fire prescription that fits all.

In my own life I didn’t acquire this deeper thirst until I was several years into vocational ministry. I came to a place where I started to question my calling. I began to wonder if any of what I had been taught was really true. Then, quite by happenchance really I came across two books that made all the difference for me. One was by Dallas Willard, an evangelical who was a philosophy professor by trade. It is titled, The Divine Conspiracy. The other was a book was by Jesus scholar Marcus Borg. It is titled, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. And then too, not long after that I discovered the writings and teachings of Richard Rohr. I began to see through the help of these teachers the beauty and power of the very human life of Jesus of Nazareth and the actual possibility of entering into that life to some degree. I still knew that I would never be like Jesus, but I could now envision the human possibility. And somehow I stepped into the flow of divine life. I wish I could somehow reproduce what I experienced so you would experience it too, but I can’t. You might read the same books that I read and not have the experience I had at all. In fact, your experience, your awakening may not come through books at all. That’s the mystery of the wind and flowing water of the Spirit. We can’t control it. But, and this is important, we are not helpless. There are some things we can do that God cannot and will not do for us. Let me give you two things you can do.

One thing all of us can do is ask and seek. Jesus said, “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find.” The Greek tense implies continuous or repeated action. Ask and keep on asking. Seek and keep on seeking. This is something we all can do. We can repeatedly ask and seek. And by the way, this is where a healthy faith community is important. Remember, I said organized religion can be the worst or the best thing in the world. A vibrant, healthy community of faith helps us nurture this deeper thirst. Another thing we can do: We can persistently work at being a blessing to others. We can intentionally strive to be a blessing to others by bestowing blessings on others. We can put ourselves in the direction of the flow of the Spirit. The Spirit is all about mercy and justice. So just start doing mercy and justice. Go about trying to be a blessing to others and you will quite naturally step into the flow of divine life.

We can do these two things. We can ask God to stimulate our thirst, and we can intentionally seek to be a blessing to others. And just maybe, out of our lives will spring forth fountains of living water.

Gracious God, create in us a thirst for life that is life indeed. Let us acquire a thirst for the living water that is deeply satisfying and life producing, rather than keep grasping after things that do not refresh or restore or enhance life at all, but just leave us and those around us feeling empty. May our lives become wells from which your living water can gush forth. Amen. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Mysterious as the Wind (a sermon from John 3:1-17)

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. In this Gospel most everything has some symbolic significance. Words have multiple meanings. Nicodemus coming by night points to where he is in his own spiritual journey. He is in the dark, but he is drawn to the light. He clearly recognizes something real and authentic in Jesus: No one can do the things you are doing, Jesus, unless God is with us. Nicodemus recognizes that Jesus is of God, that he connected to God.

We know this, says Nicodemus. But what Jesus knows is that there’s a lot that Nicodemus does not yet know. What Jesus knows is that Nicodemus, who stands in the text as a representative of so many religious and secular people today, has a major obstacle to overcome in his quest for the truth. And what Nicodemus needs is what so many Christian and non-Christian people need today, namely, a birth from above or a new birth (the Greek word can mean either above or anew). Many Christians, I believe, miss the intent of this story because they literalize this image. It’s just an image, a symbol – as is all religious language. What Jesus is saying that Nicodemus needs, as well as so many of us need, is a spiritual awakening. What we need is spiritual illumination that opens us up to the larger world of the kingdom of God, to the larger world of life in the Spirit.

Jesus says to Nicodemus and to us: “Your physical birth, your birth of flesh, your birth by water does not automatically mean that you will experience life in God’s world.” You see, sisters and brothers, our physical birth, our very existence is by grace and we all have access to God. We are children of God – all of us – by grace whether we know it or not. However, it takes some spiritual illumination and awareness to be able to claim and live out who we are as children of God. And one key to that I’m convinced is our capacity to move beyond confining, limiting, and sometimes diminishing religious beliefs and practices. Unhealthy religion keeps us in the dark. Keep in mind Nicodemus is a Pharisee; he is a religious teacher. Jesus is saying to him: Your physical birth into the covenant people of God does not automatically qualify you to see, to know, to experience life in God’s world. Just because you are a child of God doesn’t mean you are spiritually enlightened or in tune with God’s will.

You see, Nicodemus is approaching Jesus from a place of theological and spiritual privilege – or so he thought. He felt that because he was born into the right people he automatically was right with God, that he automatically was enlightened. Many Christians feel the same way. They think that because they have said the sinner’s prayer, trusted in Jesus for forgiveness of sins, confessed their faith publicly, joined a particular Christian church, or whatever else they have been taught is essential, that having done those things they are right with God. Why change if you are already a Christian and a member of God’s chosen people? Who needs conversion? Like Nicodemus, so many of us today have reduced being right with God to being right – believing the right things, making the right confession, being a member of the right church, and so on.

Nicodemus responds: How can one enter a second time into their mother’s womb and be born? I don’t think as some do that Nicodemus totally misunderstands Jesus. I think he understands what Jesus is saying, and is offended just the way so many of us are offended when we are told that we are not all that, that we are not God’s favorites after all, that we do not have this special or exclusive access to God that others don’t have. There are Christians who get offended at that, because they want to believe that they are God’s chosen. We can’t all be chosen they say.

And just like Nicodemus, when we think that God is exclusive to our group (our church, our faith, our religion, our nation) this becomes a block, a hindrance, an obstacle to our own spiritual transformation. This can keep us from entering more fully into the eternal life of God. And by the way, it’s really important to understand that eternal life in this Gospel is not a reward for believing or doing the right things. It’s a present reality as well as a future reality. Eternal life is life in the Spirit, life in God that we enter into now. It is both now and later. Or we could say, it’s now before it is later.

And what Nicodemus and all of us need to realize is that eternal life, life in the Spirit, life in God is far more wondrous and mysterious than so many of us grasp. Our tendency is to put God in a box, so we can control and manage God, and thus control and manage who God loves and blesses. But we should know that we can’t control God because God is like the wind. God is Spirit (and by the way in the Greek the word for wind and Spirit is the same word). God is like the wind. We cannot control or manage the wind of God, the Spirit of God.

If we think we have all the answers, like the sales lady who tried to sale me an answer Bible – a Bible with all the answers – then our answers become a hindrance to experiencing life in the Spirit. Because God is so much larger and bigger than the box we tend to put God in. Most of us who think we have all the answers are not even asking the right questions.

