Monday, July 15, 2019

The Heart of True Religion (Luke 10:25-37)

This teaching of Jesus on love gets to the heart and soul of God’s will for humanity. I get to preach on this text yearly, because all three Synoptic Gospels has a version of this passage, and the Revised Common Lectionary includes this text yearly as part of its readings. Each version is different, and Luke’s version deviates significantly from Mark and Matthew’s version. Only Luke includes the story of what we have come to call the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which is why I love preaching Luke’s version of the story. All three versions make it clear that these two commandments – to love God with the totality of our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves – constitute the goal and fulfillment of healthy religion and what God longs to see in human relationships and society.

Luke, however, clearly puts the emphasis on the command to love one’s neighbor. For Luke, loving one’s neighbor is how one loves God. Actually, these are not two separate commands, but one command. When we love our neighbor as ourselves we are loving God whether we realize it or not. According to the Apostle John this is the central way we express love for God, namely, by loving others. John writes, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us . . . God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God” (4:12a, 16b). Whenever we love others, we are loving God. God is love, says John, and wherever love is God is. This is true regardless of what one believes about God. Now, I think we should be intentional in cultivating a relationship with God, but a relationship with God that doesn’t focus on loving others is no relationship at all. In fact, we are just fooling ourselves if we think we are pleasing God through all our religious activities and observances, if we do not love our neighbor as ourselves.

This is clearly Paul’s take on these two commandments as well. In fact, Paul doesn’t even mention in any of his letters the first command to love God with the totality of our being. Paul makes everything hinge on the command to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. In his letter to the Roman in chap. 13 he says, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Paul goes on to say that all the commandments can be “summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Then he concludes his argument by saying, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” Paul is clearly echoing the teaching of Jesus. Then, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul instructs the church not to use their freedom from the law for self-indulgence, but rather, he admonishes them, “through love become servants of one another.” “For the whole law,” says Paul, “is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” He doesn’t mention two commandments as Jesus did. He narrows it to a single command. The reason he can talk about loving our neighbor alone as the fulfillment of the law is because loving one’s neighbor automatically means loving God. We love God by loving our neighbor. Paul says a paragraph or two earlier that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything. This was a sacred rite and ritual to faithful Jews. Rather, he says, “the only thing that counts is faithfulness expressed through love.” That’s the only thing that matters says Paul.

Luke’s version of the story begins with a lawyer or scribe asking Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” One might inherit something now or in the future, so it’s hard to know exactly what the scribe intends. He could be asking, “What must I do to possess eternal life now or what must I do to receive eternal life in the next life?” A major point that John’s Gospel makes is that eternal life is now before it is later. Eternal life is life in God, with God, and for God. Of course, the scribe may have taken the view that eternal is something that is future. Either way, he wanted to know what he needed to do. He was right in thinking there was something he needed to do, but he was wrong, if he thought eternal life was a reward for doing something. Eternal life is not a reward that we earn. Jesus’ practice of welcoming all to the meal table symbolized God’s inclusive grace. Jesus challenged the major beliefs and practices within Judaism that made God and eternal life something you earned. Jesus would abolish all systems of meritocracy. Eternal life in God is a gift. However, it is a gift that needs to be unwrapped and appropriated. We appropriate and experience the gift by what we do, not by what we believe. You were not taught this, I know. I wasn’t either. But it’s clearly what this passage teaches.

Jesus responds to the scribe’s question with his own question turning it back to the scribe: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” In Luke’s version it is the lawyer, rather than Jesus, who recites the two commandments about loving God and loving neighbor. Then, after he answers by reciting these two commandments, Jesus says, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” Not believe this. Do this and you will live. Do this, namely, love God and love your neighbor (or we could say, Love God by loving your neighbor) and you will live. That is, you will experience and express the very life of the eternal God. We intentionally and consciously enter into a friendship and partnership with God through what we do. And what we do is love our neighbor as ourselves. As Paul says, that’s the only thing that counts.

I have shared before and will share again the story Phillip Gulley tells about the time when, as a young minister, he accepted a call to pastor a Quaker meeting in Indianapolis. It was a small community, but a very loving and caring community. The main reason for the contagious caring spirit that characterized that faith community rested in the presence of a couple who had helped start the congregation years before, Lyman and Harriet Combs. When Gulley met them in 1990, they were retired and had devoted their remaining years to ministering to others. Lyman volunteered each day at a homeless shelter. Harriet made it her practice to be available to anyone in need. She babysat, transported people to appointments, tended the sick, visited the lonely, and did so, says Gulley, with such good humor and joy that to be in her presence was a redemptive experience.

Over the years, the small faith community there took on their demeanor. A joyful and grateful spirit infused the church’s worship and ministry. The little church was incredibly generous, regularly emptying its bank account to help the less fortunate. Because of the church’s close proximity to several resources for the homeless, they were frequently visited by mentally ill persons, all of whom were warmly welcomed and made to feel at home. So often, people who needed to be touched in a special way, after a divorce, after the death of a loved one, or in the throes of a very painful experience, would stumble into their little church and find strength, comfort, and hope.

The church did eventually attract more people. But as gracious as the people of the church were, Gulley would often find himself frustrated by their apparent indifference when it came to growing their numbers and getting more people in the community to come. On one occasion, frustrated that the church was not growing in numbers the way he wanted it too, he asked Harriet why that was. Her response was, “I guess it was never our goal to have a large church.” Their denomination, as almost all denominations do, had spent considerable resources trying to attract new participants to their congregations, so Gulley was a bit surprised and not a little concerned by Harriet’s response, which seemed to contradict their denomination’s priority. Gulley was young and energetic and wanted the numbers to increase. I remember being the very same way. So he asked Harriet, “Then why are we here?” She said smiling, “To love.” That’s why we are here. Gulley could have passed for the scribe and Harriet for Jesus. Do this and you will live, says Jesus. Love your neighbor as yourself, says Jesus, and you will experience God’s life and spread God’s life wherever you go.

Then the scribe, says Luke, “wanting to justify himself” asks, “Who is my neighbor?” It’s hard to know the scribe’s intention. Luke tells us earlier in the passage that he wanted to “test” Jesus, but testing can be a negative thing or a positive thing. I think this scribe was genuinely interested in being right with God. So he asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Who is it, then, that I need to love in order to experience the life of God and be right with God? In response, as Jesus loved to do, he told a story. I like to tell stories, because you will remember a story, when you forget everything else.

Jesus begins the story with, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” Last week I told about Author Nikos Kazantzakis in his native Crete passing an elderly woman carrying a basket of figs. She paused, picked out two figs, and gave them to Kazantzakis. “Do you know me, old lady?” he asked. She said, “No, my boy. Do I have to know you to give you something? You are a human being, aren’t you? Isn’t that enough?” It’s not a Jew or a Samaritan or a Gentile or a scribe or teacher or soldier or anyone else – just a man, a human being, one of God’s children who gets robbed and beaten and left for dead.

Many who read this story from within an exclusive Christian viewpoint see the story mainly as an illustration of the kind of love we should show to a neighbor. And certainly that is part of it. The one who stopped to help the suffering man made sacrifices of time and money. It was both costly and risky. It could have been a trap, so he took a risk. And the help needed required an investment of both money and time.

