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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Why It’s Wrong to Use Jesus to Reject Full Inclusion of LGBT Persons in the Church.




It is practically blasphemous to appeal to Jesus as the reason for a church’s refusal to fully accept and affirm LGBT persons because Jesus was the great boundary breaker, not the boundary maker. Consider the following:

First, Jesus was the great boundary breaker in the way he broke down barriers between the “righteous” and “sinners.” The meaning of these terms in the Gospels was usually based on sectarian categories (see especially Mark 2:13-17). “Sinners” was a term applied by the “righteous” to those who did not keep the law as the righteous understood and applied it. Sinners were excluded from religious life. Jesus demolished that barrier when he welcomed all “sinners” to eat with him. Eating together meant full acceptance and inclusion. New Testament scholar James D. G. Dunn aptly summarizes:

“Jesus’ practice of table fellowship was not only an expression of the good news of God’s kingly rule. It was also an implicit critique of a Pharisaic definition of acceptability, of a Pharisaic practice which classified many fellow Jews as sinners, effectively outside the law and the covenant . . . What to many Pharisees was a sinful disregard for covenant ideals was for Jesus an expression of the gospel itself. People they regarded as unacceptable, Jesus proclaimed by word and act to be the very ones God invited to his royal banquet.”

Jesus was constantly in trouble with the gatekeepers because he consorted, befriended, and welcomed into his fellowship all those the gatekeepers ruled outside the ranks of the people of God. The exclusion and condemnation of those categorized as sinners by the righteous in Jesus’ day is analogous to the labeling and judgment of LGBT persons as “sinners” by the self-designated righteous today. 

Second, Jesus was the great boundary breaker in the way he made the whole of Jewish scripture and tradition hang on the commandments to love God and love neighbor. In Luke’s version of the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself, a Jewish leader sought to justify himself by asking, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded by telling the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25ff).

When I was a kid in Sunday School I remember being taught many times that being a good neighbor is helping someone in need. While that is important, that’s not the main point of the story is it? The point is that the Samaritan was the enemy. Some Jews may have despised the Samaritans even more than the Romans and vice versa. And what Jesus taught by parable regarding love of enemies, he taught more directly in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:43-48; also Luke 6:27-36).

Third, Jesus was the great boundary breaker in the way he extended boundless grace by healing all who needed healing. Consider this summary in Matthew’s Gospel:

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pain, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them” (Matt. 4:23-24). 

There were no hoops to jump through. Jesus healed all who came: women, men, children, Jews, non-Jews, poor, rich, those with or without faith . . . he made no distinction.

Fourth, Jesus was the great boundary breaker in the way he critiqued and confronted his own sacred tradition in order to bring about needed reform. This is particularly reflected in the Sabbath controversies where Jesus challenged Sabbath law (see especially Mark 2:23-3:6). With regard to Hebrew scripture sometimes he accepted it, sometimes he expanded it, and sometimes he rejected it. For example, he accepted the commandment against murder, but extended it to include anger (Matt. 5:21-24). Jesus completely rejected the law of retaliation in the Hebrew Bible and encouraged non-violent protest (Matt. 5:38-42). Jesus critiqued and challenged his Jewish tradition and scripture in order to break down barriers and move people toward inclusion, grace, and compassion. 

Fifth, Jesus was the great boundary breaker in the way he overstepped social mores and customs in order to love and elevate those regarded as inferior. In the ancient world a female was deemed inferior to a male. Polygamy was common (Deut. 21:15-17). Only a man had the right to divorce (Deut. 24:1-4).  Concerning vows, women were economically valued less that men (Deut. 27:1-7). The monthly menstrual bleeding of a woman was considered a source of the woman’s ritual and spiritual uncleanness (Lev. 12:2). Female inferiority was even built into the structure of the temple itself, with the court of women outside the court of Israel. Women were not allowed into the inner court where sacrifices where offered.

Jesus broke through the taboos of uncleanness when he healed the woman who had the “flow of blood.” When she touched Jesus, instead of rendering Jesus “unclean” Jesus rendered the woman “clean” by healing her (Mark 5:25-34). Jesus overturned notions of female inferiority when he called women disciples (Mark 15:40; Luke 8:1-3; 10:38-42). Jesus’ teaching on divorce (Mk 10:1-12) was really aimed at trying to level the playing field for women who could be divorced by their husbands for any reason whatsoever.

Again and again, in story after story Jesus crossed boundaries, tore down walls, overstepped social mores, and challenged laws, scriptures, traditions, and customs that separated and segregated people into acceptable and unacceptable categories which determined who was ‘in’ and ‘out.’ He did this in the name of “Abba” and for the cause of God’s kingdom. Jesus’ ministry as boundary breaker clearly demonstrated what God is like and what God is about.

Given the nature of Jesus’ work as boundary breaker why would anyone think that Jesus would erect barriers to exclude and judge our LGBT sisters and brothers? Some of the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day accused Jesus of blasphemy because they felt he misrepresented God and thus violated God’s glory. They were the ones, however, who were actually misrepresenting God and distracting from the glory of God’s love and compassion. Doesn't this seem all too contemporary?

If blasphemy is understood as misrepresenting God and distracting from the glory of God’s love and goodness (as the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day defined it), then we are all guilty on some level and to some degree. But let’s hope that in our treatment of our LGBT sisters and brothers fewer of us fall back into the same mistake the so-called “righteous” made in their treatment of “sinners.” LGBT persons are not anymore “sinners” than the rest and it’s time more churches embrace full affirmation and inclusion.


