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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Learning from Jesus how to apply our scriptures (a sermon from Luke 4:16-30)

The story of Jesus presented in our canonical Gospels has transformative power. Minister and author John Ortburg tells about a friend of the family who became really upset when her daughter told her that someone at school had been talking to her about God. She wanted nothing to do with God, or so she thought. Nor did she want her daughter to have anything to do with God. That night, however, she couldn’t sleep. For some reason around midnight she got up, went downstairs, and picked up a Bible. She couldn’t remember the last time she had even held a Bible, let alone read one. But like many folks who are not religious she did have a Bible in the house. When she opened it she noticed it was divided between an “old” part and a “new” part. She decided to start with the new part. So, in the still of the night she began to read the Gospel of Matthew. Several hours later when she was half-way through the Gospel of John she realized that “she had fallen in love with the character of Jesus.” She said a prayer: “God, I don’t know what I am doing, but I know you are what I want.”

Such is the spiritual power of the story of Jesus as told in our Gospels. The interesting thing to me about that story is that this woman approached the story without many preconceived beliefs or biases about Jesus. She was biased against religion in general, but not against Jesus in particular and when she read the story of Jesus it moved her.

Many of us would like to think that we leave our prejudices and biases behind when we read scripture, but unfortunately we do not. We bring them with us and they profoundly impact and shape how we read scripture and apply it. I believe the passage today from Luke offers us some insights in how we can appropriate scripture for our spiritual growth and transformation. So what are these insights?

First, we learn from Jesus that there are scriptures we need to let go of? Jesus applies two texts from Isaiah to his mission and ministry – Isa. 61:1-2 and Isa. 58:6. In the Isa. 61 passage Jesus stops in mid-sentence. Jesus ends his reading from Isaiah in mid-sentence. He ends with, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” but the text doesn’t actually end there. Isaiah goes on to say, “and the day of vengeance of our God.” Jesus simply drops this off. He eliminates it when he claims to be fulfilling that passage. So why did he do that? Or why did Luke say he did that? Very simply because he or Luke did not believe that his mission was to execute the vengeance of God. This was not on his agenda. This was not part of his program.

Sisters and brothers, there are scriptures that we can and should let go of – they do not apply to our mission and ministry. You have heard me say many times that in the Bible we have some wonderfully enlightened, highly transformative texts and we have some rather petty and clearly punitive texts. That is not say that these regressive texts cannot teach us some things, they can, but they cannot teach us what God is like or how we should live.

What they can show us is how our culture and context greatly impact our understanding of God’s will. They teach us that when we read scripture we need to read both spiritually and critically, employing reason, common sense, and our best scholarly tools and methods. These regressive texts teach us to hold what we claim as truth honestly, humbly, and tentatively always prefacing our faith claims with: “I could be wrong.” But what they do not teach us is what God is like or what God’s will is for our lives. When the Bible says that God told Joshua to kill all the inhabitants of Jericho, including women, children, infants, all animals, everything, that cannot be true. Sisters and brothers, the God of Jesus never would give such a command.

So the first thing we can learn from the way Jesus appropriated scripture is that there are scriptures that do not apply to us which we can let go of. The second thing we can learn from Jesus is that there are scriptures that do apply to us which we need to lay hold of. What does Jesus claim as God’s will for his life and for our planet? Liberation for the oppressed, good news to the poor, enlightenment for the blind, freedom for the downtrodden, inclusion of the outcasts and marginalized, and compassion for all people.

I hope you noticed the scriptures that Jesus emphasizes in his talk and how he challenges his own people’s religious and national exceptionalism. Jesus points out the time Elijah was sent to bless a Gentile woman in Sidon outside the bounds of Israel. Jesus also points out the time Elisha healed the Syrian Naaman even though there were lepers a plenty in Israel in need of healing.

The people of Jesus’ hometown who heard him, at first thought his words gracious and pleasing, until they realized that Jesus was not limiting his work of healing and liberation to the so-called chosen people – to their kind of people. When Jesus broke down those walls and extended God’s grace beyond those boundaries their initial praise gave way to outrage.

So, if we take our que from Jesus on how to appropriate scripture the scriptures that focus on retribution and vengeance and exclusion we can let go of and scriptures that focus on healing, liberation, justice, and redemption we can lay hold of. Our attention needs to be on what Jesus was attentive to, namely, the liberation of the oppressed, good news to the poor, sight to the blind, freedom for the captives, welcome of outsiders, and love for all people. If more Christians simply focused on what Jesus focused on our world would be different.

I love to tell the story which I first heard from Richard Rohr about the Jewish fugitive in Nazi Germany fleeing for his life. He came to a small town and sought out the house of the Christian pastor, hoping to find refuge. He knocked on the door and when the pastor opened it, he told his story and asked if he could stay a few days until it was safe to travel again. The pastor invited him to step inside and wait. The pastor knew that if this young man was caught hiding there the whole town would be held accountable and suffer greatly. So immediately he withdrew to his prayer room and closed the door. He asked God for guidance and then opened his Bible. He happened to come upon the verse in John’s Gospel that says, “It is better for one man to die, than for the whole people to parish.” He knew he had his answer. So he sent the man away. Later that night an angel appeared and asked, “Where is the fugitive?” The pastor said, “I sent him away as the Holy Book instructed me.” The angel said, “Did you not know that he was the Christ? If you would have looked into his eyes, instead of first running to the Book, you would have known.”

I like to tell that story not to diminish in any way the importance of scripture to our spiritual lives, nor to disparage the process of reading scripture for spiritual growth.  Rather, I tell the story to illustrate the limitations of scripture in determining God’s will for us today. Any unenlightened person will read and appropriate scripture in unenlightened ways and vice versa.

There is no eliminating our preferences and biases when we appropriate scriptures. And those who think they can are simply fooling themselves. If you or I believe that we can read and apply Scripture without bringing our biases and already determined beliefs and assumptions into the process we are simply deceiving ourselves.

The question is not, “Do I have a bias or biases?” Of course I do (of course you do). The only questions are, “What are they? Am I aware of them? Am I intentional in determining the bias or biases that will guide my appropriation of scripture? That’s the issue. Many Christians are unaware of their biases. I am sure I have biases I am unaware of too. We all have blind spots. It’s inevitable. The writers of scripture had blinds spots. We are all fallible human beings. The writers of scripture were no different.

One if not the largest religious best sellers in religious book history is Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose-Driven Life. That book has sold millions of copies. Warren is a pastor of a mega church in Orange County, California. Citations of scripture fill his book. There is proof text after proof text supporting his theology and practical Christian instruction. Did you know that this passage in Luke is never cited? Here in Luke we have perhaps the single most succinct and powerful statement of Jesus’ agenda and mission in all the Gospels and in a book that purports to tell us God’s purpose for our lives there is not a single reference to it.

So you see, sisters and brothers, there is no eliminating our biases when we employ scripture to determine God’s will for our lives. Hopefully we are all becoming more aware of what our biases are and becoming more intentional in how we choose them.

Here is a pattern for appropriating scripture that makes sense. Now, we can go a step beyond and ask, “What led Jesus to read scripture this way. What inspired Jesus to let go of the vengeful, retributive scriptures and emphasize the inclusive, gracious texts? I have to believe it was because of the way he experienced God. I am confident that Jesus experienced God as an inclusive, compassionate, generous, loving God, whom he liked to call “Abba” – a warm term of endearment that a child would call a loving father or mother.

