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.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Making a Way for Peace (Sermon from Luke 1:68-79)

It seems like every day we listen to the news we learn about some act of violence somewhere. It may be the act of a terrorist group on the international scene or it may be some crazy kid with a gun on a college campus – an endless cycle of shootings and violent reactions. In our own network of people connections how often do we encounter someone who is angry with us or someone who for whatever reason no longer wants to be in a friendly relationship with us? Is peace possible in such a world? Is peace possible in our families, in our schools, in our places of employment, among churches and diverse religious communities, between races and groups that have different political and social agendas, among those with different educational attainment and economic status. Can we make a way for peace? Can we come together? This second Sunday of Advent highlights the longing and need for peace.

Our Scripture text today has been traditionally called the Benedictus. It is Zechariah’s canticle of praise at the circumcision and naming of his son, John who we know as John the Baptist.

This hymn of redemption caps the end of Zechariah’s story which began with him serving as a priest in the Temple. Zechariah was visited by a messenger of the Lord who told him that he and Elizabeth would have a son and they would name him John. Zechariah was terrified and incredulous. As a result he was stricken mute. For the entire time of Elizabeth’s pregnancy he could not speak.

When I read such stories in our sacred scriptures with the intention of discovering spiritual truth I do not ask whether or not the story actually happened, because for me in the process of discovering spiritual truth that is irrelevant. The questions I ask are: What might be the meaning of this story? What did this mean for the first Christians? And what does this mean for Christians today? What can I learn from this, take from this, and appropriate from this that might help me and help others as we progress in our discipleship to Christ and walk the spiritual journey?   

Instead of reading the silence of Zechariah as God’s judgment, what would happen if we read it as God’s grace to Zechariah? Perhaps this is exactly what Zechariah needed at this point in his life – to be quiet, to be silent, to learn how to ponder and marvel at the strange workings of God and the paradoxes of life.

Gerald Coffee was a captain in the U.S. Navy whose plane was downed over North Vietnam during our war with that country. He spent years as a POW confined to a small cell. In his book Beyond Survival he tells of the third Christmas he spent in prison. It was 1968 and he remembers it because it was the Christmas Eve the Vietnamese distributed some candy bars to the prisoners. The candy bars were wrapped in foil that was red on the outside and silver on the inside. Coffee flattened one wrapper and folded it into a swan. He made the second wrapper into a rosette. And with the third and final wrapper he fashioned a star. And he thought of the star of Bethlehem.

He removed three straws from the broom in his cell and attached the paper ornaments to them. Then he jammed the straws into a crack in the wall above his bed. As he sat watching them in the light of the one yellow bulb that always shone in his cell he thought about the simplicity of the birth of Jesus and what it meant in his own life. It was his faith, he realized, that was sustaining him through his imprisonment.  

He wrote, “Here was nothing to distract me from the awesomeness of Christmas—no commercialism, no presents, little food, I was beginning to appreciate my own spirituality, because I had been stripped of everything by which I had measured my identity: rank, uniform, money, family. Yet I continued to find strength within. I realized that although I was hurting and lonely and scared, this might be the most significant Christmas of my life.”

Think of that for a moment!  Alone, in prison, stripped of everything and he says that this was the most significant Christmas in his life.  Why do you think it was so?  Was it because he was tuned into the mystery and wonder of it – which certainly included the mystery and wonder of his own soul. Apparently he discovered through solitude and suffering the significance of who he was in God apart from all the trappings of an affluent life. Stripped of everything that we Americans think is necessary for a good and happy life he found a deeper source of life.

What would it mean for us to discover that? To discover the significance of who we are in God apart from appearances, apart from what makes us look good or feel good, apart from other people’s perceptions and image of us, apart from any sense of honor or reward or recognition, apart from all our possessions that we tend to use to both distract ourselves and to project how important we are. What if we were to discover our true self – who we are in God – and realize that who we are in God is the only reality worth anything.

If we are to discover such a reality, not merely in the head, which doesn’t really change anything, but in the heart where real change occurs, then we will need time to ponder, to question, to pray, to probe our inner life, away from all the noise and hustling crowds and the chattering voices vying for our attention.  

The children’s pastor was giving the children a lesson on the Advent wreath and what the candles symbolized. After she was finished she asked the children if someone could tell her what the four candles represent? A little girl raised her hand, “I know. There’s hope and peace and . . .” But before she could get out the next one, her little brother blurted out, “peace and quiet.”

Maybe that’s where we need to begin as we pursue the path of peace. Perhaps we need to set aside some peace and quiet and enter into some silence and solitude. Perhaps we need some time to pray and ponder and discover who we really are in God apart from all the false trappings of success, work, what we have or don’t have, what other people think of us, and all the rest.

* * * * * * * *

Zechariah’s canticle of praise is a celebration of God’s redemption of God’s people. And while the focus is on Israel, Israel simply represents all of us. The redemption here is a holistic redemption. The way of peace is not just our own private peace with God, but peace with all others in whom God dwells and with creation itself.

The redemption here is both personal and corporate affecting all society. It’s a redemption of the individual that brings personal healing and renewal, but it is also a redemption of the systems, structures, and institutions of society yielding justice and peace for all people.

And before it is inward, before it calms the inner churnings of the mind and heart it is relational. This is why forgiveness is highlighted – “to give knowledge (or experience) of salvation (read salvation as healing and liberation) to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.”

Forgiveness is always a two way street which is why we pray, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” We offend and are offended. We get hurt by others and we hurt others. So forgiveness must be sought and received from the one or ones we have offended, and it must be granted to the one or ones who have offended us. There is no future without forgiveness. There will no healing, no coming together, no  reconciliation and peace without forgiveness.

