Sunday, March 27, 2016

Stop Clinging and Start Living (a sermon from John 20:1-18 and Acts 10:34-43)

Regardless of what you or I or any Christian believes about the nature of Jesus’ resurrection or what a resurrected state of existence might look like, I think the real message of Easter has to do with what it means to trust in and be faithful to the reality and power of Christ in our lives today. Easter is not simply about God raising a human being from the dead, which I personally don’t think is that big of a deal for God to do. I think the big deal of Easter is what it says to you and me right now. And what it says is that the faith, hope, and love of Jesus, the goodness and grace of Jesus, the compassion and comfort of Jesus, the courage and prophetic critique and challenge of Jesus is present right now and accessible right now.

I love this image in John’s Gospel of Mary Magdalene clinging to Jesus once she realizes it is Jesus. It calls to mind all the ways I try to keep Jesus in my little box and all the ways I cling to the same old tired and worn ways of thinking and reacting to life. If we could see with a deeper sense of what constitutes the reality and truth of things we would be liberated to live in the power of Christ, the power of love that is available to all of us. We would be free to dream, and we would find the courage and faith to break out of old negative habits and patterns that have us trapped. Surely, the message of Easter compels us to imagine new categories, new possibilities, new ways of thinking, feeling, and doing life. 

If we would allow the power of resurrection, the power of love to impact our lives now then we would be able to stop clinging to the failures and regrets of our past.

One of the beautiful images in the resurrection stories is the way Jesus comes to his disciples. Several of the stories mention the fear of the disciples when they hear the message that he is alive or when he first appears to them. Why would they be afraid? Well, consider what resurrection signified. It meant that God had vindicated Jesus and appointed him lord and judge, as the passage we read in Acts points out. Now think about their final dealings with Jesus. They had deserted and denied him. We highlight Peter’s denial because it is given special emphasis in the tradition and because he was so outspoken about his willingness to die with Jesus, but they all abandoned Jesus. They all failed Jesus and fled.

So when Jesus appears to them who has been appointed Lord and judge we can expect them to fearful. But what does Jesus say? How does he greet them? “Peace be with you.” That is so Jesus! He doesn’t come as their judge, but as their friend. Like the father in the parable of Luke 15 who runs to embrace his returning son, Jesus has already forgiven them. Jesus has no interest at all in dwelling on their past failures and fears. He wants them to be filled with courage and hope so they might proclaim and share the good news of the kingdom of God.  

I can’t relate to someone who says, “I have no regrets.” Maybe they don’t, but my first thoughts are: I bet they have lots of regrets they have pushed down in the unconscious because they are too painful. I bet they have repressed them. I can think of many situations where I would respond differently today. There are confrontations that I would handle much differently. I would respond differently in any number of situations with my wife and family, my church family, with friends and colleagues. I would hope I would respond more positively and more wisely and I believe I would because I’m in a different place today. So while I have many regrets, I refuse to dwell on them or cling to them, to give them any time or attention because of the power of forgiveness, because of the power of love and life that draws me into the vision and passion of Christ. So these regrets over past failures and mistakes and poor decisions do not define me or deflate me or disillusion me, because I choose to live in the power of Christ’s love right now which brings healing and hope. I can let these regrets go. Maybe some of you here today need to let go of your past failures and regrets that are hindering you from thriving in the present.  

Jesus greets the disciples who failed him, who forsook him with forgiveness and peace. And he expects them to pass his peace on. He doesn’t want them wallowing in guilt. He wants them to proclaim the good news and live in the joy of forgiveness. Forgiveness, however, as I say often always flows in two directions at once. Anytime I refuse to forgive someone who has hurt and offended me I block the flow of God’s grace into my life. And that’s when I become bitter and angry and resentful and selfish. But when the power of resurrection flows through us we are able to let go and break free from the resentments and petty jealousies and bitterness that hold us down.

