Monday, February 29, 2016

Redeeming Relationships (a sermon from Luke 13:1-9 and Isaiah 55:1-9)

When Jesus said that loving God and loving neighbor constitute the essence of God’s will, he clearly tied together the relationships we have with one another with our relationship to God. These two areas of relationship – with God and with each other – are so interlaced, so intricately woven together they cannot be separated. Of course, there are many folks who are not aware of this connection, but for those of us who are how we think about, imagine, and relate to God has a huge impact on how we relate to others.   

Our passage in Luke 13 begins by pointing out that bad things happen all the time which God does not cause to happen. God is not poised over a zap button waiting for us to mess up. And yet Jesus warns, “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as the unfortunate folks who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time due to no fault of their own.”

Before I talk about what that means, first I want to say something about what it doesn’t mean. There are some who read this to mean: You better amend your ways, you better change while there is still time, because God is running out of patience and there will be a day when God does indeed push the zap button. I flatly reject that image of God, because that is not the God Jesus frequently describes and talks about in the Gospels, and in Luke’s Gospel in particular.

My image of God is Luke 15, where God never runs out of patience. God seeks the lost until God finds the lost. God never gives up on the lost and God never closes the door that leads home. My image of God is the Father in Luke 15 running to embrace the returning son and pleading with the resentful and angry son to join the party.

When Dennis Linn, writer and spiritual retreat leader, was a priest, a woman approached him because her son had tried to commit suicide for the fourth time. She told Dennis that he was involved in prostitution, had been involved in using and selling drugs, and that he had committed murder. She ended by saying that he wanted nothing to do with God.  She wanted to know what would happen to her son if he committed suicide without repenting and wanting nothing to do with God. 

Dennis asked her, “What do you think?”  She said (here just repeats what she had been taught), “I think that when you die, you appear before the judgment seat of God. If you have lived a good life, God will send you to heaven. If you have lived a bad life, God will send you to hell.” Then she concluded, “Since my son has lived such a bad life, if he were to die without repenting, God would send him to hell.”

Dennis then said to her, “I want you to close your eyes. Imagine that you are setting next to the judgment seat of God. Imagine also that your son has died with all these serious sins and without repenting. He has just arrived at the judgment seat of God.” Then he told her to squeeze his hand when she could imagine this scene.  

It seemed like several minutes transpired before she squeezed his hand. Then he asked her, “How does your son feel?”  She said, “My son feels so lonely and empty.” Then he asked her what she wanted to do.  She said, “I want to throw my arms around my son.”  She lifted her arms and began to cry as she imagined holding her son tightly. 

Finally, when she stopped crying Dennis asked her to look into God’s eyes and imagine what God wanted to do. She imagined God stepping down from his throne embracing her son. Then the three of them cried together and held one another.

Dennis says that he was quite stunned by this experience and realized that God loves us at least as much as this woman loved her son. Isn’t this common sense sisters and brothers? Surely God at the very least loves each of us as much as the person who loves us the most. (Good Goats, pp. 8-11). Would we ever give up on a daughter or son? So why would we think God would?

So what does this mean: “unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” If it doesn’t have anything to do with God running out of patience and slamming the door shut what does it mean?

I suspect that Jesus is speaking to his fellow Jews as a people under oppression. Jesus knows that if they continue to stage uprisings and revolts, if they continue to respond to the violence of Rome with violence, Rome will come down hard and crush them. And this is what Luke 21 is about. Some of this was written after the fact by Jesus’ followers, but there Jesus warns of what will happen when Jerusalem is surrounded by the Roman army. He says, “when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.” What he is saying here in Luke 13 is that unless you repent, unless you change the way you are thinking about and reacting to your oppressors you will perish. They will destroy you.” And they did in 70 C.E. And I suspect that on one level this is what the parable of the gardener is about in Luke 13. You have some time to change your ways, but time is running out and if you don’t, Rome will destroy you.

Jesus gave them (as well as all of us) a strategy for changing their ways, for responding to the oppressor in a way that gives peace a chance and that reflects the very character of God. In Luke 6 Jesus instructs them (and us) to love our enemies, to pray for them and do good by them. In Matthew’s version, Jesus even offers some specific examples of nonviolent protest, like standing up to an oppressor by turning the other cheek or by carrying a soldier’s bag an extra mile even though the soldier may be saying put the bag down because to enlist an occupied person to go the second mile was against Roman law. Ghandi and King built on this a whole strategy of nonviolent resistence. All of Jesus’ teachings and warnings fell on deaf ears. They continued to react aggressively and even violently and eventually the Romans crushed them and many perished.

Sisters and brothers, if you don’t hear anything else please hear this: We don’t need to be saved from God; we need to be saved from ourselves and this is why we need God.
In order to be freed from our life-diminishing attitudes, habits, and behaviors; in order to healed and liberated from our prejudices, from our bitterness, anger, and propensity toward violence we need divine enablement. Redemption is a cooperative venture and we can’t do it without God’s help. Anyone who has found help through a twelve step program knows this.

