Monday, February 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 12, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 5, 2017

What does it mean to be spiritual? (a sermon from 1 Cor. 2:1-16 and Matt. 5:13-16)

What does it mean to be spiritual? There is, of course, no one answer to that question. Such a question doesn’t solicit an answer like, “What is 2 plus 2?”  Our text raises the question today because Paul writes about being spiritual and being unspiritual. Based on Paul’s words here and the text in Matthew I can say three things about a healthy spirituality. Now, what I have to say is not any more exhaustive than what Paul says to the Corinthians is exhaustive. So, what can we say about being spiritual by looking at these two texts.

The first thing I would like to say about being spiritual, is that authentic, healthy spirituality is rooted in gratitude. Paul writes, “Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God” (2:12). I think anyone who is spiritual, anyone who is being led by the Spirit understands that all of life is a gift, that we are alive because of the generosity and goodness of God.

I’m sure I have told you about the monastery where all the brothers took a disciplined vow of total silence. They were not ever to speak a word in their journey of obedience.  There was, however, one exception.  Once every five years, they were allowed to speak two words to the Abbot who headed the order. A new monk arrived at the monastery to begin his service.  After five years, he went into the Abbot’s office to speak his two words.  The words he spoke were, “Food bad!” He then got up from his chair and left.  Five years later, he returned to speak again.  This time, his two words were, “Bed hard!”  After another five years, he returned for a third time. This time his two words were, “Want out!”  The Abbot responded, “I’m not surprised, all you’ve done since you’ve been here is complain.”

That is what we do when we lose sight of the beauty and goodness of life. And sometimes life is hard and finding beauty and goodness may be a difficult work. Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr. said once to his congregation that his mother had taught him to always give thanks to God for what is left. Everything can go wrong, but if you are left with air to breathe, be thankful. Some years later, after he had lost two sons, and his own wife had been shot to death right before his eyes at the organ in Ebenezer Church in Atlanta, Dr. King was saying the same thing, “Thank God for what is left.”

When we lose a dear loved one or friend or something of great importance to us we can allow that loss to make us bitter and angry, or we can choose to be grateful for what time we did have with our loved ones and friends. We can be thankful for what is left. Even with all its pain and disappointment and grief, we can be thankful for life, knowing that there is both pain and joy.  

The second thing I draw from these texts about the spiritual life is that community is essential to a spiritual life. If the spiritual life is rooted in gratitude, it is developed or nurtured in community. When Paul says that the Spirit enables us to understand and receive the gifts bestowed on us by God, the “gifts” that Paul is particularly talking about are the gifts he mentions in chapter 12 of his letter – gifts that build and enhance community life. Paul primarily has in mind the contributions the various members of the church community make to the overall good and well-being of the community. And the gifts he does mention in chapter 12 are by no means exhaustive. They are simply representative of the kind of gifts God gives to a church community so that the church community can be about God’s will.

Being spiritual is always about more than my own spirituality. A couple of years ago I was doing some research on this topic and I came across the SBNR (Spiritual, but Not Religious) website. I read on the home page: serves the global population of individuals who walk a spiritual path outside traditional religion. But then as I looked closer I noticed that the last posting was dated June, 2012. It looked to me like the site had been started and then abandoned, which, I think, illustrates the problem being spiritual, but not religious. Healthy, transformative spirituality is hard to sustain and practice without a faith community. I believe we need the encouragement and the challenges that spiritual relationships give us. We learn from one another.

Stephanie Paulsell teaches at Harvard Divinity School and writes for The Christian Century. A few years ago she gave a presentation at Georgetown College and in her presentation she shared how she was mentored by an Episcopal priest at the University Church where she attended graduate school. She assisted him at the altar on Sundays as they celebrated the Eucharist. After several weeks of assisting, the priest asked her to take a turn as celebrant, to actually lead the Eucharist (what we call Communion).

She loved what the priest did at the altar on Sundays - she thought it was beautiful and mysterious – but she had grown up in a different tradition with a very different ritual of Communion, and so she had some real reservations. She thanked the priest for the invitation, but said, “I don’t know if I should lead this ritual, because I don’t really know what it means.” The priest said, “Oh, we don’t do this because we know what it means. We do this in order to find out what it means.”

I love that response. The priest is saying, “We don’t have all the answers. We are learning together. We are on a journey and we are learning from one another.”

Rabbi David Wolpe wrote in an article for TIME: “To be spiritual but not religious confines your devotional life to feeling good. If we have learned one thing about human nature, however, it is that people’s internal sense of goodness does not always match their behavior. To know whether your actions are good, a window is a more effective tool than a mirror.” A healthy faith community can provide a window. Rabbi Wolpe says, “Together is harder, but together is better.”