God would have us embody the gratitude and generosity and grace of Christ right now. God would have us live with vibrancy and vitality, to be conduits of God’s grace, and we can’t do that if we are still clinging to our failures and regrets or to our anger and lack of forgiveness. The living Christ is saying to you and me: stop clinging and start living.

Some of us may be clinging to our dogmatism and certitudes that foster exceptionalism and elitism. Some of us may be of the notion that God takes our side and favors us over other religious groups or those who do not profess faith. Some of us may be clinging to a message of exclusion that leaves many people out in the cold and no place for them at the table.

Philip Newell tells about one of the teachers he has worked closely with over the years, a rabbi whose name is Nahum. Several summers ago he and Philip were teaching separate classes at a Conference in New Mexico. One morning Philip’s group was reflecting on this passage that is our Gospel reading today from John’s Gospel. As Philip reflected on the passage with his group, he kept thinking of Nahum and felt like he had to speak to him about the story. He wanted to make a theological comment about how Christianity has tried to “hold on to” Jesus and make him exclusively ours.

When Philip found Nahum after class in the lunch line they proceeded to find a picnic table where Philip began to share his observation with him. But as he shared with his Jewish rabbi friend, he began to weep. Instead of being just a theological observation, it became a confession to his Jewish friend how we Christians have tried to make Jesus an exclusive Christian possession, when in reality he belongs to all of us. Jesus was born a Jew, lived a Jew, and died as a faithful Jew. He was not a Christian. Christianity came later. Philip asks, “How can we both love him and, at the same time, not clutch him possessively? How can we cherish the gift of his teachings and not claim them solely as ours?

In the passage in Acts that Lisa read earlier, that text begins with Peter saying, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” To fear God, in this context, does not mean “be afraid of” God, but rather it means to give reverence or respect to God. This is how “fear” is used in the wisdom tradition of the Hebrew Bible. We could actually paraphrase this to read, “anyone who fears God by doing what is right is acceptable to Gold.” Regardless of what one believes intellectually, mentally, conceptually about God, one respects God, one honors God when one does what is good, just, fair, and right. This is how we honor God, by honoring the creation and working for peace and restorative justice – that is, justice that restores relationships, restores freedoms, restores rights, restores equity and equality. When we do what is compassionate and loving and good, when we care for the creation and each other, we are fearing God, honoring God, respecting God.

Peter didn’t come to this on his own. He needed some help. It took Peter seeing a vision three times before he got it. Sometimes for us it takes a while. It was a vision of all kinds of unclean animals. Peter was told to eat in direct violation of the purity laws of his tradition, the laws of clean and unclean. Peter realized though it wasn’t just about dietary laws, it was about more. He tells the Gentile Cornelius, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” Why? Because everyone is a child of God that’s why.

Later in the book of Acts Paul tells the philosophers and intellectuals at Athens that we are all the offspring of God and that in God we all, each one, move, live, and have our existence. And in our Gospel text today, the risen Christ tells Mary to go tell the others that he is returning to “my Father and your Father, my God and your God.” Jesus, himself, has no exclusive claim on God. The God of Jesus is also the God of creation, the God of all the earth, and the God of you and me.

This should serve as a corrective to the view that only one who believes certain things about Jesus or is in the right group can be made whole and be acceptable to God. We are all God’s children and God is pleased with anyone, regardless of what they believe, who does what is good and right and loving and just. God doesn’t show partiality. God’s grace and gifts, God’s presence and power is not limited to Christians.

The cosmic Christ can take many different forms and can come to us in many different ways. We can’t hold the Christ down and claim the Christ to be exclusively ours. I believe the living Christ would urge us to let go and stop clinging to our narrowness, our prejudices, and our claims that we alone have the truth. The living Christ is saying, “Stop clinging and start living.”