Monday, December 15, 2014

The Misuse of Scripture (Southern Baptists seem to lead the way)



When our president issued his executive order giving deportation relief to millions of undocumented people in our country, as part of his explanation he quoted Scripture: “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9; also 22:21). This angered a number of conservative Christians who apparently felt they had a monopoly on the Bible.

Mark Coppenger, professor of Christian apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote a piece for the Religion News Service claiming that the President misused Scripture by running “roughshod over context.”

The irony of this is that the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution in 2011 quoting this very Scripture as a basis for compassionate action. The resolution declared: “The Scriptures call us, in imitation of God Himself, to show compassion and justice for the sojourner and alien among us.” Following that declaration the Scripture the President quoted was listed along with several others.

Did Coppenger change his mind or did he never support the SBC resolution to begin with? My purpose here is not to critique Coppenger’s hypocritical hermeneutic. Mainline Biblical interpreters can easily tear his shoddy reasoning apart (see Mark Silk’s excellent critique at the same website).

The question I want to ask is: Could there be some bias at work behind the argument that the President misused Scripture? Could it be a general animosity toward our President? Could it be a commitment to a political ideology or party? Or could there be some other bias or interest at work? I can’t make that judgment, but clearly some sort of bias is behind Coppenger’s argument.

Coppenger proves the point that I frequently make about our use and misuse of the Bible. Our biases (and we all have them) influence how we appropriate Scripture for good or ill.

So why not apply Scripture with a bias toward love? This is what Jesus seemed to do in his use of Scripture. And the most enlightened biblical texts suggest as much:

“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). 

“Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us . . .”  (Eph. 5:1-2).

“Above all, clothe yourself with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:14). 

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God: everyone who loves is from God . . . Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. . . . God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:7-8, 16).

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:36-40).

If Dr. Coppenger and all the other conservative Christians who are crying “foul” at the President’s use of Scripture would allow the above Scriptures to shape their hearts, then we wouldn’t have to have this conversation.

My principle is simple: Only love provides the context for appropriating Scripture rightly.  

Monday, December 8, 2014

Gold, Circumstance, and Mud: Living in the In-Between (Isa. 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8)

Advent reminds us that we live in an in-between time. In between the historic coming of Jesus of Nazareth and the future coming of a new world of peace and righteousness. The prophet in Isaiah 40 is addressing a people in exile who are preparing to return home, but they are not home yet. And when you think about it, that’s where we all are isn’t it? The kingdom of God that Jesus announced and embodied is here, but not yet – not yet in any complete sense.

When Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God, according to the Gospels, he spoke of it both in present and future ways. In some passages the kingdom of God is clearly future. But in other passages it is clearly present. On one occasion, according to Luke, when Jesus was questioned by the Pharisees about when the kingdom of God was coming, Jesus said, “The kingdom is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!” or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you” (or we could read that as, “the kingdom of God is within you”). In another passage Jesus told the Jewish leaders that his works of healing and salvation - healing diseases, restoring the  disabled and the mentally ill, and liberating people from the demonic were all signs that the kingdom/reign of God had come upon them.

This is why Jesus declared, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matt. 12:30). In other words, one can’t be neutral in the presence of the reign of God embodied by Jesus. In this in-between time one either stands with Jesus and the things he stood for or one stands against Jesus and the things he stood for. In the Synoptic Gospels, it is never simply about belief, it is about what we do or fail to do. We stand with or against Jesus on the basis of what we do or do not do.   

* * * * * * * * *
In this in-between time we have to live with a lot of tensions, a lot of incompleteness.
Our text in Isaiah reflects the tension between humankind’s experience of universal glory and universal frailty. On the one hand, the prophet points out that all people are like the grass that withers and fades. On the other hand, all people, says the prophet, will see and experience the glory of the Lord. On the one hand we are vulnerable, weak, subject to suffering and death. On the other hand, God acts redemptively on our behalf and bestows God’s glory upon us.

This tension between universal weakness and universal glory reflects something of the tension between original sin and original blessing. Original sin says that we are all sinners and that we need to be liberated from our sins – freed from our greed, pride, lust for power, and all the rest and healed from sin’s effects upon our lives and relationships. Original blessing says we have the potential for great good, that we are “God’s offspring” as Paul tells the Athenians in Acts 17 and that in God “we all live, move, and have our very existence.” Original sin says we all fail and come short of God’s glory; original blessing says that even in our imperfect state we reflect God’s glory, that we all have great potential, and will all eventually experience God’s glory. We are grass and we are glory, but no one is unworthy of God’s love.

When I was a junior I recall a Saturday morning basketball practice. Coach called it a practice, but it really was punishment. We were beaten the night before by a team we should have easily defeated. So he called a mandatory practice for Saturday morning. We ran and ran and ran – never touched a basketball all morning. Finally, when we were all about to drop he called us over to the bleachers for a little talk. The only words I remember was coach saying that we were all expendable. Well, he did make one exception. After he said to us, “You are all expendable,” he paused and added an exception clause, “well, maybe not Row.” David Row was our 6’ 6’’ center. He was absolutely necessary.

What we really needed to hear from our coach at that point in the season was: “You all are better than this. I know you are better than the way you have been playing.” We needed for him to believe in us. We needed practice, not punishment. We knew we had been playing poorly, we knew we were better than the way we had been playing, but we needed to hear that from our coach. Instead, what we got was: You are all expendable. Pitiful.