In the final book of The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis there is scene where a group of dwarfs are huddled together in a tight little knot thinking they are in a pitch black, smelly hole of a stable. In reality, however, they are out in the midst of an endless, grassy green countryside with sun shining and blue sky overhead. Aslan, the Christ figure, is present with them, but they are not able to see him. When Aslan offers them the finest food, they think they are eating spoiled meat scraps and sour turnips. When Aslan offers them the choicest wine, they mistake it for ditch water. Lucy, the most tenderhearted of the Narnian children, feels compassion for them. She tries to reason with them, but to no avail. Finally, frustrated, she cries out, “It isn’t dark, you poor stupid Dwarfs. Can’t you see? Look up! Look round! Can’t you see the sky and the trees and the flowers!” But all they see is pitch blackness.

Why are the Dwarfs so blind? Why can’t they see? The one constant refrain on the lips of the dwarfs, their incessant cry is: The dwarfs are for the dwarfs. They lived by that mantra: The dwarfs are for the dwarfs. Christians are for the Christians. Americans are for the Americans. Our group idolatry, which we mistake as simply being a loyal Christian or American or Democrat or Republican or you name the group, our group idolatry can keep us from seeing the beauty and wonder of God that is right here right now. Our group idolatry which we mistake for group loyalty keeps us from experiencing life in the Spirit.

Nicodemus says, “How can these things be? How is this possible?” He wasn’t taught this in Sunday School. This was not part of his religious training. Jesus gently rebukes him: “You are a highly respected religious teacher and don’t know this? Then you don’t know diddly (my paraphrase). If you don’t understand how God’s Spirit works in the world, on this earth and in human lives, how will you know anything having to do with God’s Spirit?”

And then what follows are two spiritual riddles, two spiritual paradoxes. Jesus says, we don’t grasp spiritual reality by traveling to a different world. We do not need to be transported to a different world. We do not need to go into heaven to understand heavenly, spiritual things. We just need to open our eyes in this world. God is present in human life. And we who follow Jesus should know as well as anyone, because we see in Jesus a definitive model and illustration of what a human being filled with Spirit looks like. Jesus as son of man, as son of humanity, embodies on this earth, in human flesh, what a human being connected to Spirit is like, and this gives a glimpse into the heart and nature of God.

And even in his death, life springs forth. That’s the second riddle – the second paradox. The first disciples discovered that the Messiah’s death somehow carried redemptive and transformative power. This is what the text is referring to when referencing the serpent in the wilderness. In that story in the book of Numbers poisonous serpents invaded the camp of Israel and many were bitten and grew sick unto death. Moses interceded to God and God instructed him to make an image of the serpent, the very instrument of death, mount it on a pole and hold it up before the people. All who looked on the image of the serpent were healed. Like that serpent on a pole, Jesus was lifted up on a cross. And somehow the very instrument of death, becomes the instrument of life. Those who look upon Jesus’ death with spiritual eyes find in it healing and hope.

We have seen this work in our own time in the deaths of MLK, Gandhi, and Oscar Romero. Their deaths ignited and fueled movements of life, movements toward the kind of restorative justice that brings healing and redemption. For followers of Jesus, his death is a death that imparts life. His willingness to die for God’s cause and our good ignites and fuels the healing and redemptive power of God.

What John’s Gospel calls eternal life Luke, in the book of Acts, call “the way.” Eternal life is simply walking in the way of Jesus. And what is the way of Jesus? It is the way of love. For God so loves the world. Now, according to John, the way we Christians participate in the flow of the eternal love and life of God is by believing in Jesus whom God sent. (Keep in mind this is a Christian text written to Christians; it does not address how people of other faiths enter into the flow of divine love.) I believe it is critical in our day and time that we develop a more inclusive understanding of what it means to believe in Jesus. As I have already said this is not about believing the right doctrines or confessing the right words or performing the right rituals. It’s not about being right. To believe in is to trust in and be faithful to. And to trust in and be faithful to Jesus is to trust in and be faithful to the way he lived, the values he embodied, and the instructions he gave. There is nothing magical in the name of Jesus; the name of Jesus simply represents the life he lived and the love he expressed. For us to claim some kind of superiority over other religions is, I believe, to actually distort the basic character of God. God’s love is an inclusive, expansive, universal love. Anyone can enter into the flow of God’s love by trusting in love the way Jesus did and by being faithful to love the way Jesus was. This is what brings new life, namely, loving like Jesus. This is why Jesus says later in John 13 that this is how the world will know that we are his disciples – by our love for one another. Not by faith, but by our love.

Spiritual teacher and writer John Shea says that he knows a man who was born twice from the same woman. One day this man was driving his mother to a funeral. She had been to many funerals – her husband’s, her brother’s, and most of her friends. She was out-surviving everyone she knew. But not without pain and grief. She had lost most of her money, suffered a heart attack, and went through bouts of uncontrollable crying. As they drove along, she was calmly talking about her own wake and funeral. She wanted it done a certain way. Then, quite suddenly (the wind blows where it will) as if this were a decision she just then made, she said to her son, “I’m giving up on fear.” She said it without a lot of emotion. She said it in a matter-of-fact kind of way. Her son let his foot off the gas pedal and looked over at his mother. This was a deeper conversation than he was used to having.

She continued, “Everybody dies. Nothing is left. I’m giving up on fear.” Her son said, “It’s not easy to do. I’ve tried.” What he really was thinking is that it’s impossible to do. He had been haunted by fears – fear of sickness and death, fear of the future, fear of losing his job and his money. In a moment of insight he saw, maybe for the first time, just how fear completely structured his life. He looked again at his mother. She was beaming. He was incredulous.

They never talked about this again, but his mother began to change. She was not afraid to speak her opinion on any topic. Yet she did so without anger or a sense of self-righteousness or grandiosity. Her words were wise and came from the heart. She grew more patient and tolerant of human weakness. Her words and presence were gentle and yet strong. People wanted to be around her. And if you asked them they probably couldn’t tell you what they took away, and yet they left richer than when they arrived. Her son also came around more, not out of obligation but because she had become a fountain and he was a thirsty man.  And slowly, it took a little more than nine months this time, but slowly she gave birth to his spirit. Though long ago she brought forth his existence, now she brought forth a new spirit in him. He was born twice from the same woman.

And that is one version of what it looks like to rest and trust in love enough to face our mortality and let go of our fears, our insecurities, our guilt and worries, so that we are free to step into the flow of Divine Love, which is the eternal life of God present in the world right now.

