Sunday, October 20, 2019

How Long, Lord? (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Luke 18:1-8)

How long, Lord? I suspect we have all asked that question haven’t we? We may have asked that question after weeks or perhaps months or maybe even years of our own struggle or a loved one’s struggle with a serious illness or debilitating pain. We may have asked out of the despair of a deep betrayal by a spouse or a friend. Or it may have been after months of trying to find work related to our skills and training. How long, Lord? The widow in our story who was a victim of injustice must have felt that way? She keeps crying out to the unjust judge, “Grant me justice!”

It’s interesting that Luke introduces this parable as a call to pray always and not lose heart. I very much doubt that in its original setting Jesus intended this story to be about prayer. Luke’s application of the parable as a call to persistent prayer is an example of how these stories can connect with us and impact us on different levels. How we understand and apply these stories depends a lot on our own context and what we are thinking and dealing with at the time we read them. I can read a parable, or some other passage of scripture and feel that I have encountered God through that scripture in some way. A year later, I can read the same parable or scripture text, and it speaks to me in a very different way. I’m sure many of you have had that same experience. Such is the nature of sacred texts and the way God can speak to us through them.

What Luke says about the need to pray always and not lose heart reminds us of Jesus’ earlier teaching on prayer in Luke 11 where Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened.” Asking is an important part of any relationship and it’s an important part of our relationship with God. And just as we ask of God, God asks things of us. All healthy relationships are mutual relationships. It’s a dance. It’s a two-way street.

Now, if we follow Luke’s leading here and see this as a story about prayer, it is not just any prayer is it? When Luke says that we need to pray always and not lose heart it is a particular kind of prayer that is in view in this story. Luke is talking about prayer for justice. “Grant me justice,” cries the widow. The reason it is a widow in our story who is being treated unjustly is because in that culture widows were extremely vulnerable. The “widow” is simply representative of the most vulnerable people in any society. A widow in the patriarchal culture of that day and time could not inherit her husband’s property, and there were certainly no social welfare programs in place. For the most part there were no opportunities for independent employment. This is why some widows, without family support, turned to prostitution – simply to survive. This is a story about justice.

By justice, I do not mean, “Getting what one deserves.” Rarely, is the word “justice” used that way in the scriptures. I didn’t realize this during the early stages of my Christian pilgrimage. I thought justice meant retribution. If justice means getting what we deserve, then none of us should pray for justice; we should pray for grace. But that is not what is meant when the prophets and when Jesus talk about justice. The biblical term “justice” is equivalent to the biblical word “righteousness.” To pursue justice or righteousness is to pursue that which makes for right relations and good will between human beings and communities, between God and human beings, and between human beings and all creation. It basically means doing right so that we will be in right relationship – with God, each other, and everything else. Justice is about that which makes everything right, whole, just, and good.

The key elements in the kind of restorative justice that Jesus and the prophets talk about are compassion, forgiveness, and restitution, in contrast to retribution and vengeance. Restorative justice is about healing and restoring relationships that are broken and severed. At the center of restorative justice is love of neighbor and the golden rule – doing unto others as we would want them to do unto us. Justice involves defending and uplifting the poor and downtrodden, which is a theme repeated over and over again in the classic Hebrew prophets and in the teachings and actions of Jesus. It involves the pursuit of equality, inclusion, and the well-being of all people. It includes the minority as well as the majority. It involves basic human rights and freedoms. It also includes creation care. All that is central to the healing and wholeness of humankind and creation is included in the justice or righteousness of God.

This is why, sisters and brothers, we have no choice as followers of Jesus but to care about such things as: how we treat immigrants, what we do about climate change, fairness laws, equality in the work place, unjust social and economic systems that produce poverty and the huge disparity between rich and poor, and other justice issues related to how we treat one another and how we care for our planet. All of these issues have to do with God’s justice or righteousness.   

The logic in the story moves from the lesser to the greater. The logic is that if an unjust judge, who, in the words of Jesus “neither feared God nor had respect for people” was compelled to act justly on behalf of the widow who pestered him day and night, how much more will God, who is compassionate and good, act justly on behalf of the oppressed? The point here is that God is so “unlike” the unjust judge that if an unjust judge can be persuaded to act justly, how much more will our compassionate and just God act justly toward those who suffer injustice.  

In one sense the story is future oriented. The story teller asks: “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? The “chosen ones” are equivalent to the “little ones” Jesus talks about in 17:2. There Jesus issues a severe warning to anyone who causes offense to one of these “little ones” or “chosen ones” (these are interchangeable terms). Jesus says in his hyperbolic fashion: “If you cause offense to one of my little ones or chosen ones, if you cause one of these chosen ones to suffer injustice, it would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” (I wish our so-called Christian congressmen would read Jesus and take him sersiously. If we did we would have a country that cares about justice, rather than now have to be concerned if our democracy even survive. And it may not. It happened in Germany it can happen here.) This widow is one of these “little ones” or “chosen ones” whom God gives special attention. The story teller asks: “Will he delay long in helping them? [these chosen ones, these little ones, these vulnerable ones] I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

In its original or first setting, I suspect that this story reflects the belief of the early Jesus followers in the imminent consummation and clean up of the world. Many of them believed that Jesus was going to return soon to fulfill the kingdom of God on earth. We know from Paul’s earliest letters that the first followers of Jesus were expecting this in their lifetime. Now, they didn’t believe that Christians would be evacuated from the earth while the rest of the world destroyed itself in a global holocaust as some Christians today believe. They did not believe that, but they did believe that God would be wrapping things up fairly quickly. They believed that the resurrected Christ would return in some interventionist way to make the world right. Now, obviously that didn’t happen. So the church had to re-adjust its expectations. Many Christians are still waiting and expecting some kind of visible or personal intervention by Christ to clean things up and bring the kingdom of God to fulfillment. Personally, I don’t believe that, but I certainly don’t disparage those who do.  

If we look at this from God’s point of view we should consider that what we think of as a “delay” may not be a delay at all. God’s idea of “quickly” may be very different from our experience of “quickly.” If 98% of the scientists in our world are right, it took approximately 13.8 billion years (give or take a few million years) for life on earth to evolve to its present state. Surely, God experiences time differently than we do. The main point or truth in this story is not “when”; the main point is not the timing of it. The main point is that because God is the kind of God God is, there will be vindication for God’s chosen ones. Because God is just and good, there will be vindication for God’s little ones who are beaten down by the powers that be. These “chosen ones” or “little ones” are, from the world’s point of view, forgotten ones. For every murder or injustice that we hear about, there are thousands of others who suffer and die alone in silence. And the question is: Will they be vindicated? These who cry day and night for justice; these who suffer and die and are forgotten, will they be vindicated? This scripture text says: If an unjust judge can be compelled to execute justice, how much more will the loving, compassionate, just God of creation vindicate those who have suffered unjustly? It’s a shame that we were not taught that restorative justice is at the heart of what Jesus meant when he talked about the kingdom of God on earth. The vast majority of Baptists were not taught this. And we can throw up our hands and say, “Oh well” as if that relieves us of responsibility, or we can try to learn and grow and change.

The final question is where the rubber hits the road. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Faith, in this particular context, has very little to do with belief. It is better translated “faithfulness.” When the Son of Man comes will he find us being faithful to the justice or righteousness of God? And when we say, “I wasn’t taught this” I don’t think God is going to buy it, because you are being taught this now. This is not about having faith in Jesus. This is about having the faith of Jesus. This is about being faithful to the justice or righteousness of God. To have the faith of Jesus means that we will love our neighbor as ourselves, even if the neighbor is a Samaritan, or someone we don’t particularly like, or even an enemy, that is, someone who wants to do us harm. To have the faith of Jesus means that we will be faithful to pray for them and do good by them, even as we speak against what they are doing. As a disciple of Jesus I have to stand up and speak out against injustice, even while I pray and seek the good of those who perpetuate injustice. To have the faith of Jesus means that we will trust God with our fears and insecurities and anxieties, and seek first God’s just world. It means that we will join Christ in his work to liberate the oppressed and set the captives free – whether it is a captivity to physical disease, or mental illness, or spiritual angst, or whether it is a captivity to political or social or economic or religious powers that exclude and impoverish and destroy life.