According to all the Synoptic Gospels Jesus didn’t begin his work until after his baptism by John. It was at his baptism by John you will recall that Jesus had a deeply moving spiritual experience in which he heard God say to him, “You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” He experienced the unconditional love and acceptance of God.

Can anyone doubt that Jesus’ practices of welcoming all to an open table, his indiscriminate healing of all kinds of people, his readiness to confront the status quo and to challenge the tit-for-tat worthiness system of the religious establishment – can anyone doubt that all this stems from his experience of God as Abba? Surely it was own personal experience and encounter with divine love and compassion that compelled him to be a boundary breaker and liberator of the downtrodden.

By the way, this was true of the Apostle Paul as well. Many of us learned in Sunday School of the story of Paul’s conversion, which scholars today refer to as Paul’s calling. The reason they like to call it his calling is because they all recognize that even before Paul had his life-changing experience he was a deeply religious person.

Paul refers to this experience in at least three of his authentic letters (Galatians, 1 Corinthians, Philippians) and Luke imaginatively offers his take on the encounter in three separate places in Acts (9, 22, 26). Paul was a deeply religious man before he met Christ. But here’s the point: It was not through reading scripture that Paul’s life was changed. It was his first-hand encounter with God’s grace and forgiveness in the living Christ that changed Paul. His experience of God’s love served to reshape and reform what he believed about God and how he appropriated scripture. It wasn’t scripture that changed Paul; it was his experience of God’s love that changed Paul and that sisters and brothers changed the way he read scripture. Does that make sense?

So for both Paul and Jesus, their appropriation of scripture – what they ignored and what they emphasized, what they let go of and what they laid hold of – was guided by their experience of God’s love. They were moved by God’s love in terms of what they let go of and what they held on to.

I am glad that our Gospel reading today is paired in the Lectionary with the reading from 1 Corinthians 13. There is no more spiritually powerful, high level, potentially enlightening and transforming text in all of scripture than1 Corinthians 13, which proclaims love as the single greatest most important and enduring force in the universe.

If our experience of divine love is not at the heart of who we are and what we are about, we can read scripture for hours upon hours and it will not make a bit a difference. Some of the most hateful, prejudiced, mean-spirited, vengeful Christians (which is really an oxymoron) you will find anywhere are some who are very well-versed in the Bible. We are all lost until we experience divine love. Only love heals and transforms.   

For anyone looking for a place to begin I would say begin with Jesus and follow his example of how he appropriated scripture. Like the woman who stayed up all night reading the Gospels, if we begin with the story of Jesus we might just find ourselves falling in love with Jesus and in turn falling in love with God. We might just have an experience that changes everything.

Our good God, open our eyes that we might see how expansive and large your love is. May we know your love, not simply in our heads, but may we experience it in our hearts so that we can be more, so that our lives can count for something, so that we can be disciples of love and know what to let go of and what to lay hold of. Let us grow in your love and may our life together in community, our relationships, our priorities and values reflect the more excellent way of your love. 

Monday, January 25, 2016

Being the Body of Christ (a sermon from 1 Cor. 12:11-31a)

The church secretary was reading the minutes of the previous church business meeting and she read: Forty voted yes, seven voted no, and one said, “Over my dead body.” I’m sure for those of  you who have been involved in church much of your lives you can recall a contentious business meeting or two. Maybe you heard about the little ditty that was found on the back of a church bulletin. It read: “To dwell above, with the saints we love: O that will be glory. But to dwell below, with the saints we know; well, that’s a different story.”

Paul is well aware of the divisions that are tearing at the Corinthian church. He opens the letter by informing them that reports have reached him that there are divisions and factions among them. And from Paul’s point of view, regardless of the surface issues dividing them, Paul argues they such divisiveness is rooted in spiritual immaturity and selfishness. He says to them early in the letter, “I cannot speak to you as spiritual women and men, but as worldly; you are mere infants in Christ.” You are babies, he says. Their capacity for spiritual understanding, their level of spiritual consciousness is at the stage of spiritual infancy.   

What Paul says here has universal application and there are a couple of really important things we learn.  

First, we learn that in the church, in the body of Christ, we are both diverse and interdependent. A few weeks ago I talked about how baptism symbolizes our immersion by the Spirit into a community where we are all equal partners. In this community all social and cultural distinctions are simply irrelevant. We constitute one body in Christ, whose Spirit indwells the entire body and each member within the community without distinction.

There will always be some tension between our desire to be our own persons and our need for community. Obviously we all need a measure of autonomy and independence and need to establish our identity separate from others. (Sometimes children push away from their parents awfully hard as they grow older because of this need, and parents have to be careful not to smother them with their wisdom.) Each person must be able to stand by himself or herself in order to be an emotionally healthy person.

On the other hand, basic to human maturity and relationships is our need to be bound to others in community. We were not made to be an island to ourselves. The call to Christian faith is a call into community. 

I heard about a Northerner who was ordering breakfast during a trip through the South. He saw grits on the menu, and being a Dutchman who spent most of his life in Michigan, he had never been very clear on the nature of the item. So he asked the waitress, “What exactly is a grit?” She said, “Honey, they don’t come by themselves.” 

Well, neither do Christians. We are called to belong and participate in Christian community. You will not find in the New Testament such a thing as an isolated, unchurched Christian. Are such folks around today? Certainly. I have been working on a couple who grew up in our household. But this is a different time and place. In that time and place to be a Christ follower was to be in community with other Christ followers.  

A local church better represents the body of Christ and the kingdom of God the more diverse its membership. A little boy came out of Sunday School disheartened. His mother could visibly see that he was upset and so she immediately inquired. The little boy explained that his teacher had said that God made us with different parts – that God made us with a nose to smell and with feet to run. His mother said, “Yes, so what’s the problem?” He said, “God made me all wrong. It’s my nose that runs and my feet that smell.” I think sometimes we are like the little boy in that we are not always sure how each part of the body is suppose to work. And it may just be the part that we are.

Now, at the end of this passage, Paul, on the surface seems to contradict what he says earlier because he tells the church to strive for the “greater gifts,” possibly suggesting that some members are more important than others. But that is not really what he is saying at all.

What he seems to be saying is that some gifts (not members, but gifts) are more important to the healthy functioning of the body because of their impact on the body as a whole. He is not suggesting that members of the body are more important than other members.

However, some gifts like teaching or prophesy or leadership are very critical to the overall health and spiritual development of the community. But, and this is important, those who exercise these gifts are not any more valued or loved or appreciated by God than anyone else. So while there are some gifts that are greater than others for helping the body mature and grow spiritually, no member of the body is greater than any other member. There may be greater gifts, but there are no greater members. All are valued and loved equally.

And this brings me to the second point. While all are valued and loved equally, God bestows special honor on some of whom we would never expect. The truly radical thing here, much like Jesus’ identification with the poor and the marginalized, is what Paul says in vv. 22–26: namely, God bestows special honor on members in the community who appear to be “weaker.” Paul writes, “But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension in the body.” This echoes the special attention and focus Jesus placed on those who were outcasts and oppressed. Paul says that these parts of the body that seem to be weaker, are actually “indispensable” to the health and well-being of the body.