Lastly, some of us may be clinging to grief. Grief is the most natural thing in the world. If we do not grieve our losses then there is a good chance we are not emotionally healthy. Much has been written about what constitutes a healthy grief and the process we go through, and it is not my intention to revisit that here. There are lots of good material available. And some losses are so painful that we will feel the pain the rest of our lives. Healthy grief work does not eliminate all the pain, but it helps us cope and go on and find some measure of peace and joy in our present lives and relationships. But sometimes, we can get stuck in our grief and it can be stifling and smothering. One way out is by sharing with a caring, loving community who can help bear our grief.

I mentioned Philip Newell earlier. Philip has written several books on Celtic Christianity and at one time he was the warden of Iona Abbey in the Western Isles of Scotland. Iona is a kind of “thin” place, sacred place, and one of his responsibilities was to lead guests on a pilgrimage around the Island. One pilgrimage included a couple named Larry and Bunny from Texas. They had been married for over half a century and were still very much in love. During dinner together the first evening a conversation arouse about death. A question posed was: If you could choose, how would you like to die? Bunny, who was the first to respond, said she would like to die in her sleep. That night Bunny died in her sleep.

When Philip found Larry the next morning he was sobbing with grief. His whole being was shaking with the shock of loss. But amid his tears he told Philip that he should continue teaching with the group that day. He also said that he wanted to remain with them on pilgrimage for the rest of the week. That, he said, would be want Bunny would want. Well, this ran completely counter to all of Philip’s pastoral instincts. Philip thought he should immediately return home to be with his family in Texas. But later that day Larry spoke to his children and grandchildren. And they agreed with Larry that he should stay on pilgrimage and when he returned they would all grieve together.

Philip said that Larry did not hide his grief from the group, but vulnerably and beautifully opened his grief to the community on pilgrimage together, making that pilgrimage the most memorable ever. Larry showed the group his brokenness and allowed his fellow pilgrims to share in his brokenness and to share their own brokenness too.

Award winning poet Mary Oliver writes: To live in this world / you must be able / to do three things: / to love what is mortal; / to hold it / against your bones knowing / your own life depends on it; / and, when the time comes to let it go, / to let it go.

What do you and I need to let go of today? What is it that we need to stop clinging too, so that we can start living in the power of love, which is the power of Christ’s resurrection? Do we need to stop clinging to negative attitudes and habits: resentment, bitterness, guilt, or regret? Do we need to stop holding on to our exceptionalism and feelings of superiority? And even though we feel the pain of some losses the rest or our lives, do we need to move on from debilitating grief? Could the living Christ be saying to us today: Stop clinging and start living? There is so much to live for.   

If you will look at a map of Palestine you will notice two bodies of water connected by a single river. The river Jordan flows down from Mount Hermon in the highlands into the Sea of Galilee, which is actually a lake. It is not a large lake, but it is a fresh, clear lake teeming with fish and its shores are a paradise of orchards, fields, and gardens. Then the water flows out as the river Jordan meanders down to another body of water, the Dead Sea. What a contrast! It’s called the Dead Sea because nothing can live there. Its shores are a desert wasteland. There is no life in the water or around the water. When I was on pilgrimage in Israel several years ago we spent an afternoon there. We got in the water. And guess what? We floated. The water is so salty you can’t sink. It is too deadly for fish and unfit for irrigation. The water of the Jordan flows into the Dead Sea, but unlike the Sea of Galilee it doesn’t flow out again. It just sits there and stagnates.

It is not enough to just stop clinging – to our regrets and resentments, our exclusive claim to have God on our side, and our debilitating grief. We do need to stop clinging, but we also need to start living, we must open our lives to the living water of God’s love and grace and allow the life and love of God to flow through us so that our lives become a blessing to others. So that our lives can be a source of life to others. Life and blessing that stops flowing becomes a curse. So let’s stop clinging and let’s start living by the power of Christ’s love and live. Let’s be an Easter people.