The question, “When the Son of Man comes will he find faith on earth?” can be translated into our time and context by asking: When the living Christ, when God, when the Divine (use whatever name you like) looks at our world, what does Christ see? Does God see people who are being faithful to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God and each other? Does God see people who are being faithful to God’s will by loving each other the way God loves each of us? What will God see?

In the movie, The Abyss produced in 1989, a US ballistic missile submarine, the USS Montana, sinks near the edge of the Cayman Trough after some accidental encounter with an unidentified object. With a hurricane moving in and Soviet ships and submarines wanting to get to the sub, the Americans decide that the quickest way to mount a rescue is to insert a SEAL team onto a privately owned, experimental underwater oil drilling platform called the Deep Core. The designer of the platform, Dr. Lindsey Brigman, insists on accompanying the SEAL team, even though her estranged husband, Virgil “Bud” Brigman, is currently serving as the platform’s foreman. As the SEALS and platform crew attempt to discover the cause of the Montana’s failure, they come into contact with strange creatures they cannot identify, which they later call “NTIs” meaning “non-terrestrial intelligence.” The heart of the story is about their interaction with the NTI’s and the renewal of the relationship between Bud and Lindsey, who had never stopped loving one another.

When one of the Navy SEALS goes crazy, they lose a live nuclear warhead that is timed to explode down the trough where the NTI’s live. Bud descends on a one way trip to disarm it. He communicates by means of a keypad on his arm. He says to Lindsey, “Knew this was a one-way ticket, but you knew I had to come.” The last thing he says is, “Love you, wife.” After he disarms the warhead, he waits to die. Just as his air is about to run out and he is about to lose consciousness, an NTI comes to his side and takes him to a massive NTI spacecraft sitting in the trench. In the ship, they create an atmosphere for him to breathe.

The NTI’s have created massive mega-tsunami-level waves that threaten every coastline, that are stalled towering and hovering above the coasts. The NTI’s show Bud images of humanity’s destructive behavior on a view screen, destroying and killing one another. And we have done a lot of destroying and killing haven’t we? But then they show him the messages of self-sacrifice and love he wrote with his keypad. The NTI’s conclude that there is hope for humanity and they cause the standing tsunami’s to recede harmlessly back into the sea.

I believe that in spite of all the ways we mar and malign one another and destroy our planet God sees the potential for goodness, for justice, and for love. I really believe that, even though there is a ton of evidence to the contrary. In the text we read from Jeremiah, the prophet envisions a day when the hearts of God’s people are so changed that they don’t even need laws to tell them what to do, because they instinctively know what to do, they intuitively know how to act justly, live mercifully, and walk humbly. I believe God sees what we can become. I believe God has great hope for humanity. Obviously God has great patience. We should be asking right now, “When God takes an inventory of our lives and relationships, when God’s looks at us, what does God see? Does God see us praying and working for justice on earth? Does God see us praying and working for a just world healed and made right? Are we becoming more of what God has called us to be or less?

Gracious God, thank you for believing in us, thank you for not giving up on us, thank you for patiently enduring us, and for continually wooing us and drawing us into a right relationship with you, with each other, and with this planet. Help us to become what you believe we can be. Empower us to be agents of your good-will, your redemptive justice, and your healing grace. Give us the courage to not give up and to stand with and cry out for all those who find themselves beaten down by the destructive powers of death whatever form they may take. Amen

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Singing a Capella (A sermon from Hab. 1:1-4; 2:1-4)

This was a big event in the life of the small denomination that hosted the annual conference. It was a two day event, and worship on the final night was always the most attended. It was their custom to have an interesting and challenging keynote speaker and music of the highest quality. The program bulletin that named the vocalist said that she would sing accompanied by sound track. She had rehearsed this song numerous times in preparation for this event and the time had now come. She walked confidently to the stage and nodded for the gentleman in the sound booth to start the music. She waited and waited and waited. The sound operator finally looked up and made some motions. The unthinkable had happened. The player had malfunctioned. She knew there was a decision to make. Either leave the stage rather awkwardly calling attention to the problem, or sing the song unaccompanied by the sound track. Out of the silence, strong and sure, the vocalist’s voice rang true and powerful.   

The question I pose today is this: Can we sing the song of faith without the music? Sooner or later we all face life without the music. It is simply not true that if you love God and are faithful to God you will always hear the music, that all will go well or that you will never have any doubts or face any uncertainties. The prophet has to face life without the music. He expresses his complaint to God in the opening verses of chapter 1. He wants to know why God is not doing something about the violence and injustice that Israel is experiencing. The wicked hem in the righteous, he says, and justice is perverted.

Now, it’s important to keep in mind that many ancient Hebrews believed that God directly intervened into the world and their lives, and the prophet would have lived within those theological limitations. God’s response to Habakkuk compounds the prophet’s frustration. “Be astonished! Be astounded! says the Lord. For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told.” Now, that last phrase really speaks to me: “you would not believe even if you were told.” If God’s voice thundered it from heaven you they would not believe it. And we are still that way. In our context today we are told clearly in the Gospels that if we follow Jesus we have to love and care for people who are different than us, especially the most vulnerable. Jesus made that a priority.  We can’t treat them like they are less than human. But there are many Christians today who apparently don’t believe that at all. That theme of caring for the oppressed, the disadvantaged and the most vulnerable runs through scripture. It’s in the law and the prophets. Israel is told to care for widows, orphans, and the non-Israelites (the undocumented, the aliens in the land), and this theme finds its climax in the life and teachings of Jesus. But many Christians today don’t trust it and are not faithful to it.

Now, what are the people being told in Habakkuk’s time? They are being told that the Babylonians are coming. They are a ruthless and violent people; a law unto themselves. They worship might and power. They promote their own honor. They are a people to be feared and dreaded. They will sweep down and set their hooks and nets into the land and gather the people of Israel into their nets like a fisherman gathers in his catch, to be used and disposed of at will. So the prophet cries out to God, “How can you be silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” How can that be?

Sooner or later, all of us must face life without the music. It is simply untrue that if you love God there will always be music. Life with God is not all sun and summertime. There are dark, cold days in wintry places. So what do we do in those times when we cannot hear the music on account of the screams of violence or from the noise of our own fearful chatter and cries for help? What do we do when things don’t go as expected? When our plans get thwarted, our dreams dashed, and our questions and our prayers go unanswered? What do we do when circumstances entrap us in prisons of disappointment and bring us to the brink of despair? Do we give up on faith and say it was all a mistake? Do we say it was all an illusion, that we were just kidding ourselves to think that we ever heard the music at all? What do we do? We learn to sing without the music. We may complain and question and find ourselves in a quandary, but we refuse to walk off the stage.  

The prophet says that the righteous or just shall live by faith. Paul quotes this line from Habakkuk in his letter to the Romans. This is a dominant theme in that letter, but here is where he got it. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann makes the point that the righteous or just person or just community is the person or community who keeps God’s covenant. A righteous or just person is one who loves his or her neighbor. A just person invests in the community, and is particularly attentive to the poor and needy. Living by faith is not about getting our beliefs right; rather, it is about doing right. It’s about being faithful to God by loving our neighbor as ourselves and treating others the way we would want to be treated. This is the heart and soul of God’s covenant with us.

I like the way author Sara Miles has said this. Sara was raised an atheist, but for some reason wandered into an Episcopal church one day in San Francisco, where everyone was welcomed and encouraged to take Communion. So she participated. She ate the bread and drank the wine and discovered that it somehow nourished her soul and quenched her spiritual thirst. She kept going back and was encouraged to serve others. So, she started a food pantry. Being in California, she discovered that they had access to inexpensive fresh fruits and vegetables. So on Fridays, she opened a food pantry – in the middle of their beautiful new Sanctuary. All are welcome. There are no forms to fill out. People come and choose what they want. The down-and-out, the addicted, the messed up, the homeless, all are welcome and all are treated with dignity. Sara and the other volunteers pray with those who want prayer. They listen to those who need to talk. They bless those who need a blessing. And get this: Those who come are considered part of their church community, even though they may never come to a worship service.  