But as true as that is, that’s not the main point Jesus intended. The question asked by the scribe is not, “What do I need to do to love my neighbor?” But rather, “Who is my neighbor?” I suspect, being an interpreter of scripture, he knew what he was supposed to do. The law and the prophets are full of exhortations to love – to act in compassion and to do justice on behalf of the poor and vulnerable. The question is, “Who should I extend such costly and risky care and compassion to?”

Let’s not miss what Jesus says. Two religious leaders among the Jews, a priest and a Levite, did not think “the man” was worthy of their time and money. They passed by on the other side of the street so they wouldn’t even have to look at the man and see his face, and feel guilty for not stopping. A man asked his wife who had been to church that morning what the preacher preached on. She said, “Ignorance and apathy.” He said, “What’s that?” She said, “I don’t know and I don’t care.” That was the approach of the two religious leaders in Jesus’ story. But then a Samaritan passed that way, someone different racially and religiously than Jesus and the scribe. In fact, there was an ongoing feud between the Jews and the Samaritans. For the most part, the majority of both groups mutually detested and despised the other. As I have often said, if Jesus were telling the story today in our context, the two religious leaders who passed by would be a Baptist pastor and the worship leader. Mac, you and I wouldn’t look good at all in this story. The one who stopped to offer costly and risky care and help would be, perhaps, a Muslim, or undocumented person, or someone of a different religion and race. That person would be the hero in the story, just the way Jesus makes the Samaritan the hero in the story Jesus told to his fellow Jews. And many of us would be as mad at Jesus as the Jewish leaders were for making a Samaritan the hero who demonstrated what it looks like to love your neighbor as yourself.

When Jesus asked the scribe who it was among the three that loved his neighbor as himself, the scribe could not even bring himself to say the Samaritan. He said, “the one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.” Jesus makes it all about doing. Jesus asks us, Do you want to share in and cooperate with the eternal life and will of God? Do you want to know God and be right with God? Then go and do likewise. Go and love your neighbor- the Muslim, the undocumented person, the person of a different religion or race or sexual orientation. Go and love that person, your neighbor, as yourself.

Gracious God, inspire us, lead us, empower us to love like Jesus, and extend God’s welcome and acceptance and grace to all people, especially those different than us. Amen.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

The Work To Be Done (Luke 10:1-11; 17-20; Gal 6:2, 7-10)

Jesus says that the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few, so ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest. There is much work to do and few workers to do it. But even as we ask the Lord to send out workers, maybe we should give some thought to the work that needs to be done.

Answers will differ. Perhaps there was a time in our lives when we could assume that all Christians of a particular stripe would agree on the work to be done. If there was such a time, those days are gone. One of the interesting things modern biblical scholarship has exposed is how much diversity there was even in the early days of the Jesus movement.

What does Jesus sent out the the seventy to do? For one thing, he sends them out to heal the sick. One of the primary works of Jesus that the living Christ calls us to do are works of healing. Heal the sick, says Jesus. The word that we often translate as “heal” or “make whole” in the Gospels is the same word we translate as “save” in other contexts. Salvation in the Gospels is a restoration to wholeness. It is about healing. In the Gospels salvation is healing.

Fred Craddock tells about the time he was acting dean at Phillips Seminary. It was a short stint, he says. One day a woman stopped to see him. She wanted him to follow her to the parking lot and to her car. He was a little nervous, but he did. Slumped in the back seat was her brother. He had been a senior at the University of Oklahoma. He had been in a tragic car wreck and was in a coma for eight months. She had quit her job as a schoolteacher to take care of him. All of their resources had been exhausted. She said to Dr. Craddock, “I want you to heal him.”

He told her that he couldn’t do that. He could pray for him, but he couldn’t heal him. He said that he did not have the gift of healing. She got in the car, looked at Fred, and said “Then what in the world do you do?” And she drove off. Dr. Craddock said that afternoon he went back into his study, starred at his books, and tried to forget what she had said. Of course, we know the kind of healing she was wanting, which, of course, could not be given. But that question gave Dr. Craddock pause. “If you can’t heal, then what in the world do you do?” she asked.

What do you make of all the healing stories in the Gospels? We live in a different time and place. We have different perspectives on healing. We have different understandings of the causes of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual sickness. We have different understandings of the anti-human forces at work today that diminish our lives, which destructive powers we need deliverance and healing from.

But healing is still the great need we have as human beings and a society– on all levels – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. We have made great strides in some areas of healing, but still have a long way to go. I think most of us are more aware today of the connections between physical, psychic, and spiritual sickness, which can be very complex. And it is not just individuals who need healing. Our relationships need healing; our communities need healing; whole societies need healing. There are inseparable connections between works of healing and works of justice, which works we are also called to do as disciples of Jesus. The two kinds of works go hand-in-hand. When we work for justice, for what is right and good and just and fair, we are engaging in works of communal or societal healing.

Quite a few people had gathered at the large house for the reception. I don’t know the occasion, but there was a punch bowl, and some cake and peanuts and little mints and some sandwiches. You know the standard fare. Everyone was standing around, having the kind of conversations you have at such occasions. “I guess we’re going to get some rain this week.” “Did you see the game last night?” That kind of stuff. And then Brenda Williams walked into the room. And there was something about the room that changed when she walked in. It wasn’t her beauty or her appearance or anything like that. It had to do with who she was and what she was about.

She spent much of her time writing letters, making calls, going to see important people in high places about the way the law treats juvenile offenders. Seven days a week she worries the authorities to death. Someone asked her, “You enjoy doing that?” “No, not really,” was her reply. “You get paid for all that work. Do you have a position or title? Are you on a pay roll?” “Oh, no,” she said. “You have children in trouble with the law?” “No. My children are not in any trouble.” “Then why in the world do you spend your time doing that. It’s no fun. You’re not getting paid. None of your friends are doing it. Why are doing it?” Her answer, “Because I have to.”

She feels compelled. She has a calling. She has a commission. The Spirit of God inspires her and drives her into the wilderness where she confronts the powers that be on matters of justice for juvenile offenders. That kind of work is just as important as the works of mercy and kindness we do when we walk with someone in their time of grief or loss, or when we help in the soup kitchen or at the Simon House, or when we give generously of our resources and time to minister to those in distress or in personal or financial need.

Do you find it interesting that Jesus tells the seventy he sends out to stay at one place and to proclaim to that house that the kingdom of God is near. There is to be no shopping around for the best room and board. Jesus says, “Go to whatever house welcomes you.” And he tells them to eat whatever is set before them. Why is that? Remember that Jesus himself sat at table with all sorts of people. The table meal in the life and ministry of Jesus became an important, if not the most important symbol for the kingdom of God. All were welcome. No distinctions were made. All were on equal footing before God. The disciples are sent out to convey that same message. There can be no hint of privilege. It may be Jewish food or Gentile food set before them – it maybe a full course meal or trifles – it doesn’t make any difference. The kingdom has come near to all. That’s why Jesus instructs them to be servants of all, because the kingdom has come near to all. And that was the message Jesus said to proclaim to whoever would welcome them into their home and to their table. The kingdom of God is at hand. The kingdom of God has come near.

When Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, which was the central theme of his ministry, he is talking about God’s will for the world, and that includes both healing and justice. Paul tells the churches of Galatia to not be weary in doing what is right. He says that whenever we have opportunity let us “work for the good of all.” The common good is central to God’s kingdom and God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

As most of you know several years ago I raised my voice along with many other voices, and we did what little we could do to help get the Fairness ordinance passed here in Frankfort. The irony of that is that while there were other Christians and clergy like myself (I wasn’t alone by any means) advocating and speaking for that legislation, many more Christians were opposed to it. Far more Christians opposed it than favored it. One of the arguments that always baffled me, which was one of the most common arguments advanced against it by Christians was, “You can’t legislate fairness.” Personally, I think that argument was just a way for them to disguise their prejudice against the LGBT Community. And when you think about it, it’s a silly argument. Of course you can legislate fairness. We did it when we abolished the laws of segregation on a national level. We legislated fairness. And while many still broke the law, the law itself was helpful in bringing about change. Now, what you can’t legislate is individual transformation or the healing of a person’s or group’s racism or prejudice. Only the law of Christ can do that, which is the law of love. Only the love of God working in a person or community can heal racism and prejudice. But, yes indeed, we can legislate fairness, and we who are disciples of Jesus should demand that our representatives enact legislation that promotes fairness and justice. The healing of a society depends on it, and it’s a key part of the process.

Author Nikos Kazantzakis was walking along a dusty path in his native Crete. An elderly woman passed by, carrying a basket of figs. She paused, picked out two figs, and presented them to Kazantzakis. “Do you know me, old lady?” he asked. She looked at him puzzled and said, “No, my boy. Do I have to know you to give you something? You are a human being, aren’t you? So am I. Isn’t that enough?”

I wish to God it were enough. I’m sure you have been reading and hearing about the deplorable conditions where asylum seekers and migrants seeking safety from unsafe conditions are being held and how they are being mistreated. It’s tragic. Instead of allowing them to stay with relatives or friends or people or communities that would take them in until their papers can be processed and they can get a hearing, they are being imprisoned in overcrowded detention centers where conditions are inhumane and deplorable. And now our nation’s leader is talking about more raids on the undocumented gathering up even more people and placing them in those same conditions, or separating families and sending them back to places where they have not been in years and are unsafe. Isn’t it enough that they are human beings? God’s daughters and sons. God’s children loved by God. O no, it’s not, because there is no compassion, no concern at all. Just hate and prejudice and fear. That’s what guides the immigration policies and practices of our nation’s leaders today.

Paul says to the Galatian Christians, “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right (that is, what fulfills the law of Christ, the law of love, the law of love your neighbor as yourself), for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” Generally, in that culture those who constituted the family of faith were those who were the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in society. Not all of course, but many. Certainly the majority. When Paul writes to the Corinthians he tells them that not many of high status or wealth or those in the high standing of society have accepted the call to be part of the community of Christ. He tells them that God chooses the “foolish” things, and “low” things, and the “weak” things of the world to confound the wise and the strong and the rich. Paul doesn’t say “not any” well-to-do people and powerful people are called, but he does say, “not many” are called. And we know from story after story in the Gospels and from the teachings of Jesus that Jesus had a special interest and regard for the poor and vulnerable, as well as the outcasts and excluded in his society.

In the Hebrew scriptures three groups of people are singled out as worthy of special consideration, compassion, and care: strangers or aliens, that is, non-Jews, widows, and orphans. Scholars point out that the legal mandates for caring for these were quite unique among other known judicial systems in the Ancient Near East. Israel’s covenant with God, Israel’s law required consistent and outspoken advocacy and care for the weakest, least protected, and most disadvantaged in their society.

There is a story told about William Booth, the founder of the Salvation army, who spent many years reaching out to the poor and needy on the streets of London. Every Christmas, London churches sent out representatives to the streets to invite the poor to their Christmas celebrations. They would typically say, “All of you who are Anglicans, come with us.” Or “All of you who are Catholics, come with us.” Or all of you who are Methodists or Lutherans or whatever, come with us.” When all of that was done, there would still be left a large crowd. William Booth would shout out, “All of you who belong to no one, come with me!” Who do you think captured best the spirit of Jesus?

Jesus told the disciples to announce the kingdom of God has come near, when they sit down to table with all kinds of folks and when they engage in works of healing. We need a new vision of the kingdom of God. Actually, it’s an old vision we need. The vision that inspired and compelled Jesus to welcome all and heal all is the vision we need today. It’s a vision he died for on a Roman cross. The vision is captured beautifully in a poem by Cynthia Kirk titled “Kin-dom without Walls.”

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 / They destination / In the kin_dom of God.

O God, inspire us to imagine, to dream, to pray, and to work for the kin_dom of God – where we all belong and we love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Amen.

Monday, July 1, 2019

The Journey to True Freedom (Gal. 5:1, 13-25)

You have heard me say a number of times, “Religion can be the best thing in the world, and it can be the worst thing in the world.” And that’s as much true of our own religion, Christianity, as any other religion. Our Christian worship, scriptures, rituals, and practices can be liberating or suffocating. Paul, it seems, wants to get that message across to the Galatian Christians, some of whom, want to shackle themselves with the lesser and unnecessary aspects of the Mosaic law. Paul reminds them that he brought to them the way of true freedom in Christ, but now they want to settle for a yoke of slavery.

In our text Paul contrasts two ways of life. One way leads to life and true freedom; the other way leads to death and bondage. I am speaking of life and death metaphorically. One way is a healthy, redemptive, healing, transformative, and liberating way of life. The other is an unhealthy, non-redemptive, destructive and enslaving way of life. Paul identifies the two different ways of life as life according to the Spirit and life according to the flesh.

A number of spiritual writers have pointed out that Paul’s choice of the word “flesh” in contrast to the word “Spirit” is an unfortunate choice of words at best. Unfortunate because it has been so misunderstand by Christians and used to teach that the body is evil. The flesh as body is not evil or bad. In fact, Paul says the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Various explanations have been offered, none of which I find very satisfying, as to why Paul and other ancient Christian writers use this particular word to describe the opposite of life in the Spirit. What Paul calls “flesh” is a way of living rooted in the ego. Now, in one sense the ego is neither bad nor good. In one sense, a strong ego, aware of its boundaries, is vital to healthy functioning. But usually when we reference the ego we are thinking about the egocentric ego. Generally when spiritual writers talk about the ego today they are talking about the self-centered, self-absorbed self. What Paul calls the flesh we could call “the little self.” The self that sees itself separated or all alone and has to protect itself at all costs. This is the egocentric self. Thomas Merton was the first to use the term “false self” to describe this egocentric self, or little self. It’s false because that’s not who we really are or called to be. And the little self has all sorts of ways to defend and protect itself.

Our false selves are inseparably tied into a false culture. Our egocentric selves is part of an egocentric world. Both Paul and John use the word “world” in that negative way. John says in his first letter that the world as a system of egocentric culture is full of selfish ambition, greed, and boastful pride in riches and the status that goes with it. This is why John tells his readers, “love not the world,” because these things are not of God. Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “Do not be conformed to the world.” What he is saying is, “Don’t allow this egocentric system, the egocentric culture to shape you into its mold.” That’s not who we are. So it’s not just the egocentric self that poses a problem, it’s the egocentric culture that gives respectability to the little self and even justifies or vindicates the little self. For example, our culture basically teaches us that greed is good. Our whole economic system is based on it. Wanting what is bigger and better is good. Buying more stuff is good. Beating others to the top is good. Our egocentric culture, our “world,” the system in which we live, constitutes a corporate or collective false self, and it justifies the little self. The system encourages and blesses our individual greed that rises out of the false self. This is why it is so difficult to recognize the blindness of the false self, because the whole culture is blind, the whole world is blind when it comes to greed, for example, so it’s hard for us to see our own greed, when the world encourages our greed and blesses our greed. None of us escape this.