Our good God, may the faith, hope, and love that Jesus embodied live on in us. May the power of new life surge through us breaking the chains that would bind us to our past failures and old ways of thinking and living. May the life of Christ restore us and heal us and free us to be a blessing to all those around us. 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Was Jesus' death necessary for our salvation? (the seventh saying from the cross)

Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
These words of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel are equivalent to Jesus’s words in John’s Gospel, “It is finished.” The Gospels of Mark and Matthew include only one saying of Jesus from the cross: His cry of abandonment, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The other six sayings of Jesus are found in Luke and John.
In Mark and Matthew the emphasis is on Jesus as a participant in our suffering. Jesus shares our pain and loss. Jesus knows what it is like to feel forsaken, even by God. Jesus, for the most part, is a passive victim. In Luke and John, Jesus is still a victim, but he is not passive. There is no sense of Jesus feeling forsaken in Luke or John. In Luke’s portrait, Jesus dies as a courageous and faithful martyr. We need both portraits. We need to know that God suffers with us, that God identifies with our experiences of forsakenness and feelings of abandonment. But we also need to know that neither Jesus nor God was surprised by the crucifixion, and that God incorporated Jesus’s death into God’s redemptive plan. In Luke, Jesus is the overcoming victim, offering his life sacrificially.
By sacrifice I do not mean that Jesus died to appease God’s wrath, or satisfy God’s justice, or pay some debt owed to God. I do not mean that Jesus bore a penalty imposed by God. I have said before Jesus did not die to save us from God. We do not need to be saved from God. We need to be saved from our sins, from the hate, greed, prejudice, and violence that have roots in every human heart and found collective expression through the religious and political powers that killed Jesus.
The Apostle Paul and many of the early Christians used sacrificial imagery to talk about the significance of Jesus’s death, but they never attempted to explain the imagery. The New Testament employs several different metaphors drawn from the cultic life and worship of Judaism. The writers spiritualize the images, leaving behind the more primitive ideas associated with religious sacrifice, such as the appeasement or paying off of an angry deity. But they do not expand or offer additional commentary on the metaphors, leaving the readers (the faith community) to make the connection between Jesus’s death and the images.
Paul informs the church at Corinth that he “handed on” to them what he “had received” (as part of the common Christian tradition), namely, that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3­–4). The background for this metaphor of Christ dying for our sins is found in the sacrifices for sins offered in the temple. According to temple theology during the time of Jesus, certain sins and impurities could only be remitted through sacrifice. The temple priests controlled this process and actually held an institutional monopoly on the forgiveness of sins. In other words, the temple system of sacrifice determined who had or did not have access to God.
When the early Christians said that Jesus died for our sins, or that he was the sacrifice for our sins, it had a subversive effect. They were pointing to Christ as the one who broke the temple monopoly on forgiveness. It was their way of saying that whatever might keep one from experiencing God’s love, whatever might alienate one from God or from one’s sisters and brothers in the human family, has been dealt with in Jesus. One does not need to go through the temple ritual of sacrifice. It was a statement of radical grace.