In her spiritual memoir titled, Take this Bread, she says that one of the main things she learned about faith by directing and working in the pantry is that authentic faith is more about “orthopraxy” (right practice) than it is about “orthodoxy” (right belief). She wrote, “I was hearing that what counted wasn’t fundamentalist theology or liberation or traditional or postmodern theology, it wasn’t denominations or creeds or rituals. It wasn’t liberal or conservative ideology. It was faith, working through love.” What mattered was faith working through love. This is exactly what Paul tells the churches in Galatia. He says in that letter that the only thing that ultimately matters is their faith working through love. Faith, here is not belief. It is trust and commitment. What matters is our capacity to trust one another and trust God, and be faithful to our relationships with God and others by loving others the way God loves all of us. She realized that faith working through love meant (in her words), “plugging away with other people, acting in small ways without the comfort of a big vision or even a lot of realistic hope.” She discovered it meant “opening up my vulnerable self to others and sticking with tasks that helped people in the middle of confusion.” She realized that God cared much more about how we help people, than what we happen to believe about God.
So how do we find the inner strength and power to be faithful when the music doesn’t play? One of the things we do is remember. In 3:2 the prophet says, “O Lord, I have heard of your renown, and I stand in awe, O Lord, of your work.” The prophet was part of a faith tradition that rehearsed God’s mighty works in times past and he remained in awe of those works. The prophet next cries out, “In our time revive your work; in our time make it known, in judgment remember mercy” (3:2). His cry for help and for grace is based on an inherited tradition of God’s salvation – a tradition of God’s acts of healing and liberation.

Again and again in scripture the people of God are told to remember God’s great creative and redemptive acts. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper we are remembering that our Lord was not called to be served, but to serve, and to give his life in the service of God’s love and righteousness in the world. We remember that Jesus gave his life in service for the healing and liberation of many. We remember the revelation God has given to us in Jesus of God’s redemptive hope and dream for the world and for our lives. We remember the life of Jesus of Nazareth and that we, too, are called to be the body of Christ in the world. We may not feel worthy – that’s okay. We may not feel close to God – that’s okay. We may not be able to see beyond our own disappointment or hear beyond the cries of our own pain – none of that matters. When we come together and partake of the bread and cup we are remembering how God has acted in and through Jesus Christ to draw us into relationship with God’s self and to show us how to love and care for one another. When we share the Lord’s Supper together we share in the Holy Communion of God’s love that makes us one people, that says everyone belongs, and that gives us hope that we can become more.

Heather Whitestone, was the Miss America winner who had the disability of deafness. Do you know what she did for her talent competition? She danced. I read somewhere that in her preparation she placed a special hearing device to her ear and played it very loud, which allowed her to faintly hear the music. She then memorized the music – every beat. When the time came for her to perform her dance, she moved precisely and beautifully to the rhythm of the music she couldn’t hear, but had heard before, and she remembered. We, too, can benefit from remembering past encounters and experiences of God’s love. But you know, sisters and brothers, even if we cannot recount a personal experience of God’s love, we can remember what is truly worth remembering in the Christian tradition that has been passed on to us – namely, that God has revealed God’s self though the inclusive love incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth. We can enter into the experience of that love any day, any time of day, because the God of love is still speaking and drawing us to God’s self

We also wait in hope. Sometimes, all we can do is wait for the music to start again and that is never easy. You walk in the convenient store at the gas station to get some milk late at night for your child. Everything else is closed. There is one check- out line, it is long, and the girl behind the counter is new and the scanner is not functioning properly. What do you do? What can you do? You wait.

The prophet finds himself in a place he could not avoid. We all do. At the end of his song of faith he says: “I wait quietly for the day of calamity to come upon the people who attack us.” (3:16b). He is looking for justice, for vindication, but he knows it is not going to be soon, so he must learn to wait. But you know, sisters and brothers, there is a lot we can do while we wait. Waiting is no excuse for inaction. There is no excuse for doing nothing when there are things we can do. The prophet has faith that a new day will come. He echoes that faith in 2:14 where he envisions a day when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” The glory of the Lord, as John’s Gospel makes clear, is the glory of divine love that extends to the whole world. The fulfillment of that hope seems a long way off sometimes. But as we wait for that day, we do all we can do to embody and express God’s love and help bring about its fulfillment.

The prophet closes his oracle with a beautiful expression of faith: “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights” (3:17-19).

Living in faithfulness to God and neighbor, loving God and loving others can be sustained by one, looking back in remembrance of God’s great love expressed in Jesus, and two, by looking forward to a time when God’s loving dream for the world will be fulfilled. As we remember and wait in hope, we join God in God’s healing and liberating work by loving others the way God loves all people, and the way Jesus showed us.

Our good God, help us to keep covenant with you, to trust you and be faithful to love and support one another in the midst of the heartaches and heartbreaks of life. When the music doesn’t play and when all we hear is silence, help us to courageously sing the song of faith anyway as we remember the ways you have revealed your love to us in Christ. Help us to have hope that no matter what injustice befalls us in due time you will make things right. Let us be faithful to embody and mirror your inclusive love. Amen.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

One Hell of a Story (A sermon from Luke 16:19-31)

The late Ken Chafin, who was a Baptist minister and professor and something of a statesman, tells about a friend in college who use to preach a lot in some of the small country churches not far from campus. Chafin would get a card from his friend saying something like: 35 saved in rival at the Mossy Bottom Baptist Church. Chafin thought that was pretty good since they only had about 25 members. This pricked his curiosity a little bit, so one evening he drove out to hear him preach. It was a Friday night and his friend’s sermon that evening was on the Great White Throne Judgment. His text came out of the book of Revelation. The preacher was in a white suit, white tie, white shirt, white belt, and even white shoes. He thundered from the pulpit that if you didn’t become white as snow through the blood of the lamb you would find yourself literally in one hell of a predicament, a hell of fire and brimstone. Chafin said that he didn’t think he was going to get home that night until the preacher was sure that all 52 people present had decided to purchase fire insurance.

When I was a teenager I remember a youth revival where the evangelist used this story from Luke to preach on hell. If I remember correctly he preached this message each night of the revival. Let me say very clearly, that is NOT what this story is about. Now, this story does have something to do with the afterlife, but this story is not about where you go when you die or what the afterlife will actually look like or be like. That’s not what this is about.

However, a major theme of the story that does indeed relate to the afterlife is the theme of vindication. This story is not really a parable like Jesus’ other parables, and it’s not unique to Jesus. This story is more of a fable or legend that made its rounds in the ancient world. It pops us in different forms in several different cultures. It can be found in slightly different forms in the writings of several ancient Jewish rabbis. Some scholars think it may have originated in Egypt. So Jesus is drawing upon a familiar legend and adapting it to teach what he wants to teach. And one of the things he wants to teach with this story is that there will be vindication for those who have had a really hard life.

Playing on the reversal theme that shows up in several places in Luke, the roles of the rich man and the poor man are reversed. The rich man ends up in misery, which is how the poor person lived his life on earth, whereas the poor man finds comfort by the side of Abraham. Abraham says to the rich man, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.” Their roles are reversed. The main point seems to be that the poor and the oppressed and the downtrodden will be vindicated in due time. There are folks who have been dealt in life a really bad hand. In fact, the whole deck of cards are stacked against them.

So, what I am saying that this story is saying is that God takes notice. The poor and forsaken are not forsaken by God. God will vindicate them. There is more to come. Wrongs will be made right. Justice will prevail. Love will win. The poor will not always be poor. Now, what will that look like in the next life? What form will that take? I have no idea. The point here is simply that God will make things right. I don’t know what that will look like, but God will make things right. By the way, historical scholars think this was the primary factor that led to Jewish belief in resurrection. For hundreds of years the Jews did not believe in an afterlife. Then, around the third or second centuries BCE belief in resurrection began to emerge, primarily as a way of vindicating righteous persons who had been wrongly killed. And it won the day. It became a popular belief, so that by the time of Jesus most Jews believed in resurrection, though some, like the Sadducees, did not. This story in Luke 16 is about vindication, so in that sense, it is about the afterlife, but only in that sense.