Repentance is not just for Jesus’ generation, it’s a need we all have and is critical to developing redeeming relationships with God and each other. The Greek word for repent literally means, “to go beyond the mind one has,” that is, the mind we are socialized into with all its prejudices and fears and defense mechanisms to protect the ego. To repent means to acquire a new mind-set, a new way of seeing that issues forth in a new way of living.  

In Luke 3 John the Baptist tells those coming out to be baptized to bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance. Then he gives them some specific examples. He says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” He tells tax collectors to be honest and collect no more than the amount prescribed. He tells soldiers (apparently some Roman soldiers came to be baptized) not to extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations and to be satisfied with their wages. Repentance is a new way of seeing and a new way of living. And it doesn’t matter which comes first. Sometimes it’s new ways of acting/doing that bring about new ways of seeing.  

Now, if this is not something we cannot do on our own, if we need God’s help and we do, then how then does God bring this about in our lives? How does God gain access to our repressed fears and insecurities? How can God save us from entrenched habits and negative reactions?

Sometimes experiences of suffering break down our defenses allowing God access to our life in ways that grow us and change us. Sometimes great experiences of love can do it. I love the story about the Virginia mountaineer who had a reputation of being easily provoked and was known to be a kind of troublemaker and get in lots of fights. He worked as a plumber and one day he was called into the elementary school in town to do some work. He met a young lady who was a teacher. He fell for her big time and it took him a long time to get enough courage to share his feelings. He prepared himself for rejection. He didn’t expect a teacher would be drawn to the likes of him, but love can be a funny thing and surprisingly she returned his love. Everyone in town noticed how he changed. He told his best man on his wedding day, “I ain’t got nothin’ against nobody.” Great experiences of love, as well as suffering can give God an opening. They can serve to expose hidden fears and ego driven responses allowing God to nurture new ways of seeing, thinking, and doing life.  

* * * * * * *
The passage in Isaiah 55 highlights the beauty and power of a healing and redemptive relationship with God. The symbolism in the text is rich. We are invited to partake of food that is available without cost. In other words, it’s not for sale. It’s freely given to the one who hungers for it and it is abundantly enriching and fulfilling.

The prophet says, “Incline your ear, come to me; listen, so that you may live.” It’s an invitation into life, into the kind of relationship with God and with others that is life enhancing and life-giving. We all know about dysfunctional relationships. Isaiah invites us into a relationship with God that is not only functional, it is transformational. According to the prophet this covenant relationship is “everlasting” – it cannot be altered or thwarted for it is grounded in “God’s steadfast, sure love.” The only way out of the relationship is if we choose to get out of it. But then, God never stops caring or inviting us back in. Israel’s covenant relationship with God in the Hebrew Bible (our OT) depicts this beautifully.

The prophet invites the wicked, those who have done evil and practiced injustice to “return” to the Lord so that the Lord can exercise mercy and abundantly pardon. There is no need to fear retribution or condemnation. This takes faith, it takes trust because abundant mercy and forgiveness is not all that common. In reality, it’s uncommon; it’s unconventional. Mercy and forgiveness is not what we expect from human courts of law, from human judges and magistrates, or even from friends or family we may have deeply offended and hurt. But God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, says the prophet, and God’s ways are much higher than our ways.

The prophet cries out, “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters.” When I was a kid my family made several trips to visit relatives in Florida in, of all times August, which was scheduled after baseball season and before the beginning of school. There were ponds close to their house, which I walked to and fished in everyday just about all day. And one thing I distinctly remember besides catching a bunch of bass, is being thirsty. I stayed thirsty in the Florida heat.   

The living water of God’s abundant grace and forgiveness, a healing and redeeming relationship with God that can bring healing to all our relationships is available to all who thirst for it. So I guess the question is: Am I thirty for it. And if not, why not? Have the circumstances of my life left me numb? Have things done to me or things I have done to others left me with the feeling that I cannot change? There are any number of reasons why I may not be thirsty and so I need to ask what can I do to incite this thirst?

I can choose to be around loving people and learn from them; maybe I will catch their thirst for life. I can develop relationships that require something of me and move me beyond my own wants or interests and therefore nurture a thirst for something that is larger than my little world. I can pray and ask God to create in me a thirst for the kind of relationships that make a difference, not just in my life but also in the lives of others.

Now is the time. The prophet says, “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.” While God never gives up on us, we can miss opportunities to nurture a healing and life-giving relationship with God and with others right now that we will never get back. As the parable of the gardener In Luke 13 teaches there comes a time when the tree is cut down and the opportunity to bear fruit is gone. Israel missed their opportunity to change and avoid destruction by the Romans. We too, can miss opportunities to change our course and nurture healing, forgiving, grace-inspiring relationships.