So a spiritual life is rooted in gratitude, it is developed and nurtured in community, and lastly, it is expressed through works of mercy and justice. I am glad the lectionary paired this passage in Corinthians with the passage in Matthew where we are called to be salt and light. Being spiritual is not about being spiritual. What I mean is that the goal is not to be spiritual. We are not called simply to be spiritual, we are called to be servants in God’s kingdom. Our spirituality determines what kind of servants we will be. Even narcissists and tyrants are servants – they serve themselves. Jesus says that we are called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

Salt had multiple uses in the ancient world and so the image conveys multiple layers of meaning. Salt was used to represent loyalty and fidelity and hence we read of salt covenants. Salt was utilized in the ceremony to symbolize commitment. Eating together was called “sharing salt” and it expressed binding relationships. Salt was used as a means of seasoning food, giving it spice and flavor. And it was used to preserve meat. A preacher could preach a whole sermon on what it means to be the salt of the earth.

We are also called to be the light of the world. We are called to be a lighted city on a hill. Jesus says, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” And what are these good works? They are the works of mercy and justice we talked about last week. One NT interpreter points out that with these images – salt and light and a city on a hill – Jesus “strikes a death blow to all religion (or we could say spirituality) that is purely personal and private.” If we are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world then we can’t keep our spirituality to ourselves.

In his book, It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It Robert Fulghum tells about the remarkable work done by a remarkable man named Alexander Papaderos. He leads an institute that is devoted to healing the wounds left by war. The institute was built on land where the Germans and Cretans killed each other in the conflict that was WWII. At the wars end this man came to believe that the Germans and Cretans had much to give to one another and learn from one another. He believed that if they could forgive each other and construct a creative relationship, then any people could – they could be salt and light, they could be a city set on a hill.

Fulghum attended a seminar at that institute led by Dr. Papaderos. At the end of the seminar, Dr. Papaderos invited questions. The seminar, says Fulghum, had generated enough questions for a lifetime, but in the final moments there was only silence. So Fulghum decided to break the silence, “Dr. Padaderos,” he asked, “what is the meaning of life?” Laughter followed as the participants stirred to go. But Dr. Papaderos took the question seriously. He held up his hand and stilled the room. He took out his wallet and brought out a very small mirror, about the size of a quarter.

He explained that when he was a small child, during the war, his family lived in a remote village and they were very poor. One day, on the road, he found the broken pieces of a mirror. A German motorcycle had wrecked in that place. He tried to find all the pieces and put it together, but that, of course, was not possible. So he kept the largest piece. By scratching it on a stone, he smoothed the edges and rounded it off. He began to play with it as a toy and was fascinated that he could reflect light into dark places where the sun did not shine — into deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for him to get/reflect light into the darkest, most inaccessible places he could find.

As he grew up, he realized that the game he played with the mirror as a child wasn’t really a game at all, it was a metaphor for what life was calling him to do. He realized that he was not the source of light, but that the light of truth and understanding, the light of forgiveness and peace, the light of mercy and justice would only shine into the dark places if he could somehow reflect it.

He said to Fulghum, “I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of the world — into the black places in the hearts of people — and change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about.”

This is what we too are about. We do not generate the light, we are not the source of the light, but the light is what sustains our very life. It is the light of God and when we engage in works of mercy and justice we allow the light to shine through us, to illuminate the love of God in the world.

The purpose of lighting a lamp and putting it on a lampstand, says Jesus, is so the light can give light to everyone in the house. When the divine love is allowed to flow freely in and through us, then we function as salt and light. As salt and light we will be faithful to our covenants and commitments. We will add spice and flare to our communities. We live out and preserve the values and virtues of Jesus. We will light up our workplace, our homes, our relationships with the love of God. We will form communities of salt and light where all people are accepted and welcomed, where words and works of mercy and justice are spoken and accomplished. 

When you think about it, the question is not, Are we spiritual? We are in a sense all spiritual. We are all spiritual beings and we manifest in our lives and relationships, through our words and deeds, some kind of spirituality. It can be a God-like spirituality that is life affirming or a demonic kind that is life diminishing. The real issue is: What kind of spirituality is it? If we are learning from Jesus, then it is the kind that will make us the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  

I believe a healthy, authentic, and transformative spirituality will be rooted in gratitude; it will be developed and nurtured in community; and it will be expressed through works of mercy and justice. Given these components – on the basis of these criteria – how would you rate your spirituality?

Our good God, help us to see that we are all spiritual beings, that there is no opting out of spirituality, that we all express some kind of spirituality. May ours be of the kind that helps and heals others, rather than hurts and alienates others. May ours be of the kind that is liberating and transforming, not enslaving and debilitating. May ours form Christ in us. Amen.

Monday, January 30, 2017

What Does God Require? (a sermon from Matt. 5:1-12 and Micah 6:1-8)

Biblical interpreters call this passage in Micah a lawsuit oracle. It is a proclamation of indictment or judgment against the covenant people, most likely the leaders of Israel toward the end of the eighth century BCE. The prophet rails against religion that is awash in liturgy and ritual, but devoid of substance. When we turn this in on ourselves the truth of it is that we might never miss a worship service, we might give a full tithe of our income to the church, we might serve in various capacities within the church structure and organization, and still, we might completely miss doing God’s will.

What is God’s will? How does true religion express itself? Micah is quite explicit. O mortal, cries the prophet, what is good? What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.