I think most of you know that I am a hopeful universalist. I am hopeful, though not certain, that in due time all people will be redeemed. But that doesn’t mean everyone walks in as is. What would an evil person do if the main thing in God’s world is about loving others? How would that work? If an evil person is not allowed to do any evil, how would that work? One’s heart has to change. This is why repentance is an important teaching of Jesus and a dominant theme in the Gospel of Luke. So, how does a person have a change of heart who has spent his or her entire life using and abusing and hurting others? How does that happen? I am guessing here, obviously, but maybe they have to learn what being hurt, being forgotten, being abused feels like before their heart can change. Maybe that has to happen somehow. I think we all understand to some degree the truth of tough love don’t we? Maybe a kind of role reversal is necessary in order for one’s heart to change. According to the Gospels, one of the most remembered sayings of Jesus, maybe the most frequent saying of Jesus is, “the first will be last, and the last will be first.” Now, I have no clue how that might actually work, but maybe that has to happen. The point here, however, is that there will be vindication. God takes notice of the downtrodden, and God will vindicate them. They have a future that is glorious even though they have been beaten down in life.

A related point this story makes, a point often made by Jesus through both his actions and his teachings, is that God gives special attention to the poor and downtrodden. This is why Jesus tells his disciples that when they host a dinner to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. These are the ones God takes special interest in, and so they should too. God loves everyone, but God gives special attention to the most vulnerable and the disadvantaged.

In one sense this story actually functions as an indictment on the huge disparity that can develop in societies between the rich and the poor. Much has been said about the 1 percent in this country controlling 45 percent of the income, while the number of people living in poverty is increasing at an alarming rate. And this story by Jesus paints that contrast in the most vivid, starkest colors. The rich man engages in conspicuous consumption. A lot of folks, and I suspect many Christians, would say that he is just enjoying his hard earned fortune. But that’s not how Jesus or Luke sees it is it? The rich man dines at the most expensive restaurants, he dresses in the finest clothes, his gated, luxurious estate is filled with every convenience. The impoverished man at his gate is covered in soars. He has no health care. Congress has cut his food stamps. He can’t even find an open soup kitchen to get a meal. The rich man is living in the lap of luxury while Lazarus is living in abject poverty.

Maybe you noticed this in the reading, maybe you didn’t, but the poor man is named in the story. We know the poor man by name as Lazarus. That’s a significant detail. The very ones who are no-names in society, God names, God gives special consideration and attention. On the other hand, the rich man, who on earth everyone would have known by name, the one who would have had place and position and name recognition has no name in the story.

Do you ever wonder how Christianity and the church got so far away from this? Think about it. Just look at the success of present day Christian ministries who actually teach just the opposite. But this has always been a problem in religion – using our religious faith to justify our wants. It was a problem in Jesus’ day. In Luke 16:14-15, a couple of paragraphs before the story of the rich man and Lazarus Luke says, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this (that is, they heard what I talked about last week, what Jesus said about not being able to serve God and money; that money is a rival god, and so forth), and they ridiculed him. (They didn’t like what they heard). So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.’”

How did they justify themselves? How would this rich man have justified living in conspicuous luxury while the poor man lived in abject poverty at his gate? How did the religious leaders justify their love for and accumulation of money? It wouldn’t have been all that difficult. In the Bible there are theologies and counter theologies. There are biblical texts that either directly teach or indirectly suggest that material wealth is the blessing of God and disease and impoverishment is the result of God’s judgment. It’s a terrible theology, but you can find it supported in the Bible, because the Bible is a human book after all. It’s not infallible, because human beings are not infallible. We get stuff wrong –a lot of stuff.

And this idea that riches and health and good fortune is the blessing of God was apparently a popular theology during the time of Jesus. Jesus’ own disciples seem to have been indoctrinated in this kind of theology and had to unlearn it. In John 9 when Jesus’ disciples stumble upon a man who was blind, they ask Jesus, “Did this man sin or his parents?” What kind of question is that? They assume his blindness was some form of divine punishment. If there were no biblical texts to support this bad theology Joel Osteen and those who share his views about money would not have the largest churches in America. They go to the Bible to support their bad theology and to justify their vast accumulation of money. That works well in America, and apparently in some other countries too.

The rich man could have appealed to this theology and these scriptures that promise wealth to the righteous and judgment on the unrighteous to justify his in-attention and do-nothing response to the poor man who was at his gate. He might have argued that if he tried to alleviate the man’s poverty or bring some relief to his suffering, he would have been interfering with God’s will. He could have found a number of scriptures to argue that point. There is some really bad theology in the Bible. But there is also some really great theology in the Bible, which reaches its pinnacle in the life and teachings of Jesus. And we can find this transformative theology all through scripture. For example Deut. 15:7-8 reads: “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of the towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.” That’s from the book of Deuteronomy, the very same book of the Bible that gives us the bad theology of blessing and cursing. We also find this counter transformative theology all through the prophets. Isaiah says: “Is not this the fast that I chose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free . . . ? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them  . . .” (58:6–7)  

So, bad theology and good theology, religious rationalizations for greed on the one hand, and commands to care for the poor on the other hand, are all part of our sacred tradition. What we need, sisters and brothers, is the wisdom to tell the difference between what is good and bad. If our heart is not ready to change, then the Bible alone won’t do it. If we have a sick heart, we will just use the Bible to justify our sickness. If we have a loving heart, then we will read and use the Bible in loving ways.

Another point I want to make that should give us all pause is this: The fate of the rich man is not tied so much to what he did, but what he didn’t do. It’s not what he did that is judged here. It’s what he didn’t do. So often the prophets announced judgment on those who exploited and took advantage of the poor. But here, the indictment against the rich man is not because of what he did to the poor man; it’s because of what he didn’t do. He didn’t come to his aid. He didn’t give him relief. Jesus seems to be saying that to do injustice one doesn’t have to directly exploit the poor. To do injustice one simply has to do nothing to alleviate their poverty. Sometimes when it comes to injustice, to be silent and say nothing, or to do nothing makes us just as guilty as those who commit the injustice. And this hits us all doesn’t it?

I am reminded of the man who rides a commuter train back and forth to work everyday. The train goes through an extremely impoverished section of the city. When the man first became aware of the desperate plight of the residents there he felt some compassion and thought about how he might invest some resources to help them. But then, you know, life happens. He got caught up in his work, in his family, in his daily routine and responsibilities, in his own agenda, the way we all do, the way I do right? So now when the train takes him by that section of the city, he pulls down the blinds.

That person is me. Maybe that person is you too. Maybe we are all that person. And one could argue quite legitimately, I think, that we have to do this on some level or we would be inundated with the suffering of the world, because there is so much suffering and poverty in the world. And there is some truth in that argument. We need to be careful, however, because it is so easy to excuse ourselves of our responsibility isn’t it? This is a kind of unresolved paradox we have to live with, because we have to find some balance.

There is one final point to be made. I remember the preacher years ago who preached this story in that youth revival being fixated on the fixed chasm separating Lazarus from the rich man.  Here’s my take on that: It’s fixed only as long as we allow it to be fixed. We can break through that chasm anytime. It opens from the inside. And the combination that unlocks the door will always involve some humility, some honesty, and some contrition about our lack of love. This is what opens our eyes and enlightens us to see. This is what will change us. We can do all sorts of religious stuff and sing Jesus songs all day and all night but unless we have some honesty, some humility, and some contrition about our lack of love and our need to be more loving, none of that will make one bit of difference. I don’t believe God ever shuts the door and locks it from the outside. If we are willing to walk the path of true repentance then the chasm collapses. God is like the shepherd and the woman in the parables of Luke 15. God searches until God finds and God never gives up. But we have to want to be found and we have to have a change of heart. That’s all inside work that God cannot force anyone to do.