If we choose we can plunge deeper into fear, deeper into prejudice, hate, and violence stifling all thirst for redeeming relationships. We can become absorbed in greed or in the need for retaliation for some offense done to us. We can be completely caught up in our own selfish agenda and curtail all thirst to be part of something much larger. Or we decide to break out of these destructive patterns and cycles that quench our spiritual thirst. As the Psalmist says, “Today is the day of salvation.” Today is the day for healing and hope and forgiveness to begin. So why not start right now – for the first time or the hundredth time. God’s grace is freely given to all no matter where you are on life’s journey.

O God, may we be quick to avail ourselves of your abundant grace and inner power that can free us from our destructive ways. Create in us a thirst for the water of life, a hunger for the food that will nourish the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. May we thirst for the kind of relationship with you that will heal and renew all our relationships. Give us the grace, the will and resolve to break cycles of resentment and anger and pursue life and peace. Amen. 

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Why no preacher quotes Jesus on Family Sunday (the third saying from the cross)

“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home” (John 19:25–27).
John’s Gospel is full of words and phrases that have multiple meanings and convey a rich symbolism. Many interpreters argue that these words of Jesus from the cross to his mother and the beloved disciple should be understood symbolically and theologically, rather than historically. In fact, these words closely resemble the formulas used for rites of adoption in the ancient world. Jesus had other blood brothers who had been present alongside his mother in Cana and they would have naturally been the ones to care for their mother. Assuming that Joseph had been dead for some time, Jesus’s mother would have been in their care.
Jesus’s mother appears twice in the Gospel of John, at the beginning and end of his ministry: at the wedding in Cana and at the cross. These two scenes form a bracket around Jesus’s ministry. At the wedding scene there is a foreboding of what is to come. When she asks him to do something to remedy the problem of running out of wine, Jesus says, “Woman, my hour has not yet come,” alluding to the hour of his death. (By the way, calling her “woman” was not intended to be derogatory or degrading in any way. Jesus also addressed the woman of Samaria (4:21) and Mary Magdalene (20:15) by this same word. In each instance where this word is used, the initial response to Jesus is one of incomprehension.) From John’s perspective Jesus’s pronouncement from the cross is not a reference to ordinary family relations, but to the nucleus of a new family that finds its center at the cross.
Most of us simply ignore Jesus’s hard sayings, not knowing what to make of them. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus indicates how his message divides families. He says,
For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother or son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me (Matt 10:35–37).
Another time, the Gospels tell us that Jesus’s mother and brothers came to try to talk him into going home with them. They thought he had lost his good sense. They could see that his present course was leading him into an inevitable clash with the dominating powers of the religious establishment and that could only mean one thing: Jesus would lose. While Jesus is teaching a crowd, his family arrives. When informed of their presence and that they are inquiring about him, he says,
“Who are my mother and brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:31–35).
Still another time, Jesus called a man to follow him whose father had just died. He wanted to bury his father. Jesus said, “Let the dead bury the dead, follow me” (Matt 8:22).
What are we to make of these sayings? About the only thing that makes sense is that Jesus had a larger vision and mission. (It may also be true that Jesus was ministering with a sense of urgency. This is debated by scholars, but he may have believed that the full realization of God’s reign/kingdom was imminent.)
Jesus envisioned a beloved community, the family of God, as constituting the core of the kingdom of God, God’s dream for the world. (God’s kingdom as understood by Jesus and his first followers could be paraphrased as God’s kin-dom.) Jesus’s commitment to this greater cause took precedence and priority over his own family.
For us it’s just the opposite. I admit, I’m not like Jesus in this area, and I suspect that most of you aren’t either. Most of us give preference to our own families and very few of us are able to embrace the possibility of the beloved community as Jesus envisioned. The first community of disciples as depicted by Luke in the book of Acts comes very close. Some interpreters think Luke’s description is more ideal than real. I’m not sure. Consider his description,
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved (Acts 2:42–47).
I don’t think I have ever heard a politician who claims to stand for Christian values appeal to this passage. I imagine the politicians who want to abolish welfare, social security, programs for the poor, and give tax breaks to the wealthy would like to cut this passage out of their Bibles. I’ve told my kids, “What’s mine is yours.” But I haven’t told any of my church members that. (By the way, I think that a healthy Christian spirituality will always hold in tension the radical demands of discipleship on one hand, and the radical grace of God on the other hand. It’s good to know that our failures at discipleship are met with grace, isn’t it?)
When Will Willimon was a chaplain to students and professor at Duke University he told a young woman who was a graduating senior and an active participant in their campus ministry that he wanted to meet her parents. She didn’t think that was a good idea. When he inquired, he was informed that her mother was really ticked off with him. She said, “She’s flipped out because I’m thinking about going to work with the poor. She liked the old me that she once had better than the new me who’s working with Jesus.”
In Luke’s Gospel, when Mary and Joseph bring their child to the old prophet Simeon in the temple for his blessing, he predicts that the child “is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel.” Then he warns Mary, “and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34­–35). Jesus broke the heart of his mother, and has divided many a family since.
The call of Jesus is a call to embrace a larger family and a greater cause than a single family can sustain. When Jesus talked about the kingdom of God he did not envisage a conquering, domineering empire, but a loving, caring household. And at the center of this household is the family of God, the beloved community.
(These reflections were adapted from chapter 4, “A New Family” of my book, Why Call Friday Good? Spiritual Reflections for Lent and Holy Week.)