Jesus died sacrificially in that he gave his life for God’s cause, for a vision of a world healed, made whole, and put to right. Jesus died in pursuit of God’s dream for the world, God’s peaceable kingdom. His death marked the culmination of a life of humility, prophetic courage, compassion, nonviolence, and self-giving for the good of others. Jesus died the way he lived.
So was Jesus’s death necessary for our redemption? From God’s end of it did Jesus have to die? Absolutely not. In no sense is God’s forgiveness conditioned upon Jesus’s death. God forgives sin because God is a forgiving God. Nor does our personal transformation into God’s likeness demand Jesus’s death either. Persons of other religious faiths are able to relate to God and pursue other paths of transformation apart from attaching any saving significance to the death of their mediators.
However, I believe God is able to make use of Jesus’s death much the same way God uses suffering in our lives to bring about spiritual enlightenment and growth. God doesn’t require or want human suffering. I believe it breaks God’s heart. However, at this stage in our spiritual evolution we seem to need some degree of suffering to release us from the grip of the ego and move us along the path of spiritual transformation. Spiritual writer Richard Rohr often says that it almost always takes great experiences of love and suffering to change us.
Jesus himself seems to have understood this when he called his disciples to participate with him in his death. Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). On one level, Jesus knew he was going to die and he expected his followers to be prepared to give up their lives too. On another level, Jesus knew that to “deny self” (dying to/renouncing the ego) is necessary for spiritual progress and that we all have our own crosses to bear. Luke clearly grasped this when he added the word “daily” to his version of the saying: “let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
The only time the Apostle Paul ever elaborated on the redemptive significance of Jesus’s death more than a sentence or two was in his letter to the Romans where he spoke of dying to sin with Christ (not sins plural, but sin singular; sin as an enslaving power) in order to walk in the newness of life through Christ’s Spirit (Rom. 6-8). In his letter to the Philippians Paul spoke of his passion to know the power of Christ’s resurrection by “sharing in his sufferings,” thus “becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:10). In no sense was Jesus’s death ever a substitution, but it became a transformative symbol in the way it called followers of Jesus to participate in the pattern of death and resurrection. Did all the early Christians understand this and did they all interpret Jesus’s death in the same way? Of course not. But clearly, spiritual participation in Jesus’s death was an important way many Christians appropriated it redemptively.
What about today? Are we past that? Can we safely now dispense with the centrality of the cross? I think we would do well to keep it central if we can get past all the primitive and petty ideas associated with God requiring or needing Jesus to die for us. The cross can be a powerful lure and a transformative symbol inviting us to share in Jesus’s death by our willingness to suffer for the good of others and our willingness to die to our ego (our need for power, position, prestige, etc). We can then live in the power of Christ’s Spirit for the good of others and for the cause of God in the world. In this way, the message of the cross is indeed good news.
(Much of the above was adapted from my book on the seven sayings of Jesus from the cross titled, Why Call Friday Good: Spiritual Reflections for Lent and Holy Week.)