The three things Micah highlights that God requires are mentioned specifically in three of the beatitudes in Matthew 5. One could easily make the case that all the beatitudes relate to the three areas Micah addresses. Last week from Matthew’s reading we noted that Matthew has summarized Jesus’ message as a proclamation of God’s kingdom. In the Sermon on the Mount that follows Matthew shows us what is most central to Jesus and the kingdom he proclaimed. So what does God require? Let’s start at the end of Micah’s list and work backward. What does it mean to walk humbly with God? Micah doesn’t mention walking humbly with one another but surely that is implied. The beatitude that speaks to this specifically says: Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Notice too that the promise relates to this earth, not heaven. Later in the Sermon Jesus will teach us to pray: Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. God is concerned about this earth; heaven is in great shape. Heaven is doing fine. The earth – not so much.

So what is meekness? Meekness is not weakness. Jesus exercised a lot of personal charisma and authority, but he did not use his personal power and authority for personal gain or acclamation. He never attempted to coerce or force others to yield to God. And he emptied himself of all personal ambition. To be meek is be humble, it is to have a healthy view of oneself. Being humble is not about self-loathing or denigrating one’s self. It is not about walking around crying, “Woe is me, I am a great sinner.” You may be a great sinner, I may be a great sinner, but we are still children of God, created in God’s image, whom God loves with an eternal love. We need to remember that in our creation stories original blessing is more important and comes before original sin.

Meekness is not weakness, and humility is not timidity. In fact, it takes great courage to constrain ourselves from responding to violence with violence as Jesus taught us. Jesus relinquished all claims to worldly power, but he certainly wasn’t powerless. He relied upon a different kind of power – the power of Spirit, the power of love. It was the Spirit of Love that compelled Jesus to confront and challenge the religious and social powers of his day with the spiritual reality and a future vision of a kin-dom of mercy and justice.

You can always tell a humble person by the way their presence puts you at ease. In Matthew 11 Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” When you are in the presence of a humble person you feel at ease. It doesn’t matter what position or place that person occupies in society, high or low, you feel totally at ease, you feel at rest in their presence.

I read some years ago where Rolling Stone magazine interviewed Scott Weiland of the band, “The Stone Temple Pilots.” This was just after he had been released from prison, having served a term for drug possession. In the interview he kept using the word “humility.” The reporter asked him to define the term. Scott Weiland said, “It’s not me thinking less of myself. It’s me thinking of myself less.” I love that explanation. Humility means I am less self-absorbed so I can be about in a healthy, life-affirming way what is really important? The next two items on Micah’s list tell us what is really important: to love mercy and to do justice.

The beatitude that parallels the call to love mercy says: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” They receive mercy because their heart are open to God and the needs of others. One biblical scholar interprets mercy as “compassion in action.” It’s not just feeling sympathy or empathy for others. And while feeling sympathy and especially empathy are good things, mercy is about more than feeling for others, it’s about doing for others. When the blind cry out to Jesus in Matthew 20:30, “Son of David, have mercy on us,” they are not asking for sympathy or even empathy; they want healing. Mercy is action based.

I read in the news about an act of mercy by a number of plumbers last weekend who went to Flint, Michigan to install water filters. All the facets in Flint need water filters because of the lead in the drinking water. Plumbing Manufacturers International donated the faucets, and over 300 plumbers across the country poured into Flint to donate their time and skill. They were able to replace faucets and filters in over 800 homes. This was a corporate or collective or act of mercy. An act of mercy can be an individual act or it can be a collective, communal act, but it always involves some sacrifice extended for the benefit of others.

How important are such acts of kindness and mercy to those in need? In the judgment parable of Matthew 25, acts of mercy constitute the basis of judgment. Those who are judged are judged on the basis of how they acted and treated the most vulnerable among them, the ones Matthew calls “the least of these.” In fact, in responding to the needs of the most vulnerable they were actually responding to the cosmic Christ. The cosmic Christ says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” The Christ so intimately identifies with the vulnerable of the world that to care for them is to care for Christ.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing in the text about what one believes. Nothing. It’s all about what one does. In fact, when you get to the end of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says in 7:21, “Not every who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” According to Matthew it’s not what we believe or confess, but what we do that matters.

This brings me to the first thing on Micah’s list of what God requires: to do justice. The corresponding beatitude reads: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” The word translated “righteousness” can also be translated “justice.” This is not a beatitude about personal righteousness; it’s about restorative justice or social justice. Restorative justice is not about what is legal; it is not about satisfying some demand of the law. It’s not about someone getting what he or she deserves. Rather, it is about establishing systems and structures in society that are fair, just, and good. According to Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, justice or righteousness has to do with actions that improve and maintain well-being in the community, particularly those actions that give special consideration and show special attentiveness to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.