What Paul says here is the reversal of the normal order expressed in other organizations and institutions. In the normalcy of this world’s structures and organizations, these “weaker” members would be considered expendable.

I remember as a junior on our high school basketball team we lost a game on a Friday night that we should have easily won. In fact, the whole season was a disappointment. The year before we had won the region starting three sophmores, so expectations wer high. We were all frustrated, but our coach was furious. With our last defeat the coach had reached his tipping point. So he scheduled practice on Saturday. I knew we were in trouble when I walked into the gym and I didn’t see any basketballs on the floor. We didn’t touch a basketball. We ran and ran and ran some more until we couldn’t run any more. It was grueling. After we finished he gathered us up on the bleachers and lit into us.

In the midst of the cursing and scolding he looked at us and said, “You are all expendable.” Then he paused and added, “Except Row.” David Rowe was our 6’ 6’ center who led our region in rebounds and blocked shots. The rest of us were expendable. Not David.  

What Paul says about the church is that no one is expendable. Rather, we are all indispensable, especially those of us who appear “weak.” I’m not exactly sure what Paul means by this word. I suspect Paul is echoing the same language some of the Corinthians were using. Perhaps some of them who considered themselves “strong” were disparaging the “weak.”

So Paul is saying: “Those of you who fancy yourselves to be ‘strong’, to be more spiritual or knowledgeable than others, you better be careful. Because the very ones you consider ‘weaker’ are the ones on whom God bestows special honor and dignity. These so called ‘weaker’ ones are the very ones God deems indispensable.” These are members of the body who can show and teach us Christ’s love in ways that we cannot learn and experience in any other way. (We might do better if we replace the word “weak” with the word “vulnerable.” God grants special honor to those that seem to be more vulnerable.)

There is a legend about a famous monastery in which every monk was an expert in some high art—except for one little fellow, who had no expertise in any of the celebrated gifts of his brothers. Feeling terribly inadequate, one day he decided to give to the Lord the only thing he had to offer. Before joining the monastery he had been a tumbler in the circus and so he decided to perform for the Lord.

Several days later, when all the monks were up in the chapel participating in the high mass, the little monk went down into the crypt. He was such a nobody in the monastery that no one missed him or even noticed he was gone. He found himself totally alone before a statue of Jesus and there he offered his tumbling act to the Lord. 

Well, this went on for several weeks, until one day another monk came down to the crypt to get some candles and witnessed this strange scene. He found this offensive and went immediately to the abbot. The next day, the informer and the abbot during High Mass, left the sanctuary and went down into the crypt where they witnessed the little monk doing his tumbling before the statue of Jesus. The informer was outraged, and wanted to intervene immediately, but the abbot wisely held him back. When the tumbling was over, the Lord Jesus appeared before the statue, held out his hand, and blessed the little monk. The abbot turned to the informer and said, “More real worship goes on here than takes place upstairs.”

The point of the story, of course, is that God does not judge as we judge. What God considers valuable may not be what we consider valuable at all. The very ones that many would consider “weaker” or more “vulnerable,” are truly the indispensable ones and given special dignity and value by God.

In this passage Paul is calling for a kind of synergy of the Spirit, where members share one another’s sorrows and joys. He says, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” Here is where the church as the body of Christ differs radically from all other organizations and systems and institutions.

Everyone knows how a pain in the foot or hand can absorb the entire body’s energy and attention for days. No other institution whose primary mission is to be effective or to make a profit or grow the institution would put up with that. They would simply cut off the unhealthy part of the body, the part that is causing all the pain and replace it with a more effective member.

But in the body of Christ, effectiveness is not the first concern. In the church no one is expendable. We are all expected to suffer and celebrate together and to participate in embodying the love of Christ. When a church functions in this healthy way it becomes an outpost for God’s kingdom. The church then offers its community a taste of new wine, a taste of what community is like in God’s new creation and what it means to be the body of Christ in the world.   

Our gracious God, help us to see more clearly what you have called us to be as an alternative community in the world. Help us to see how delighted you are when we truly live as the body of Christ, celebrating our diversity and our interdependence, and truly sharing in each other’s hurts, pains, joys, and celebrations. Forgive our failures and offenses, for they are many, and may we learn from our past mistakes. Inspire us to trust in your grace and continued presence so that we might grow. Expand our capacity to love you and love one another. Empower us to be the body of Christ in the world.

What does it mean to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord?

To say that Jesus is Lord is to echo one the earliest and most basic Christian confessions. Lordship language came right out of the Roman culture: Caesar claimed for himself the titles “son of God” and “Lord.” To claim the Lordship of Jesus flew in the face of the powerful Roman Empire. No wonder Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3b). Of course, anyone might say it and not mean it, but in the context of the Roman empire why would you make such a claim and put your self, your family, and your faith community in danger unless you were serious?

But even before the Roman emperor was called “Lord,” this was a title ascribed to God. The Greek word kyrios was employed in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures) as a substitute for the unspeakable name of God. The early Christians did not claim that Jesus was God, but they believed as the “Son of God” he acted as God’s mediator and representative incarnating the character of God, which is why Paul talks about seeing “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).

When I confess that Jesus is Lord I am not confessing belief in some theoretical or doctrinal belief about Jesus. Rather, I am confessing my allegiance to the way of Jesus: the way of forgiveness, grace, peace, and compassion, as opposed to the way of empire: the way of retribution, greed, and rule by force. When I say Jesus is Lord I am saying that my first priority and central commitment is to emulate the life of Jesus and embody the teachings of Jesus. Brother David Steindl-Rast captures this well,
Faith in Jesus Christ as Lord means ultimate trust in the power of God’s love shining forth in him. It implies facing up to the demands of such love by living accordingly. A world in which the sovereignty of love determines relationships and events is diametrically opposed to the alienated dog-eat-dog world we have created. The divine lordship of love will inevitable clash with the authoritarian claims of power structures in the world in which we live. Faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord implies courage to engage in this struggle.
Deeper Than Words: Living the Apostles Creed, p. 60
What I don't mean when I confess that Jesus is Lord is that Jesus is the only way I or anyone else can experience and know God. A person who has never been taught about Jesus may know God through other means and mediators, but inevitably the consequence of such encounters will reflect something of the way of Jesus, which is the way of love.

In the very passage where Paul says that no one can confess that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit he says also, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). Here, I believe, is what the appropriation of the Lordship of Jesus looks like. Paul clearly has the local church in mind, but the principle applies individually as well as communally and globally.

What if all Christians who confessed Jesus as Lord were committed to the common good? We would be living in a different world wouldn’t we? 

In fact, if just a small percentage of Christians connected the Lordship of Jesus not to some theological or doctrinal affirmation, but to the common good of all people I have no doubt it would make a profound difference. Surely we would be living in a more just, equitable, and compassionate society.

This article was first published at the Unfundamentalist Christians blog.

Monday, January 11, 2016

What’s In a Baptism? (a sermon from Luke 3:15-22)

John, the Baptizer drew people from the villages and towns out into the desert. He believed a new order, a new reality was about to break forth and in preparation he called people out to the desert for repentance and renewal. According to Luke John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Now, here is Jesus going out into the desert and being baptized by John. Did Jesus feel the need for personal repentance and renewal or was he simply identifying collectively with his people? You can think about that later because I don’t intend to go down that road.  