This is what can happen when we trust in and are faithful to the way of love. We can’t control it or manage it. There is much mystery and wonder to the working of the Spirit. But we can be open and receptive to the Spirit, to the way of love, by letting go of our biases, our fears, our claims of superiority, our selfish ambitions, and anything else that would keep us entrapped in our little selves.

You know sisters and brothers, it’s not just that we need to be born again, we need to be born again and again and again and again. We need to be spiritually awakened to the reality of divine love over and over again. As we share in the bread and cup right now in remembrance of Jesus’ death may our hearts be open to receiving a fresh revelation of God’s love to us.

O, God open our hearts and minds to your love. May your Spirit bring awakening to our spirits so that we can see how much you love each one of us, but not just each one of us, but the whole world.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Questions in the wilderness (A sermon from Matthew 4:1-11)

I may have told you about the minister’s wife who was shopping one afternoon and a dress caught her eye. They were on a fairly tight budget and it was quite a bit more than she could afford, but she bought it anyway. She told her husband that she had no intention of buying it, but when she tried it on, it looked and felt so good that she could not resist the temptation. Her husband said, “Why didn’t you say, ‘Satan’ get behind me.” She said, “I did. And he said it looks even better from that angle.”

Some of you may remember Flip Wilson of “Laugh in” fame popularizing the old saying, “The devil made me do it.” We poke fun at the Devil, but in scripture the Devil is the symbol for that which is deceptive and manipulative and adversarial to the kin-dom of God. Our text today says that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted or tested by the Devil. The “wilderness” is a common scriptural theme and reference to Jesus fasting forty days and forty nights recalls the story of Israel wandering in the wilderness for forty years. The symbolism shows the continuity between the story of Israel and the story of Jesus. And while the wilderness is a hard place and a dangerous place, it is also a place where character is formed and courage is forged. The text says that the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness. It is necessary. Wilderness experiences play an important role in our spiritual formation. In the little book of James the writer commends his readers to count it joy when they fall into various kinds of trials – wilderness experiences – because, as James describes it the testing of our faith produces endurance, and when endurance has its full effect, we stand mature, complete, lacking nothing. Without some wilderness experiences there can be little spiritual growth and development.

I would like to suggest that these three temptations raise three questions. The first question raised by the first temptation is: What makes me who I am? What makes you who you are? The tempter says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Keep in mind that the wilderness testing comes right after the revelation given to Jesus as his baptism, where the divine voiced affirmed: “You are beloved son, in whom I am well-pleased.” The tempter calls into question that affirmation: “Are you really God’s beloved son? If you are, then prove it.” And so the question: What makes me what I am? What makes you who you are?

Sisters and brothers as long as we are swayed by group think, as long as we play the world’s game of meritocracy based on comparisons and competition, as long as we judge our worth and value by the world’s standards of success, we will always feel like we have to prove ourselves, that we have to earn our worth. Why can’t we rest in grace? Why can’t we accept that we don’t earn anything from God? All of life, everything, is a gift. I am a child of God, you are a child of God by grace. It’s not because of what you believe, or what you do – it’s simply who you are. If you have to believe certain things or do certain things in order to be a child of God, then it’s not grace.

In the movie Ironweed there is a scene where the characters played by Jack Nicholson and Meryl Street, two vagrants, stumble across an old Eskimo woman lying in the snow, probably drunk. A bit smashed themselves they debate what to do. “Is she drunk or a bum,” asks Nicholson. “Just a bum. Been one all her life.” “And before that?” “She was a whore in Alaska.” “She hasn’t been a whore all her life. Before that?” “I dunno. Just a little kid, I guess.” “Well, a little kid’s something. It’s not a bum and it’s not a whore. It’s something. Let’s take her in.”

Listen sisters and brothers, everyone is something. Everyone is a child of God. Everyone bears God’s image no matter how marred that image may be. If the truth were known, many of us who are critical of the poor or those addicted to drugs or involved in crime, if the truth were known we would be in the same state if we inherited the circumstances in life they inherited. Now, not everyone can admit that. Many are too proud to admit that. But the one who has experienced God’s grace firsthand knows that it is true. I love the way the evangelical writer Philip Yancey defines grace. He says divine grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more and there is nothing we can do to make God love us less – nothing. We are the beloved sons and daughters of God by grace. This is the true bread, a living word, that sustains us against all the slander, disrespect, judgmentalism, and condemnation we might receive from the world caught up in the folly of competing and comparing. Now, we have to choose to live like it. It takes a life of commitment and faithfulness to follow Jesus and become who we are. It take human effort to live out our connection to God and become who we are. But we are who we are by grace.

In the second temptation Jesus is tempted to do something spectacular, namely, to dazzle the crowd with a miraculous deliverance. The question this raises is: Why do I need the applause of others? And along with that question a second one: What will I do to acquire the applause of others, to get others to respect me, like me, and honor me? If the first temptation is about proving our worth to ourselves, this temptation is about proving our worth to others. It appeals to our ego. It appeals to our desire to be special, to be a step above the rest, to be honored and recognized above our peers.

Jesus did not seek popularity or honor; in fact, he seems to have intentionally avoided it. When the crowds became too much, he would withdraw in solitude to some desolate place. Jesus seems to have known intuitively how popularity and praise can ensnare the ego and become an obstacle to the kin-dom of God.

Samir Selmanovic has written a very good book titled, It’s Really All About God. It’s largely an account of his own spiritual journey. He says that when he first came to New York City as a minister he came to make it as a pastor. He says he did not serve the city, but rather used the city, and the city used him. For six months he had not taken a day off, and one morning he found himself in the emergency room with his heart pounding, a severe headache, and dizziness. The doctors could not tell him anything other than to slow down or perish from the stress. That night as he and his wife were lying in bed Semir rattled off to his wife an impressive set of reasons why he had been ignoring her pleas to slow down and take time off. He went on and on, but she was not moved. When he finally exhausted his list of excuses she said to him point blank, “It’s all about you, isn’t it?”

When we are driven by a need to prove ourselves, to be popular and important, then we have allowed the ego to take over. It becomes all about us, and not the kingdom of God and God’s restorative justice. How do we resist this temptation? We resist by resting in God’s grace and by finding our identity in God. And the more we do that, the more we are able to let go of any need to be applauded by others. This is part of what Jesus mean when he talks about losing life in order to find life and when he tells us to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him. The more we experience and live in light of God’s grace, the more we realize that it’s not about us. That we are part of a much larger story.   

In the third temptation Jesus is led to a high mountain and given a glimpse of all the kingdoms of the world. They will be his if he will worship and serve the Devil. The Devil symbolizes a false god, the god of power. The question that I think this last temptation raises is: What kind of power do I seek? This temptation speaks to the ego’s need to control.