The egocentric self, and the egocentric culture, the little self and the system that supports it is personified in scripture as the devil or Satan. When Jesus is struggling with the Devil in the wilderness he is engaged in a very human struggle. He is struggling with the temptations of the false self and the false culture, which is a struggle not just with actions, but also with motives and the intents of the heart. It’s not just what we do. It’s also about why we do what we do. I might do something very good, and be totally egocentric or selfish in why I do what is good. Now, I would argue it’s always better to do something good rather than evil, but why we do what we do is important too.

The egocentric self is the great deceiver, and can keep us blind for a long time. This is why the serpent in the Genesis 3 story who tempts the human couple is described by the story writer as “the most subtle of all the wild beasts that God had made.” The egocentric self may see something that is evil as a good, and something good may be seen as weakness.

For example, right now in our country there are a number of people who look at our nation’s compassionless, hardline treatment (which is mistreatment) of the undocumented as an expression of strength. They don’t see it as evil or something bad. They see it as a good thing. That’s the blindness and deception of the little self. Something that is hurtful, the little self may see as a victory or an expression of strength – even moral strength. That’s how delusional the little self can be. Another example. Many people think of forgiveness as weakness. Loving one’s enemies is weakness in their eyes, not a moral strength. I look at the way I used to understand atonement and can now see how egocentric it is. I thought that in order for God to forgive sins, someone had to pay, namely, God’s unique Son.

Paul says in the passage that the works of the flesh, the works of the egocentric self are obvious. Well, they might be obvious to someone walking in the Spirit and living in the true self, but for those of us living in the false self they are not obvious at all. We may even think they are good things; that we should be doing these things. On more than one occasion I have thought that my workaholism, and my selfish ambition were good things blessed by God. My workaholism was carefully disguised as sacrifice. And my selfish ambition was cast in the form – well, this is all for the glory of God. In reality they were works of the flesh, they were products of my egocentric, little self.

Now it is God who makes us with an ego, and none of us escape the development of an egocentric self. It’s part of our human development. We would like to blame it on Adam and Eve, and some do, but that story in our Bibles is our story. It’s your story and my story, which by the way, is what makes sacred myth sacred.

In the very process of human development one of the first things that happens to all of us is the birth of self-consciousness or self-awareness. And it happens early. At some point as we move past infancy we become aware that the world is separate from ourselves. At some point we realize that I am different than you. I am someone, you are someone else. As infants, we have no such awareness. As infants the world is just an extension of ourselves. But at some point as we grow and develop as a human being we become aware that we are separate from the world.

As we grow we internalize all kinds of “messages” about who we are – from our parents, our peers, our teachers, the media, there are many people and influences that contribute to our formation. We form images of ourselves and others at a very young age before we even know how to think for ourselves. We worry about how we look and how we appear to others. We form an opinion about ourselves based on all these messages from our culture that we have internalized. Richard Rohr says that the false self is who we think we are based on these messages. We become very attached to this image we have about ourselves. We have a tendency to go in two different directions. On the one hand, we might develop an inflated ego and think too highly of ourselves. We might feel that we are better than others and develop a sense of entitlement or superiority. On the other hand, we might think too little of ourselves where the ego becomes deflated. We might feel like we are completely unworthy, even undeserving of love. Both ways of thinking are egocentric because we make it all about us. If you look at families today it’s hard to find a good balance. Some kids grow up thinking everything is about them. Other kids grow up never knowing what it is like to be loved.

This is what makes it so difficult for us to discover who we really are. Nevertheless, who we really are is already in our hearts, because we are created in the image of God. As Paul says in his talk to the Athenians in Acts 17, in God we live, move, and have our existence. But the true self gets buried in this avalanche of messaging that comes from our culture. So we have to discover our true self, the Christ self.

I like the story about the little girl who was three or four, when her parents brought home a new baby. Within a few hours of bringing the new baby home, the little girl made a rather strange request. She wanted to be alone with her new baby brother in his room. This made the parents a bit uneasy, but they had a good intercom system, so they gave her permission. They listened carefully as they heard their daughter’s footsteps moving across the baby’s room. They could imagine her tiptoeing looking in the baby’s crib. Then they heard her say to her three-day-old baby brother, “Tell me about God – I’ve almost forgotten.” That’s what the system, the egocentric system does to us. I believe in our better moments we all intuit that there is more to us and about us than what others think or have told us, but we have to discover that for ourselves.  

So what Paul calls life in the flesh can be thought of as life in the little self or false self. And what Paul calls life in the Spirit can be thought of as life in the Christ self, or the true self or the larger self. This is who we really are. This is what Paul calls the new humanity and living in the Spirit. The true self is what Paul calls Christ living in me. It’s the Christ self. This is the treasure in the field that we need to find for ourselves. The true self is who we are in God and who God is in us. It’s our birthright, but needs to be claimed. It’s pure gift, but needs to be unwrapped and put into practice.

So how do we discover our true self, our larger self, the Christ self? You might expect me to say, through faith, because that is what most of us were taught. But that’s not how we do it. Faith comes later and is part of the process. However, the one indispensable thing is love. Paul said to the Corinthians, “Now abide faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love.” In this passage in Galatians 5, Paul contrasts the works of the little self with the fruit of the Spirit. And the first thing he mentions is love. Then he goes on to mention other qualities – joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. But the primary quality is love and all the others flow from it. We have to experience and express love to discover our true self, the Christ self. God is love, says the Apostle John, and wherever love is God is. When we feel love and act in love, when we receive and give love, when we experience and express love we are living out of the true self.

Love is the way into the Christ self and out of the little self. I like the story of the mountaineer who was a hard, tough character. He was known for his quarreling and fighting. One week his brother asked him to care for his young son, because he and his wife had to be out on a work related trip. Part of his responsibility was getting the boy to his first grade class. On that first day, he met the boy’s teacher, who was single, and fell in love at first sight. It took him a long time to ask her out because he figured that someone educated and refined like her would never go out with him. But she did. And when he asked her to marry him, she said yes. One of his friends noticed the change in him and said, “You never want to fight any more. What happened?” He just said, “I ain’t got nothing against nobody.” What made the difference? Love opened him up to a new way of being. He discovered his true self, even though he wouldn’t know to call it that.

We Christians call this larger self the Christ self. But it really doesn’t matter what religious symbols or language we use. It’s the self living in the reality of Divine Love regardless of what we call it. As Christians our primary entry point is Jesus. When we learn about the compassion of Jesus and the inclusiveness of Jesus, and the way he confronted injustice and how he loved all people, even those set against him, we are learning how to live in our larger self. But regardless of how we discover it, when we experience and express selfless, inclusive, magnanimous love we are living in the true self, even if we call it something else.

I will conclude with this. Living in the true self is living in true freedom. Now, we are never completely free. Certainly not in this life. We don’t love perfectly. Even when we are at our best, there’s always some ego invested. So there is always the need to be continually growing in love. We never arrive. The more we are able to love like Jesus, who is our model of what the Christ self looks like, the more free we are. Paul says that when we are led by the Spirit, when we are living in the Christ self, we are not subject to the law. We don’t need lots of rules and regulations, when love rules and reigns in our lives. We know what to do. We know to do the loving thing and we do the loving thing, sometimes at great personal cost. Paul says basically what Jesus says, that the whole intent of the law can be summed up in a single commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That, sisters and brothers, is what we are called to do, because the true self, the Christ self, is the self pervaded by love.