The Hebrew prophets railed against religious and political leaders who spurned justice, but yet were very pious and religious. For example in Isaiah 1 the prophet tells the people of Israel that God rejects all their sacrificial offerings and rituals and expressions of worship. God doesn’t delight in any of your worship, says the prophet. Then he tells them what God requires: “seek justice, (then he spells out what it means to seek justice), rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” That’s what justice looked like in that day and time. The prophet says, “If you want to please God, then take up the cause of the oppressed and the most vulnerable in your society.” In that day and time that generally included three groups: widows, orphans, and foreigners (undocumented persons, immigrants).

Justice and mercy go hand-in-hand but it’s important to understand the difference, because mercy is not enough. Some of us are real good when it comes to mercy, but not so much when it comes to justice. Whereas mercy responds to the immediate needs of the homeless and the poor by offering shelter and food, justice confronts the systems we live in that create homelessness and poverty in the first place. While mercy is about giving a hungry person some bread, social justice is about trying to change the system so that no one has excess bread while some have none. Mercy is about helping the victims of war; justice is about peacemaking and eliminating the conditions that lead to war. The work of justice tackles such issues as poverty, inequality, war, racism, sexism, materialism, nationalism, heath care, violence, immigration, and the environment. Workers and advocates for justice often find themselves at odds with huge, blind economic, political, social, and religious systems that dis-privilege some while they unduly privilege others—systems, by the way, we each live in and are all complicit in – which of course complicates the struggle.

Bob Riley, a conservative, was elected governor of Alabama in 2002. He discovered that Alabama’s tax code had not been changed since 1901. He pointed out that the wealthiest Alabamians paid three percent of their income in taxes while the poorest paid up to twelve percent. Out-of-state timber companies paid only $1.25 per acre in property taxes. Alabama was third from the bottom of all states in total taxes, and almost all of that came from sales taxes, which of course, are paid in higher proportion by people who need to spend most of their income on basic needs. So a totally unjust tax system. So Governor Riley proposed a tax hike, partly to dig the state out of its fiscal crisis and partly to bring more money into the state’s school system. He argued that it was their Christian responsibility to attend to the needs of the poor more carefully. This meant that wealthy Alabamians would have to pay more taxes. The leader of the Christian Coalition of Alabama spearheaded the opposition. He said, “You’ll find most Alabamians have got a charitable heart. They just don’t want it coming out of their pockets.” The law was defeated and the schools remained underfunded. What Bob Riley attempted to do, but failed to accomplish was bring about justice. He was seeking justice in their tax system. Do you see the difference? Every act of justice is an act of mercy, but not every act of mercy is an act of justice.

The work toward social or restorative justice is rooted in the awareness that all people have worth and dignity – that God loves the whole wide world, not just my little part of it. It is difficult work. Ask Congressman John Lewis and he will tell you how challenging it is. He endured much suffering in the struggle for civil rights. In his book, Across that Bridge, he writes, “The struggles of humanity will not be corrected in a day, a week, a year, or even in a generation. Those of us who are active participants in the struggle must recognize that we are part of a long line of activists who have come before. . . . Each individual participates in this conflict where he or she is actively or passively engaged. The divine spark that is resident in each of us challenges us to be the light and stand up for what is right. We can decide whether to obey the call of the spirit or abide in denial, confusion, or hostility to the truth. But once we have heard the voice calling us to act, we cannot rest until we do something. And it is when we find the courage to act on that calling that we can finally begin to find peace.”  And I would add not just peace in our world between alienated groups and nations, but peace in our own hearts. A deep, true peace, not a shallow, superficial one.

What does God require? Both the prophet Micah and Jesus are clear: To walk in humility before God, to engage in acts of mercy, and the most difficult, but maybe the most important, to work for the justice of all. And sisters and brothers, this is not baseball. We shouldn’t think God will be pleased if we get two out of three.

These three areas of divine will delineated by Micah form a triangle and if you remove one of the sides it is no longer a triangle. If we point the triangle straight up and then fill in all around it we have a pyramid. Of the pyramid the base is the critical part because it supports the rest of the structure. I have no doubt that from the divine vantage point the base has to be built out of social justice, because it’s the only way we could ever get a just society. I’m sure that’s why the prophets over and over and over again proclaim the need for social justice. So what does God require? First of all – to do justice and then to do mercy and walk humbly with God and everyone else.

Our good and gracious God, help us to see that being a disciple of Jesus calls us to look beyond ourselves, beyond our own good and well-being to embrace your love and passion for the good of others. May we realize that we are all in this together, that no one group is better than another group. Inspire us to sees the good of others and to act in mercy toward those in need. And empower us not to give up on the difficult work of confronting systems and structures, institutions and organizations that promote favoritism and exclusion. Give us the courage to challenge systems of injustice and to work for that which is good, right, fair, and just.

Monday, January 23, 2017

A Good Conversion (a sermon from Matthew 4:12-23)

In our Gospel text today Matthew pictures Jesus as a great light offering hope and direction to those dwelling in darkness. Matthew gives us a one sentence summary of the message he proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The alternate reading given in the footnote is, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” It can be rendered either way.