Consider the way religious people often yield to this temptation. This temptation often comes to us in the form of needing to be right. There is a certain power and authority that comes with being right, of being God’s favorites, of having exclusive access to God –that is, one can only get to God through our way, our mediator, our faith. For many religious people this means limiting access to God to our religious faith, our group, our church, our people.

I love the story the late Fred Craddock tells about his encounter Albert Schweitzer. Schweitzer was an amazing man. He had several earned doctorates. He was a renowned theological scholar, a concert pianist, and a medical doctor. The second half of his career was devoted to serving a medical mission in Lambarene, Africa. He could not get missionary support because his theology was suspect so he performed concerts in order to raise money to support his work. In the first half of his career as a theological scholar he wrote several books, one of which launched a major theological movement that has now went through several phases. The title of the book describes the movement, The Quest for the Historical Jesus. And that quest continues

When Craddock first read that book he was in his early twenties, just getting started in his theological career. He thought Schweitzer’s Christology was woefully lacking. He marked up the book, wrote in the margins, and raised questions of all kinds. Craddock read in the news that Schweitzer was going to be in Cleveland, Ohio to give a concert at a church dedicating a new organ. The article reported that there would be refreshments afterward in the Fellowship Hall and that Schweitzer would be around for conversation.

Even though Craddock was working in Knoxville, he bought a greyhound bus ticket and went all the way to Cleveland, hoping to have an opportunity to ask him some questions. He laid out his questions on the trip. He was going to go after Schweitzer on his doctrine of Christ and set him straight. After the concert Craddock was one of the first persons to get a seat in the Fellowship Hall. He plopped down in the first row armed with his questions. After a little while Schweitzer came in, shaggy white hair, big white mustache, sort of stooped over, with a cup of tea and some refreshments. Craddock was eager for his chance to have at him.

Dr. Schweitzer thanked everyone: “You’ve been very warm and hospitable to me, and I thank you for that. I wish I could stay longer, but I must get back to Africa. I must go back to Africa because many of my people are poor and diseased and hungry and dying, and I have to go. We have a medical station at Lambarene.” Then he said, “If there’s anyone here in this room who has the love of Jesus, would you be prompted by that love to go with me and help me.”

Craddock said that he looked down at his questions and realized that they were absolutely stupid. Craddock says: “I learned, again, what it means to be a Christian and had hopes that I could be that someday.”

I love the way Bro. David Steindl-Rast defines God as “Almighty.” He says that it is only in the context of God’s fatherly and motherly love that we can call God almighty, for nothing is omnipotent except love. Only love can impart lasting meaning and hope. Only love can impart new life. And love is expressed not in control or power over others, but in service to others. When we pursue power over others we worship a false god, the god of power, and we are not free at all. We are in bondage to ambition. Our need for power has power over us and it corrupts us. And we have certainly seen how destructively this can play out internationally and nationally. God’s power, the power of love, the power of Spirit, is not expressed in power over others, rather, it is expressed in the power to be with and for others, to suffer with others and advocate for others.

The story ends with the Devil leaving Jesus. But the Devil didn’t leave for good. Luke’s version says, “he left until an opportune time.” Jesus would encounter these temptations all through his short life, and we can expect to face them all through our lives as well. And we need to be aware that these temptations can be very subtle and deceptive. Think how much good I could do if I were popular and powerful. This becomes a cover for the ego. The ego is a cunning creature. It can conjure up alternative facts that are very believable. So, we can never let up and let down our guard. We have to choose the power of love over everything else every day.

The three temptations raise three question: First, what makes me who I am? Divine grace. Grace is everything. And the same grace given to me is the same grace given to you and everyone else who are all God’s beloved daughters and sons.

Second, why do I need the applause and approval of others? I don’t. You don’t. All we need is to be rooted in God’s love and grace. We don’t need to dazzle anyone. We don’t need to impress anyone

And third, what sort of power do I seek? The only power I need and you need is the power of love – the power to be with and for those who suffer. We don’t need to be right. We don’t need to be in control. And we certainly don’t need to win. All we need to do is love and serve one another.

Our good God, help us to be awake every day to the many subtle ways these temptations seek to draw us into our little selves, our false selves. Our egos can be so fragile and defensive. Help us to find our identity in you. May we know in the depths of our soul that we are loved with an eternal love, so that we will not need the applause and approval of others. May the only power we seek be the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of love that embraces everyone. Help us to become who we already are. Amen. 

Monday, February 27, 2017

Who are we listening to? (A sermon for Transfiguration Sunday - Matthew 17:1-9)

I know I’m not the preacher originally planned for this pulpit exchange. But you know, sisters and brothers, sometimes you just have to take what you can get. [Note: This Sunday I exchanged pulpits with Rev. Sandy Lacey the pastor of First Presbyterian church, Frankfort, Ky. The minister that was scheduled to to be at First Pres. couldn't make it, so when Sandy was lamenting that at our clergy gathering I volunteered to take his place. Our churches benefited greatly from the exchange] 

The story is told that Franklin Roosevelt often complained about the long receiving lines at the White House. He said that no one really listened. One day he decided to try an experiment. To each person that shook his hand, he said in a low voice, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.” Guests responded with phrases like, “Marvelous, keep up the good work.” “We are proud of you, sir.” The ambassador of Bolivia, however, leaned over and whispered to the President, “I’m sure she had it coming.” Maybe you had this coming.

Who are we listening to? Well, hopefully you will listen to me today. Maybe you have heard the little ditty: My preacher’s s eyes I’ve never seen / Though light from them may shine / For when he prays, he closes his / And when he preaches, mine.  I sometimes tell my congregation that I welcome crying babies in the service, because at least I know someone is awake.

In our story today Jesus is transfigured in the presence of three of his disciples. The Divine Voice repeats the affirmation that was first uttered at Jesus’ baptism: This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. While the revelation at Jesus’ Baptist was primarily for the benefit of Jesus, here the revelation or epiphany is for the benefit of his disciples. Here the Divine Voice commands emphatically: Listen to him. Don’t listen to those voices who want an insurrectionist to lead them against Rome. Don’t listen to those who clamor for a miracle worker who can provide for all their needs. Don’t listen to the threats and anger of the religious leaders who want to silence Jesus and evoke fear in his followers. No, says the Voice, you listen to Jesus.