Our good God, forgive us for the many times we have made far lesser things – like religious doctrine, and church traditions and rules, the most important thing. Help us to see that it ultimately doesn’t matter what we call this ultimate reality as long as we experience this ultimate reality by becoming channels of your love. In a few days many in our country will be celebrating freedom who don’t have the faintest notion what true freedom really is. Help us all to discover it and live it by learning how to love the way you love. Amen.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

A Journey Toward Oneness (John 17:20-26)

Our Gospel reading today is part of a larger unit that begins in 17:1 as a prayer of Jesus to the Father. Though it’s cast in the form of a prayer, it is intended as instruction to the church. Keep in mind, as in almost all of the discourses in John’s Gospel, these are the words of John as he and his community try to imagine what the living Christ would say to them.

This part of Jesus’ prayer casts a vision for oneness that extends beyond the first disciples of Jesus to embrace those who would come to be disciples after them, and eventually to embrace the world. This prayer nurtures a vision of oneness, which is not limited to Jesus’ disciples, and that shouldn’t surprise since “God so loves the world.” Jesus says that he prays for the oneness or unity of his disciples so that the world may know that God had sent him to be a definitive revelation of God’s love, and so that the world would come to know that God loves them just as much as God loves the unique Son who was sent to incarnate God’s love. That’s what this text says, “The glory that you have given me [the glory here is the glory of a loving relationship, it’s the glory of belonging, of unity] I have given them so that they may be one, as we are one . . . so that the world may know that you have sent me and have love them [the world] even as you have loved me.” Think about this for a moment. What this text is saying is that God loves the world as much as God loves Jesus. What this text is saying is that God loves all God’s children (the world) as much as God loves God’s unique Son who functions as the definitive revelation of that love to the world. Let that sink in sisters and brothers. Jesus beautifully lived out this relationship of oneness, of unity between himself and the Father, God in him and he in God. Now, according to John’s understanding of this relationship, we are invited to share in this very oneness – this special relationship that the unique Son enjoys with the Father. The same relationship Jesus had with the Father is available to you and me. It’s available to the world – to all people everywhere. We are invited to experience the same kind of love. I have no doubt that if many Christians actually understood what this Gospel is saying here, they would accuse John of heresy. How many Christians do you know who think this is possible or think that God loves all people as much as God loves Jesus.

I have shared with you before the story that Tony Campolo tells of being on a landing strip just outside the border of the Dominican Republic in northern Haiti. A small airplane was supposed to pick him up and fly him back to the capital city. As he waited, a woman approached him holding her child in her arms. The baby was emaciated – his arms and legs were like sticks and his stomach swollen from lack of food. She held up her child to Campolo and began to plead with him, “Take my baby! Take my baby!” she cried, “If you don’t take my baby, my baby will die. Please take my baby!  Campolo tried to explain why he couldn’t take her baby, but she would not listen. No matter which way he turned, she was in his face, crying, “Please, mister, take my baby! Save my baby.” This mother was desperate. She had no food to give her baby. She could not take care of her baby. She knew that her child’s only chance of survival would be with someone who could provide for her child.

Campolo breathed a sigh of relief when the Piper Cub airplane came into sight. The minute it touched down he ran to meet it. But the woman kept running after him screaming, “Take my baby! Please, take my baby!” Campolo boarded the plane as fast as he could. The woman ran alongside the plane as it started to take off, the child in one arm and with the other banging on the plane. Halfway back to the capital, Campolo says it hit him with a great force. He thought of Matthew 25, where Jesus says to the just, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink . . . in as much as you did it to the least of these, you did it unto me.” Then he realized that the baby was Jesus.

When we hear Campolo say that the baby was Jesus it would be easy for us to accuse Campolo of being overly dramatic, of stretching the truth. And yet what John is suggesting in this text is that God loves that baby dying of hunger as much as God loves Jesus. Jesus prays that the people of the world will know that God loves them as much as God loves him.  

There’s no possibility of oneness, there is no hope for unity in our world around doctrine or agreeing about particular beliefs about God or Jesus or how we understand and interpret the Bible or any other belief we have in our heads. Jean Vanier in his book, Becoming Human, points out that when religion closes people up in their own particular group, and puts belonging to that particular group and the success of that group above love and compassion and good-will toward others, then religion [read that as Christianity] neither nourishes or opens the heart. It simply becomes an ideology that encloses us behind walls. On the other hand, says Vanier, when religion [read that as Christianity] opens our hearts in love and compassion toward those outside our group to help them find the source of freedom in their own hearts where they can grow in love and compassion toward others, then religion is a source of life. I so wish and hope and pray that more of us, especially we who claim to be followers of Jesus, would become sources of life – wellsprings of living water.

Now, in John’s understanding, it’s our mission as followers of Jesus and as a Christ- filled, Christ-centered, and Christ-empowered community to show the world how much God loves the world. It’s in this Gospel where Jesus says, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” And he gives the disciples whom he sends the same authority he had received from God to proclaim acceptance and forgiveness. Our mission as a Christ-centered community is to show the world, to show all the folks with whom we have contact the magnitude of God’s love for them. Period. Before they do or say anything, lest they think they have to earn God’s love by believing the right things, or by doing the right things, or by joining the right group. Our mission is to show the world just how much God loves them right where they are, no strings attached. That’s unconditional love. That’s God’s kind of love.

So how do we do that? How do we demonstrate to the world how much God loves them? One way we do that is by welcoming, accepting, and affirming all people as our brothers and sisters, even though we may be very different religiously, socially, racially, and culturally. We show them by our words and actions that we all belong regardless of our differences.  And if we will open our heart to the Spirit of Christ, in our better moments we will know this indeed is true – that we all belong.

It should be the goal of churches and faith communities like ours to both proclaim this oneness and model this oneness, so that those we touch, those we serve, will know they are accepted and loved by God. If we can somehow give the world a glimpse of what this might look in all our diversity, perhaps we could draw more people into it. Who doesn’t really want to be accepted and loved as they are? It is this kind of love that motivates us to become more – to want to grow and enlarge our ability to love.  

Joan Chittister, a Benedictine Sister and a great spiritual writer, says that when the United Nations Conference on Women was scheduled in Beijing, people began to argue that, given the status of women in China, a woman’s conference should not be held there. Sister Chittister took the opposite position. She felt that the low status of women in China was exactly the reason why the conference should be held there. It was not because the messages of the conference would change the Chinese women, for the Chinese government wouldn’t even permit an official delegation of Chinese women to attend it. Rather, argues Chittister, it’s what the Chinese women would see and experience that would change things, at least eventually. They would see women from all over the world walking freely down their streets, being interviewed on their television sets, holding press conferences in their hotels. Such experiences would plant seeds of reformation in their hearts. They would see women, just like themselves, walking free, alone, and proud. Then they would learn who they are, who they could be, without a word having been said.

We have to help people see/envision a new world. That’s our mission. We are not going to reason people into loving and accepting others. We are not going to argue people into a vision of equality and justice. As important as our words are, we are not going talk people into a vision of oneness. Lord knows how hard I have tried. We certainly have to keep preaching and talking, because words do make a difference, but most of all, we need to embody oneness in action through works of compassion and justice.  