I want us today to think about baptism in our own experience and tradition. What does it signify for us? What’s in a baptism? Of course, it’s very possible we could have different perspectives on this, which is okay. Certainly Christians of different traditions have different ideas and not all Baptists believe the same things when it comes to baptism. So, here’s what I think.

First of all, I think baptism can signify the beginning of a new journey or it can signify affirmation of a spiritual journey that has been going on for some time.

The late Fred Craddock tells about the time he ministered in a little community in southwest Oklahoma. On a good day the population was around 450. There were four churches: a Methodist church, a Baptist church, a Nazarene church, and a Christian church. Each had its share of the population, and on Wednesday nights and Sundays, each church had a collection of young people. The attendance rose and fell according to the weather and whether it was time to harvest wheat.

The best and most consistent attendance in town, however, was at the little café where all the pickup trucks were parked and all the men were gathered inside discussing the weather and the cattle and what kind of crop they were going to have, while their wives and children were in one of the four churches. The attendance of the churches wavered, up and down as church attendance goes, but the café consistently had good attendance.

Once in a while, says Craddock, the café would lose one of their members because the wife or the kids finally got to him, and off he would go kind of sheepishly to one of the churches. But the men felt they were the largest and strongest group in town. These were not bad men, says Craddock, they were mostly family men and hard working men, but did not see a need for the church.

The patron saint of the group at the café was Frank. Frank was 77 years old when Craddock first met him. He was a farmer and a cattleman. He had been born in a sod house, and he had prospered. He was a real pioneer and with his credentials he was considered the patron saint of the café.

One day Craddock met Frank on the street. Craddock said he had no intention of accosting him in the name of Jesus, it was not his way, but old Frank decided to take the offensive anyway. He said to Craddock, “I work hard and I take care of my family and I mind my own business.” He told Craddock that as far as he was concerned, everything else was fluff. He was basically saying, “I’m not a prospect for your church, so don’t’ bother me. Leave me alone.”

So Craddock left him alone; he didn’t bother him. But then one Sunday, Frank surprised everyone, especially the men at the café, when at 77 years of age he presented himself at the Christian church for baptism. Some in the community thought Frank must have been sick, must have got heart trouble or something and got scarred. There were all kinds of stories floating about as to why Frank would be baptised.

So Craddock asked him, “Frank, do you remember that little saying you use to give me: I work hard, I take care of my family, and I mind my own business.” He said, “Yea. I remember. I said that a lot.” Craddock asked, “Do you still say that?” He said, “Yes.” Craddock said, “Then what’s the difference?” And Frank said, “Brother Fred, I didn’t know then what my business was.” Craddock baptized Frank and Frank discovered what his business was.

Baptism can signify a new beginning, a new journey where we, like Frank, discover what our real business is. This is what John’s baptism signified – a new beginning in light of what God was going to do. And Jesus after his baptism went about God’s business. In the very next verse after Jesus’ baptism and the voice from heaven Luke says, “Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work.”

I also believe that baptism can signify affirmation of a journey that one has been on for some time. Can one be a disciple of Jesus and not be baptized? Yes, one can. However, in New Testament times that would have been highly unlikely because of the way baptism was practiced and functioned in the early Messianic communities. Of course, we live in a different context where unbaptized followers of Jesus are not unusual or all that uncommon. So baptism can function as an affirmation of a path already chosen.

In our particular Christian tradition church membership is based on baptism. One does not have to be baptized in this church to be a member in this church, but one does have to be baptized. And this, I believe, is in keeping with the New Testament practice of baptism into a local body of Christ.

Many interpreters of Paul believe that the great text in Galatians 3:27-28, which I like to call Paul’s magna charta of Christian equality, was actually a baptismal proclamation that was proclaimed at Christian baptisms. In that passage Paul says, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one (that is, equal and united in an inseparable bond) in Christ Jesus.” Through baptism we proclaim by faith who we believe we are in Christ.

It’s interesting in our Gospel reading that between references to John’s baptism and Jesus’ baptism by John Luke mentions Herod who imprisoned John. Luke describes Herod as a ruler who has done evil things, which presents quite the contrast with Jesus who is endorsed by the heavenly voice.

The heavenly voice makes use of two OT scriptures. The first line, “You are my Son” is taken from Psalm 2, which was spoken on the occasion of the crowning of the king of Israel. So Jesus is being acknowledged as king and as lord. By the way this sort of language was also applied to Rome’s king, Rome’s emperor. He was called “Son of God” and “God manifest” and the title “Lord” was attributed to him.

But is Jesus that kind of lord, a lord like Caesar? The next line makes clear what kind of Lord Jesus is. The next line which says, “My Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” is a phrase from Isaiah 42. It’s a line from the description of the suffering servant of God, the one who gives his life for the cause of God and the good of others. It has to do with loving, caring service for others. The voice is saying, “Here is my Son who is king, he is a suffering servant who loves others and gives his life for others.” Jesus’ baptism is an affirmation of who he is. Our baptism is an affirmation of who we are – that we are God’s beloved daughters and sons called to participate in God’s work.

After the baptism and the voice of affirmation Jesus leaves the Jordan and embarks on God’s mission. Jesus goes about doing God’s business. And what did God’s business involve? Did it involve wielding power and controlling servants and demanding submission? No. And why is that? Because God’s kingdom is really God’s kin-dom – it’s about caring, loving, just, and compassionate relationships. It’s about loving others and serving others, not exercising control over them. God’s kingdom or kin-dom is unlike earthly kingdoms. God’s kingdom is a nonviolent kingdom rooted in forgiveness, not a controlling kingdom governed by force.

Christian baptism then is a public proclamation of our commitment to God’s kingdom and our participation in a local community committed to be faithful to that kingdom.

This means participation in a larger story than just our little stories. Maybe this is one reason Luke highlights Jesus’ prayer life in his Gospel. Interestingly, only Luke’s version of Jesus’ baptism mentions that Jesus was praying when he had this spiritual encounter and heard the heavenly voice. We must be people of prayer. I don’t mean prayer in the sense of constantly asking things from God, but prayer in the sense of being open and receptive and aligned with God’s love and purpose. The baptized life is a life that is open to and trusts in the love and grace and spiritual power of God.

One other thing about Christian baptism. Christian baptism highlights the spiritual significance of death and rebirth in the life of Christian discipleship. The Apostle Paul makes this connection in his letter to the Romans when he says, “Therefore we have been buried with Christ by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in the newness of life (Rom. 6:4).”

We remember our baptism, sisters and brothers, not simply by remembering a certain event that took place in our lives once upon a time as a child or as an adult. Rather, we remember our baptism by waking up each day remembering who we are – that we are God’s beloved daughters and sons.

We remember our baptism by deciding to die daily to those things that diminish our lives and the lives of others. We remember our baptism when we let go of petty jealousies, old grudges, personal prejudices, painful hurts, and decide to live as simply, graciously, forgivingly, and compassionately as we are able with God’s help.

And that sisters and brothers, is what’s in a baptism.

O God, as we join together as the body of Christ, as your visible, incarnate presence in the world and celebrate through bread and cup your living reality in us and in our midst, let us remember who we are. Help us commit ourselves once again, for the hundredth time, or thousandth time, or maybe the first time to your good purpose for our lives and our church. In Christ’s name. Amen.