Unfortunately, this is the message many of us heard from our preachers and Sunday School teachers for years: “You are sinners. You are no good. You deserve to go to hell. You are unworthy. But God loves you anyway. Don’t know why God would love the likes of you but God does and that is why Jesus had to die. But you really are nothing.”  

Sisters and brothers, I don’t believe for one minute that we are nothing – that we are expendable – or that Jesus had to die because we are no good or to satisfy God’s justice or to persuade God to forgive us. God loves us because God is love. God forgives us because God is a forgiving God. God does not need to be persuaded or appeased or bought off. The reason Jesus died is because our sins (humankind’s sins) – our hate, greed, and pride had him crucified. He died because he confronted the injustices of the religious and political establishment of his people and he embodied the compassion and love of God that compelled him to care more for people than their rules. His commitment to God’s cause and his investment in the good of others got him killed. God didn’t kill him, we killed him, humankind killed him; more specifically the Romans and the religious leaders killed him, but they represented all of us. Jesus died because he was committed to our good, not because God required it.

* * * * * * * *
One evening at Christmas a pastor and his wife were called in by their four young children to be the audience for their living room Christmas play. Baby Jesus was a flashlight wrapped in a blanket. Joseph had on a bathrobe and had a mop-handle staff. Mary looked solemn with a sheet draped over her head. The angel had pillowcase wings. The youngest of them had a pillowcase full of gifts. His line was: I’m all three wise men and I bring precious gifts of gold, circumstance, and mud.

Well, that is pretty much what we are and what we bring. We are both gold and mud. We reflect God’s image, but yet we mar that image. We are God’s beloved daughters and sons, and yet how often have we failed to claim our identity and live out the reality.   But God’s love remains constant. God’s word is a word of love and as the prophet says it stands forever, and no matter how much mud we accumulate, there is gold underneath.

The little boy said the precious gifts were gold, circumstance, and mud. So often the circumstances of our lives greatly impact whether or not we ever recognize the gold that we are. Those who have been trampled on like mud all their lives have no way of knowing that they possess gold. But God knows. And God cares. And somehow, I believe, that we all will discover it. The prophet suggests as much when he says, “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people (not some people, not just the good people, not just a certain kind of people, but all people) shall see it together.”

There will come a great leveling and equalizing. The prophet says, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” The people of wealth and might and privilege will be brought down and the poor, the disadvantaged, and the most vulnerable will be lifted up.

According to Luke, Mary sang about this in her Magnificat: “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Why does God do that? Why does God bring down the rich and powerful and send them out empty? I’m sure it’s for their own good. I’m sure it’s for their salvation. Perhaps we all have to know what it is like to be empty before we can be filled with God’s love and goodness. Perhaps we all have to know some humility before we can see God’s glory or even our own true glory. Perhaps we have to know that we are sick before we can be healed, broken before we can be restored, in bondage before we can be liberated.  

* * * * * * * *
It is not by accident that the voice that cries out to make ready the way for the Lord is in the wilderness – “make straight in the desert a highway for our God” cries the voice. John the baptizer went out into the desert to call his people to repentance. He called them away from the temple, away from the power structures that favored the well-to-do and the privileged, away from the religion of the gatekeepers who were all about control and manipulation. He called them out into the desert away from all their kingdoms to get ready for a new kingdom. 

In order for the kingdom of God to come in any significant way into our lives and into our world, our kingdoms have to go. We cannot continue to worship at the alters of success, money, power, and control and expect to meet God and see God’s glory.

John isn’t just speaking to anyone, he is speaking primarily to his people, the covenant people, the people chosen by God to share that sense of chosenness with everyone else. John apparently felt they had become a sore excuse as a witness for God and so he calls them to repent – to change their minds about what is important and to change the direction of their lives. It’s the same for us.

According to Mark this call to repentance by John is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” It’s the beginning because this is the way that leads to the revelation and experience of God’s glory. There can be no sustained encounter with God without repentance, for all of us turn off the path. The baptism of repentance prepares the way for the baptism of the Spirit through the Messiah.

John shows us that the path that leads to God’s glory is through a spirituality of descent, rather than ascent. It is not through prosperity but rather poverty, not through pride but rather humility, not through fullness but rather emptiness. We have to decrease so that the increase can come, so that we can experience the abundance of kingdom life. Humility and repentance constitute the way that leads to the revelation and experience of the glory of God. So we have to let go – let go of our place and privilege, let go of our lust for position and power, let go of our need to grab and grasp stuff – whatever that stuff may be.

I wonder if we one of the reasons we give more attention to Christmas than we do Easter is because the baby Jesus does not require as much from us as the risen Christ, the cosmic Lord. The first disciples didn’t proclaim baby Jesus. Mark’s Gospel doesn’t even have a birth story. Paul never referenced Jesus’ birth at all in his letters. But they all proclaimed Jesus is Lord.

A number of years ago a large department store tried marketing a doll in the form of baby Jesus. The advertisement described it as being “washable, cuddly, and unbreakable” and it was neatly packaged in straw, satin, and plastic. Biblical texts were even added appropriate to the baby Jesus. Despite a large marketing campaign, it didn’t sell. So in a last ditch effort to unload the merchandise, they offered the baby Jesus at a discount price. They featured a prominent display that declared: Jesus Christ. Marked down 50%. Get him while you can.