When I read the baptism story I am asking myself: Do I hear the divine voice saying to me: You are my son. Do we hear the Divine voice saying to us, you are my daughter, you are my son, in you I am well pleased. Can we hear that voice? If not, why not? Because that is who we are. We are all the dearly beloved daughters and sons of God. So the question that confronts us at Jesus’ baptism is: Have I claimed by faith who I am and am I living out that reality? Am I becoming who I am?

When I read the transfiguration story I am asking myself: Who am I listening to? Am I listening to the one who embodied and incarnated so beautifully what it means to be a son or daughter of God? And what does that mean for me right now?

If we are listening to Jesus, then we cannot be listening to the voices that are screaming, “America first.” As much as we all love our country and all the freedoms guaranteed by our democracy – such as the freedom to publicly advocate for or peacefully protest against policies and laws that we consider to be just or unjust – as much as we value such freedoms, we must listen to Jesus who says: Seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness or a better translation, God’s justice.

When Jesus says seek first God’s righteousness or justice he is not talking about righteousness as personal piety or justice as in getting what one deserves. When Jesus talks about God’s righteousness or justice he is talking about righteousness or justice in the prophetic tradition. The prophets railed against those who were devout in their observance of religious customs and rituals but neglected and took advantage of the orphans, the widows, and the aliens or strangers – the three most vulnerable groups in ancient Israel. In our culture this would be the poor, the disadvantaged, and the undocumented. Jesus also added to that the religiously condemned and socially marginalized. To seek God’s justice is to seek restorative or social justice for all these vulnerable children of God.

If we are listening to Jesus, then we cannot listen to the voices ignited by fear, insecurity, and civil religion that are proclaiming “America first.” For disciples of Jesus it must always be the kingdom of God first and God’s healing, merciful, liberating, restoring, and reconciling justice.

If we are listening to Jesus, then we cannot listen to the voices that are saying “me first.” Just before the transfiguration scene Jesus tells his disciples about his death – how he will undergo rejection and great suffering and be killed by the powers that be. Then he says, as if trying to weed out the crowd, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow me.” Jesus is preparing them for rejection and suffering, and he makes it clear that there can be no discipleship apart from self-denial.

Now, don’t misunderstand. He is not saying, “hate yourself.” In fact, we can only love others to the degree that we love ourselves. If we don’t value our own lives then we are not likely to value the lives of others. What he is telling them and us to do is deny, relinquish, let go of, die to our little selves, our egotistical selves, our self-centered selves, what Thomas Merton called our false selves.

And these three disciples who were with Jesus on the mount had not yet learned to do that. Peter would later deny he even knew Jesus, and a little bit later, in chapter 20, James and John ask Jesus if they can sit on his left and right in his kingdom. In Matthew’s version they have their mother ask Jesus on their behalf if they can occupy first and second place. Clearly, they have not learned to deny the little self, the ego self and they completely misunderstand the nature of God’s kingdom. They are looking for a high place and position, for prominence, prestige, and power. Jesus says that tyrants and people in power like to lord it over others. But not so with you. The kingdom of God is not about greatness, it’s about service. It’s not about being first, it’s about serving others. In fact, Jesus says in several places in the Gospels, that in God’s upside-down kingdom the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

If we listen to Jesus, then we cannot listen to those voices that are shouting “America first” and we cannot listen to those voices that are proclaiming, “me first.” Now, on the positive side, if we listen to Jesus, then we must listen to the Divine Voice that says, “Love first.” It’s not America first or me first, it’s love first.

In chapter 22 Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment in the law. Jesus says that the greatest commandment is twofold: love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus says: On these two commandments – love God and love your neighbor – hang all the law and the prophets – all the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.

In the transfiguration story Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus. A number of interpreters believe that Moses and Elijah function as representatives of the law and the prophets. Jesus is first transfigured. Then Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus. Then while Peter is talking nonsense a bright cloud overshadows them, and out of the cloud the divine voice says, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, listen to him.” And then Moses and Elijah, as if in a Star Trek scene, are transported out as suddenly as they were transported in. Jesus then touches the disciples, who have cowered down in fear, and when they look up, the text says "they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.”

Clearly, Moses and Elijah have secondary roles, but I do not think that Matthew is teaching that Jesus supersedes the law and the prophets. I think this is Matthew’s way of showing continuity between Jesus and the prophets, and his way of showing that the very best of the law and the prophets find their realization and fulfillment in the life and teaching of Jesus. What does it mean to listen to Jesus?

- Listening to Jesus means heeding the call to love the world the way Jesus loves the world.
- Listening to Jesus means breaking down barriers and inviting all people to the table of fellowship, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, place in society, or anything else.
- Listening to Jesus means engaging in works of healing and liberation, forgiveness and reconciliation.
- Listening to Jesus means standing with and for the poor and vulnerable, the disenfranchised and the marginalized, the excluded and rejected.
- Listening to Jesus means loving all people with an expansive, magnanimous, persistent love – and loving even those who would call themselves our enemies.
- Listening to Jesus means putting love first – in our families, in our church, in our community, and society at large.

Paul was listening when he said of the three great spiritual realities – faith, hope, and love – love is the greatest. The writer of 1 John was listening when he said that where ever love is God is, because God is love. The writer of Ephesians was listening when he said that to be imitators of God we must live in love as Christ loved us.

The kingdom of God is really the kin-dom of God, because it’s all about mercy and justice; it’s about relationships and working for the common good. I love the poem written by Cynthia Kirk titled, Kin-dom Without Walls. (Not Kingdom, but Kin-dom)

Imagine a place / Where mercy resides, / Love forms each heart, / Compassion lived out with grit and determination. / A place where lavish signs / Mark each path barrier free.

Imagine a place / Where skin tones are celebrated / Like the hues of tulips in springtime. / Where languages inspire / With symphonies of diversity. / Where Respect schools us / In custom and history / And every conversation / Begins with a bow of reverence.

Imagine a place where each person wears glasses, / Clarity of vision for all. / Recognizing each one, everything / Made in the image of God.

Imagine a place / Where carrots and pasta / Doctor’s skills and medications / Are not chained behind barbed wire - / Food, shelter, health care available for all.

Imagine a place where / Every key of oppression / Was melted down to form public art / Huge fish, doves, lions, and lambs / On which children could play.

Imagine a place where / People no longer kept watch / Through the front window / To determine whether the welcome mat / Would remain on the porch.

Such is the work / The journey / The destination / In the kin-dom of God.

Can we imagine such a place? Can we be such a place?