Monday, January 4, 2016

What Does Incarnation Mean? (John 1:1-18)

In light of the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke, John’s prologue might not be something we get too excited about. Joseph and Mary, shepherds, magi, angels and prophets in the temple are much easier to imagine than words like light, glory, grace, and truth that are used here.

John’s prologue employs the concept of word, the Greek term is logos, to talk about God’s revelation of God’s self in the world. The prologue functions as a kind of overture or outline of John’s gospel. Words like “light”, “life,” “glory,” and “truth” will be used throughout this Gospel.

While all the Gospels are in essence theological presentations or proclamations of the Christ, it is a common assumption among scholars that John’s Gospel is less historical and more symbolic than the others. This Gospel often employs symbolical, mystical, and metaphorical language and it starts right here in the beginning with the Logos or Word in John’s introduction.

The theological term often used for talking about this is the term incarnation. Theologians like to debate and argue about the manner and degree to which the divine essence or nature became incarnate in Jesus. Some Christians are very specific about what this means. Others like myself are not. Unfortunately, throughout Christian history there has been a tendency to draw rather tight boundaries labeling those whose views and beliefs are outside those boundaries as heretical. There has also, unfortunately, been a tendency in our Christian history to treat heretics very badly. We have got to stop it sisters and brothers. We can talk about good and bad religion, healthy and unhealthy religion, religion that transforms and religion that hurts and harms, but let’s rid the English language of the word heresy.

In considering the question of what incarnation means I want to broaden this idea a bit. So let’s ask: What does it mean not just for Jesus, but for each of us, individually and as a faith community to incarnate the divine reality – that is, to live out God’s presence, to manifest God’s presence in flesh and blood, in our relationships, and in our communities?

Let me begin by saying that as a species we have to get past this idea that everyone else has to submit to our Christian view of incarnation and trust in Jesus in order to know God. The future of our world may depend on Christians becoming more inclusive, more generous, and more welcoming of others of different religious traditions or of no tradition at all.

For us to say that Jesus is our Savior, or that Jesus is our Lord, or that Jesus is the way that leads to truth and life, does not mean that Jesus is the only way anyone else can come to know God.

I heard about a young man who believed he was called to vocational Christian ministry and went through the appropriate training in the denomination that he grew up in. Toward the end of this process that took several years he met with an ordination board who would discern his suitability for ministry. This denomination was riddled with factious theological disputes at the time and one on the board asked the young man, “Do you believe Jesus is the only way to God?” Even those on the board had different ideas about that.

Spying a map of Indiana on the wall, he asked the members, “How many roads lead to Indianapolis?” No one said anything. Then this young man walked over to the map and pointed, “I get to Indianapolis this way.” And he showed them the route he takes. Then he said, “But I have friends who live over here” pointing to a very different place on the map. Then he marked with his finger a different route and said, “They get to Indianapolis this way.” He made his point. There are different ways to know God and experience God that are legitimate. That, of course, doesn’t that every way leads to God; there is both good and bad religion.

Whenever I get in a discussion about this someone always brings up John 14:6 where Jesus is purported as saying, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” I always respond by pointing out two things. First, I point out that this is a theological statement by John’s church, not a historical saying by the historical Jesus. It highly unlikely that the historical Jesus actually said this. That, of course, doesn’t resolve the issue, but it’s important to know. Second, John’s church was declaring what was true in their experience. For that community of believers Jesus was indeed the only way to God. They were not stating what is true for everyone, but they were stating what was true in their community and in their spiritual experience, which, by the way, is all any of us can do.

We should not assume today that if people don’t know Jesus the way we do they don’t know God. You and I look to Jesus as our definitive revelation of God and he is – for us. For us, Jesus is the Word made flesh. Jesus is the wisdom, grace, and truth of God. Jesus reveals to us the way to know God, experience God, and participate in God’s will. But that doesn’t mean there are not other mediators, other God bearers who reveal God in profound ways that lead people to know God and experience God and engage in God’s will in the world. Who are we to make our own experience definitive for everyone else? We must learn to appreciate and honor other peoples’ experience as well as our own.

I believe we are all called to be God bearers. We are all called to embody the divine and reflect God’s image, but not all in the same way. And God is so immense we can never reflect all there is to see and know about God. Someone has said that all our beliefs are like fingers pointing at the moon. God is so much more than our beliefs about God.

The first story of creation in Genesis which John’s prologue alludes teaches that the human couple was created in the image of God. The very life of the human couple is derived from God. God’s Spirit is the source of life. In fact, there is no life apart from God. I interpret that to mean that we are all potential God bearers.

The uniqueness of Jesus is one of degree. As Philip Gulley points out in the quote in your worship bulletin what distinguishes God bearers like Jesus from the rest of us is the degree of response to the Divine Spirit who indwells each of us.

You will notice in John’s prologue John extends the concept of incarnation to the rest of us as well. It’s not limited to Jesus, though without question Jesus is the word made flesh par excellent. We look to Jesus as the quintessential revelation of God, but Jesus is not alone. As Barbara Brown Taylor points out we are each one invited to participate in this word-made-flesh business.

For Christians Jesus is the prototype or archetype of God pouring out God’s self in human form, but the really good news is that God is available to pour God’s self out in your life and mine. God is the God of today. God is in the now.

John says in verse 12 that while many within Jesus’ own religious and cultural tradition rejected his message and witness to God, there were those who received him. To those who trusted in his message and witness God gave them the power to become children of God. That is, God gave them the power to become what Jesus became. Jesus appropriated and lived out his sonship to God by listening to God’s voice and fulfilling God’s will. By trusting Jesus and appropriating his teaching we can do the same, we can live out our sonship and daughtership to God.

I think it is really important that we understand that being a child of God is not a relationship we earn, it’s a gift we claim and live out. John says that we are born of God and it has nothing to do with what we believe or do or don’t do. It’s simply who we are. He says that we are born not of blood, or the will of the flesh or the will of man, but of God. In other words, it’s a divine gift. It’s who we are. This connection, this birthright transcends all other connections and identifications. Now we might go through life and never realize this divine gift, but it’s ours nonetheless. We might forget who we are, and need to be reminded. This is a big part of my job: To remind us who we are.

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 in order to survive. 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. He asked about her name and 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 reclaimed the name and life she had forgotten and became the queen she always was and called to be.

Sophie, my granddaughter, went through a stage, where if I said, “Sophie, you’re silly.” She would say, “I’m not silly, I’m Sophie Jordan Griffith” How silly of me not to know that. She’s Sophie Jordan Griffith. She knew who she was. When it comes to our true self and our identity in God, not all of us know who we are. Some of us may have known and forgotten.

What I am saying is that Jesus is not alone as the son of God. We are sons and daughters of God too. Jesus is the son par excellent – the quintessential son – but we are Jesus’ sisters and brothers and have the privilege and responsibility of living out the grace and truth of God in our unique way. The incarnation of God – the visible, material flesh and blood manifestation of God – is ongoing as we participate in the word made flesh, as we allow God to shine in and through us.

Later in this Gospel Jesus is purported as saying, “The one who trusts in me, that is, the one who is faithful to the God I have lived for and made visible in my own flesh, will also do the works that I do.” If that is not enough John has Jesus blowing our minds when he says, “in fact, those who trust me will do even greater works that these you see me doing.” I’m guessing that greater here means greater in terms of the impact such works have in the world.