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Cosmic Cross (the sixth saying of Jesus from the cross)

A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit (John 19:29).
According to a consensus of scholarship, Mark’s Gospel was written first just before, during, or shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E. One to two decades later the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were written. Finally, one to two decades after Matthew and Luke came the Gospel of John. All the Gospels are first and foremost spiritual and theological proclamations of the meaning of the story of Jesus, not historical reports. But John’s symbolism, Jesus monologues, and metaphorical storytelling takes it to a new level.
In John the cross of Jesus is the culmination of a cosmic drama. At the cross, the worlds of ungrace and grace collide; the powers of death and life meet with explosive force. As Jesus anticipates his death he says, “Now is the judgment of the world (the domination system), now the ruler of the world will be driven out” (12:31). The ruler of the world, mythical or real, is the representative, the epitome of the power of evil and hate that crucified Jesus. This is the power that entered into the heart of Judas (13:2) and why he is called a devil (6:70). John’s Gospel is cosmic theater, depicting the clash between good and evil as the clash between the world/the Devil and Christ. Jesus, as the light of the world, exposed the world’s darkness, and because the world (the domination system) loved darkness more than light, the world determined to destroy the light.
The irony is that in the very act of destroying the light, the darkness of the domination system is exposed and the light casts its radiance against the darkness in a ray of glory. The irony of the cross is that while this horrible event is the final act of hostility against Jesus by the powers of evil, it is also the final act of Jesus in revealing God’s magnanimous love for the world. The crucifixion reflects both the culmination of hostility against Jesus and the climax of God’s revelation of love for the world through Jesus.
This horrendous outpouring of hate, resulting in the torture and suffering of Jesus, becomes a redemptive event in which the love of God engages and defeats the forces of evil. God defeats it, not by returning evil for evil, hate for hate, blow for blow, but by bearing, absorbing, and exhausting it. This is how the Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29, 36). In John, the reference is to sin (singular), not sins — the sin of hate that issues in violence. The deadly and destructive nature of violence, prejudice, and hate is exposed at the cross. The capacity to see evil as evil is the first step in overcoming evil. But it is an overcoming through love, not hate.
There must be, however, a lure, a compelling reason, insight, or motivation to abandon evil, and so the cross functions not only as a revelation of our sin (our hate that issues in violence), but as a definitive revelation of God’s love. The cross is the ultimate lure, drawing us to a loving God where the power of love resides. The cross, then, becomes the means of our liberation from the power of sin and death. It becomes our Exodus, a redemptive event, through which we pass from death to life as the children of Israel passed from the bondage of slavery into freedom. In John’s Gospel Jesus’s death corresponds to the time of the death of the Passover lambs in preparation for the commemorative evening meal (19:14). Jesus is slain at the same time the Passover lambs are slain. Christ is being depicted as a new liberator of a new Exodus.
The cross, then, is Jesus’s concluding work. It is Jesus completing (finishing) the work God gave him to do (17:4). It is the crowning event that will eventually draw all people to Christ (12:32). This is why, in John’s Gospel, the death of Jesus is consistently referred to as both Jesus’s glorification and the glorification of God. Speaking of his death Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (12:23). It is because the cross reveals the magnitude and expansiveness of God’s love for the world that it can be referred to as Jesus’ glorification or the glorification of God. Christ descended to the darkest place to die a shameful, horrible death, and yet here is where the love of God for the world shines the brightest.
Once we see our complicity in the crucifixion – that we are not just victims but victimizers – then we are ready to experience an exodus from hate into forgiveness and love. We admit first, that while bad things may have happened to us beyond our control, we have, nevertheless, hardened our hearts and chosen to live in an ungracious world. We know that the powers of hate that crucified Jesus reside in us. Once we find the courage to make that good confession, then we are ready to behold God’s love at the cross and experience its liberating power. The cross then becomes a model for us: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (15:12–13).
When we unite with Jesus on the cross, we draw from his Spirit and find the inner resolve and grace to give up hate and the need for revenge. We pass through the waters of condemnation without the need or want to condemn in return, and we determine to allow love to grow and flourish into gratitude and generosity. John’s Jesus calls this being born again, and we need to be born again and again and again as we cast off the works of this ungracious world and increasingly manifest the fruit of the Spirit. In an exodus through the cross we leave behind a world of selfish grasping and grinding egoism, and enter a vibrant and abundant world of grace.
(The reflections above were adapted from my book on the seven sayings of Jesus from the cross titled, Why Call Friday Good: Spiritual Reflections for Lent and Holy Week.)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

What Makes for Peace? (a sermon from Luke 19:28-44)

Holy Week begins with Jesus riding into Jerusalem. It seems rather clear from the text that Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem on a young colt was intentional and prearranged. He gives very specific instructions to two of his disciples on where to find the colt. As he  processes into Jerusalem with his disciples, Luke tells us that the people kept throwing their cloaks on the road and as he approached the path down the Mount of Olives into the city of Jerusalem his disciples began to proclaim, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven.” Luke’s version differs somewhat from Mark and Matthew. In Mark they say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord and blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming.” In Matthew they call Jesus “Son of David” and in Luke they say “Blessed is the King.”

While only Luke calls Jesus King and all the accounts are slightly different, in all three accounts Jesus is certainly being honored as the agent and representative of God’s kingdom. But what sort of kingdom is this? And if Jesus is a king what kind of king?

Entrance processions were a familiar ceremony in the first century. But this is certainly not the kind of elaborate ceremony that would accompany the return of a king or a conquering general. Biblical scholars and historians Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan point out in their book, The Last Week, that about the time Jesus would have made his peaceful entrance into Jerusalem from the east riding a donkey, another very different kind procession would have taken place from the west side of the city. The Roman governor Pilate would have entered leading a procession of imperial cavalry and soldiers coming from Caesarea Maritima about 60 miles west to reinforce the Roman garrison permanently stationed in the Fortress Antonia overlooking the Jewish temple and its courts.