God, we are so grateful, as Paul said so beautifully, that where sin abounds, grace does much more abound. There is nothing that can keep us from you, if we would only be humble and honest and contrite. O God, we fail daily and often come short of living out the values of Jesus. Thank you for being patient with us and forgiving us time and time again. Empower us and embolden us to do more, to open our eyes and see those who are hurting and afflicted around us. Help us to find constructive ways to help. In the name of Christ. Amen.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Lost and Found (A sermon from Luke 15:1-10)

 The fifteenth chapter of Luke has been called “the gospel within the gospel.” With the exception of the elder son, that which is lost is found. The lost sheep is returned to the flock, the lost coin is recovered by its owner, the lost son is restored to the father, and so there is good news all way around. We could say that God is better at finding than we are at getting lost and that is very good news, because we are pretty good at getting lost.

Robert Fulghum in his book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten tells about playing hide and seek in his neighborhood growing up. He says there was one kid who always hid too good. After a while they would give up trying to find him. Later, after they had quit the game he would show up and he would be upset. Fulghum writes, “There’s hiding and there’s finding, we’d say. And he’d say it was hide and seek not hide and give up, and we’d all yell about who made the rules and who cared about who, anyway, and how we wouldn’t play with him anymore if he didn’t get it straight and who needed him anyhow, and things like that.” Fulghum says that it didn’t matter what they said, sure enough, the next time they played hide and seek he would inevitably hide too good. Some of us are really good at hiding. We hide behind our position, our place, our pride, our possessions, and our privilege. Many of us hide from our true selves. We may be lost, and not even know it, which is true of the Pharisees and scribes in our text. .

Luke says that the tax collectors and sinners were coming to Jesus, and Jesus welcomes them and eats with them, and the Pharisees and scribes grumble and complain. Why do the Pharisees and scribes grumble and complain? Because Jesus is calling into question their worthiness system. Jesus is all about inclusion, Jesus practices an open table, while the religious leaders restrict and control access as a way of exercising power and control. They set the rules, and Jesus breaks the rules.

Now, when the Jewish leaders talk about “sinners” they are talking about people who, for whatever reason, do not heed their (the gatekeepers) application of Jewish law, especially the purity laws and the laws surrounding eating – what you eat, how you eat, and especially who you eat with. For the religious leaders of Jesus’ day the laws governing eating and table fellowship became a test case for who is “in” and who is “out.” Jesus defied such laws, which got him in a whole bunch of trouble with the Jewish leaders.

It’s easy for us to be judgmental and dismissive of the Pharisees and scribes here, but what we don’t realize is that many of us do the same sort of thing. I know I did for years, and maybe still do in ways that I don’t even realize. What the Pharisees and scribes did with the holiness code, the laws of purity, we do the same thing with our particular religious beliefs. I just can’t understand why so many Christians can’t see this, though, I have to admit, it took me some time to see it. The majority of Christians today believe that God only accepts Christians, that if you are not Christian you are excluded, you are not a child of God, and we have seen in our history and especially today how that breeds feelings of superiority and exceptionalism and elitism, and has done far more damage in our world than bring help and healing. Most churches still do missions and evangelism on the basis of an exclusionary Christianity. We think we have to get people of other religious faiths or of no faith to believe like we believe about Jesus, and God, and the Bible and so forth. And if they don’t share our religious beliefs, we say they are lost. We don’t realize that in many ways we are just as lost or even more lost than they are. But when the light comes on, we realize then that we are all in this together. In our most honest and insightful moments we realize that that we are all lost in some way and need to be found.

Fred Craddock reminisces about playing hide and seek as a child on the farm: “When my sister was ‘It,’ says Craddock, “she cheated.”  She would count, ‘One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, ninety-three, ninety-four.’ But Fred had a place under the steps of the porch. Because he was small he could get under there and never be found. He could hear his sister going to and fro, in the house, out of the house, in the weeds, in the trees, down to the corncrib, in the barn. He knew she wouldn’t find him. He would almost give himself away snickering to himself, “She’ll never find me here, she’ll never find me here.” Fred then says that it occurred to him that she would never find him. So after a while he would stick out a toe. His sister would walk by and see it and run back to base and say, ‘Ha ha, you’re it, you’re it.’ Fred would come out brushing himself off and say, ‘Oh shoot, you found me.’ Don’t we all want to be found?

Who can forget that scene where E.T. points his long, straggly finger toward the sky and says, “E.T. phone home.” It is a gripping image because we all identify in some way with E.T. We have all known that longing for home, the longing to feel that we belong, to be found by people who love us and miss us and want us to be with them. It is a poignant image of the spiritual longing in each one us because all our longings for home, for place, for a sense of security and belonging reflect this deeper longing for Love, which is actually a longing for God, even though we may not even know it or think of it as a longing for God at all. But it really is, because the essence of God is Love. As the Apostle John said, “God is Love.”

Do we want to be found? Do we want God or Love (with a capital L) to find us? The place where we are found, the place where we experience God’s love, is not just a one way street. In the postscript to both the story of the lost sheep and the story of the lost coin, where Luke is probably adding his interpretation, there is celebration in heaven over one sinner who repents. Everyone is welcome. No one is rejected or excluded. No one is turned away. But not everyone is found. There is the sinner who repents, but there is also mention of ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. Is that possible? Are there people who are so just, so righteous they need no repentance? Of course not. This is an allusion to the Jewish leaders who think they are righteous and need no repentance, but are just as lost, and maybe even more so, than the ones they labeled “sinners.” In fact, they are the hardest ones to find, because they (the Jewish leaders and those like them) are lost, but don’t think they are. Luke suggests that the finding requires some change, some effort, some recognition of our need and directional turn around on our part. Luke, and many other biblical writers, call this repentance.

Luke puts an emphasis on repentance throughout his Gospel. Luke’s Gospel begins with John the Baptist calling on all the people who came out in the desert to hear him to bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance. And at the end of the Gospel, the disciples are charged with preaching forgiveness of sins and repentance in the name of Christ to all people. Luke emphasizes “all people.” It’s proclaimed to all people because all are included. Unlike the Jewish leaders who divided people and labeled people “in” and “out” on the basis of their worthiness system, in God’s household, all are already in. Repentance is not necessary to get in. Repentance is necessary to experience what it means to be “in” and to live as God’s children in the world.

We can be found, or we can be like the ninety-nine and think we need no repentance. We can be like the elder son in the next story who refuses to join the party. In that story the Father welcomes the prodigal and throws him a party upon his return. But the elder brother refuses to join the party. The elder brother is bitter and angry and resentful. We know all about this kind of resentment today, because it is this kind of resentment that fuels our nation’s immigration policy and practice. It’s the resentment and bitterness of the elder son. But even the elder son is not “out.” I love what the Father says to the elder son. The Father goes out to persuade the elder son to join the party, just as the Father went out to welcome the returning prodigal. The Father says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life, he was lost and has been found.” The elder son is “in.” The elder son is loved. But if the elder son is to join the party, if the elder son is to experience the joy of the party, he will have to repent of his bitterness. He will have to let go of his sense of entitlement and superiority. He will have to turn from his resentment and anger toward his younger brother. He needs to repent, just as the younger brother needed to repent. We all do. You can be a Christian and be just as lost as anyone else. In fact, many Christians today are just as lost as the religious leaders in Jesus’ day. And they are the hardest ones for God to find, because they don’t think they are lost, and they are full of a sense of entitlement and full of resentment.

God’s love is like radio waves. God’s love goes out in all directions and falls upon all. But in order to receive God’s love, in order to experience God’s love in your heart and mind and soul, you have to be tuned in. The question is: What will it take for us to be tuned in? The specifics of that will vary, but it’s going to take some kind of change of heart. It may involve a change in the way we think and relate to God. When you consider what some Christians believe about God and think about God, it’s no wonder they never personally experience the love of God, because the God they believe in isn’t very loving. Other folks, in order to receive God’s love, may need to get some help with some destructive habits or addictions. Others may simply need to think of others more and engage in practices of kindness and generosity. Still others may need to learn to be more grateful. Repentance, change of heart and mind and will can take us in many different directions, but they all converge in the experience of God’s love. The end, the goal is the same – to know and experience and share God’s love. That’s the goal. Getting there may take us along different routes. But that’s the destination.