Some interpreters picture Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet announcing the imminent arrival of God’s new world of peace and restorative justice. The Hebrew prophets spoke of such a world poetically. Isaiah prophesied of a time when the one to come would establish a kingdom of “endless peace . . . with justice and with righteousness.” It would be a time when all the peoples “would beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Some interpreters understand Jesus to be announcing the soon coming or imminent arrival of God’s new age of peace and justice.

Other interpreters read this differently. They see Jesus as more of a mystic than an apocalyptic prophet. For these interpreters the kingdom or rule of God Jesus is announcing is not the future kingdom of peace and justice, but the dynamic rule and presence of God that is already here. They emphasize that the kingdom is a spiritual reality that one experiences and lives in now by faithfully assimilating and embodying the values and virtues of Jesus.

Personally, I don’t make the distinction. I see no reason to choose one over the other. I see Jesus as both prophet and mystic. As prophet Jesus speaks truth to power, and as mystic Jesus teaches people how to know God. As both prophet and mystic Jesus speaks God’s truth and reveals God’s love. On the one hand, I believe that God’s dream for the world is a world of justice and peace. A world of equity and equality. A world where all have enough not just to survive, but to thrive. A world where people of different religion and tradition and nationality live in peace, supporting, caring, helping, and loving one another.

I also believe that the presence and will of God is being done right now by people who are awake and sensitive to the Spirit of God who is at work in our world and in our lives right now. So, in one sense God’s vision for a just and peaceful world is yet to be fully realized. But on the other hand, God’s Presence fills the world and is actively engaged in our world drawing us into participation to work for a just world.

So what is our part in all of this? Our part is to be open and receptive and obedient to God’s Presence (to God’s Spirit, to the living Christ) who is in us and among us so that we can be God’s agents and instruments in doing God’s will right now and in working toward the realization of God’s dream of a just world. Our part is to surrender to God’s will and engage the world as God’s image bearers. Our part is to yield to Divine Love and Mercy and work for the good of all God’s children. God works in our lives and through our lives so that God can bring peace and justice to the world. God works through committed willing human beings. The call to repent is a summary of Jesus’ call to participate in this great work of worldly redemption and renewal – of our personal lives, relationships, communities, and all the structures and systems of society at large.

The call to repent is a call to change. And what do we need to change? Well, we need to change our minds and hearts in any number of ways so that we have a larger, truer, understanding of and commitment to what is really important – to what God wants done. This may involve a change in our priorities so that we are not just focused on our own glory or position or place or piece of the pie, so that we are free to nurture loving relationships, give help and show kindness to others, and act in compassion and mercy. When Jesus calls the fishermen and says, “Follow me and I will teach you how to fish for people,” he is inviting them to participate in a great story and great work that involves fishing for people, that is, catching people up in the great net of God’s love; winning people over to the side of love and goodness and mercy and justice. This is what the Christ is calling us to do as well. Christ is calling us to a work of healing and liberation – of making people whole and freeing people to love. He is calling us to invest in relationships so we can build up one another and advance the common good together.

We need to realize that the invitation to participate in God’s will on earth is an invitation to participate in something that is large and great and wonderful, but it challenges many of our biases and prejudices and our cultural conditioning. It challenges our egocentricity and basic selfishness. It challenges our narrowness and greed. It challenges our consumerism and materialism and nationalism. It challenges everything that is an obstacle to love, because the call to participate in God’s will is a call to love – to love better and to love broader.

We all have this desire to love within us, but we need to tap into it and allow God’s Spirit to enlarge it and spread it around. John Philip Newell tells about the time his wife and son and son-in-law were at the international airport in Glasgow when a terrorist attack occurred. His son-in-law Mark had taken Ali, his wife, and Cameron, their youngest son to the airport. As they were inside the terminal making their way toward the ticket counter, suddenly in front of them hundreds of people came running in the opposite direction. A jeep packed with explosives had just driven through the front window of the terminal and burst into flames. As soon as they caught sight of the jeep and spotted one of the terrorists on fire Mark yelled, “Drop your bags. Run.” Fortunately, the explosives did not detonate. Later when Mark, their son-in-law recounted what was going through his mind at that time he said, “I was listening for the moment of explosion. I was trying to decide when to throw myself over Cameron.” He was prepared to give up his life to save Cameron.

John Philip Newell says that Mark said this not in any way trying to make himself look good, but simply as a straightforward, honest account of what he was thinking. And though his son-in-law does not claim to be religious, Dr. Newell says that this touched him as an expression of the heart of God. And what a contrast between the sacrifice his son-in-law was willing to make and the sacrifice of the terrorists. The terrorists had a twisted concept of love. There God was a God who only loved a certain kind of people and wanted to destroy everyone else. The terrorists were willing to die for their distorted, hate-filled cause in order to achieve a reward in the afterlife. Mark was simply acting out of a love that looked beyond himself. Authentic conversion is about nurturing and developing this desire to love that is within all of us.