Pilate’s procession, notes Borg and Crossan, would have displayed not only Rome’s imperial power and but Rome’s imperial theology. The emperor of Rome was given such titles as “son of God,” “lord,” “savior” and one who brought “peace on earth.” So here we have in direct contrast two very different kinds of kingdoms reflecting two very different kinds of peace.

The peace that Jesus embodies is a holistic peace that heals, restores, and transforms individuals, communities, and whole societies if actually practiced. It is a peace that begins with forgiveness – force, not violence. There is more to it than forgiveness, but forgiveness is at the very heart of what Christ is about.

Luke’s Gospel particularly highlights this. Two of the three sayings of Jesus from the cross relate directly to forgiveness. He tells one of the criminals hanging beside him who asks Jesus to remember him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” And with regard to his torturers and oppressors Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And after he is vindicated and appears to his disciples after his death, he charges his disciples with proclaiming “in his name,” that is, by his authority and in his power (which is the power of love) repentance and the forgiveness of sins. From Luke’s point of view forgiveness is absolutely fundamental to following Christ. Without practicing forgiveness one cannot be faithful to the way of Jesus.

Years ago Sam Mofat was a professor at Princeton Seminary who had served as a missionary in China. He shared on a number of occasions the gripping story of his flight from Communist pursuers. He told how they seized his house and all his possessions, burned the missionary compound, and killed some of his closest friends. Moffat’s own family barely escaped. When he left China, Moffat took with him a deep resentment against the followers of Chairman Mao. He said that it lead him to a crisis in his faith. “I realized,” he said, “that if I have no forgiveness for the Communists, then I have no message at all.” And that, of course, is because forgiveness is basic to the life and message of Jesus and what he calls his followers to do.   

Forgiveness is, for the most part, counter cultural. It runs against the grain of normalcy in society that is based on the offender getting what he or she deserves. And yet our lack of forgiveness is destroying families, communities, and whole societies.

Leo Tolstoy thought he was getting his marriage off on the right foot when he asked his teenage fiancĂ©e to read his diaries, which spelled out the details of his past sexual dalliances. He wanted to keep no secrets from Sonya and wanted the marriage to begin with a clean slate. Tolstoy’s confession, however, sowed seeds of resentment and jealousy. Years later she wrote in her diary, “When he kisses me I’m always thinking, ‘I’m not the first woman he has loved.’” For half a century jealousy and resentment and the lack of forgiveness ate away at her like a cancer destroying any love she had for her husband. 

Unfortunately this is not unusual. We nurse wounds, perpetuate family conflicts, punish ourselves and others, and rationalize our harmful actions—all to avoid this unnatural act. C.S Lewis said once, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.” It is unnatural because it seems unjust. And it is unjust when we define justice as punitive or retributive justice, as punishment or getting what you deserve. The justice that makes for peace is restorative justice rooted in the practice of forgiveness. 

The reason we must be committed to forgiveness is because Jesus was. And according to Jesus forgiveness is at the very heart of the character of God. So while forgiveness may seem unnatural to us, for God it is the most natural thing in the world. Dietrich Bonhoeffer struggled with this. He was a German theologian and pastor who chose to stay in Germany and identify with the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany. He was arrested and wrote several of his famous works from prison. He was martyred just before the war ended. Even while he worked to undermine Hitler’s regime, he followed Jesus’ command to pray for his enemies. He wrote, “Jesus does not promise that when we bless our enemies and do good to them they will not despitefully use and persecute us. They certainly will. But not even that can hurt or overcome us, so long as we pray for them . . . We are doing vicariously for them what they cannot do themselves.” Bonhoeffer contended that we love and pray for our enemies because that is how God loves and acts.

In Luke 6 Jesus taught, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. . . . But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and [here’s the reason we pursue this unnatural course] you will be children of the Most High [you will live true to who you are]; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

We can think of a hundred excuses and reasons why not to forgive: He needs to learn a lesson. Or I don’t want encourage irresponsible behavior. Or she needs to learn that actions have consequences. Or I was the one wronged—it’s not up to me to make the first move. Or how can I forgive if he’s not even sorry?