There was a young man who aspired to be the student of a particular Zen master who was widely known as a man of great compassion and spiritual wisdom. This young man is invited to an interview at the master’s house. The student wants to impress the master with his interest and desire and so he rambles on and on about his spiritual experiences, his past teachers, and his capacity for spiritual insight. The master listens silently while pouring a cup of tea. As the young man goes on and on, the spiritual master keeps pouring and soon the cup is overflowing. The would-be disciple notices the tea spilling all over the table. He cries out, “Master, the cup is full.” The teacher responds, “Yes, and so are you. How can I possibly teach you?” When we are full or ourselves, then there is no room for God’s love. When we are full of pride, or when we are full of prejudice, or resentment, or jealousy, or greed, or our own accomplishments or even our own failures, there is no room for God’s love to abide.

These stories invite us to see ourselves as lost in one way or another, and they assure us that God will not give up until God finds us. God doesn’t quit the game when we hide too good. But these stories also invite us to experience God’s love by sharing the heart of God, who loves all God’s children with an inclusive, magnanimous, unconditional, and eternal love. As the story of the Father and his two sons teach us, being found means joining the Father in the celebration of the prodigal’s return. In the story of the Father and his two sons, there was one son who was lost and needed to be found, and there was another son who was found who ended up being lost, because he refused to share the heart and joy of the Father over the son, his brother, who came home. Christians today, who cannot feel hurt for God’s children who are being oppressed or joy when they are liberated do not have God’s love. If a Christian or for that matter anyone does not feel compassion or grieved by the way the undocumented are being treated by our leaders and by others in this country, then that person does not know and has not experienced the love of God. Because God’s love is not restricted or exclusive. It is inclusive and extends to all.

Knowing God and experiencing God’s love means sharing the heart of God. It means allowing God to love in us and through us. Thomas Merton puts it this way:  “I who am without love cannot become love unless Love identifies me with Love’s Self. [God is love] But if God sends God’s own Love, God’s Self, to act and love in me and in all that I do, then I shall be transformed, I shall discover who I am and shall possess my true identity by losing myself in God [or we could say, in Love – capital L].” There are many persons, many Christians who really don’t know who they are or who God is, because they have never allowed God’s inclusive love to fill their lives.  

The shepherd in our story is willing to take a big risk. He leaves the sheep in the sheepfold without protection, putting himself at risk and leaving the remaining sheep at risk in order to find the one that is lost. That’s not logical. It’s not good shepherding. It’s not even good pastoral care. But the shepherd loves the lost one so much that he is willing to take the risk in order to find it. Do we share the Father’s love? Do we want to? Are we willing to leave ourselves vulnerable, are we willing to take a risk in order to share God’s inclusive love?

Our good God, let us not make the mistake when we read stories like this in thinking they do not apply to us, but to someone else. Help us to see, O God, that we are all lost in one way or another. And may we all long to be found in your love, to know and experience your love. But help us to realize, O God, that the only way we can really enter into the experience of your love is by sharing your love for all people. Our hearts may need to change for that to happen. Give us the want and will to do what we can do to open our lives to your compassion and love. Amen.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

When All Out Commitment Is Needed (Luke 14:25-33)

Well, here we go again. Another group of shocking sayings from Jesus. I should have took off this Sunday and let Dr. Bailey preach this text. Now, it should be obvious that when Jesus talks about hating father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even life itself, he doesn’t really mean what we mean when we employ the word “hate” in reference to an emotional or psychological state of being. But we, too, use the word in different ways. When I hear some “not so” good news, like when a marriage breaks up, or a job opportunity falls through, or I hear about someone being sick, I will say, “O, I hate that” meaning, “I wish it wasn’t so.” Scholars tell us that in the ancient Semitic context “hate” was frequently used figuratively the way Jesus uses it here, to speak of a decisive, radical kind of renouncement or subordination or detachment. Jesus is talking about a kind of commitment here that take precedence over all other commitments – even family.

This is not the first set of stringent demands made by Jesus with regard to discipleship. In Luke 9 Jesus calls a man to follow him, and the man says, “Let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus says, “Let the dead bury the dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another person Jesus calls says, “Let me first say farewell to those at my home.” And Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Now, once again, in the text today we face some hard sayings about discipleship.

Now, I personally think there are degrees of discipleship and levels of commitment, and we are not all called to the same degree or level of commitment, though all of us must be prepared for it. And I think we have to understand these sayings in the context of both Luke’s story/narrative and Jesus’ actual life. Keep in mind that Jesus knows he’s going to die and at this point in Luke’s narrative he has already told the disciples twice that he will undergo suffering from the powers that be and be killed. When Jesus first tells them he is going to suffer and be killed, he also tells them that they need to be prepared to die to. After he tells them a second time he is going to suffer and die, Luke says that the disciples did not understand what he was telling them. After, which, they argue about who is the greatest among them. The disciples are still in the dark, they still don’t understand the kind of kingdom Jesus has been proclaiming. And this is very contemporary. I’m convinced that there are many Christians today who have no clue regarding the kind of kingdom Jesus was about. I speak from experience. For the first part of my Christian life and ministry I had no clue either.

When Jesus talked about the kingdom of God they thought about the kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon when it was at the height of its power and glory. This is the kind of kingdom they envisioned the Messiah would usher in, either through human agency or by supernatural means. So when Jesus talks about his own suffering and death, this makes no sense to them. What they did not realize at this stage in their journey with Jesus is that God’s kingdom is really a kin-dom. It’s not like the kingdoms they were familiar with at all. God’s kingdom is about being the family of God and the focus is on how we live together as family, how we treat one another and care for one another and love one other. The kingdoms of the world operate by greed and force and violence and love of power. The kingdom of God is based on love of neighbor. It is grounded in an inclusive love that even includes love of enemy. It is a completely different kind of kingdom, an alternative kingdom. It is a kin-dom that is pervaded by love.

Now Jesus knows that if the kingdom of God is to make any headway at all, if it is to have any effect or influence in a world dominated by kingdoms that operate by a completely different set of values, then he will need help. Jesus is going to die. He needs disciples, he needs followers who will continue to embody and incarnate the values of God’s kingdom after he is gone. Historically, Jesus’ mission was about launching a movement that would spread the light of God’s kingdom of love in the midst of human kingdoms, which are centered more in power and egotism and greed than in love of neighbor. Jesus needed disciples who would accept this challenge. He still does. The Apostle Paul clearly understood this when he spoke of Jesus’ followers being the body of Christ in the world. And even though, at this point in the story, his disciples still don’t get it, he knows they will get it. Even though they still don’t understand, he knows that some will come to understand and some will get it, and when they do, it will require total commitment. He knows they will face the same obstacles and the same kind of opposition he faced. It will take complete dedication and commitment to the cause to spread the good news of God’s kingdom of love and grace and righteousness in the midst of kingdoms that operate by control and violence and greed.

So this is the context for the radical demands of discipleship that Jesus makes in Luke. Jesus needs some disciples who will be all-out and fully committed if his mission is to continue.  Family can’t stand in the way. Lands and houses and possessions and all earthly stuff can’t stand in the way. The task at hand is more important than anything else, even one’s own earthly life. Jesus feels that the future of God’s kingdom of love is at stake, so he is not hesitant in asking his followers to renounce everything. It’s that important.

Now, I know that we don’t live in the same cultural and historical context. We live in a different time and setting. But I think that all of us who claim Jesus is Lord must ask ourselves if we could make that kind of commitment if asked. Would you and I be willing to put the cause of God’s kingdom before family, before job, before pleasure, before everything else in life? And would we be willing to lay down our lives if necessary for the cause of love and justice in the world? These are the questions a text like this should cause us to ask.