Maybe I’m just being a humbug but it seems to me that there is a real temptation to preach at Christmas time a marked down Jesus, nothing much more than what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” I believe that God’s living word comes to us as a call, an invitation to go out into the desert, to turn away from the gods of this age, to go out in humility and repentance, to prepare our hearts and lives to see God’s glory and reflect that glory. One of the benefits of following the church calendar, of using the Lectionary, is that we cannot avoid passages like Mark 1 that calls us to renewal, to a cleansing baptism of repentance.

Because we are gold and not just mud, because the glory of God resides in these weak and vulnerable bodies and souls, this is a high calling, a noble calling. It is a calling to be baptized with the Spirit of the Messiah in order to be collaborators, to be partners with Christ in confronting injustice, liberating the oppressed, healing the wounded, and working for a better world. 

* * * * * * * *
Our good God, forgive us whenever we think too high of ourselves and forgive us when we think too low of ourselves, help to realize that we are both nothing and everything, and though we have all fallen short of your glory, though we have all missed the mark, we are your children none-the-less and loved with an eternal love. Empower us to claim who we are – namely, your daughters and sons – and to live like it. May a bit of the glory that you are and that resides in us, be set free to shine through us. May your love and grace fill us and spill out in joy and gratitude. Amen.


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A God With Skin on Her Face: Exploring the Mystery of Advent



Advent is derived from a Latin word meaning “arrival” or “coming.” The season of Advent on the church calendar marks something momentous.

Henry Nouwen, who taught at both Harvard and Yale and authored over forty books, spent the last seven years of his life serving in a community of people with mental disabilities. One Christmas, a member of their community arranged under the altar three small wood-carved figures made in India: a poor woman, a poor man, and a small child between them. The carvings were simple, nearly primitive – no features, just the contours of the faces. The figures were smaller than a human hand. But when a beam of light shone on the figures, large shadows were projected on the wall of the sanctuary, which, according to Nouwen, functioned as “large, hopeful shadows against the walls of our life and world.” Without the light, there was little to be seen, and one could pass by the figures and “continue to walk in darkness.” “But,” observed Nouwen, “everything changes with the light.”

The season of Advent invites us to reflect on and celebrate the coming of the light – the historical incarnation of the Divine in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The writer of First Timothy recited a litany used in early Christian worship that called this “the mystery of godliness,”

“Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great: He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up into glory.”
 
I love what the author Madeleine L’Engle said:

“Don’t try to explain the Incarnation to me! It is further from being explainable than the furthest star in the furthest galaxy. It is love, God’s limitless love enfleshing that love into the form of a human being, Jesus the Christ, fully human and fully divine.”

Any rendering of Christianity that reduces “the mystery of godliness” to a propositional statement, a creed, or doctrinal formula diminishes its truth. Any attempt to explain it will miss the mark and likely stifle the imagination that is needed to enter into the mystery.

I love the story about the little girl who came running out of her room after a particularly loud crack of thunder during a thunderstorm. She jumped into bed with her parents and exclaimed, “Mommy, I’m scared.” Her mother calmly reassured her that everything would be all right: “Remember honey, God is with you.” She retorted, “I know, but I really want someone with skin on her face.”

Advent invites us to stand in wonder and awe before the God who became incarnate in human flesh – a God with “skin on her/his face.”

Advent also encourages anticipation of and work for a world of peace and justice. God’s historical incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth points toward the future when God’s healing and redemptive presence transforms all humanity and creation.

A minister was preparing his sermon in his study at home. His little daughter stormed in and asked, “Daddy, can we play?” He said, “I’m sorry, sweetheart, I’m in the middle of getting my sermon ready for Sunday. We’ll play later. She sighed, “Okay,” and then declared, “When you’re finished, I’m going to give you a big hug.” She turned to leave, but when she got to the door, she spun around, raced back to her father, jumped up on his lap and gave him a bone-breaking hug. He said, “Honey, I thought you were going to give me the hug later when I finished.” She responded, “I am. I just wanted you to know what you have to look forward to.”

In Jesus we are given a preview of God’s dream for the world. This is why we pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus offers us a glimpse of what God’s will for the planet looks like and what we have to look forward to. 

While the proper observance of Advent includes both remembrance and anticipation, Advent is not complete without the contemporary appropriation of Christ’s living presence. For without this present experience, the focus on the past and future have little relevance.

Paul wrote to the church in Galatia,

“But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law . . . Because you are his sons and daughters, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out Abba, Father (Gal. 4:4-6).”

God’s Spirit is still vindicating and validating “the mystery of godliness” as the Spirit illumines, reveals, and mediates the living presence of Christ, affirming our identity as God’s children.

Advent invites us to appropriate God’s healing, reconciling, saving presence now. The angel announced to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord (Luke 2:10-11). Matthew’s version expresses it this way: “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

Evangelical and progressive Christians tend to explain Jesus’ work as Savior and our present experience of salvation in different ways. I believe personal salvation is a process of conversion that, like the energizer bunny, goes on and on. As we open our lives to the light and truth of Christ’s living presence, the dark parts of our personality and ego are exposed, freeing Christ’s Spirit to rescue us from the deception and tyranny of our false selves. The Spirit works redemptively in us and through us, healing our inner wounds and liberating us from our false attachments and group idolatries. We then experience some measure of freedom from the pride, greed, egocentricity, anger, bitterness, prejudice, ignorance, and narrowness that held us in bondage.

Advent also encourages us to be awake to encounter Christ in the everydayness of life. I have had experiences where I became keenly aware of and passionately moved by God in the most common of circumstances and ordinary of places: in a casual conversation with a friend, wading in a local creek fishing for smallmouth bass, playing make-believe with my small grandchildren, sitting on a gymnasium bleacher waiting to referee a recreational league basketball game, waiting with a family while their loved one dies. God is present in all of life – we just need eyes to see and ears to hear.