I so wish more of our churches would let go of their exclusive claim on God. When I look around and see how few churches actually have an inclusive vision the task before us seems almost overwhelming. Most Christians think their mission is to get everyone to believe what they believe and practice their faith the way they do. I think many Christians today are blind to the sexism, racism, exceptionalism, and exclusivism still in our churches and in our own souls, just the way I am sure I am blind to some of my own biases and weaknesses. In our blindness we project our biases and our neediness and our egotism onto God. We imagine God in our image. We make God conform to our human prejudices and limitations. All of us do this, myself included, to some degree. The biblical writers did this. No one is immune to this – we all project our values onto God. If hate is in our hearts, we will read and interpret the scriptures in hateful ways. If love is in our hearts, we will read and interpret the Bible in loving ways. So we must go about this task with humility realizing and admitting our own sins and faults as we try to live out a vision of oneness.

Our mission is to create a spark. Now whether or not the spark ignites into a flame is not up to us. That’s not under our control. Our mission is to plant a seed. We have no control over its growth. Much will depend on the fertility of the soil or should we say soul. Much will depend on the openness and receptivity and condition of the person and community who hears the vision proclaimed and sees the vision embodied, though be it, imperfectly.  

O God, it’s tempting to think Jesus was in dreamland when he prayed that the world would see through his followers just how much the world is loved. We have to confess, Lord, we have been huge failures living out your vision of oneness and showing the world that we all belong. If we are honest we have to confess that sometimes we wonder if we even believe it. May your Spirit reveal this to our hearts and may we experience your great love for all people, because we will never get it by just thinking about it. We have to feel it, too. We have to experience it mind, body, and soul. Let it be so, in the name of Christ our Lord. Amen

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Unwrapping Christ’s gift of peace (John 14:23-29)

 Keep in mind that in John’s Gospel Jesus teaches in the language of the teachers in John’s community/church. This is how they imagined the living Christ speaking to them. Perhaps we should do the same. These are not so much the words of the historical Jesus, as they are the words of the living Christ, the universal Christ speaking to us. Christ says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” I would urge you to take these words personally. This is the universal Christ, the cosmic Christ, the risen Christ speaking to you and to me. He gives us the gift of his peace. But it’s not automatic. This is a gift that has to be unwrapped, and that takes some trust and effort on our part.

The Christ says, “My peace I give you. But I do not give to you as the world gives.” What does that mean? Does it mean that Christ gives more graciously and generously and unconditionally than the world gives? That is true, but I suspect that what John is getting at is that the peace that comes from Christ is of a different kind and nature as that which comes from the world.

God loves the world. Let’s not question that. God is committed to the healing and well-being and redemption of the world. But the world is broken. Its values are skewed. And we, of course, are part of that world, and so our values get skewed. The world is God’s good creation, and we are God’s children. The light of God, which became incarnate in Jesus, is the light that is within every human being. John says as much in his prologue/introduction in the opening chapter. He says, “in him [the Word made flesh] was life, and the life was the light of all people . . . He was the true light that enlightens everyone coming into the world.” The light of Christ dwells with us and in us. The light of Christ is everywhere and in everyone. But too often that light is never allowed to shine. It gets covered up and pushed to the side by our selfish ego. We live in blindness and darkness, when we follow our ego rather than the light of Christ. And this produces a world of fear, conflict, hate, and violence. When our egos both individually and collectively as a group or community channel and mirror the fears, prejudices, greed, divisiveness, and brokenness of the world we have no peace or we have a false peace. So what is the difference between the peace of Christ and the peace of the world that is rooted in our ego both personally and collectively?

For one thing, the peace of Christ is born out of trust, rather than fear and control. In order to unwrap the gift of Christ’s peace, we must allow the Christ or the Holy Spirit to be at home in our hearts and souls. (And by the way, whether we talk about Christ, or the Holy Spirit, or the Spirit of God, or the Spirit of Christ, or our Father in heaven, or for that matter our Mother in heaven, we are talking about the same divine reality. The one God takes different forms and functions in diverse ways, and we use different images to talk about the one God.)  Trust is an important part of Christ being at home in our hearts.

In John’s Gospel whenever you see the word “believe” you can substitute for the word believe the word “trust” or the word “faithful” or use both words depending on the context, and you will have a better understanding of the meaning. The problem in translation has to do with how we use the word “believe” today in common speech. Most commonly today the word “believe” means believing something intellectually as a fact, giving assent with one’s mind that something is correct. That’s not what the word means in our sacred texts. For example, in 14:1 Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, believe in God, believe also in me.” That does not mean believe in your mind that God is real. That in itself is not going to comfort a troubled heart. It’s best to substitute the word “trust” for “believe.” “Trust in God, trust also in me,” says Jesus. If we take this as a word from the living Christ, Christ is telling us to trust with our whole hearts in the love and grace of God that we see embodied in Jesus. It’s our trust in the love of Christ, and our faithfulness to the way of love that will dispel our fears and worries. Belief alone won’t do it sisters and brothers. Trust in the gift of Christ’s love and presence with us and in us, and faithfulness to the way of love is the kind of faith that will overcome the fears of the world. That’s what brings about God’s peace.

I heard about a successful banker who had everything he could possibly want. He seemed to have a good marriage, beautiful kids, didn’t want for anything really. Everything was going his way. Then his eldest son began to suffer from a psychotic disorder and was admitted into a psychiatric hospital. Quite suddenly, this man’s carefully ordered and managed world was disrupted. This man became angry, because it was not something he could control. He thought he had built up this barrier against all threats to his peace and his family’s peace. He was in control of his work. He was in control of his life. He thought he was in control of his family, but he wasn’t. He couldn’t control this. Suddenly, he realized he was powerless to do anything about this. It filled him with anger and anguish. But then something happened. He met other parents who were living is similar unpredictable situations. He could see how some of them, even though their lives had been upended and the future was uncertain, nevertheless, they trusted in love and they allowed their own suffering to make them more humble and compassionate. And it changed him. That man, who was all about his career and his success retired early and began investing time in his son and in others nurturing relationships of mutual care and compassion. He began working with others to create a world where there is more love and a deeper sense of community and belonging. He went form a place where he tried to maintain a kind of superficial peace by controlling as much as he could, working to eliminate all fears, he went from that place to a place where he realized that there was much he couldn’t control, and therefore had to face his fears. And face his fears he did by trusting in the power of love and friendship. He had to learn how to trust in the love and support of others.

If we want the peace of Christ then we have to look our fears right in the face, and begin trusting in the power of love. We have to trust in the support of community, because we can’t do this alone. I think one reason so many Christians today support policies of hate and exclusion is because they have given into their fears. Instead of finding healing and the power to be transformed in their churches, their churches have fostered a culture of fear. They have a faith rooted in fear – fear of hell, fear of God’s punishment, fear of losing control, fear of others. So they are willing to believe the lies and deceptions being propagated today about the undocumented and those who come seeking asylum, because they live in fear, and their fear stokes false images that foster contempt and hate. It is a sad commentary on American Christianity that so many churches and Christians are willing to believe lies and stoke hate, because they are afraid to face their fears and trust in God’s love that extends to everyone. And many popular and powerful Christian leaders are stoking that fear. If we are going to unwrap God’s gift of peace and experience Christ’s peace in our hearts and in our relationships then we have to face our fears, and learn how to trust in God’s love, not just for ourselves, but for everyone. God’s gift of peace is born out of trust, rather than fear.