This text is not about (these demands of discipleship are not about) what you have to do to experience God’s love. Let’s be clear on that. God’s love is universal and it is unconditional. God’s love falls on the world like rain drops. It falls indiscriminately on all. It is not based on any system of meritocracy. It is not determined by a system of reward and retribution. (However, I need to clarify – that doesn’t mean that reward and retribution doesn’t have a place at all in God’s kingdom. I personally think it does, but it’s not the main thing. I can imagine how reward and punishment might function on a level that furthers the cause of love, which is the main thing.) The main thing is God’s kingdom of love, which is so very different than the kingdoms most people live in and are governed by. Jesus needed followers who would continue what he started, who would continue to incarnate the amazing grace and inclusive love of God. And he still does. Jesus still needs followers committed to God’s cause. There are many Christians today who do not see this as their mission at all.

Yes, we live in a different time with a different set of circumstances, and we are not all called to go about spreading God’s inclusive love in the same way. But commitment is still needed. So what Jesus says about counting the cost, about calculating the time and energy and effort required is just as important today at it was then. Sometimes it’s the circumstances of our lives and the context of time and place, the context of where we live that shapes the nature of God’s calling to pursue God’s kingdom. Pursuing the kingdom of love can take many forms and shapes and can be lived out in a number of different ways. I can understand, for example, how a parent of a child killed in a school shooting would feel a calling to take up the cause of getting much needed legislation passed requiring mandatory background checks or banning military grade weapons from public purchase. I can understand how that person may feel completely called to give his or her life to this particular aspect of the kingdom of God.

There were those in the era of the civil rights struggle who felt called to give everything to that cause. Some completely gave their lives to the cause of ending segregation and getting legislation passed that would help bring about equality and justice in our society. And some did literally give up their lives. They were killed doing this good work. But you know, sisters and brother, every follower of Jesus should have supported that cause grounded in love of neighbor. I don’t mean that every disciple of Jesus had to be on the front line. But every follower of Jesus should have supported and spoke out for civil rights. Now, some were on the front line. Some had to renounce everything to be out there on the front line working for freedom and justice. We all have to search our hearts and see what we can do and what we feel called to do, but every follower of Jesus should have felt some call to commitment to that cause. There are some things, sisters and brothers, that are just clear and obvious.

Clarence Jordan, the Baptist minister who founded an interracial farm community in Americus, Georgia in 1942, even before the era of civil rights, understood this better than anyone. Their community was ridiculed and scorned and persecuted for their commitment to the inclusive love of God. Jordan called Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount the platform for the God movement, which is exactly what they are. And the God movement is not just a spiritual movement. It is a spiritual movement for sure, but it is also social, political, economical, and everything else. Jesus’ teachings on love of neighbor and how we are to treat others formed the basis of his movement and what he meant when he talked about the kingdom of God. What it means to love our neighbor as ourselves should be at the heart and center of every Christian community. But of course, today, it’s not, which just shows how far we have deviated from the movement of Jesus and from the kingdom of God as Jesus embodied it and envisioned it. Every Christian community, if it is serious about following Jesus, has to ask itself constantly: Do we live by and mirror the inclusive love of the kingdom of God? Living by the kingdom of God, living by the teaching of Jesus and the inclusive love of God calls for commitment.

Back in the day of the struggle for civil rights, Clarence Jordan put it this way, “I don’t know of anything that has caused me more real suffering and real anxiety than to see the Christian church sit in this great social revolution which is rocking the Southland, and our whole nation, as though nothing were transpiring, keeping God’s salt in a saltcellar that we call the sanctuary.” He tells about a preacher friend saying to him, “Clarence, we’ve just to lay low on this thing, and let it all blow over, and when it all blows over, then we can afford to take a stand on it.” Clarence asked him if he felt that way about all sin. He said, “Reverend, are you going to wait until sin just blows over and then hop up and say, ‘I’m against it. Glory be.’”

I honestly don’t think I could claim to be a follower of Jesus and not stand up and speak out against how we are treating the undocumented, immigrants, and people who are coming here seeking asylum in this country. My discipleship to Jesus calls for that much at the very least. Let me tell you what I think it means to be a committed disciple and a committed American. It means celebrating the freedoms we have, while at the same time standing against and speaking against the injustices that still pervade our land. Some people say, “America, love it or leave it,” but that’s not what they mean. What they mean is “America, obey it or leave it.” Love of country should never be equated with blind obedience. One of the great freedoms we should celebrate is the freedom we have to protest. I love the way William Sloan Coffin expresses this. He says there are “three kinds of patriots in America, two bad, and one good. The bad kind are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics.” He says “the good kind are the kind who carry on a lover’s quarrel with the country,” which mirrors God’s lover’s quarrel with the world. I believe it is our duty as disciples of Jesus to push for policies that support love of neighbor and protest those that don’t.

Our discipleship to Jesus is expressed in different ways, and certainly there are levels of commitment required. But if Jesus really is our Lord, then all of us must live out a commitment to do what we can do to express and spread an inclusive love of neighbor in our families, our church, our local community, our nation, and our world.

Our good God, help us to take our discipleship to Jesus seriously. Help us spread your inclusive love through the means we have available. And as we share together now in the bread and the cup, let us be ready to pour out our lives the way Jesus poured out his for the good of all people.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Crippling spirits and the liberating power of Christ (Luke 13:10-17)

The healing stories in our Gospels are never just about physical healing, they always have spiritual and theological meanings. The woman in our story had been plagued by a crippling spirit for eighteen years. It kept her bent over and unable to stand up. Can you see the fairly obvious symbolical and spiritual implications here? A crippling spirit of this kind can diminish our sense of worth and value. We find ourselves spiritually and emotionally and psychologically unable to stand straight and take our rightful place in the realm of God.

Jesus calls the woman he heals in our story a “daughter of Abraham.” A daughter of Abraham who has been bound by Satan eighteen long years. Satan here is a symbol for the crippling spirit, the spirit that has kept her from living life in its fullness in God’s kingdom. But she is still a daughter of Abraham. She is still a daughter of God. She is still God’s chosen. God’s beloved. Jesus sees through and beyond the crippling spirit. Can we?

According to a Greek legend Helen of Troy was kidnapped and whisked across the seas to a distant city where she suffered from amnesia. In time she escaped from her captors and became a prostitute on the streets. Back in her homeland, her friends refused to give up on her. One admiring adventurer who never lost faith set out on a journey to find her and bring her back. One day as he was wandering through the streets of a strange city he came across a prostitute who looked strangely familiar. When he asked her what her name was she responded with a name that he didn’t know. Then he asked if he could see her hands. He knew the lines of Helen’s hands. When he looked at her hands and realized who it was he exclaimed, “You are Helen! You are Helen of Troy!” “Helen” she replied. When she spoke her name, her true name, the fog began to clear and a sense of recognition registered on her face. She discovered her lost self. Immediately she discarded her old clothes and old life and became the queen she was called to be.

Do you know what your true name is? It is child of God. It is son of God or daughter of God. That’s who we are in our true self, the Christ self. The problem is that the true self gets hidden and buried underneath the false self. What we have to do is strip back the layers of the false self, so the true self can emerge. Then we will be able to straighten up and walk upright and learn how to love and to be loved.

Another kind of crippling spirit takes us in the opposite direction. We can be crippled by an inflated ego just as we can be crippled by a deflated one. We can be crippled be a spirit of arrogance and egotism. Most of us who are crippled by this spirit do not see ourselves as crippled at all. We think we have it all together. The Pharisees in our story represent those crippled by a spirit of arrogance and egotism. And too often it expresses itself through self-righteous attitudes and acts and does considerable harm to others. The Pharisees in our story today do not care that Jesus just liberated a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years. Their only concern was that Jesus did this good work on the Sabbath in violation of their interpretation of Sabbath law. “There are six days of the week when people can be cured of their ailments,” they say, “Do your healing then.” But did they really regard the law with such sacredness? Jesus points out their inconsistencies. He says, “Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?” “Does not each of you do common work on the Sabbath? Of course you, do.” “You hypocrites,” says Jesus. They don’t care about this crippled woman. They are offended because in their mind Jesus does not respect their place and position. They consider themselves to be gatekeepers. They set the rules. They determine who is in and out.