We don’t have to do astounding things. We don’t have to raise the dead. We are invited to participate in the incarnation of God in the world in our unique way. We don’t all do it the same way. We have different gifts. Different personalities. Different interests and abilities. We talk about Jesus being unique in his revelation of God, but we are all unique in our revelation of God.

Philip Gulley tells about an elderly woman in a church he pastored who had committed herself to engaging in works of mercy. As he got to know her, he was astounded at the many ways her little acts of generosity and kindness blessed hurting people. Even though her income was modest, she decided to live simply so she could give generously. She was very reluctant to talk about the ways she gave and served her community, but one day she told Gulley, “Little is much when God is in it.”

John says that Jesus who is close to the Father’s heart has made God known. But this can be true of us as well. We are invited to share in the fullness of God that Jesus knew.  We are invited to receive grace upon grace, grace in exchange for grace – because it’s all freely given. And once we receive we give away because we cannot exhaust the supply of grace coming from God. The paradox of the spiritual life is that by giving we receive. We participate in the fullness of God by giving away the life of God, not hoarding it.

God can use our little acts of goodness and kindness to make a difference. Even the smallest gestures of love and grace can bring light into very dark places and create hope out of despair. When love is present little becomes much.

When we allow the Spirit to flow through us, when we share in God’s fullness by being channels through which God’s love and grace can flow, then we too like Jesus participate in the ongoing process of divine incarnation, of God pouring God’s self out into this physical world where life can be wonderful and life can be tragic – sometimes at the same time. 

Perhaps we might consider the following questions: First, how can I be more open to the Divine Presence that is in me and all around me? Second, am I willing to claim and live out my sonship or daughtership and do my part in the work and process of divine incarnation? And third we might consider our own uniqueness and ask: How can I, with my unique gifts, abilities, opportunities visibly live out God’s love and grace and truth?

Our good God, help us to be open and receptive to the ways we can incarnate your Presence in the world. Let us personally and as a church be faithful to live out in our bodies, in our relationships, and in the way we listen to and care for one another the reality of the living Christ. Amen.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The radical Jesus and our own calling (a sermon from Luke 2:41-52 and Col. 3:12-17 for the Sunday after Christmas)

From the earliest time I can remember I was in the church house on Sundays. It did not always go well for me on Sundays. I can vaguely remember one Sunday when my parents and my best friend’s parents let us sit together during Sunday worship by ourselves. We decided to take the foil wrapper of a piece of chewing gum and make a little paper football. We had a whole side pew to ourselves so Keith went to one side and I to the other. We made goal posts with our hands and thumbs and kicked field goals. One of my kicks deviated from its intended path and landed inside a curl of the lady sitting in the pew directly in front of us. She was hard of hearing so we didn’t worry too much, but my buddy got tickled and I got tickled. Well, that was the last time we got to sit together for a while. For the next several weeks we were back at the side of our parents.  

I can also distinctly remember as a kid sitting in worship as the preacher droned on and on thinking what a terrible way to make a living. I thought to myself: To have to stand up in front of all these people and talk about God – how awful. Well, God works in mysterious ways.

Over the years my faith has evolved and changed. But I have no doubt that what I learned and what I was taught and the faith practices I participated in have had an impact on my faith formation. Even though there are elements of my childhood faith I can no longer accept I am grateful for being brought up in the church.  

Jesus was brought up in the Jewish faith and he never abandoned the faith of his childhood though clearly his faith evolved and grew.

Jesus is carried into the temple before he can even walk. His parents are observant Jews who strive to do all that they believe is expected of them. On the eighth day they bring the infant Jesus to the temple to be circumcised and then less than a month later they consecrate him to the Lord in the temple. At his consecration, according to Luke, they meet the prophet Simeon and prophetess Anna who both recognize Jesus as destiny’s child. Luke tells us that the parents are amazed at what Simeon and Anna say about him. In our text today we are given a glimpse of Jesus back in the temple as a boy who is becoming a man questioning and discussing religious matters with the teachers of the Torah.

In those days the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem was made by extended families and friends who traveled together in a caravan, so his parents would not have thought much about not seeing Jesus on the day’s journey. But then when Jesus doesn’t show up that evening they get worried and soon realize Jesus is not in the caravan. They find their son three days later in the temple discussing and debating with the teachers of the Law.
When Jesus is rebuked by his parents Jesus responds by saying, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

I want to say two things about this today. First, Jesus was a passionate Jew. He was brought up in the Jewish faith to be an obedient Jew and here he is as a teenager in the temple expressing his passion by questioning and debating with the teachers of Judaism. Luke is careful throughout his portrait of Jesus to point out that Jesus faithfully observes the customs and traditions and teachings of Judaism even as he critiques and criticizes some of those very customs and teachings. Jesus is a faithful Jew.

So when Jesus begins his public ministry in Galilee and begins teaching where does he go? Obviously there is no temple there, so he goes to the synagogue. When Luke sets forth the program or agenda of Jesus’ mission and ministry he has Jesus in the synagogue of his hometown in Nazareth. Luke begins that passage in 4:16 by saying: “When Jesus came to Nazareth where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom.” As was his custom, says Luke.

Jesus had no intention of beginning a new religion. Jesus was a good Jew. But he was not a mindless compliant Jew. Jesus was a deep thinker who had an intense passion for God and for God’s will being done on earth, which he called the kingdom of God. In Luke’s presentation of Jesus, Jesus immerses himself in all things related to God and God’s cause in the world. Jesus shares the heart of God for humankind and for the world.

So Jesus could not possibly be content with status quo religion. He wants to see his fellow Jews catch his passion for God and God’s will. Jesus cannot tolerate practices and teachings that he thinks stale or false or harmful. Jesus is a Jewish reformer. He wants to reform his tradition, not abandon it.

I am glad that I didn’t abandon my Christian tradition when I began to confront doctrine and traditions that I felt were stale and false and even life diminishing. I certainly thought about it at one point in my life. There are many folks who indeed abandon their faith when they come to that crossroad. I am truly glad I decided to go deeper within my faith tradition and confront those things that needed to be challenged and changed. And what I have done in my own life, I have tried to some degree to challenge you to do the same.

According to Luke one of the ways Jesus challenges Judaism relates to the way many Jews in Jesus’ time thought about their own special calling. Many in the religious establishment considered themselves God’s special people above all others. A kind of religious exceptionalism and elitism had developed within Judaism.

By the way, this is very contemporary. A very similar kind of elitism and exceptionalism has emerged in Christianity and within the matrix of American exceptionalism that dominates political speech today. And in contemporary American civil religion the two are wedded together. There is this strong feeling and ethos that we are better than others. That for some reason we are more blessed or chosen or special or worthy.

Jesus faces this in the Judaism of his day. According to Luke’s version of Jesus’ ministry Jesus confronts and challenges this right at the beginning in Luke 4. It’s a fascinating text that I don’t have time to develop in any detail in this sermon. But the gist of it is that Jesus appeals to his/their own Hebrew scriptures to make the case that God values all people, not just Israel, and in some cases, even by-passes Israel to find people to do his will among the other people of the world. Well, that evokes great reaction. The people in his hometown who begin by praising him quickly turn against him. Luke says that when the people in the synagogue heard this they were filled with rage. They would have killed Jesus on the spot had circumstances permitted it. Luke says they wanted to hurl him off a cliff.