The light that was and will be is now, shimmering against the backdrop of every single experience and encounter. The presence of Christ is for the present. The invitation of Advent is an invitation to open our everyday, common lives and our deepest selves to the healing, transforming Spirit of the living Christ.


(The reflections above were drawn from chapter 2, “Advent’s Invitation: Shimmers of Hope” of my book, Shimmers ofLight: Spiritual Reflections for the Christmas Season)

Monday, November 24, 2014

A Spiritual Path to Gratitude



Brother David Steindl-Rast has contended in his writings that gratitude is foundational to a healthy spiritual life. If that is true, and I believe it is, then how might we expand our capacity for gratitude?

Perhaps some reflections drawn from the story of Moses’ encounter with God in Exodus 33:12-23 can lead us along a path to gratitude. Moses says,
 “If your presence will not go with us, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”
 
The sense here is that Moses is requesting some sort of visible presence – like the pillar of fire and cloud of smoke that accompanied Israel in the wilderness. For in this way, Moses says, we will be distinct from all other peoples.

I read this as an example of first-level spirituality, which is a necessary part of our spiritual development and growth. We all need to feel special. One of the joys of being a grandparent is that we get to do this for our grandkids over and over again and then leave it to their parents to smooth out their rough edges reminding them that they are special - yes, but not that special.  We grandparents get to focus almost exclusively on the special part.

My youngest granddaughter, Addie, is two-and-a-half and loves to hear stories about herself. When she was one-and-a-half we took her and her sister, Sophie, who was three swimming.  Melissa, my wife, had to take Sophie to the restroom, so Addie was left with me. Well, she didn’t like being left with me, she wanted her Nan and, so she started to cry. Do you know how I got her to stop crying? I held her close, which she at first resisted, and then I began telling her how special she was. I told her the story of the day she was born and how excited we were, and then I told her stories of some of the experiences we have shared together in her brief time in the world. Soon she calmed down and had her arm around my neck as she listened to me tell her how special and how loved she was.

All of us, however, need to hear that we are loved. All of us need to feel special. It’s part of a soul’s healthy development. But there comes a time when we need to move to the next level of spirituality. We need to feel distinct, special, blessed, but . . . there comes a time when it is important for us to realize that we are all in this together, that we are all loved by our  Abba, our Compassionate heavenly Father, Mother, Friend and Liberator. We (as individuals and communities of faith) are parts of a greater whole and participants in a larger story.

According to the Abrahamic tradition, God called out a people, entered into covenant with that people, so that through that people all people/nations would be blessed. I believe that our calling as the chosen people of God is to spread a message of chosenness to everyone we can, so they will know that they are chosen too. And Jesus made it quite clear that we are to share this message while serving our sisters and brothers as equals. Unfortunately, the missionary activity of the Western church too often has been conducted from a place of superiority, rather than solidarity and unity.

Samir Selmanovic, in his book It’s Really All About God, tells about an experience he had on the morning of September 11, 2002. One of the Christian family radio networks had lined him up for an interview. He was mentally prepared to tell about the many ways he and his faith community had learned to love the city and its people in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks over the previous twelve months. 

But while he was waiting to go on the air, he overheard the two co-hosts boasting about Christianity, literally patronizing the world. He suddenly found himself disoriented by what he heard, and realized that he was not ready for the interview at all. He had to quickly rethink what he was going to say, because he knew what they were going to ask. And it came right on schedule: “Pastor, tell us, don’t you find people in New York more ready to receive the gospel after the tragedy? Aren’t they more receptive than ever to the message? Can we take this city for Jesus?”

Selmanovic paused and said,

“No. New York is a great opportunity for us Christians to learn. Most of the people here feel that to see the world our way would be a step backward morally. They see Christians as people not dedicated to following Jesus on earth, but obsessed with their religion. They see us as people who are really not interested in the sufferings on earth like Jesus was but driven with the need to increase the number of those worshiping this Grand Jesus in heaven. They wonder why, of all people, we are the first to rush to solve the world’s problems with weapons instead of patience and humility. I learned that it is we who need to be converted after September 11 to the ways of Jesus.”
 
The radio personalities didn’t ask for clarification. They quickly changed the subject and cut the interview short, not even halfway through the time allotted. In reflecting on his experience Selmanovic says,

“I realized that it is our Christian superiority complex that makes us an inferior force in making the world a better place.”

First-level spirituality claims God’s love for one’s self and one’s community, but second-level spirituality realizes that everyone else is loved too, and we are responsible for sharing that love and working for the common good. First-level spirituality can become toxic and even deadly if we never expand beyond our own belief and belonging systems to embrace others as God’s daughters and sons. Dualistic, “us” versus “them” thinking has wrought enormous damage in the world.

In Exodus 33 Moses prays, “Show me your ways, so that I may know you . . . Show me your glory.” In response God says,

“I will make all my goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’. . . . But you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live. . . . See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
 
Seeing the backside of God may be a way of talking about the glory (presence, reality) of God in the visible, material, physical, tangible world. The great perennial truth that the Christian religion has brought to the stage of human history is the truth of incarnation, which really began with the Big Bang when time and space and matter first erupted into the making a new universe. God engaged a creative process that in time would bring forth life and then in “the fullness of time” become particularized (for Christians at least) in the person of Jesus, the Christ.