A second thing about God’s peace is that God’s gift of peace is sustained by love, rather than coercive power and force. God’s gift of peace is born out of trust, rather than fear, and sustained by love, rather than coercive force. So if we are going to unwrap and experience Christ’s gift of peace, then we must learn how to love, and let go of our need and desire to exert power over others and make them conform to our wants and expectations. So many folks today want to use their power to control the circumstances of their lives. But that never works. We can’t control life. But we keep trying. How many in our country today have bought into this idea that if can just keep people out, and close ourselves within a fortress we will have peace. And yet look what is happening. Violence is erupting from within. How many people are walking time bombs just waiting to explode? School shootings are becoming so common place we don’t even pause from what we are doing when we hear about another one. And sure seems like we are about to get into another war because we think we have the right to control other countries just to protect American interests. What a gigantic ego we have. The peace the world offers is no peace at all. I am reminded of what Paul says in his letter to the Thessalonians, “When they say, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will no escape.” We hunker down in our fortress, we exert force and even violence in our claim to bring peace, and in doing so we bring destruction upon ourselves.

A third thing about God’s peace when compared to the world’s peace is that God’s peace is based on forgiveness, rather than punishment. Its goal is restoration and reconciliation, rather than retribution. There can be no peace without forgiveness. Theologian Walter Wink tells about two peacemakers who visited a group of Polish Christians ten years after the end of World War II. The peacemakers asked, “Would you be willing to meet with other Christians from West Germany? They want to ask forgiveness for what Germany did to Poland during the war and begin to build a new relationship.” At first there was silence. Then someone spoke up, “What you are asking is impossible. Each stone of Warsaw is soaked in Polish blood! We cannot forgive.” Before they parted they said the Lord’s Prayer together. They came to the part about forgiveness – forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us – and everyone stopped praying. Tension welled up in the room. The one who was outspoken said, “I must say ‘yes’ to you or I could no longer call myself a Christian and pray to the Father. And I must tell you that humanly speaking, I cannot do it, but God will give us strength.” Eighteen months later the Polish and West German Christians met together in Vienna to begin a process of reconciliation.

We can’t do this on our own. This is why we must allow Christ and his love to be at home within our hearts. Our ego wants vengeance. We want to make those who hurt us and the people we love the most pay. Forgiveness is not easy. It is a process we must work through with the help of Christ and the help of a community that is grounded in forgiveness, which is what the church is supposed to be. We should be learning how to forgive in our faith communities. The fact that forgiveness is so rare even in our churches is just another indication of how far we have drifted from the teaching of Jesus and the Spirit of the one we call our Lord. We have to grow a spirit of forgiveness. And we need fertile soil to do that – in our hearts and souls, and in our faith community – to grow a spirit of forgiveness.

Have you ever hit a big pothole and afterward start to feel your car vibrate and shake. You take your car to a mechanic and he says you need a wheel alignment. Your car is out of balance. This is how many of us go through life. Our lives and relationships are in a constant state of agitation and disintegration. They are out of balance. And the reason we are so out of balance is that we are governed by our ego. We get caught up in a culture of competition and rivalry. We think forgiveness is weakness. So we are constantly trying to defend ourselves and prove that we are better than others. Our families suffer. Our communities suffer. Our relationships suffer. We suffer in the depths of souls, but we refuse to admit it. The solution to that state of disruption and alienation is an alignment with the will of God. The way we do that is by allowing the love of Christ, the Spirit of Christ to become at home in our souls, in our families, and in our relationships.

If we are to unwrap the gift of Christ’s peace, first, we must trust in the love of Christ, rather than give in to fear. Second, we must learn how to practice the love of Christ, rather than try to control others. And third, we must practice forgiveness and pursue reconciliation, rather than harbor resentment and bitterness in pursuit of retaliation. For this is how Christ comes to dwell – to be at home – in our souls.

Now, briefly let me make one final point. We will never unwrap and experience the gift of Christ’s peace until we trust and are convinced that every person, whatever his or her abilities or disabilities, whatever his or her ethnic origins, culture, or religion is precious and loved by God. God’s Spirit is in them just as God’s Spirit is in us. Until we trust that we all belong, that we are all family, and accept that we all have a responsibility to care for one another, we will not know the peace of Christ. Until we recognize the dignity and worth of every person, and let go of the need to make them like us, we cannot know the peace of Christ.  

O God, help us to let go of our fears, and our need to control people and circumstances, and learn to trust in the love you have for every one of us. Help us to realize that we all belong, that we are all your children and all are precious to you. Help us to let go of our need to retaliate for offenses done to us. Teach us how to practice forgiveness so that peace has a chance and so we will not be burdened with bitterness and resentment, and keep replaying these grievance stories over and over again in our mind. Show us how to love the way you love that we might pursue peace and reconciliation with those we are separated from. We ask all of this, Lord, so that Christ might be free to dwell, to be at home in our lives, our families, our church, and in our relationships. Amen.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

A growing faith means an expanding love (Acts 11:1-18; John 13:34-35)

In Flannery O’Connor’s story titled “Revelation” Ruby Turpin has the habit of judging and classifying people based on how they look, how they talk, and the color of their skin. In the opening scene, Mrs Turpin is sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, forming judgments about all present. Among those in the room is a mother in a sweat shirt and bedroom slippers whom she regards as “white trash.” Across from her is a teenage girl in Girl Scout shoes, reading the book Human Development. There is another young looking woman present that Mrs. Turpin judges as not white trash, but just common. And there is a well-dressed woman as well, with suede shoes whom she considers her peer. (Mrs Turpin always noticed people’s feet.) Mrs Turpin would sometimes occupy herself at night, when she couldn’t go to sleep, with the question of who she would have chosen to be if she couldn’t have been herself. She developed an entire “pecking order” of societal worth, with herself and her husband Claude positioned comfortably near the top.

In a conversation between Mrs Turpin and the well-dressed woman there are  subtleties that reflect her classism and racism. She tells the woman that she is grateful for who she is. She says, “When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, “Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is.”

The girl reading the book becomes more and more irritated as the conversation goes on. Finally, she loses control. She hurls the book across the room, hitting Mrs Turpin above her eye. Then she lunges at her, grasping her neck in a death grip. The doctor rushes in to separate them and sedate the girl. But before the girl becomes unconscious, she stares directly at Mrs Turpin. Mrs Turpin feels as if the girl “knew her in some intense and personal way, beyond time and condition.” Mrs Turpin says to the girl hoarsely, “What you got to say to me?” The girl raised her head and locked her eyes onto Mrs Turpin’s. She whispered, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.” Her voice was low but clear. And her eyes burned for a moment as if she saw with pleasure that her message had struck its target. Mrs Turpin senses that she has been singled out for the message. Of all people, she thinks, why me? She was a respectable, hard-working, church-going woman.
Back home she decides to go out and hose down the hogs. As she aggressively squirts the hogs she begins to argue and rave against God. “Why do you send me a message like that for?” she says. She raises a fist with one hand and grips the water hose tightly with other.  As she blasts the poor old hogs she says to God, “How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too? Why me? There was plenty of trash there. It didn’t have to be me. If you like trash better, go get yourself some trash then,” she rails. “It’s no trash around here, black or white that I haven’t given to. And break my back to the bone every day working. And do for the church.” “Go on,” she yells, “call me a hog! Call me a hog again. From hell. Call me a wart hog from hell. . . Who do you think you are?”