Substitutionary Atonement Distorts the Good News (the second saying from the cross)

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus makes three statements from the cross. The first we considered in the last blog: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” The second word above is also a word of lavish grace uttered to a criminal hanging on the cross next to Jesus.
Only Luke has this promise of Jesus to the criminal. In Mark and Matthew both criminals ridicule Jesus. It’s possible that Luke’s version was part of the oral tradition passed down to him, though I think it is more likely that Luke intentionally altered Mark’s account to give us a snapshot of the gospel as he understood it.
According to Luke this criminal exonerates Jesus: “We are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Three times in Luke’s passion narrative Jesus is exonerated. First by Pilate, then by this criminal hanging with Jesus, and finally by the centurion at the end of the crucifixion scene who says, “Certainly this man was innocent” (23:47). This is Luke’s way of saying that Jesus was blameless of the charges leveled against him.
In Luke’s telling Jesus became a scapegoat to put an end to all scapegoating; he became a sacrifice to put an end to that whole system of sacrificing the innocent victim. Spiritually, socially, and psychologically, humans have always needed to find some way to deal with sin and guilt. Historically, humanity has employed sacrificial systems to that end. In ancient systems of religion, human sacrifices were offered to placate the deity (such as the firstborn, the virgin, the only child, etc., but rarely the adult man; these were mostly, if not all, patriarchal cultures). In the evolution of religious consciousness, animals took the place of humans.
The scapegoat mechanism was incorporated into Christianity when Christians adopted an interpretation of Jesus’s death that made Jesus a victim of a stern, punitive magistrate who required redemptive violence. This was primitive religion, more or less Christianized. This type of Christianity is by its very nature dualistic, leading to exclusion and often violence, because adherents think they have to destroy the evil element. Rarely do they see the evil in their own hearts; it is generally projected onto the other. This makes the God of Christians appear violent, vindictive, and petty.
What does Jesus do on the cross? According to Luke, he forgives. He bears the wrath and the hostility of the worldly powers—without returning evil for evil, without projecting fear or hate or evil back onto his persecutors and killers. Jesus exposed the folly and evil of scapegoat religion.
According to Luke’s version of the good news God has no need for cosmic, judicial retribution. If God can forgive sin, then God can forgive sin. There is no need for a divine payoff, or satisfaction of divine honor, or appeasement of divine wrath. Jesus’s death is not the solution to a problem residing in God; it’s the solution to the problem of evil residing in us. It is the ultimate, prototypical symbol of the nature and reality of God. Its redemptive power lies in its capacity to lure us into the mystery and miracle of unconditional forgiveness, reconciling grace, and healing love.
Radical grace means that there are no winners and losers. No one is beyond the pale and without hope. There is no first place or second place or third place, no pecking order or hierarchy of special people. So if you have worked all your life trying to be better than everyone else, it can be a real letdown. It means that life is not a competition for places and positions in the kingdom, like James and John had imagined when they asked Jesus for seats on his left and right. For some folks, that’s hard to take. If you are aspiring for greatness, then radical grace is not what you covet. Radical grace levels the playing field; it gathers us all into the same boat. If you are accustomed to going first class that could be a problem.
Both criminals on the cross were children of God. They both had made choices that brought them to this moment. In Luke’s version one died in bitterness, cursing God and mocking Jesus. The other died in peace, hopeful all was not lost.
(The reflections above were adapted from chapter 3, “The Gospel in a Snapshot” ofWhy Call Friday Good? Spiritual reflections for Lent and Holy Week.)

Monday, February 15, 2016

Preemptive forgiveness (The first saying from the cross)

“Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing”

Can the spiral of violence that plagues our planet and fractures relationships, ravaging families, communities, and whole societies, ever be neutralized and overcome? Are we caught in a web from which we cannot tear loose?

Jesus refuses to get sucked into the spiral of violence. On the night of his betrayal and arrest, one of his disciples draws his sword and strikes the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Jesus exclaims, “No more of this!” And to make his point, he touches the man’s ear and restores it. Violence never brings healing. Never. It may, on some occasions, bring an end to overt violence, but it often causes the violence to escalate. It cannot heal or redeem. There is no redemptive violence.

Only forgiveness can exhaust the constantly spinning spiral of violence and offer redemptive possibilities. But we rarely do it, because it is so costly. Look at Jesus on the cross, bearing the violence, enduring the punishment and torture inflicted by the powers that be. What does he do in reaction? He responds to the violence with a preemptive strike of forgiveness. The enormity of the sin against Jesus is countered only by the magnitude of Jesus’ grace toward his killers.