Maybe we can if we will close our ears to the voices that say, “America first”
Maybe we can if will turn away from those voices that are clamoring, “Me first”
Maybe we can if will heed the divine voice incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth that says, “Love first.”

Who are we listening to? I hope we are listening to Jesus who is the voice of love.

Our good God, there are many voices in today’s world that would mislead us and deceive us. Help us to tune into your voice – the voice of love that we see in the life and actions of Jesus and that we hear in his words and deeds. Give us, O God, eyes to see, ears to hear, and the will to obey the voice of love.

Monday, February 20, 2017

We all belong (A sermon from 1 Cor. 3:18-23 and Matthew 5:38-48)

In this paragraph in Paul’s correspondence with the church in Corinth Paul returns to an earlier theme where he contrasts the foolishness of the world with the wisdom of God. Here the point he makes is that the church expresses the foolishness of the world in their boasting about human leaders. Paul’s response, I think, is wonderfully creative and constructive.

He basically questions why the Corinthians would want to sell themselves short. In their greedy attempt to claim the biggest slice of the pie, what they don’t realize is that the whole pie is already theirs. Paul says, “Everything is yours. We all belong. We are one people. And no one has more than anyone else” (see 1 Cor. 3:21-23).

Unless you are familiar with Paul’s view of God’s new creation Paul’s words here may seem strange. Paul heralded Christ as the mediator and representative of God’s new creation. God’s new creation breaks down all kinds of barriers and brings us all together as one. Paul speaks of this new creation later in this epistle when he says that we are one body in Christ. He writes, “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (12:13). One Spirit, one body.

Some want to limit the new creation to Christians, but I don’t think we can do that, and I don’t think Paul did that either. There are indications in Paul’s letters that Paul understood the new creation to be universal and all-inclusive. There is good reason to think that Paul viewed everyone in Christ even though he also clearly taught that it was necessary to live that out practically. In 1 Cor. 15 in his discussion on resurrection Paul claims that all things (no exceptions) will be brought into subjection to the Christ and therefore to God. Paul says this in 15:28: “When all things are subjected to him (that is, the Christ), then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.” I hope you can see how  universal and inclusive and sweeping that affirmation is. God will be all in all. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he says that all people will come to submit to Christ’s Lordship. He says that every tongue will confess and every knee will bow to Christ’s Lordship. That doesn’t leave anyone out.

I believe some of Paul’s followers spelled out even more clearly how all enveloping, universal, and inclusive God’s plan is. In Ephesians the writer says (scholars are divided on whether Paul or someone later in the Pauline tradition wrote it) that God’s plan is that in the fullness of time God will “gather up all things in him (the Christ), things in heaven and on earth” (Eph. 1:10). In the letter to the Colossians, the writer says that God will reconcile “all things” (there is that phrase again) to himself through the Christ (Col. 1:19). And in Colossians the writer links this universal reconciliation to the cross – to the way in which Jesus died – as somehow (and the writer doesn’t spell this out) instrumental in making peace between all people and creation. The language is universal. Everyone will come to submit to Christ’s lordship, all things will be gathered up in Christ, all things will be reconciled to God through Christ, so that God will be all in all.  

It seems that Paul went about forming churches with the idea that these local communities/assemblies of Christ followers would give the world a taste of the new creation, a preview of what life will be like when God’s plan for the creation is realized and everything and everyone comes together in peace and oneness. Paul believed it was the calling of Christ followers to live now in light of the new creation – to be the new creation now. Paul taught that the Spirit of Christ is at work in the church presently to form new creation communities.

I can imagine how disappointed Paul must have been after a few years of forming churches when he realized how poor and pitiful we Christ followers are at actually living out and embodying the new creation of God. We have not done this very well have we? I suspect this probably accounts for some of those passages where Paul expresses his frustration. I think there were times he was just flustered with the church. I believe he was expecting and hoping for so much more. Paul was looking to create and nurture faith communities – local churches – that modeled the oneness of God’s new creation. But what he got were communities not much different from the rest of society. Almost every letter Paul wrote was in response to some problem or problems the church experienced. And of course this is true today. We don’t do a very good job in modeling – in being an example and preview – of God’s new creation.

Now, this doesn’t mean that are supposed to be some exclusive club that has an inside track on the things of God. There is more truth in the world than we will ever know ourselves and people don’t need to become just like us to be part of God’s new creation. We chide the Corinthians for their arrogance and one-upmanship, but when you think about it, that very attitude, often disguised and manifested today in more subtle ways has been behind much of the missionary enterprise of the church over the years.

What we are supposed to be as a church and what Paul hoped we would be are faith communities living out unity in diversity, embodying an expansive and inclusive love, sharing our lives with one another in a way that points others to God’s plan to bring about a new creation. If we are participants in God’s new creation then shouldn’t we be living like it? If I am yours and you are mine, and we all belong to one another, then we should be living like it shouldn’t we? This is why Paul says in chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians that of the three great spiritual realities of life – faith, hope, and love – love is greater than all. Because love is what brings about oneness. As important as faith may be or hope may be, it takes love to bring about oneness. Only love can bring about God’s new creation. The new creation is only realized to the extent that we love one another and come together in peace for the common good.

But then there is the question of: How do we respond to those who don’t see the world the way we see the world, who have no trust in or commitment to the kind of love and generosity and justice that marks God’s new creation? How should we respond to those who live almost completely out of the false self? Who believe in the survival of the fittest? Who relish subjugating others by force and lording it over others? How do we respond to those who have no intention of being at one with us? Who regard us an inferiors? Or who, for whatever reason, don’t like us and may even want to harm us? How do we respond as God’s people of the new creation? Now, this is where it really gets hard and most of us fail. Certainly the church at large has not modeled the new creation very well. The passage we read today in Matthew’s Gospel gives us some very specific instruction on how we are called to respond.

In the first paragraph (5:38-42) Jesus says, “Do not resist an evildoer.” A better translation would be: “Do not violently resist an evil doer.” Jesus is not saying don’t resist. He is saying don’t do it violently. In fact, there are some things we have to resist, but we must not do it violently. What follows that admonition are some examples of how Jewish people in bondage to Rome might protest injustice and retain their dignity in a society that did not allow for protest. Roman society was an authoritarian society, not a democracy. In our society, thank God, nonviolent protest is our constitutional right. That wasn’t true for Jews who were Roman subjects. So, turning the other cheek, giving one’s cloak as well as one’s coat to the  oppressor, and carrying the oppressor’s baggage an extra mile, were all creative ways a Jew living as a non-citizen under the power of Rome might protest the injustice of Roman society in a non-overt way – in  way that might not get you killed. Jesus creatively offered his Jewish followers a strategy to protest oppression and injustice in an authoritarian society that did not allow such protests. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. developed their own strategies of nonviolent resistance drawing on the spirit behind these examples.   