This is God’s work and it is our work. It is God’s work in and through us in whom God dwells. God in “tender mercy’ as the text says wants to bring light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death and God wants to guide our feet into the way of peace. And this is what we should want – not just for ourselves but for all people.

Advent is not just a time to wait – it is also a time to work for the good of our neighbor, whoever that neighbor may be. It’s waiting and working. It’s prayer and social action. It’s solitude and service. It’s silence and prophetic speech. That’s the balance of authentic spirituality.

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.

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 impossible. 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 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 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.”

And this is what we are about as well as followers of the prince of peace. Our task, our responsibility, our calling is to reflect the light of hope and peace into all those dark places marred by prejudice and hate. Our calling is to shine the light of forgiveness and grace into broken relationships torn apart by resentment and bitterness.

We can mirror a greater Light than can be found in our little, false selves if we will. We don’t have to be confined to and entrapped by our own personal interests, attachments, and addictions. We can become more. We can draw upon a greater Source of love and mercy. And we can do this because of the great Love that is at the heart of all reality. We can participate in the shalom of God, the redemption of the world because the great Lover of all people and all creation, the God of Jesus, your God and my God is able to guide our feet into way of peace. 

Gracious God, you are the God of all peace. Teach us to walk in your ways and to be your messengers of peace wherever we go. Amen. 

How should Christians love America?

What did Jesus mean when he said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not from/of this world” and how does this relate to the way Christians love their country?

Certainly Jesus did not mean that God’s kingdom is heavenly while the kingdom represented by Pilate is earthly. I suppose one could try to make a case for that interpretation based on readings in John’s Gospel, but it certainly would stand in opposition to its meaning in the Synoptics. The kingdom envisioned in the model prayer is about God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

Also, Jesus is certainly not suggesting that Pilate’s kingdom is a political kingdom while God’s kingdom is a spiritual kingdom. In fact, that is an impossible distinction to make because all governments, businesses, economic systems, politics, and institutions of all types express some kind of spirituality. In some cases (perhaps many) the spirituality exhibited may be a demonic kind of spirituality that is oppressive and destructive, but it is a spirituality nonetheless.  All systems and structures in society reflect some kind of spirituality.

So what is Jesus saying? In John’s Gospel the term “world” is used both positively and negatively. When employed positively it refers to God’s good creation, with particular emphasis on the world of humanity. When used negatively is refers to what the late Walter Wink described as the domination system, a system that is pervaded by greed, selfish ambition, and egocentric pride (see 1 John 2:15-17).

Jesus says to Pilate, “If my kingdom were from/of this world (that is, if it was part of the domination system, if it partook of greed, selfish ambition, and egocentric pride), then my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to those in power.”

Why would they be fighting? Because violence is a characteristic mark of the domination system in contrast to nonviolence and the pursuit of peace that are characteristic marks of God’s kingdom.

This is why it is a dangerous thing to comingle allegiance to God with allegiance to country that often occurs in patriotic worship services. Worshipers tend to equate or conflate the two.

I’m not suggesting that Christians should stay out of politics. On the contrary, I think Christians should be right in the thick of it. Our Christianity, however, should inform our politics not the other way around. No political party can claim God is on their side. God does not side with political parties. God sides with whoever will take up the plight of the poor, oppressed, disenfranchised, and most vulnerable.

If Jesus was to tell the story of the good Samaritan to Christians in contemporary America he would tell it as the good Muslim. I have a notion that if many Christians stopped trying to Christianize the domination system they might begin to actually grasp what Jesus was about and why the domination system put him to death.

So when Jesus says that the kingdom he represents is not from/of this world he is talking about an alternative to the domination system. We probably shouldn’t call it a kingdom at all, because our understanding of kingdom tends to be shaped by the domination systems we are part of.

I love the term that Cynthia Langston Kirk coins in her poem, “Kin_dom without walls.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such is the work
The journey
The destination
In the kin_dom of God.
(Living the Questions, p. 163)

Jesus tells Pilate that those who listen to his voice belong to the truth (John 18:37). Pilate then asks cynically, “What is truth?” Cynical or not it is a good question. In John’s Gospel truth is relational and incarnational, not propositional or doctrinal. Truth is what pervades God’s kin_dom where redemptive relationships are central. God’s kin_dom is about compassion, forgiveness, inclusion, belonging, healing, nonviolence, peacemaking, and redemption; the exact opposite of the greed, selfish ambition, egocentric pride, prejudice, vengeance, and violence that mark the domination systems of this world.  Such is the truth of God.

I love the way the late William Sloan Coffin talks about how our faith should inform our love of country. He asks, “How do you love America?” He says, “Don’t say, ‘My country, right or wrong.’ That’s like saying, ‘My grandmother, drunk or sober’; it doesn’t get you anywhere. Don’t just salute the flag, and don’t burn it either. Wash it. Make it clean.”  (Credo, p. 93)

How should we love America? As Christians we should allow the alternative reality and vision of a world healed, liberated, and made right inform how we relate to our country – the way we vote, the causes we champion, the issues we care about, and the way we go about caring for each other and our planet. 

Our calling as the church, as disciples of Jesus is to be the body of Christ in the midst of the domination system. Our calling is to shine the light of the grace and truth of God’s kin_dom wherever we can – in the voters booth, in the marketplace, on the ball field or golf course, at the office, in the classroom, at a political rally, at the soup kitchen or women’s shelter, at a habitat project, when visiting a friend, fixing a meal, disciplining a child, engaging in conversation, and on and on the list goes.

Can our kin_dom lives, relationships, and communities offer an alternative to the domination systems of the world?