There are two primary ways we avoid forgiveness. First, we avoid forgiveness when we fail to face the wrongs we have done and admit to those we have offended and to God the hurt and pain our actions have caused. I suspect there are many reasons for this. Perhaps we are too entrapped by our greed, pride, envy, jealousy, or our self-consumption. Or maybe we take some sadistic pleasure in vengeance or in destroying the competition. For whatever reason, there are those of us who simply refuse to face and admit our guilt.

We avoid it, also, when we deny that we need it. Have you ever been forgiven, and then wondered what you were forgiven for? When it is pointed out to us, typically our first response is to offer some justification for our actions. In the movie Unforgiven, just after the Kid kills one of the two cowboys in the Bar-T’s outhouse, the Kid and Munny flee to a mountainside and drink whiskey. Contrary to his earlier bravado, this was the first man the Kid ever killed. He had been mostly talk and now he is visibly shaken by his deed. He says to Munny, “It doesn’t seem right. He’ll never breathe again. . . . All on account of pulling a trigger.” Munny responds, “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man.” The Kid finally exclaims in justification, “I guess he had it coming.” We seem to always be looking for ways to justify that they had it coming  

The religious leaders thought they were ridding their community of a heretic, a false Messiah. Pilate thought he was ridding the Empire of a trouble-maker. Or if Pilot did not regard Jesus as a real threat, he surely was doing what he thought was necessary to appease his constituency and secure their cooperation for his agenda. The Roman soldiers were just doing their job, following orders, and having a little fun with someone whom they considered less than human—an enemy of the State who deserved to die. In one sense, they did not know what they were doing. But such ignorance or delusion doesn’t make them, or us, less culpable.

The words of Jesus on the cross reveal to us that Jesus will not even abandon his killers and tormentors. The living Christ extends to us the same forgiveness as the Jesus of the Gospels offered his enemies. The question is: Can we accept such acceptance? The gift is given freely, unconditionally, but accepting the gift means that we accept the responsibility that goes with it. In order to receive the forgiveness offered to us unconditionally, we must be willing to embody the same kind of forgiveness. There can be no authentic experience of forgiveness without the practice of forgiveness.

Christ has come to set us free from the cycles of violence and counter-violence, from the habits of retaliation and revenge that diminish our lives and lay waste our world. The hope of our world and the future of our planet depend upon our acquiring the spiritual courage and inner strength to forgive one another as Christ has forgiven us.

(During Lent I will be sharing reflections on the seven last words of Jesus from the cross adapted from my book, Why Call Friday Good?: SpiritualReflections for Lent and Holy Week. Today’s meditation was excerpted from chapter 2, “Preemptive Forgiveness.”) 

No Escaping the Desert (a sermon on Luke 4:1-11)

The devil has been the subject of many jokes. For those of you my age or older who can forget Flip Wilson on “Laugh in” poking fun saying, “The Devil made me do it.” I heard about one lady who purchased a very expensive dress and when she got home her husband asked her why she bought it. He said, “You know, we can’t afford that.” She said, “Well, honey, the devil made me do it. I was trying it on in the store and he whispered, ‘I’ve never seen you look more gorgeous than you do in that dress.’ Her husband quipped, “Why didn’t you say, ‘Get behind me, Satan?’” She said, “I did” and the devil said, “It looks great from behind too.”

I try to avoid two extremes in reading this story. There are those, on the one hand, who read this literally or factually. There are others, at the polar opposite who dismiss it as legend or fable. I don’t take it literally, but I take it very seriously. This is a story of the struggles that we all face in the quest to discern who we are and what we are about. And in particular, how will we go about what we are about. The challenge Jesus faced and the challenge anyone who aspires to do good must face is: How do I go about it? What means will I employ to bring about a good end?

The desert throughout the biblical story is a place of testing. There is no escaping the desert – either for Jesus or his followers. In the crucible of trial we are tested. It’s where character is forged.

The spiritual writer Henry Nouwen calls this first temptation the temptation to be relevant. Jesus had been fasting and was hungry. The devil seems to speak with the voice of reason, even compassion. What could be more relevant than providing bread for Jesus to eat after a long fast. But sometimes the presenting problem is not the real problem. Is bread what one needs when coming off a fast? An extended fast is broken not by eating a chunk of bread, but is broken gradually with liquids and soft foods.

When Jesus responds, “One does not live by bread alone” he is suggesting that there are deeper needs. Of course, if you are hungry or your children are hungry then you are not concerned with deeper needs. You have no need to be. Your concern is feeding your family. Your concern is survival. But once these needs are met then we are faced with deeper ones.

Henry Nouwen left his teaching post at Harvard to be a chaplain to a house of handicapped people. He said that the first thing that struck him was how their liking or disliking him had nothing to do with any of the useful things he had done until then. They didn’t care about his degrees, or his prominent teaching posts at Yale and Harvard, or his wide church experience. They didn’t care about any of that, nor did they need to.    