I have never had to contend with that kind of opposition or hatred to that degree, but I have felt some of this on a lesser level at different times in my ministry.  I have shared with some of you a reaction I felt a few years ago preaching at a Southern Baptist associational meeting. Now, you might think: What am I doing preaching at a local SBC associational meeting? Well, I was asked by Wilma Simmons. For many years our church has conducted a free fair at West Point, Kentucky and we have tried to help Jack and Wilma in their ministry there. I’m sure most of you are aware that while some of us have changed over the years in our theology and approach to mission and ministry Jack and Wilma are still quite conservative and very Southern Baptist. She asked me one time if I would preach at their annual meeting. I tossed this around in my head and concluded, wrongly, that if she hadn’t read any of my articles, which obviously she hadn’t, perhaps others in her association hadn’t either. Rather than try to explain to her why that might not be a good idea, I assumed that most likely no one in her association would know anything about me. Well, I assumed wrong. What I felt in that church on that particular evening was unlike anything I have felt before. Now, I have clearly felt opposition and animosity towards me by Christian leaders before, and probably will again, but never in a preaching or worship context. When I got up to speak the intensity of the opposition I felt in that building at that moment was almost palpable, it was unlike anything I had experienced before or have experienced sense.  I do not tell you this to complain or bewail that moment at all, because such reactions are part and parcel with trying to be a reformer of a particular religious tradition. It’s what you get.

Whenever I talk to people who are ready to abandon their Christianity because of the hypocrisy they see in the church, or because of the teaching and doctrine they can no longer intellectually accept and believe, I try to convince them to not leave their faith but go deeper in it, which is what Jesus does within the Judaism of his day. Jesus is pushed to the edges of Judaism by the religious establishment, but Jesus never abandons his Judaism. His critique and prophetic voice, however, does eventually get him killed.

The prophetic act that probably sealed his death was his protest in the temple at the end of his ministry. Here in Luke we have Jesus in the temple at the beginning and the end.  And here at the end, Jesus isn’t rejecting Judaism when he turns over the tables and stages a protest in the temple at the beginning of what we now call Holy Week. Rather, he is protesting the misuse of the temple whose very structure and organization had come to reflect false values of worthiness and holiness. It was supposed to be a house of prayer for all peoples, but had become a den for corrupt elite religion. Luke says at that point in his Gospel that everyday Jesus was teaching in the temple and the chief priests, scribes, and leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him. It happened to Ghandi and Romero and King, just as it happened to Jesus. This is what sometimes happens to passionate reformers. The powers that be are not normally hospitable to reformers.

This brings me to my second point I want to emphasize today. This little glimpse into the life of Jesus as a young man captures some of the radicalness of Jesus. You can disagree with me here if you want, I will not take offense, but I don’t think we are all called to that kind of radicalness, to that kind of intensity. Very few of us can live with that kind of passion and intensity the way Jesus did, and I don’t think all of us are called to.

In this story Jesus’ shows no concern about his parent’s anxiety over his well-being. It’s not even on his radar. So when his parents rebuke him for being irresponsible (and let’s face it, he was irresponsible here) and for creating this situation he dismisses them and says, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house” with an emphasis on “must.” What would you say to a teenage son or daughter who says that to you?

From time to time in the Gospels we see this kind of intensity and radicalness in Jesus’ teachings and reactions. Jesus tells one would-be follower who was busy making arrangements for his father’s funeral to abandon his plans in order to join his little traveling band of disciples Jesus says to him, “let the dead bury the dead, you come and follow me.” That’s radical however you slice and dice it exegetically.

In Luke 14:26 Jesus turns to the crowds and says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Now, Jesus is employing hyperbole. Jesus is intentionally being shocking to make a point. But once again, however you slice it, this is radical stuff.

My contention is that we are not all called to that kind of radicalness. That means that for you and me to bear the Christ image does not necessarily mean that we copy the human Jesus in every way. It does mean that we reflect the qualities of character that Jesus consistently manifested, such as the qualities of compassion, humility, generosity, a passion for justice and peace, hospitality and welcome and so forth. Paul captures many of these qualities in our epistle reading today. Paul calls on his readers to clothe themselves with compassion, kindness, humility, self-control, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, gratitude, the pursuit of peace. And he says above all clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together. This is the Christ image we are called to mirror in our own lives and relationships.

But I don’t think we are all called to be as radical as Jesus was. Most of us are called to nurture a sense of balance and compromise. And that’s not a bad thing. We need some who share more of Jesus’ radical nature for justice and peace; we need folks like Gandhi and King, but we are not all called to that task or roll.

So how do we find the kind of balance that fits our place and calling? Well, there are no seven habits or four spiritual laws. There’s no special prescription or formula. Jesus says that the main thing is to love God and love neighbor. Paul says above everything clothe yourselves with love. So that’s where we have to start. From there we have to grow and trust our personal and ever unfolding and evolving experience with God.

Luke tells us that Jesus grew into his understanding and calling. Our passage today closes with Luke saying, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom and the favor of God was upon him.” Like Jesus we must question and grow and not be afraid to challenge the status quo or the teachers of our tradition. And we do that best not by abandoning our religious faith, but by moving deeper into it.

Lord, as we embark upon another year, let us not be afraid to face the hard questions and put our faith to the test. And where we find it lacking, may we not throw it out, but let us reform it and purify it and sink deeper into the wisdom and truth of God. And above all, show us how to love others and our world in a way that reflects your unique calling in our lives. Amen. 

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Let it Be! (A sermon for the fourth Sunday of Advent from Luke 1:39-45)

John Pierce, the executive editor of Baptist Today, shared a story his friend told him about a coworker who was enjoying a visit from her sister and her two young nieces. They began running and screaming more so than usual so their mother went into the guestroom to check on them. The excited little girls shouted that a bug was after them and they were afraid of being bitten.

The false alarm was over a small moth, floating lazily around the room. Their mom assured them, “Moths don’t bite people, they only eat clothes.” The next morning the girls were found sleeping peacefully in their bed – and naked. Their clothes were piled together away in the corner. 

Our fears obviously affect our attitudes and actions. And this is true of all of us, not just little kids. Isn’t it obvious today how much our fears shape our attitudes and actions? Fear is guiding a lot of political speech today and bringing out the worst in people.

When the angel first appears to Mary the angel says, “Do not be afraid.” That may be the most common one-liner in the Bible. All of us have fears which we must confront if we are to live a healthy spiritual life.

Sometimes our fears are projected onto God so that fear shapes what we believe about God. I love the story that is told about young Teddy Rooselvet. As a little boy he had this fear about going to church. When his mother inquired he told her that he was afraid of something called the “zeal.” He said he heard the minister read about it from the Bible.  He imagined it was something like a wild animal or dragon hiding in wait. 

Using a concordance his mother looked up the word zeal and when she read to him John 2:17 in the AV he told her that was what he heard. The text is about Jesus’ protest in the Temple where he turned over the tables of the money changers and drove out the animals. The text reads, “And his disciples remembered that it was written, ‘The zeal of the thine house hath eaten me up.” He was afraid the zeal was going to eat him up.

There are folks who are afraid of God and their fear of God affects how they respond to God and how they relate to others. Some are conscious of their fears while others are not. For some folks fear operates on a kind of subconscious level. It’s real and present, but underneath the service so that one may not always be conscious of it.