In the next paragraph (5:43-48) Jesus addresses motive. Jesus makes clear that any attempt at calling attention to injustice through non-violent action must be done in love for the oppressor, not hate or revenge. You see, God wants to redeem the oppressor, not get even, and we must want that too, because such is the love that marks the new creation of God.

God loves all of God’s children. God loves those who don’t know they are God’s children and even those who want nothing to do with God. God loves even those who take pleasure in hurting and harming others –those who do terrible things. God doesn’t withhold good things from evildoers. Jesus points out that just like the sunshine and the rain, God’s love is poured out on all people indiscriminately. So then, sisters and brothers, if we aspire to live as God’s children in this world, then we must aspire to love the world the way God loves the world. God can’t force anyone to change, but God will not give up on anyone. So we can’t either. Perhaps we can find some creative ways to oppose injustice and still love the oppressor.

In his book, Jesus Is the Question, Martin Copenhaver writes about the special relationship a church he served as Associate Pastor had with Lloyd and Maisie Vactor who were missionaries with the United Church of Christ. Lloyd served as president of Dansalan College in the Philippines. While his primary goal was to provide a quality education for all the students who attended, his secondary goal was to improve the relationship between Christians and Muslims. Where the college was located in Marawi there had been four centuries of hostilities between Christians and Muslims. Violence was common.

On March 9, 1979 eleven armed men, members of a Muslim sect, kidnapped Lloyd from his office and held him for ransom. The senior minister where Copenhaver served as Associate sent out this report and request to the congregation: “Pray for Lloyd in his captivity. Pray for his wife, Maisie, as she anxiously awaits word. Pray for both the Christian and Muslim communities in the Philippines, that the violence might stop. And pray for Lloyd’s captors, that they might know the peace of God.”

Rev. Copenhaver says that he remembers well some of the reactions to the request to pray for Lloyd’s captors. Some questioned why they should pray for their captors. Others said they would pray that the captors would get what they deserved.
While Lloyd was held captive, the church received word that his wife, Maisie had died. The church started a memorial scholarship fund in Maisie’s name for American women who might want to pursue ministry or social work, as she had done.

After twenty days of captivity, Lloyd was released as quickly and inexplicably as he was abducted. No ransom was paid, but they released him. In the weeks after his release, a question arose about how the money should be spent. Lloyd was given the choice as to how the funds would be used. He decided to keep the money as a scholarship fund, but he did not want it to be used for American students. He wanted the money specifically earmarked for Dansalan College students who are part of the very Muslim sect that kidnapped him and threatened his life for those weeks he was in captivity. Copenhaver says that while they decided to help one of their own, Lloyd decided to give aid to his enemies. Lloyd did not regard them as his enemies. He regarded them as children of God who needed to start living out that reality.

We are to love our enemies because Jesus told us to and they, too, are children of a loving God. Love is the only thing that makes peace possible. Remember sisters and brothers, the kingdom of God is really the kin-dom of God. God’s new creation is all about relationships. Just maybe – I know it doesn’t happen very often – but maybe our willingness to channel God’s love toward those set against us, just might turn an enemy into a friend. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.

Everything is yours sisters and brothers. We all belong. I am yours and you are mine. And so are those people down the street who don’t like you. We are one people. Our hope is that someday that oneness will be realized. We are called to model that oneness, to treat each other with respect and dignity, and to work toward reconciliation. We still have to speak out and tell the truth and stand up for the marginalized, but we don’t have to do that in a vengeful or hateful way. Because even the oppressor is our brother and sister.

Great God, I pray that we might experience your love in such a deep way that our hearts are changed and we are able to love others with your kind of love. Help us Lord to do a better job giving the world a taste of what your new creation will look like and feel like. Amen. 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

For the sake of the world (a sermon from 1 Cor. 3:1-9 and Matt. 5:21-26)

A minister was walking out of the church one Sunday after the morning worship service and noticed a bulletin with some writing on it that had been tossed aside in one of the pews. His curiosity got the best of him, so he picked it up and read it. One of his parishioners had apparently been inspired to poetry during his sermon. This member had scribbled out on the worship bulletin: To dwell above/ with the saints we love/ Oh, that will be glory!/ But to dwell below/ with the saints we know/ Well, that’s a different story.

Paul chastises the congregation at Corinth for their divisiveness. They were creating factions around certain leaders. It was all about their own egos and their need to shine brighter than the rest. So the congregation was pervaded by in-group/out-group divisiveness rooted in their own egos and petty jealousies.

Paul calls them babies (infants). Though he does say they are babies in Christ. In other words, he wants them to know that even though they are acting childish, like little babies, they still belong to the Christ. They are still God’s beloved daughters and sons, even though God is not pleased with them.

Paul also says that they are “of the flesh” (in fact, he says this twice). What does he mean – “of the flesh”? Aren’t we all of the flesh? We are, but Paul here is not talking about flesh and blood. Paul uses the term “flesh” in a rather peculiar way in some of his letters that seem very strange to us. Paul invests the word “flesh” with moral or ethical connotations. In Galatians and Romans Paul talks about the works of the flesh – that is, attitudes and behavior that stem from the ego. So from Paul’s perspective, these life patterns and habits and behaviors that are “of the flesh” are of the kind that are self-centered, self-indulgent, and full of pride. “Of the flesh” attitudes and actions tear down rather than build up; they demean and diminish others rather than uplift and affirm them. So Paul calls them out and says, “You are acting like babies, you are of the flesh, you are unspiritual, you are at the mercy of your selfish, egotistical inclinations.” They were acting like brats, rather than the servants they were called to be.

Sisters and brothers, if we aspire to live as the loving sons and daughters of God, if we are to become who we are, then, we too, must confront the ego. The kingdom of God is not about position or place or power. It’s not about accolades or acclamation. It’s not about appearances or achievements. It’s not about prestige or prominence. All of that, all of it, is of the flesh. It is childish and unspiritual.