The skills that had proved so practical and useful in his past was not much good there.  He suddenly faced his naked self, open for affirmations and rejections, hugs and shrugs, all dependent on how he was perceived at the moment. Nouwen writes, “it forced me to rediscover my true identity . . . forced me to let go of my relevant self—the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things—and forced me to reclaim that unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments.” 

I believe this is the place where we all need to come to, where we are compelled to let go of our relevant self and stand before God and each other in all our vulnerability to be loved not for what we have done or can do, but for simply being ourselves

Next, Jesus is taken to a high place and shown all the kingdoms of the world and offered all their authority and power if he would bow down to the devil. This is not simply a temptation to acquire power. Think of all the good Jesus could do with that kind of power. The subtlety of temptation is: If I had this position or power, think of all the good I could do. But power comes with a cost.

When you think about it, no one really seizes power, it seizes them. We think we will exercise power for good, but power tends to take on a life of its own. Think of the symbolism of the ring of power in the Lord of the Rings. That story captures something that is very true about human nature. Gollum is turned into a monstrous, pathetic little creature by the ring of power. In fact, the ring of power draws everyone who possesses it into its own power. Actually, no one possesses it, it possesses them. Those who wield its power think they will wield it for good, but it always turns its possessor into a lesser human being.   

Perhaps one of the reasons the temptation to grasp power is so appealing is that it offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It is easier to play God than love God, easier to control people than to love people. It’s easier to tell people what to do than have them to do it out of respect or gratitude or love.
Jesus knew quite clearly the way to real spiritual transformation. Real conversion comes not by assuming a high place, but by assuming a low place. The Gospels tells us that the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life for the liberation of others. According to the great Christ hymn in Philippians 2 spiritual power is experienced not through grasping, but emptying ourselves of any need for worldly power. Then we can serve others simply for the good of others and not for some personal benefit.

In the final temptation Jesus is taken to the highest point of the temple and told to throw himself off forcing a divine deliverance. What could be gained by putting on a good show? What can be accomplished by the spectacular and the sensational? Well, I suspect that not a few would say a lot can be done. A lot of time and money in religion and Christianity in particular goes in to putting on a good show.

Of course, Jesus again would not have been enticed to simply be popular. He might, however, think of all the good he could do if he was popular. And that’s the real temptation for many of us isn’t it? Think of all the good we can do.

Luke concludes this story by saying that when the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him for an opportune time—suggesting that we can never let down on guard. It would not be hard to justify individually or as a church corporately the pursuit of relevance, power, or popularity for the sake of a greater good. Just think of all the good we could do. It’s an easy sell. After all, this is exactly how the kingdoms of the world function right? The problem is that it makes us less human rather than more human. Remember the question Jesus asked, “What good is it to gain the whole world, but lose your soul in the process?”

The struggle here gets at the heart and soul of who we are and what we are about. You may have noticed that twice the tempter begins with the words, “If you are the Son of God.” Dare we believe that we really are the daughters and sons of God? Dare we claim our true identity as God’s beloved children? Dare we claim to be loved with an eternal love before all other loves?

The paradox here is that we come to experience such love, we come to realize our true identity as God’s daughters and sons, not by denying or ignoring the sinful parts of us, but by accepting and owning them.

The renowned writer, Annie Dillard has said that in the depths of human reality are “the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us.” But she has said, if we “ride these monsters deeper down” then we come to a place that “our sciences cannot locate or name.” We discover that place “which gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil.”

The Quaker educator Parker Palmer tells about being terrified at the prospect of propelling down a 110 foot cliff as part of an outdoor challenge program he participated in called Outward Bound. On his way down he came to a very large crevice in the rock, and he froze. He couldn’t move. The instructor yelled down to him that he needed to do exactly what the Outward Bound motto says to do. Parker didn’t know the motto. The instructor called out: If you can’t get out of it, get into it. His only way out was to go in.

Some monsters won’t go away. If we ignore them or deny them or repress them, they simply come back with a vengeance. We can’t go around them or avoid them. We have to face them. Our story today begins with Luke telling us that Jesus was led (actually compelled) by the Spirit into the desert. The Spirit always leads us into this struggle.  

The way we become more like Christ, the way we grow and become more caring, loving, compassionate human beings, is not by denying our egocentricity, it’s not by denying that we have these longings for relevance, for power, for popularity, or anything else that feeds the ego. The only way forward is to face very honestly and sincerely these monsters that lurk within. We have to ride these monsters down into the depths so that when we emerge, we can leave the monsters down there – at least for a time anyway.

Mark’s account of the temptation is very brief covering only two verses. Mark’s Gospel simply says Jesus was tempted by Satan and that “he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” The symbolism here is powerful. We all live in the midst of wild beasts and angels. There are angelic and demonic powers swirling about inside and outside of us. If we hope to become more - more grateful, generous, gracious human beings – then then we have to confront the wild beasts lurking at the door, we have to name the demons that want to possess us, remembering that angels are here to help us, and the angels come in many forms. 