Then it came. The Revelation. (Perhaps like Saul on the road to Damascus). She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. And out in front were all the folks that Mrs Turpin had relegated to the bottom of the social ladder. They were out in front leading the way into heaven. Flannery O’Conner writes: “And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.” As she makes her way back to her house O’Conner says, “around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”

That’s the end of the story. We are left to imagine what this “broken” woman does  with the “revelation.” We are left to wonder what impact, if any, it makes. Would she deny it? Repress it? Ignore it? Rave against it? Harbor resentment and bitterness? Or would she yield to it? Would she learn and grow from it? Would she allow this to be an experience of enlightenment that transforms her into a more humble, empathetic, compassionate person? We don’t know. But it certainly turned her world upside down.

Jesus of Nazareth was known for turning people’s worlds upside down. Several times in the Gospels Jesus says that in the kingdom of God, “the first shall be last, and the last first.” (That phrase occurs several times in different contexts which would suggest that among Jesus’ followers there was a memory that he used that phrase often.) The reversal of the world’s pecking order is a key theme in Jesus’ teaching, and more so in Luke than in any of the Gospels. Mary sings in her Magnificat (Song of Praise),  which is part of the birth and infancy narrative in Luke’s Gospel: God scatters the proud, but gives strength to the weak. God brings down the powerful, but lifts up the lowly. God sends the rich away empty, but fills the hungry with good things. In the parable of the great banquet in Luke 14 God’s house is filled with “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” In God’s household everything is turned upside down. Do you ever wonder why the preachers in our past never taught us these things? Maybe they didn’t want to hear it, just the way we don’t want to hear it.

The passage today in the book of Acts is about a revelation that came to Peter that turned his world upside down. Luke considers this vision of paramount importance because he narrates it twice. Luke tells the story in chapter 10 and then has Peter repeat it in chapter 11. This is almost as important as Paul’s revelation on the road to Damascus which Luke describes in chapter 9, and then Paul retells two other times. In Peter’s vision a large sheet descends from above with all sorts of unclean animals. Peter is told to prepare the meat of the animals and eat, in direct violation of the laws of purity that Peter’s Bible says came from God. This rocks his boat. And apparently Peter needed some persuading because this scene with the sheet dropping and Peter being told to eat occurs three times in the vision. In the words of Yoda, Jedi master, “Slow of heart we all are.”  

Cornelius, a Roman centurion, we are told revered God (which is what “fear” means in that context), gave alms generously, and prayed constantly. He has a vision that synchronizes with Peter’s vision. In response to the vision, he sends a formal request for Peter to come to his house. Now, under normal circumstances Peter would not have dared associate himself with an unclean Roman military leader no matter how pious that leader was. But these are not normal circumstances are they? So Peter, having had his vision, returns with the messengers to Cornelius’ house and shares with Cornelius, his household, and his other close friends who were present the good news of Jesus. Luke tells us in chapter 10 that as Peter spoke the “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.” Throughout this narrative Luke uses several different images to describe what happens to Cornelius and the others who respond to the message. He says the Spirit fell on them and was poured out on them just as the Spirit fell and was poured out on him and the other Apostles at the beginning. He says that Cornelius and those present received the Holy Spirit just as he and his fellow Jews received the Spirit. And he says that they were baptized or immersed with the Holy Spirit and received the same gift of the Spirit that they received when they trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ.   

Now, it’s really important to understand that the only way we can talk about our experiences of God is by using language and imagery we are familiar with. So all these images of the Spirit – such as the Spirit falling upon them, the Spirit being poured out on them, their being baptized or immersed in the Spirit, and their receiving the gift of the Spirit – all these descriptions are symbolic ways of talking about experiences we have of God. All religious language is symbolic language. The Holy Spirit who is within us, who is already a part of our lives, breaks into our awareness and consciousness and human experience when we open our hearts and minds to the Spirit. We experience the Holy Spirit when we center our lives in the Spirit, when we are receptive to the Spirit. And sometimes it takes a “revelation” to bring about that break through. Sometimes it’s a great experience of suffering that brings it about. Sometimes it’s a great experience of love. And sometimes it comes through a vision, a revelation that we cannot really explain.

The Gospel reading for this Fifth Sunday of Easter emphasizes the foundational core of authentic faith. It gets to the heart of what all authentic religion is about. Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” In reality, this isn’t new. This was at the heart and core of Judaism. This has always been basic to who God is and what God wants. In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus draws out from the Hebrew Scriptures the commands to love God and love others as ourselves, and says that these two commands are everything. The whole law, says Jesus, all of God’s expectations with regard to human life are about loving God and loving others. So how is this a new commandment? Well, it’s new for us who call Jesus Lord in the sense that Jesus breaks into the world and gives us a beautiful example of what love looks like. “By this,” says Jesus, “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” It seems to me that for many American Christians (I can only speak about what I know), for many Christians in our Western culture today this is not central at all. If one’s faith does not make one a more loving person, then it’s not worth much. I would say there’s a lot of Christians today who have a faith that’s not worth much. A growing faith always enlarges our capacity to love others. When Paul speaks of faith, hope, and love together, he says the greatest of these is love. Love is the center of everything. God is Love. God is not faith or hope, but God is love.  

Peter’s experience of enlightenment enlarges his capacity to love people. In chapter 10 Peter explains to Cornelius and those gathered at his house what the “revelation” taught him. He says, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” He goes on, “I truly understand now that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God (that is, reveres or respects God) and does what is right (which is to love others, to do what is right is to treat people right, to treat them with dignity and compassion”) is acceptable to him.” It may have taken Peter seeing the vision three times, but he got it. His eyes were opened. Peter’s expanding faith led to a greater love that embraced people outside his religious and national group. Peter realized that a person didn’t have to become a Jew to be acceptable to God. Peter was able to see outside the boundaries where he felt God operated. He was able to let go of deeply entrenched longstanding prejudices and biases. Most Christians today are like Peter before his saw the “revelation.” Most Christians today mirror Peter’s exclusiveness prior to his vision. We turn around and say, “Unless one is a Christian, then one cannot be acceptable to God.” But what Peter learned in his vision is that God accepts all people who respects God by doing what is right, by loving and caring for God’s children.

I am convinced God is constantly working to move us away from beliefs and practices of exclusion into beliefs and practices of inclusion. As we grow in faith we grow in love. If we are not growing in love, then we are not growing in faith. I don’t care how many Bible studies you attend. What some people call growing in faith is actually regressing in faith, because they use their faith to draw tighter boundaries that exclude and condemn those who are different. Authentic encounters and experiences of God will always move us to be more generous, gracious, and welcoming of people who are different than us.

Our Good God, sometimes we become so entrenched in negative attitudes and hurtful beliefs and destructive behaviors that it takes a revelation for us to see our sin and our blindness. May we be open to such revelations. May we not rail against them, but welcome them, and allow them to have a healing and liberating effect in our lives. Healing us from our spiritual sickness caused by our negative and biased attitudes and actions. And liberating us from our prejudices, resentments, fears, and intolerance. May each of us personally, and collectively as a faith community be open to your transforming grace that always leads us to be more inclusive and compassionate and understanding of others. Let us be teachable and moldable. Give us the courage we need to acknowledged and leave behind hurtful beliefs and actions, so we can be more fully centered in and expressive of the love of Jesus, our Lord.