I think religious leaders today struggle with this as much as anyone, maybe even more so. A couple of weeks ago I had an aspiring religious leader comment on one of my social media posts. He is a doctoral student at Dallas Theological Seminary, a school that teaches biblical inerrancy and dispensationalism. He said my posts “sickened” him. He was determined to debate me and show me and my congregation (he wanted to show you folks) the foolishness of my faith. He wouldn’t let it go. He kept insisting that he had the truth, and he knew the truth, and he was sure that if I would just debate him he could expose my fallacies. I finally said to him, “I know all about the positions you hold. I used to hold those same positions.” I told him that I had earned my Masters degree from a school similar to the school he is attending, a school that taught, I assume still teaches, biblical inerrancy and dispensationalism. I informed him that I was back then very similar to the way he is now: I had the truth and I wanted everyone else to see and know the truth just the way I saw and knew it at the time. But I did tell him that I did not think I was quite as arrogant about it as he is. Certainly, I had a lot of ego invested in it that was expressed through self-righteousness. I still struggle with this from time to time. But this guy was just plum full of himself. He was severely crippled and didn’t know it.  

So how do we find healing and liberation from such crippling spirits as self-degradation on the one hand, and arrogance on the other? In the tradition I was taught faith was the way of salvation. But it was a rather mechanical understanding of faith that focused on beliefs. I was taught that if I just believe that Jesus died for my sins and if I confess Jesus as Lord I would be saved. But did that really save me? Did that really heal me, change me, transform me? Not at all. All it really did was put my ego back in charge. I felt that because I believed the right things, and made the right confession, and said the right prayer that gave me the right to be a child of God, to be forgiven all my sins, and to gain the promise of heaven. I felt I had done all the right things, and that made me God’s chosen over all the other people who didn’t know the truth. Richard Rohr says this about such a notion of faith (I have included the quote in your worship bulletin): “Such a mechanical notion of salvation frequently led to all the right religious words, without much indication of self-critical or culturally critical behavior. Usually, there was little removal of most ‘defects of character,’ and many Christians have remained thoroughly materialistic, warlike, selfish, racist, sexist, and greedy for power and money – while relying on ‘amazing grace’ to snatch them into heaven at the end. And it probably will! But they surely did not bring much heaven onto this earth to help the rest of us, nor did they speed up their own salvation into the present. Many ‘born agains’ have made Christianity laughable to much of the world.”

A mechanical notion of faith or salvation will not heal us and liberate us from our crippling spirits. What we need in order to experience authentic healing and liberation from our “defects of character,” from the forces that keep us crippled is a genuine encounter with God’s expansive, magnanimous, inclusive love. I wonder how many Christians who use “born again” language have actually had such an encounter. It can come to us in many ways if we are open to it and ready for it, but it certainly doesn’t just happen as a result of believing the right things. A mechanical notion of faith and salvation not only does not bring real healing and liberation, it may actually serve as a substitute that prevents us from having an encounter with Divine Love, which alone can change us. We think that if we believe the right things, do the right things, say the right things that we will be healed/saved. And yet all we have really done is create another system of meritocracy, another worthiness system similar to the one the Jewish leaders had created in Jesus’ day. It’s a system that fuels the ego and makes us feel superior. Then we send out missionaries to get people in other places to believe exactly what we believe so they can feel superior too. No real conversion happens.

Now, another way we go about this is that we substitute repentance for faith, which does, on the surface, seem to be an improvement. This works something like this: We tell people that they are sinners, that they should fear the judgment and punishment of God, but instead of insisting they believe the right things, we insist that they repent of their sins, and obey God. And on the surface it seems to work, at least at first, but then it quickly fizzles out or it just devolves into legalism, because it’s based on a worthiness system too. These two approaches have dominated American Christianity. Isn’t it obvious that two approaches haven’t worked? Look at the state of Christianity today both in our country and our world. As Richard Rohr has pointed out the majority of Christians in America are just as unchristian as everyone else – just as prejudiced, warlike, greedy, egotistical, and materialistic as everyone else. Both of these systems, one based on belief, the other on repentance haven’t worked, because love is dangled as the prize at the end. Both are systems of retribution and reward, and no system of retribution and reward really changes people. It functions pretty well at modifying behavior for varying periods of time. But it doesn’t bring about real transformation. Real healing and transformation occurs when our sin drives us into the loving arms of an Unconditional Lover from whom we have nothing to fear and who has loved us all along.

I can illustrate this from a beautiful story in Luke’s Gospel – the story of the prodigal. Actually, it’s more about the Father than the prodigal. You know this story. The son treats the Father with disdain. He requests his inheritance. Leaves home. And squanders every penny “in dissolute living.” He loses it all. This Jewish boy becomes so desperate that he hires himself out to a Gentile and goes to work feeding his pigs where we are told that if could he would “have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating.” That’s about as desperate as one can be isn’t it? So he makes a decision to eat crow, which is better than pig food, and return home. He decides he will make a confession to his father and ask to be treated as one of his father’s hired hands. Now, do you think the Son is really sorry at this point for the way he treated his father? I don’t get that impression in the story. One of the great things about the stories Jesus told is that they leave a lot of room for our imaginations and for the Spirit to work. I see nothing in the story that would suggest that at this point he is remorseful or sorrowful for hurting the Father. He seems to be just like the person who comes to God out of fear or guilt or social pressure or something else. There is no real desire to change. Just a desire to escape punishment. Or in the case of the prodigal to escape hunger and poverty and humiliation. Desperation sends him on his way back to the Father, but desperation doesn’t save him from his false self.

So what happens? Jesus or Luke describes it this way: “While he was still far off his Father saw him coming. [This implies that the Father has been waiting and watching constantly. The Father is up on the hill every day looking for his son.] The Father, filled with compassion, ran to meet him. He embraced him and kissed him.” This was all before the son spoke a single word. The Father expresses what the Father always felt – unconditional love for his son. Now, when the Son actually confesses to the Father he doesn’t do as he rehearsed. There is no mention of working as a hired hand. He drops that completely. Why? Apparently, now, having experienced the Father’s love, he feels no need to try to barter or squeak out a deal. What I think is that for maybe the first time he experiences the overwhelming, unconditional love of the Father and what flows out of that experience is true repentance. Repentance is the consequence of being loved, not the cause. God removes the barter system, the rewards and punishment system completely. In God’s system of grace, in contrast to systems of meritocracy, love precedes repentance and is the true cause of repentance.

In God’s system of grace genuine sorrow and regret over the hurt and harm we have done to others is never produced by guilt or fear of punishment. Fear, like desperation, may cause us to modify our behavior, but it cannot change our heart. But when, in our fear and desperation, we experience the unconditional love of God, then our heart changes. As John says in his first epistle, “There is no fear in love, and mature love cast out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, with retribution, and whoever fears,” says John, “has not reached maturity in love.”

We are all crippled to some degree and on some level. We all struggle with the ego. It may be a lack of value or self-worth that keeps us bent over, unable to walk tall and straight. Or it may be a spirit of arrogance and a sense of entitlement that leads us to think of ourselves as better or superior or even more blessed than others. Either way we are crippled by our ego. Some of us are more crippled than others. Some of us less. But we are all in need of healing and liberation on some level. Now sisters and brothers, healing will come, liberation will come, authentic conversion and true repentance will come about, not through guilt or fear of punishment or law keeping or social pressure or believing the right things or just modifying our behavior– it will only come about when we experience for ourselves God’s eternal, God’s immense, God’s magnanimous, God’s unconditional, God’s inclusive love.

O God, let our hearts and minds be open so we can see and understand why no system of reward and retribution can ever really change our hearts and minds. Let us be open to the experience of your great love. For only then can we begin to love others the way you love every single one of us.