I’m convinced that God is incarnational. God is hidden in the visible world. Matter has always been the hiding place for Spirit. God resides in the depths of things, which is why God resides in the depths of our souls.

Paul, the mystic, perceived this when he said, “You are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” Or when he said, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”  The true Self is actually God, who we know as the Christ, living in us and through us. Our false self is what we are when our ego is in control.

Sometimes we use religion (our scriptures and traditions) to avoid any real God encounter in the depths of the soul.  A common temptation for all of us is to use a belief system or a belonging system to substitute for any personal or life-changing experience of the Divine. It is easy for us to make belonging to the right group, believing the right things, or practicing the right rituals a substitute for genuine God encounter. Authentic God encounter always leads us into the depths of our souls to face our inconsistencies and contradictions in order to change, to grow, to become more loving and compassionate persons and communities. 

If God is incarnational, if God hides in the material world, then all the world is God’s temple, and the world is a sacred place. We can find God everywhere and anywhere. Every event, experience, conversation, every place where we are present God is present and presents us with a potential God experience/encounter. Third-level spirituality is the capacity to see, sense, and experience God anytime, anyplace because we know that God is present in all of it.

This is true of terrible and tragic situations too. In the tsunami and earthquake, the hurricane and tornado, where acts of violence and terror are performed, where persons are wounded and killed, in the children’s ward where kids are dying with cancer, in one’s darkest moments – God is there. God, of course, is not responsible for any of these things, but God is there. God is suffering and hurting and dying too.

And on the flip side, God is on the beach where waves are rolling in and the evening sun is casting an orange haze over the water. At the birth of your child or grandchild, or when your daughter or granddaughter reaches up and squeezes your neck as hard as she can and tells you that she loves you and you think it just can’t get any better than this – God is there. In the best of times and worst of times God is there. God is at one with the world and at one with each of God’s children, whether we know it or not.

God’s presence in all of it is grace. The Exodus text calls this “goodness” – “I will make all my goodness pass before you.” This goodness is passing before us every day - in the sunshine and rain, in the air we breathe, in the touch of our lover’s hand, in a thousand ways. God’s goodness, God’s grace is not an add-on, not something doled out on the churched or religious, or a prize won for believing or doing the right things. God’s goodness is what sustains and is inherent in all life.

I believe that a healthy, holistic, and transformative spirituality will move us along a path where we first recognize that we are loved with an eternal love, that God holds us close and never lets go, for we are that special. But rather than claiming this all for ourselves (which leads to an unhealthy, toxic kind of spirituality), we realize that God loves all God’s children this way. We then sense a connection to all our sisters and brothers and are compelled to work for the common good. As we grow in love, the blinders come off, and we are able to see God’s goodness and grace everywhere. As we drink from this reservoir of boundless grace gratitude fills our hearts and overflows into all the outlets and places where we live our lives.

Giver of all good gifts, you give us space and time
This new day, in this place, is your gift
Make me live gratefully
This day is opportunity
To receive your blessing in a thousand forms
And to bless.
To listen to your word in all that I hear,
And to respond in obedience of heart.
To drink deeply from your life,
And to make others come alive,
By radiant smile, by cheerful answer,
And by a secret blessing. 
               
             --  Brother David Steindle-Rast


Monday, November 17, 2014

Making the Most of What We Have Been Given (A sermon on the Parable of the Talents - Matt. 25:14-30)



I don’t know if there is any truth to it or not, but the story is told that when Britain faced a critical shortage of silver during the days of WWII Winston Churchill launched a search of possible sources of silver. They discovered some sterling silver statutes of saints in some of their churches and cathedrals. When Churchill was made aware of this he said, “Well, it’s time to put the saints into circulation.” 

This parable is about saints in circulation. Jesus is addressing his followers. In Matthew’s Gospel there are five major discourses attributed to Jesus, this parable is part of the last teaching block that begins in 24:1. Jesus and his disciples had just come out of the temple. His disciples were admiring the beautiful buildings when Jesus warned of the temple’s coming destruction. Then they walked over to the Mount of Olives and Matthew says that the disciples came to him privately with their questions about the destruction of the temple and end of the age. That is the setting for these parables. This is private instruction to insiders. The judgment parables of Matthew 25 are not directed to the crowds, but to his disciples.

There are some troublesome elements to this parable that do not quite square with Jesus’ earlier teachings in this Gospel and the ways in which he spoke of God. One difficult part is verse 30 where at the end of the parable the unfaithful servant who failed to use his master’s money wisely is cast into “outer darkness” where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” I read this symbolically of course, but still the language seems unusually harsh.

Another troublesome aspect of the parable is the way the unfaithful servant is described. He is called “wicked,” “lazy,” and “worthless” - descriptions that are totally uncharacteristic of the Jesus Matthew has described for us in his Gospel. I suspect (and not just me, but others as well) that these descriptions were likely added to the parable either during the oral transmission of the story (when Jesus’ followers retold these stories in different settings) or when the writer composed this Gospel. Of course, there is no way to be sure.

In the parable a master passes out money to his servants – actually a considerable amount of money – and puts them in charge of investing it while he is away. To one he give five talents, another two talents, and still to another one talent. A “talent” is a lot of money. One talent was equal to 30,000 denarii and a denarius was equal to a day’s wage for a common worker. So the servant who was given one “talent” was given more money than a common worker could have earned in a lifetime.

We are also told that to each one of the servants the money was given according to his ability. The ability belonged to the servants; but the money belonged to the master. This is the master’s money.