I define religious conversion as the divine-human process that transforms one into a more loving person. I define Christian conversion as the divine-human process that transforms a person into someone who loves like Jesus. The only difference between religious conversion in general and Christian conversion in particular is that Jesus is our reference point and goal. We Christians see in the life of Jesus a definitive revelation of God’s love. So our goal is to love like Jesus. But any good, genuine conversion is always about nurturing and developing our human capacity to love. A good conversion is about loving better and loving broader.

By loving better, I mean that we are able to love the people we already love with greater intensity and passion and sacrifice and loyalty. By loving broader, I mean that we are able to extend and expand our love beyond our little circle of family and friends or our kind of people. This is hinted at in our text. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Jesus goes to the “Galilee of the Gentiles” to preach the gospel of the kingdom of God. Gentiles make it into the genealogy of Jesus in chapter 1 and in chapter 2 Gentiles described as magi from the east come bearing gifts to the infant Jesus. Though Jesus’ primary ministry was to his own people and nation, it is clear that he did not exclude others. He intended his people to love outside their limited boundaries. So when we come to the end of Matthew’s story the risen Christ charges the disciples to take the good news to all nations and peoples.

A powerful illustration of what it means to love broader comes from an experience Will Campbell recounts in his autobiography, Brother to a Dragonfly. His friend, civil rights worker Jonathan Daniels, had just been gunned down in cold blood by volunteer Deputy Sheriff Thomas Coleman. Will was livid with grief and rage over Jonathan’s murder.

In the aftermath of that tragic event Will’s agnostic friend P.D. East reminded Will of a conversation they had years earlier. In that conversation P.D. had challenged Will to give him a definition of the Christian faith in ten words or less. What would you say? Here’s how Will defined it: We are all bastards, but God loves us anyway. That’s what he said to his agnostic friend. Now his friend decided to challenge Will’s succinct definition of the gospel. P.D. tore into Will: “Was Jonathan a bastard?” he asked. Will commented on how Jonathan was one of the sweetest, most gentle guys he had ever known. P.D. pressed him. His tone almost a scream: “But was he a bastard?” Will knew that P.D. had him cornered. So Will finally conceded. “Yes,” he said.  P.D. came firing back: “All right. Is Thomas Coleman a bastard?” (the one who killed his friend Jonathan) That was easy. “Yes, Thomas Coleman is a bastard,” said Will. P.D. said: “Okay, let me get this straight . . . Jonathan Daniels was a bastard. Thomas Colman is a bastard. . . . Which of these two bastards do you think God loves the most? Does God love that little dead bastard Jonathan the most? Or does God love the living bastard Thomas the most?” Will says that the truth of the gospel hit him with conversion force. Will was overcome with emotion. He found himself weeping and laughing simultaneously. Will says to P.D.: “Damn, brother, if you haven’t went and made a Christian out of me.”

What was Will saying when he said, “Damn, brother, if you haven’t went and made a Christian out of me.” He was saying to P.D, “You have helped me to see what it means to love like Jesus. You have helped me see how deep and wide, how better and broad is the love of God. God’s love even extends to those who have nurtured hate instead of love. It extends to murderers and terrorists. To those driven by their prejudices and biases. God doesn’t give up on any one. God keeps reaching out to all of us – to turn us away from our hate and greed and egotism. God keeps trying to convert us, to win us over to love and grace and compassion. God keeps fishing for people hoping to catch some with the net of divine love, and God calls us to go fishing too. We are the lures God uses to draw people into his net of love. Follow me, says Jesus to every would-be disciple, and I will teach you how to catch people with love.

The gospel of the kingdom is a gospel that challenges those of us on the left and on the right. For those on the left the temptation is to make the gospel mainly about social causes. And don’t hear this as me demeaning or downplaying social causes because work for restorative justice and equality is a vital part of the gospel of the kingdom. But it’s also more than that. It may be a lot easier to invest in some social cause than it is to love well the people right in front of us, especially those who are against our cause.

For those on the right the temptation is to make the gospel about some judicial arrangement to magically remit the penalty of our sins and offer heaven in its place. If that’s all the gospel is then why even worry about the hard task of loving others and working for the common good? Why even worry about justice for the downtrodden or lifting up the oppressed, if the gospel is just about believing the right things and going to heaven when we die. I do not doubt that we will go to heaven when we die, but that’s not what the gospel of the kingdom is.

The gospel of the kingdom of God, the gospel of Jesus is about love. It’s about loving our neighbor as ourselves – and that includes our enemies as well as our friends. It’s about loving better the people we know and care about and it’s about loving broader so that we extend this love to people we may not like and those we don’t even know. And our conversion to love is never ending. We never arrive. It’s a process and a journey that is ongoing. It’s an adventure in growing and learning how to love better and to love broader. It’s all about learning how to love like Jesus.  

Gracious God, show us how to love like Jesus. Fill us with your love so that we can show others how much you love them. Keep converting us Lord from our narrowness to your wideness, from our resentment to your forgiveness, from our anger to your mercy, from our exclusiveness to your inclusiveness, from our selfishness to your generosity, and from our hatred to your love. Help us to see that no matter how much or often we fail, or how often we disappoint you, you continue to love us with an eternal love and will never give up on us. Help us to keep growing and nurturing this desire to love that you have given us, that is basic to our humanity. May we never stop growing in our capacity to love like you. Amen. 