Now sisters and brothers, lest we become too discouraged it behooves us to remember that the really good news is that no matter what monsters or demons we struggle with, nothing, absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God that we have come to know in Christ. Don’t be afraid of the desert sisters and brothers. Don’t be afraid to ride the monsters down. Let the Spirit lead you there.

Our good God as we begin the journey of Lent  give us the will and courage to be honest with ourselves, to not fear these inner demons, to not hide our selfish inclinations – whether its toward relevance, or power, or popularity, or whatever promises to boost our ego or make us happy. Give us the will to face and struggle with anything that falls short of your love and goodness and grace. May we be willing to honestly look at ourselves as we share in the bread and cup which is offered to all of us. 

Monday, February 8, 2016

Thin Places (A sermon from Luke 9:28-36)

Even if you are not a baseball fan you may have heard about the blown call by umpire Jim Joyce during the 2010 season that prevented Detroit pitcher Armando Galarraga from pitching a perfect game, which is an extremely rare occurrence. Any major league pitcher who pitches a perfect game cements a place in baseball history.

With only one batter left to face, umpire Joyce called a runner safe at first, when in reality (as instant replay conclusively demonstrated) he was out by half a step. You can imagine the splash this made in sports media. What might be missed, however, is the story that occurred afterward. Galarraga couldn’t believe the call; he knew the batter was out. He knew the implications of what just took place. And yet, he was calm—no emotional outburst, no blame (he left that for the manager), just a smile and back to work to finish his job. Galarraga’s restraint from the perspective of professional sports was truly an exercise of grace.

Then after the game when umpire Joyce watched the replay and realized that he had blown the call, he was sick with remorse. Refusing to justify his call or hide his emotion, he publicly admitted he was wrong and expressed a gut-wrenching personal apology to Galarraga and baseball fans everywhere, offering no excuses. 

The next day when the two teams faced off again in the series, Joyce, as scheduled, assumed his duties as home plate umpire. It was his turn to be behind the plate. Each team is responsible for bringing the starting lineup to the home plate umpire. Usually this is the task of the manager or a coach or a team captain, but this day it was Galarraga himself who walked out of the Detroit dugout. Galarraga and Joyce met in full view of a stadium of people and shook hands. Joyce was so emotional he couldn’t speak. With eyes full of tears and lips trembling, he accepted the lineup card and gently touched Galarraga on the arm.       
Forgiveness was extended and accepted; mercy was given and received. As you would expect some fans did not appreciate the gesture. Some however did and they clapped and cheered. It was a moment of grace, and in the world of professional competitive baseball, extravagant grace, maybe even scandalous grace (at least, some fans thought so).  

One Christian writer describing this encounter between Galarraga and Joyce said that he experienced the event as a “thin place.” What did he mean? The phrase “thin place” emerged within Celtic Christianity in the fifth century. A “thin place” is a place where the world of God and the world of creation touch. A place where God’s radiant goodness, the light and love and presence of God become almost palpable. A place where the veil is pulled back a bit and we are able to see a little more clearly and feel a little more deeply the divine grace present in life. It’s a place where we almost touch the Divine.

We could call what the three disciples experience with Jesus on the mountain a “thin place.” But to be honest, it’s hard to know what to make of this particular experience in the life of these disciples. Gospel scholar Alan Culpepper, has noted that whatever this experience actually involved it seemed to have little impact on the disciples as told by our Gospel writers. They still do not understand Jesus’ talk about his death, which according to Luke was the conversation on the mountain. They still argue about who is going to be the greatest. And they still desert Jesus in his hour of need. Culpepper says that the implication is that these three disciples were not transformed at all by their “mountaintop” experience. I would have to agree.

So could we call their experience a “thin place?” Maybe it was, but whether or not such experiences move us to new places and change us will depend largely on how we respond to such experiences.

An important question is: Should we seek such experiences? Should we pray for “thin places” or pursue them? I suppose it depends on whether such an experience will help or hinder us. Would such an experience inflate the ego or would it inspire us to be more compassionate and caring persons? Things could be made worse if God were to interfere in our lives.

There is a wonderful story in the novel Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis about a man who was absorbed in watching a caterpillar. In time, it formed a cocoon. As he anxiously waited its metamorphosis into a butterfly, one morning there was movement in the cocoon. He could see the little head poking out, but noticed the caterpillar was mightily struggling to free itself. He thought he would help the process, so he broke the cocoon open, but instead of flying the butterfly dropped to the ground. What he didn’t know is that part of the process for a caterpillar to become a butterfly involves exercising its wings inside the cocoon in order to acquire the necessary strength to fly. If our experience of God does not move us to greater compassion and mercy and engagement in matters of redemptive justice then such experiences may do more harm than good.  