I love the story of the elderly woman who had just finished shopping and returned to her car. She found four men inside. She dropped her shopping bags and drew a handgun. She pointed the gun toward the men and screamed for them to get out of her car. They flew out of there like crazy. Somewhat shaken, she put her gun away, picked up her bags, and got into the front seat. But for some reason the key would not fit the ignition. Then it dawned on her; this was not her car. Her car was in the next row. So she found her car and drove down to the police station to turn herself in. As she told her story the officer behind the desk who was about ready to fall out of his chair laughing pointed her to another desk where four men were reporting a carjacking by a little old woman with a handgun.

She thought it was her car, but it really belonged to someone else. We think what we have is ours – we earned it, we worked for it, it’s ours. Except that it isn’t. It’s God’s. All of it. We have been entrusted with it to put it to use for God’s good purpose in the world.

Remember, this is a parable taught by Jesus to his disciples. To accept the call to discipleship is to accept responsibility to use whatever we have in the interest of God’s kingdom. To accept the call to discipleship is to accept the reality that it all belongs to God. We have been given resources of money, ability, and time and entrusted with the responsibility to use these resources for the good of God’s kingdom, for the good of our sisters and brothers and the good of society.

The parable prompts me to ask myself where fit in the story? If I am honest I have to admit that I am not completely like the two servants who doubled the master’s money, nor am I completely like the servant who did nothing with it. I am somewhere in between. Sometimes I am like the two faithful servants, and sometimes I am like the faithless one who did nothing with the master’s money.

So when I stand before God to give an account – and I thoroughly expect to do so (I agree with Paul who told the Corinthian Christians that we must all stand before the judgment seat of Christ) – I fully expect to be evaluated, to be assessed, and I expect to be both commended and judged. I suspect I will be commended for some things and judged for some things and found wanting.  

Am I worried? Not too much. And why am I not worried or anxious? Because as Lisa [our children’s pastor] teaches our kids, God is good all the time. God is always looking out for our good even in judgment. God’s judgment is not like so much human judgment that is punitive and retributive. God really does seek our good. So whatever “outer darkness” I must walk through it will function to open my life to the light of God’s love and grace and enable that light to shine through me more visibly. Whatever “weeping and gnashing of teeth” I experience, whatever suffering I undergo it will only serve to move me along the path to greater spiritual maturity, integrity, and depth of character.

I think of athletes who go through training periods that are quite intense; they endure periods of suffering and hardship for the purpose of becoming better athletes. So whatever sort of suffering or hardship God might require us to endure, I believe it will be for the purpose of making us better persons.

This is why Paul and other NT writers could speak of suffering in redemptive ways. In the little book of James, the author wrote: “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”

Philip Yancey tells about playing chess in high school.  He was a member of his school’s chess club and studied books on techniques and strategies.  After high school Yancey put the game aside for twenty years until in Chicago he met a truly fine chess player. They played a few matches.  Any classic offense Yancey tried was met with a classic defense.  If Yancey turned to more risky, unorthodox techniques, his opponent incorporated Yancey’s bold advances into his own winning strategies. Yancey soon discovered that none of his own strategies mattered much because his opponent simply incorporated Yancey’s moves into his own plan. 

Yancey writes,
“Perhaps God engages our universe, his own creation, in much the same way.  He grants us freedom to rebel against its original design, but even as we do so we end up ironically serving his eventual goal of restoration.

If I accept that blueprint—a huge step of faith, I confess—it transforms how I view both good and bad things that happen.  Good things, such as health, talent, and money, I can present to God as offerings to serve his purposes.  And bad things, too—disability, poverty, family dysfunction, failures—can be redeemed as the very instruments that drive me to God.” 

And I would add, the bad things can be the very instruments that change us, that make us more loving, caring, empathetic, and compassionate persons. 

Faithful servants entrusted with God’s resources trust in the goodness of God and so they are not afraid to take some risks. They are not afraid of failure.

The servant who did nothing with what was entrusted to him was hampered by fear. When he is called onto the carpet for his failure he says, “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.”

If that is how we imagine God, we will not be motivated to take risks, we will not be compelled to give our resources and abilities and energy to serve and love others. If we are afraid of failure or afraid of God we will not invest our money or time or talents into the lives of others and for the common good of our society. We just won’t.

I heard about a pastor who was excited about taking his two visiting nephews to church.  The two boys, six and nine, had never been to church. For whatever reason the two boys were not very impressed. The younger one - in the middle of the children's sermon - raised his hand and asked, "How much longer do we have to sit up here." When the offering was passed he watched as people put money in the plates. When it finally got to him, he looked up at his aunt and said, "You mean we gotta pay for this?"

If our image of God is like the unfaithful servant in the parable then we are likely to approach service and giving to others with the attitude of the boy who asked, “You mean we gotta pay for this?” You mean we have to serve others? You mean we have to invest in this? And if that is what we think, if that is our attitude, we are more likely to stuff away what we have than to use it for the good of God’s kingdom.

But if we know the God of Jesus, if we have experienced the God of Jesus, who is the all-compassionate one, who wills our good, who wants our best, who loves each one of us with an unconditional, eternal love, then we are likely to take great risks and find great joy in investing our resources, in giving away our energy, time, and money for the good and well-being of others and growth of God’s kingdom.