When I was at Grace Seminary in the early eighties, there was a story that circulated about the president of the seminary, Dr. John Davis, when he was a boy. I love to tell this story, especially because it’s a fishing story. He was an avid fisherman, and when he was a kid he use to go fishing some with an elderly man who taught him a lot about fishing by the name of Frank Lloyd. On one fishing trip he and Frank decided to split up and go different directions on the trout stream and meet back later at a set time. There was a remarkable contrast in their appearance and approach. Young John Davis was fast moving, energetic, decked out in all the latest fishing gear—new fly rod and reel, new chest waders, new box of artificial flies—he had invested most of his grass cutting money that summer to purchase all the latest equipment. Frank Lloyd, on the other hand, was about as crusty as a piece of burnt toast. The gear he used he had for years. He had tape holding his fly rod together. When they met back at the designated spot in the late morning, young John Davis had not landed a single fish; Frank Lloyd had already caught his limit of native, brook trout.

Davis was humbled and sought Frank’s advice. So he took the young man back to a place in Davis’ section of the trout stream, where he knew there was some trout. At Frank’s instruction Davis crawled up to the edge of the trout pool. Frank told him to place his fly on a leaf and float it down the stream until it was in the spot where the trout were most likely to be laying. Then he instructed him to twitch his rod ever so slightly several times so that the fly seemed to be jumping on the leaf. Then, at Frank’s command, Davis twitched it a little harder and the fly landed in the water. When it did, the water exploded and Davis reeled in a hefty, native brook trout. Frank Lloyd said to young John Davis, “That’s how you do it, son. You get down on your hands and knees and keep yourself out of the way.”

Any authentic spirituality has to confront the ego and struggle to keep it out of the way. We have to confront our longings and desires that are rooted in the need for self-glory, honor, and control. And this can be a real struggle, like Jesus’s struggle in the desert with Satan. I see Jesus’s encounter with Satan in the desert as symbolic of the struggle we all have to have with the little self, the false self, what Paul calls the flesh.

And in this struggle there comes a time and place where we have to decide who we are going to serve. Will we serve our little, ego-dominated, false self? Or will we serve our true self, the Christ self, the self we are created to be. There comes a time when we must decide that we are going to be servants for a greater cause and good. I said last week, being spiritual is not for the purpose of being spiritual. It’s for the purpose of being the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Spirituality is for service, it is for the sake of love. It is for the sake of the world. Paul says to the church at Corinth, “We are God’s servants, working together.” He tells them that they share a “common purpose.” I suppose one reason so many Christians are divided today is because we can’t agree on what that common purpose is. And that is a problem. There is no question about that – it is a problem and a challenge. But what we can’t do, however, is simply dismiss one another.

The reason we can’t simply dismiss one another is because Jesus won’t let us. Jesus compels us to find some way in which we can be reconciled and come together. Of course, that’s not always possible. But Jesus will not let us off the hook either. Jesus tells us to rid ourselves of all anger and contempt, and pursue reconciliation. And this shouldn’t surprise us because Jesus made love of neighbor the fulfillment of God’s will. And our “neighbor,” according to Jesus, is anyone and everyone. Common sense tells us that we can’t possibly love anyone and everyone to the same degree or in the same way. But how we love each other, how we relate to one another matters greatly, because such is the kingdom of God.

In fact, Jesus makes the point that relationships take precedence over religious ritual and devotion. Jesus is not by any means denigrating religious ritual and devotion, but he is saying in this passage that how we treat one another is the main thing. And to make his point he employs a rather shocking example. If you are at the altar ready to offer your gift or sacrifice, but then remember that someone has taken offense at you, then leave your gift there, and go to your brother or sister to make things right. Jesus doesn’t even offer any kind of judgment on whether the offense taken is justified or not, he just says, go. Why is that? Because the kingdom of God is about relationships.

Professor Tex Sample tells a story about Allen Knight Chalmers who taught at Boston University School of Theology. Chalmers was deeply involved in the civil rights movement. He would teach during the week, then over the weekend he would travel and participate in civil rights marches and demonstrations. During those years Chalmers became good friends with a black student at the seminary. The black student was from Alabama and one year at Christmas decided to go home for the holidays. His wife was pregnant, and pretty far along, but their doctor said it would be okay. The trip home was fine. They had a great time visiting with family and friends. But on the way back, somewhere in North Alabama his wife started having sharp pains. They began to rush to find a hospital. The first hospital they came to told them that they didn’t take colored people, and denied his wife treatment. By the time they found another hospital she had lost the baby and nearly died herself. When they got back to Boston University, this black student was in the words of Sample a “cauldron of fury” and who wouldn’t be. He would have nothing to do with Chalmers, even though they had been warm friends.

Chalmers would meet him in the hall way and this young man would turn away. Chalmers made phone calls and tried to meet him but to no avail. One day when Chalmers was in his office, he looked down the hallway and he saw this young man walking in his direction. So Chalmers stepped back into his office so the young man couldn’t see him, and when he was about in front of his door, Chalmers, who was a big man, reached out and grabbed this young black student, pulling him in and practically hurling him across the room. Chalmers shouted, “Listen, you have got to talk about this. You’ve got to talk and you are going to talk to me now. You are not leaving this office unless you go right over me!” The young man tightened up and in anger lashed out, “GD you, GD you, If it weren’t for you, I could hate every white man on the face of the earth.”

Where can the marginalized, the outcasts, those who are criminalized simply for being different and for fleeing war and poverty and death, where can they find someone to trust, someone who will stand with them and stand for them and be their allies and advocates? Can you be that person? Can I? Can we be that church?

I love the poem written by Cynthia Kirk titled, Kin-dom Without Walls. (Not Kingdom, but Kin-dom)

Imagine a place / Where mercy resides, / Love forms each heart, / Compassion lived out with grit and determination. / A place where lavish signs / Mark each path barrier free.

Imagine a place / Where skin tones are celebrated / Like the hues of tulips in springtime. / Where languages inspire / With symphonies of diversity. / Where Respect schools us / In custom and history / And every conversation / Begins with a bow of reverence.

Imagine a place where each person wears glasses, / Clarity of vision for all. / Recognizing each one, everything / Made in the image of God.

Imagine a place / Where carrots and pasta / Doctor’s skills and medications / Are not chained behind barbed wire - / Food, shelter, health care available for all.

Imagine a place where / Every key of oppression / Was melted down to form public art / Huge fish, doves, lions, and lambs / On which children could play.

Imagine a place where / People no longer kept watch / Through the front window / To determine whether the welcome mat / Would remain on the porch.

Such is the work / The journey / The destination / In the kin-dom of God.

Can you imagine such a place? Can we be such a place?

Gracious God, as we join one another in sharing the bread and juice, let us be reminded that this is what you want for all humanity. So let us be empowered today to express your love to our wider community and world every way we can. Amen.