It doesn’t matter what sort of experience we have we still have to act on that experience. I said last week that we are all lost until we experience divine love. But still, healing and liberation and spiritual and personal growth in love and compassion requires action on our part. We must appropriate these experiences in ways that enlarge our own capacity to love others, and we must express that love in concrete, tangible ways.

And we must not wait for an experience. I have had as many experiences of divine grace while doing something useful as I have had in solitude, as important as solitude is. Prayer is both doing and waiting, both actively serving others and passively abiding in silence.

In the story as Luke tells it Moses and Elijah, representatives of the law and the prophets, representatives of the heart and soul of Judaism appear with Jesus. Peter immediately reacts wanting to build three dwellings. I get the sense he wants to control and manage this experience. Isn’t that typical of all of us. Luke comments that Peter had no idea what he was talking about, he was just reacting. The heavenly voice from the cloud says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” The focus here is clearly on Jesus – his life and message. And as Christians that is where our focus must be.

Jesus functions in the Gospels as the quintessential human being, the archetypal, exemplar representative of God. As Christ followers we have attached ourselves to Jesus to learn from Jesus how to be what he was. We, too, are called to be divine image bearers, to reflect and incarnate God’s radiant grace and goodness. We are called, like Jesus, to be bearers of the light of God – and maybe this is main message of the story. It reveals what is possible for disciples of Jesus. The light of course comes from God – it is pure gift, but it is our light, it is within us and its natural inclination is to shine through us. This is what John’s Gospel is getting at in its introduction when it talks about the true light which found expression in Jesus as the light that enlightens every person. This light is in you and me and its natural inclination is to shine.

There is a wonderful story about a monk who was away from the monastery in a desolate place where a hungry tiger took notice of him walking along the path. The monk spotted the tiger in the distance and could tell he was in danger so he began to run. He found himself at the edge of a cliff with the tiger not far behind. He could see a rope dangling from the side that someone had used to shimmy down the side, so he leaped over the edge and latched hold of the rope just as the tiger’s ferocious claws whipped past his face. As he started to make his way down, he soon discovered that the rope only went about half way and at the bottom lay a quarry with large, jagged rocks. As he hung there suspended between the tiger above and the sharp rocks below he observed two mice about ten feet above him nibbling at the rope. Just then as he turned to his side he spotted directly in front of him the largest, most beautiful strawberry he had ever seen. He plucked it, turned is around slowly in his hand admiring it, carefully taking in the aroma, then he lifted it gently into his mouth, savoring its sweet taste. He remarked to himself, “Undoubtedly this is the best strawberry I have ever tasted.” 

How many of us would have been able to appreciate and enjoy the strawberry? I suspect that some of us most of the time and all of us some of the time find it difficult to enjoy the present moment, because of the tigers behind us and the jagged rocks before us.

We will never know the wonder, beauty, and grace that can erupt into a constant flow of gratitude and generosity in our lives unless we are fully alive to the present moment. Most of us our too preoccupied. We are too bogged down with the failures, mistakes, and burdens of our past and/or we are too bogged down with the uncertainties, worries, and fears of the future, thus preventing us from experiencing the grace and goodness of being alive right now.

Mary Oliver is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who often writes about “thin places.” She writes about such an experience in the sunrise and sunset. She asks,

Have you ever seen
in your life
more wonderful

than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon

and in the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone –
and how it slides again

out of the blackness,
every morning,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower

streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance –
and have you ever felt for anything

such wild love –
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
empty-handed –
or have you too
turned from this world –
(that is, have you turned from this larger world, this alternative world, the world that is alive with the light of God’s presence and grace)

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?

She suggests that this world of light and love is accessible to all of us, but we can turn from it, we can miss it altogether by going crazy for power or for things. Oliver is suggesting, I think, that we can be so full of stuff, so preoccupied with things – like power or position or possessions or whatever – we can be so full of things that we are blind to the light shining all around us and within us.

I don’t believe we need to go seeking “thin places,” but I am sure we need to be alert, awake, and attentive to any experience where the Divine Light can shine through. And you don’t have to be in a worship service for that to happen. In fact, I believe the true value of our worship experiences in community is that they prepare us to be open to the Divine Reality everywhere in our lives – on the baseball field, in the work place, in a casual conversation, in our work with charity or mission groups, everywhere. (I think way too much worship today simply makes participants addicted to that particular experience so that many participants limit God to that experience).

When the Light that fills the universe connects with the Light within a spark may just ignite a flame of grace and gratitude empowering us to love more deeply, give more generously, and live more fearlessly. Then, sisters and brothers, we not only become more likely to encounter thin places, we may actually become a thin place ourselves.  

Our good God, there are so many things to distract us from the eternal, so many things that would keep us turned away from the Light. Help us to pay attention, to be open to the light of your love and grace all around us. And may we appropriate these glimpses and experiences in ways that feed the flame of your presence and love within us, so that we too might be light in the world reflecting your character and your good and gracious will. Amen.

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.