Our good God, most of us here are like me. We are sometimes faithful, sometimes motivated to take greats risks, sometimes willing to give much in terms of our money, time, and ability, and others times – well, not so much. If any of us here are hampered by fear, give us a clearer vision into your nature, open our eyes to your goodness and grace, help us to know how much you love us and care for us, so we won’t be afraid to fail, afraid to take risks, or afraid to give our resources for your cause in the world. Thank you for all the good things and help us not be too upset with the bad things – but to allow them to grow us and mature us so that we might become the loving, compassionate, and caring persons you have designed for us to be. Amen. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Being and Becoming Children of God


I grew up with a theology that said all children are children of God—that is, until they reach the age of accountability. I was also indoctrinated into a belief in total depravity, that we are all born sinners and inherit a sin nature, so somehow we had to harmonize these two positions and the way we did it was by postulating an age of accountability. It’s kind of ironic because we prided ourselves in being Bible believers, yet there are no biblical texts that mention an age of accountability. We believed that a child was a child of God until that child reached a kind of semi-adulthood. When the child reached the age of accountability (and nobody really knew when that was which made for a nice loophole), then that child was no longer a child of God and had to believe certain things and do certain things in order to become a child of God. We believed that the child had to be “born again” in order to become a member of God’s family. I have since evolved in my thinking in what it means to be a child of God and what it means to be “born again” as I know many reading this post have as well.  

The distinction I like to make at this point in my spiritual journey is the distinction between being and becoming. I’m convinced that we are all children of God all the time and there is nothing we can do or believe or fail to do or believe to change this fundamental and foundational truth about every single one of us.

Our worth, value, and sense of who we are is not to be found in what we have accomplished or achieved. It is not based on any kind of purity system, belief system, or worthiness system. There are no papers to sign, no doctrinal statements to agree to, no creeds to confess, and no hoops to jump through. We are who we are by virtue of our humanity, by virtue of our existence in this world.

However, being a child of God and living like a child of God are two different things. We can be children of God and not reflect much of God’s goodness and grace. So how do we claim our identity? How do we become who we already are?

How we see and what we see have a lot to do with it. This is a constant theme in the biblical tradition. Our tendency is to see things as we are, not as they really are. There is much in us that clouds our sight, distorts our vision, and prevents us from becoming who we are.

Sometimes it’s bad theology. In John 9 the scripture says that as Jesus went along he saw a man blind from birth. The disciples asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” That’s terrible theology. They saw a sinner. They saw a man under the judgment of God. They saw his blindness as a punishment. They did not see a precious child of God. Their preconceptions were misconceptions which led them to diminish and devalue a person who by happenchance, who by the unluckiness of the draw, was born blind. The irony is that the disciples were the ones who were blind, but didn’t know it.

Bad theology, fear-driven images of God, dualistic “us” versus “them” religion can keep us from seeing reality as it really is. Also, our prejudices and biases, as well as our fears, insecurities, and anxieties can keep us from claiming our identity and becoming who we are.

I believe that within all of us is a desire to love, to forgive, to pursue peace and communion with God and each other. If we nurture this desire, if we fan it into a flame, it can become greater than the desire to harbor grudges and resentment, and larger than our need to compete with and compare ourselves to others.

But how do we do that? How do we move past our fears, worries, and insecurities? How do we recognize the biases that bind us and keep us from becoming the kind of daughters and sons of God we were created to be? 

It begins, I believe, with a leap of faith. We must make a leap of trust and accept that we are accepted. We must recognize that all those voices that keep whispering condemnations, telling us we are unworthy, or that God could not possibly love us are lies and deceptions. 

But where does this faith come from? I believe it is a gift from God. And while there is nothing we can do to earn it, we can ask for it. We can put ourselves in a context, in an environment where the gift is likely to be received and nurtured. I believe a healthy, loving, accepting, affirming community of faith can go a long way in nurturing this kind of trust.

Sometimes a loving community (or maybe just one other person) that loves us in spite of ourselves can help move us from a state of alienation and disintegration to a place of belonging and wholeness.

Most sin is a form of madness that acts against our own best interest. My hope is that all forms of madness can one day be healed; even the kind of madness that creates suicide bombers and sadistic killers. My hope is that all will be made well. I believe this to be the purifying hope of the gospel, that through the process of giving and receiving love anyone can be healed and redeemed, and we all can come to reflect something of the goodness of God and share in the likeness of Christ. I hope.

Through the acceptance and affirmation of another person or a loving community we can learn to not only receive love, but to give love as well. Love is not fully redemptive until it is returned upon the one or community that freely offers it.

There are some people who are still stuck inside their little selves (their ego selves) who want grace for themselves, but not for everyone else. They want to be winners among losers. They want to know and feel loved, but they don’t want God to love just anyone.

What can move one beyond this narrow, egocentric approach? Love. And this is where, I believe, some truly loving people within a community of faith can make a huge difference in people’s lives. The more we are able to receive and give love to others, the more we are changed.

I heard about a rough around-the-edges mountaineer who was known for his readiness to fight. There were burning embers of bitterness in his life and the tiniest spark could ignite his anger. Then one day he accompanied his nephew to a school party because his parents had other obligations. He met his nephew’s teacher and fell in love. It took him a long time to get up the nerve to even ask her out. How could such a woman love the likes of him? But love is a mysterious, wondrous thing and she returned his love. The day they were married someone who had noticed how he had changed asked him why he never seemed to get angry anymore. His response was, “I ain’t got nothin’ against nobody.”

The receiving and giving of love can do that. It can change us. It’s the hope of the world. Ultimately, it is the only thing that can enable us to become who we already are.