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Come and See (a sermon from John 1:29-42)

In the first paragraph of our Gospel reading we have John’s counterpart to the baptism of Jesus. Here in John’s version it is cast in the form of John the Baptist bearing witness to Jesus. The story ends with John proclaiming, “I have seen and testify [bear witness] that this is the Son of God.” Then what follows is an encounter with Jesus by two of John’s disciples, who become followers of Jesus, and this leads to a third encounter. Two of the three disciples are named in the story, Andrew and his brother Simon Peter. They become disciples become someone bore witness. Both stories are about faith sharing.

The questions that are asked are full of spiritual symbolism and meaning. When Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?” we should read that as an invitation to look into our own souls and ask ourselves what we are looking for in life. What is it that we want? Some folks are so busy just trying to survive, to protect their family and loved ones from danger, to make sure they have enough to eat, or that they can get an education, or that they are safe, they hardly have the time or energy to explore any deeper existential and spiritual meanings. If life were fair, which of course it isn’t, everyone would have the same opportunity to explore the existential and spiritual meaning of that question, but life as we know is not fair. (And part of our work as disciples of Jesus is to do what we can to make it fair for people when the system is rigged against them.) Think about that question. What are you looking for in life? What are the people you are most close to and care most about looking for in life?

John’s disciples ask Jesus, “Where are you staying?” This is not intended to simply be understood as a question about where Jesus was living. The word that is translated “staying” is the very same word used in other places in this Gospel for discipleship. For example, it is used in John 15:4 where John develops the imagery of the grapevine to talk about discipleship. In that passage Jesus says, “Abide in me [that’s the word], stay in me, dwell in me, as I abide [there is the word again], stay, dwell in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides/stays/remains/dwells in the vine, neither can you unless you abide/stay/dwell in me.” So when they ask, “Where are you staying or abiding?” on a deeper level the question is, “Where do you find your source of meaning? From where do you draw your energy, your life force, your vitality, your passion? What inspires and empowers you and gives your life meaning and purpose and fills it with hope? What is it that makes you the loving person you are?

When Jesus responds by saying, “Come and see’” he is issuing an invitation to become something. The capacity to see – what we see, how we see – has deep spiritual significance and meaning in John’s Gospel, and not just in John’s Gospel, for this is true of the rest of the New Testament as well. What we see and how we see is the key to spiritual life and personal growth. Jesus is inviting them to explore for themselves, to experience for themselves, his source of faith, hope, and love.

So how do we go about entering into this sort of conversation with others? How do we bear witness? All of this relates to what Christians have generally called evangelism. What is evangelism and how should we go about it? Obviously, Christians have different opinions about what evangelism is and its importance. Your understanding of evangelism may differ from mine and that’s okay. No one speaks an infallible word on the subject. And I can only tell you what I have come to think about it and how I think we can best go about it.

First, let me say what I think evangelism is not. Evangelism is not simply maintaining or growing or expanding the institution. But let me quickly add, that doesn’t mean the institution is not important. As a church we function as an institution, as an organization. That may not be the essence of who we are or what we are about, but we exist as an institution, and there is something to be said about maintaining and growing the institution. That’s not what evangelism is, but it has its place. If the institution is a viable, helpful, enriching, life affirming institution, then maintaining and growing the institution has an important place. But that is not evangelism.

And as important as maintaining or growing a healthy institution may be, it’s important to distinguish the two. My first calling right out of seminary was to be part of the ministerial staff of a very conservative, Southern Baptist church not too far from where I grew up. My responsibility included teaching at their Christian school and pastoring a small satellite congregation that was considered a mission of the mother church. So while we were a separate congregation we fell under the umbrella of the main body. I thought things were going well at the congregation I pastored. We were healthy and attracting some new people. My wife was doing some great work with the children. In fact, when I resigned they were more upset that they were losing my wife than me. And really, we were doing quite well, I thought. The senior pastor didn’t think so. His point of contention was that we were not baptizing enough people. Now he and the church we were affiliated with subscribed to the theology that If you did not believe in Jesus as your Savior you would have to face eternal damnation. If you believe that, that indeed is a powerful motive for evangelism isn’t it? If you really believe that your loved ones will be damned forever if they do not believe in Jesus then you should be compelled to do anything and everything to get them to believe. Right? So we might understand why the pastor was so concerned about evangelism. However, that was not the main reason he was upset with me that we were not baptizing more. That was his theology, but that was not the reason. Our numbers at our little church contributed to their numbers, that is the numbers of the mother church. The people we baptized went on their church record. And it was clear that his intention was to put his church on the top ten list as one of the top churches in baptisms in the Kentucky Baptist Convention. Before I judge him too harshly, I have to pause to consider my own motives and admit that my own motives may not be as pure as I think they are. We all operate out of mixed motives.