There are several passages in the wisdom literature that speak of the fear of God in a positive sense. One biblical proverb says that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. However, in the Hebrew scriptures the phrase “fear of God” means something like respect or reverence, not fear in the sense of being afraid of. Though being afraid of God shows up in a lot of biblical stories, which explains why whenever God or a messenger of God appears in these stories, the first thing the messenger says is “Fear not. Don’t be afraid.” The angel says to Mary, “Fear not. You have found favor with God.”

One of the most misapplied passages on fear in the New Testament is the passage that is found in Luke and Matthew. In Luke 12 Jesus is purported as saying, “Do not fear those who kill the body and after that can so nothing more. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.”

If the passage ends there I would say we have a problem with fear. However, the passage doesn’t end there. There is more to it. Those who misappropriate the passage end the passage here. And generally those who preach just this section of the passage  exhort hearers to fear God who may just cast their souls into hell. What a terrible misuse of the text because the passage doesn’t end there. There is another half that completes the argument being made. The other half says, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid [this is the exhortation we need to proclaim]; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

These are not two contradictory statements put side by side. Rather, the second part complements and completes the first part. The second part turns the logic of the first part into a completely different conclusion one would come to if all we had was the first part of that passage.

The logic of the argument is this: If there is anyone to fear it is God. God is capable of utter destruction. By the way, that’s what “hell” represents here – utter destruction. Not a place of conscious torment, but simply utter destruction. The Greek work translated “hell” is “gahenna” which refers to the garbage dump outside Jerusalem where trash was consumed. God is able to consume, to utterly destroy. So if you fear anyone fear God. That’s the first part.

The second part says, “However, you don’t have to fear God because there is no reason to fear God. If you fear anyone God is the one you should fear, but there is no need to fear God because God is not the kind of God you need to be afraid of. God is the kind of God who intimately knows us and loves us. If God cares when little sparrows fall to the ground, God most certainly cares about you and me. We are God’s beloved.”

I love the little story about the mother who wakes up during a loud thunderstorm. The thunder is roaring and lightning flashing. She thinks her young son will be afraid. So she dashes off to his room. When she opens his door she finds him standing at the window looking out. Hearing the fear in his mother’s voice who asks him what he is doing he says, “It’s okay mom, God just took my picture.” If only we could nurture that kind of child-like trust in a good, gracious, and loving God.

It is Mary’s trust in God’s word, in what she hears God say to her that enables her to face and move against her fears. Ultimately she says to the voice of God, “Let it be with me according to your word.” The text today says of Mary, “Blessed is she who believed that there would a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” She trusted what she heard God say, “Greetings, chosen one, favored one, blessed one, loved one.”

In Luke’s Gospel Mary is presented as a prototype or archetype of what we are all called to be. God comes into her life and announces the divine presence within her. Through the same Spirit, God comes into our lives and announces the divine presence within us. We are all chosen. We are all called the children of God. We are all recipients of divine favor. We have all been graced. We have all been gifted with the divine presence.  

There is absolutely no indication of previous holiness or heroics in Mary’s life when God comes to her. She is not singled out because of some special worthiness that she has that no one else has. She is every woman and every man. God offers God’s self to us even before we invite God to do so. When Mary displays God’s presence through receptivity and trust, she becomes the Christ-bearer to the world. And that is just as true for you and me. That’s our calling too – to bear the image of Christ. To allow that image to emerge and evolve, to grow and mature within us.

Being able to say “let it be,” being able to trust God’s grace in our lives means letting go of our fears and the insecurities, worries, and frustrations that produce our fears. Rarely does this happen all at once and never doesn’t it happen completely. This is a process of nurture and growth. It is a process we must go through if we like Mary are to bear the Christ image in us and through us to the world.

Of course, shedding our fears is easier said than done. It can be a difficult and painful process. All sorts of factors come into play. Some involve biology – the way we are made. Some involve the ways we have been socialized into our environment. Some involve decisions and choices we have made. Some fears are deeply entrenched and connected to habitual patterns in our lives. Some are like quick sand. We get stuck in them and find it hard to move.

I heard about a little boy named Billy who was living at a shelter for abused children. He had been horribly wounded and was reluctant to move beyond the security he found in his room. The day of the Christmas party he refused to leave the safety of his room and join the party. He told one of the workers he wasn’t going. The volunteer who had spent considerable time with him said to him, “Sure you are, Billie. All you need is to put on your courage skin.” His pale eyebrows went up as he seemed to drink in the possibility. After a long pause, he said, “Ok.” The volunteer helped him put on his imaginary courage skin and off he went.

The only way we will ever move beyond our fears is by having wisdom to identify them and the courage to face them. I believe God can give us that. Mary believed the word that was spoken to her. She trusted in a greater power and a larger story beyond her fears and worries.

For most of us our growth, our capacity to move beyond our fears and live in faith is both providential and intentional. You should remember those two words . . .

Sometimes circumstances confront us with decisions and opportunities that we would not choose or even think about otherwise. A couple of Sundays ago I referenced the story of Gerald Coffee, the army captain who spent several years in captivity in Vietnam. In his forced suffering and solitude he turned inward and tuned into the mystery of God with us and among us. Stripped of everything that had contributed to his self-image he came to understand and trust who he was in God alone. Would he have experienced such spiritual growth and maturity had he not been faced with these circumstances? It’s impossible to know.

But I do know that he had to be open. He could have allowed his circumstances to harden his heart rather than open his heart. He chose to open his heart to the divine presence. And this is true for all of us regardless of what the circumstances that we live in are? We must be receptive and open to the divine presence. We must be willing to learn and grow and honestly face our fears and failures.

Theologians often struggle with the question: Is faith, is our capacity to trust who we are in God a divine gift or is it the result of human choice and effort? The good theologians say: It is both and here is the paradox and mystery of faith. Faith is a gift and it is human choice and effort. It is providential and it is intentional. It is both.

Author Sue Monk Kid tells about the time she was poking around the attic looking for a picture frame and found an old box of Christmas cards dated 1975. At the time she was seven months pregnant and terribly tired of waiting. When she pulled a card out it featured Mary, great with child, the universal woman in waiting. On the inside were the words, “Let it be.”

Sue Monk Kid says that she immediately felt a kinship with her. The message said to her, “Don’t fret so. You can’t control the life in you. It grows and emerges in its own time. Be patient and nurture it with all your love and attentiveness. Be still and cooperate with the mystery God is unfolding in you. Let it be.”

I would urge you and me to do the same. I am preaching to me as well as to you. Let us trust this Divine Goodness who holds us close and never lets us go. Let us claim our belovedness and chosenness and realize that what is true of us is true of everyone else too. Let us trust that God our creator and redeemer knows us intimately and loves us more than we even love ourselves. Let us stand in awe before the great miracle and mystery and marvel of life and do all we can to spread life and enhance life for all those around us. Let it be.

Our good God, show us that we don’t have to be afraid of you. Somehow get through all our defense mechanisms, all the brainwashing, all the illusions, all the old silly, fearmongering, all the negative patterns of thinking we have accumulated and touch our core, touch our hearts with the truth of your grace and truth, with the good news of how much you love each one of us, and how special we all are. Inspire us to love all people the way you love all people. Fill us with the spirit of life and laughter and grace and goodness and real joy, and may our lives be contagious. In the name of Jesus. Amen.