So what is evangelism? If evangelism is not maintaining or growing the institution, as important as that may be, and if it is not saving people from eternal damnation (and some of you may believe that is what evangelism is, and if you do that’s okay, but personally I don’t), so I have to ask myself, “What is evangelism?” My very simple definition of evangelism is: Helping people discover who they are. And who are they? The same as who we are - the children of God. (Remember last week's sermon). They are children of God. We are all the sons and daughters of God, even if we don’t know it yet. So I define evangelism as helping people discover who they are, helping people discover that they are the beloved daughters and sons of God. I define discipleship as helping people become who they are. Evangelism is helping people discover who they are; discipleship is helping people become who they are.

So how do we do that? I loved the movie 42, The Jackie Robinson Story. In that movie  Branch Ricky, who is the general manager of the team, helps Jackie discover and become his best self, his true self. In many ways he mentored him, he encouraged him and empowered to be someone special, to be a model and inspiration to others. I have no idea if this was historically the case, but it was certainly so in the movie.

When Branch Ricky first calls Jackie in and invites him to be part of their organization, he is forthright and upfront about the kind of abuse that would be heaped upon him, as the first African American to play in major league baseball. Jackie’s first response is: “Do you want a player that doesn’t have the guts to fight back?” Branch Ricky says, “No, I want a player that has the guts not to fight back. People aren’t going to like this. They’re going to do anything to get you to react. Echo a curse with a curse, and they will hear only yours. Follow a blow with a blow they will say the Negro lost his temper, that the Negro doesn’t belong. Your enemy will be out in force and you cannot meet him on his own low ground. We win with hitting, running, fielding. We win if the world is convinced of two things, that you are a fine gentleman and a great baseball player. Like our Savior, [Branch Ricky was a devout Methodist] you have to have the guts to turn the other cheek. Can you do it?”

Branch Ricky, in a sense, was issuing a call, dare we say, a divine call? Dare we say that his voice was the voice of God calling Jackie to be the best he could be, to live out his identity as a son of God in very difficult circumstances. Jackie responds, “You give me a uniform. You give me a number on my back. And I’ll give you the guts.”

There is one scene where Jackie faces unrelenting verbal assault from the manager in Philadelphia. And Jackie almost losses his composure, he comes ever so close to giving in to his instincts to fight back, to return the wrath, blow for blow. Jackie is angry, and he retreats inside the doorway to the locker room and smashes his bat against the wall. Branch Ricky meets him there. He tells Jackie that he can’t fight, but he also tells him that he can’t quit, that there are too many people who believe in him and respect him.

Jackie asks Ricky if he knows what’s it’s like to live day in and out with all this hate and contempt poured out on him as a kind of scapegoat. Ricky says, “No, you’re the one. You’re the one living in the wilderness – 40 days – all of it, only you.”

Jackie says, “There’s not a thing I can do about it.” Rickie says, “Of course there is, you can get out there and hit and get on base and score. You can win the game for us. Everybody needs you. You are medicine, Jack.” As the Dodgers take the field, Ricky puts his arm around Jackie and asks, “Who is playing first?” The question is, “Are you going back out there and take your position. Are you going to live out your identity?” Jackie says, “I’m going to need a new bat.” He goes out and ends up scoring the winning run.

I don’t know how historically accurate that is, but what a great illustration of how we can bear witness, how we can call out the best in one another, and how we can invite others to discover who they are.

Back in the 1990’s, Rodney Stark, a specialist in the sociology of modern religion, applied his methods to ancient Christianity. He discovered in his research that Christianity spread at a rate of about 40 percent per decade, which held steady over several decades. He discovered too, that people came to Christianity not primarily because they experienced dynamic worship or were hearing great sermons. It wasn’t great logic or compelling arguments that reached them. Rather, they entered into Christian faith through relationships. As Christians looked out for one another, took care of the poor, the sick, and the most vulnerable, valued the gifts and contributions of each member, especially widows and orphans, especially the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, their friends and neighbors took notice.

I love what Richard Rohr says. Rohr asks, “Why did Jesus come?” He says, “Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity. It didn’t need changing. God has organically, inherently loved what God created from the moment God created it. Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.”

Maybe one of the things we can do to help people discover who they are is invite them to consider a different image of God. That God is not primarily this stern Lawgiver who condemns and excludes people who do not conform to God’s holy standards. Rather, God is primarily a great Lover, who loves all his/her children unconditionally and wants their very best.

We can do what Jesus did. We can invite people to the table of fellowship and friendship. We can welcome people the way Jesus did. We can accept all people as God’s children no matter how different we all may be. And we can affirm their capacity to bear God’s image and reflect God’s love whoever they are and wherever they go. We can do our best to really love people with Jesus’ kind of love. We can do our best to treat one another with compassion and dignity and grace and say, “Come and see.” Come and experience for yourself the magnitude of God’s love and discover who you really are – God’s beloved daughter or son.

Our good God, give us an interest that goes beyond our own well-being and inspire us to participate in a story that is much greater than our own little story. Help us to have the passion, the courage, and the will to find ways to say to friends and others, “Come and see.” Give us a real desire to help one another discover and become who we are. Amen.