Popular Christian writer and journalist Philip Yancey describes his own struggle with forgiveness.  He says, “I never find forgiveness easy, and rarely do I find it completely satisfying. Nagging injustices remain, and the wounds still cause pain. I have to approach God again and again, yielding to him the residue of what I thought I had committed to him long ago.” That’s true for all of us. Forgiveness is a struggle. It is never easy. Then he says, “I do so because the Gospels make clear the connection: God forgives my debts as I forgive my debtors.”

There can be no peace, no healing, no wholeness, no restoration of relationships, no working together for the common good without forgiveness. As a global society we have no future without forgiveness.

Another thing that makes for peace is the practice of compassion. This is equally important and goes hand-in-hand with forgiveness. The kind of holiness that Jesus embodied throughout his ministry was a holiness of compassion, which often led him to clash with the religious establishment and the powers that be who were committed to a different kind of holiness. They practiced a holiness based on the purity laws. It was a holiness formed by the holiness code.

We see something of Jesus’ compassion for his people as he weeps and grieves over the fate of Israel. Jesus cries out as he approaches Jerusalem, “If you had only recognized the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” Their spiritual blindness and inability to practice forgiveness and refrain from reacting to violence with violence sealed their fate. Their inability to love their enemies will result in the enemy, Rome, crushing them. The description we have in our text about the Romans surrounding them and hemming them in and crushing them to the ground may have been written after the fact, but there is no question that Jesus anticipated this outcome because of their refusal to relinquish hate and violence. Instead of nurturing compassion and forgiveness, they allowed bitterness and resentment and hate to fester. They gave in to their fears and insecurities, as many Americans are doing right now. Let us pray that the many do not constitute a majority for all our sakes.

What makes for peace? The practice of compassion. I say the practice of compassion because compassion is not really compassion unless we act. Compassion is the capacity to enter into the hurt and pain and suffering of others.

The late Henry Nouwen wrote about one of his most vivid memories as a youth which was connected to a little goat given to him by his father to care for during the last year of the Second World War. The goat’s name was Walter. Nouwen was 13 years old and lived with his family in a part of Holland that was isolated by the great rivers from the D-day armies. People were dying of hunger.

He loved his little goat and spent hours collecting acorns for him, taking him on long walks, and playfully fighting with him. He carried him in his arms, built a pin for him in the garage, and gave him a little wooden wagon to pull. He fed him as soon as he woke up in the morning, and as soon as he returned from school he fed him again and cleaned his pen and talked to him about all sorts of things. 

One day, early in the morning when he entered his pen he discovered Walter missing.  He had been stolen. Nouwen was heartbroken with grief. Years later, when the war was over and they had enough food again, his father told him that their gardener had taken Walter and fed him to his family who had nothing to eat. Nouwen says, “My father knew it was the gardener, but he never confronted him—even though he saw my grief. I now realize that both Walter and my father taught me something about compassion.”

While compassion must be practiced, it may not be very practical at all. Mother Teresa was sometimes challenged about the long-term effects of her humanitarian ministry of compassion. She was asked once, “Why give people fish to eat instead of teaching them how to fish?” Her response was, “But my people can’t even stand. They’re sick, crippled, demented. When I give them fish to eat and they can stand, I’ll turn them over to you and you can show them how to catch fish.” But then she was also quick to respond that she and her sisters gave people a lot more than fish. She said, “If our actions are just useful actions that give no joy to the people, our poor people would never be able to rise up to the call which we want them to hear, the call to come closer to God. We want to make them feel that they are loved.” That’s what the compassion of Christ aims for – to help people see, feel, know in the core of their being they are loved.

Sometimes our hurt and grief is so great that we find it hard to see the hurt and grief others feel. What we must do is learn to channel our own pain in a ministry of healing to others.  And the irony of it is that it is in such ministry to others that we ourselves find healing.  We must allow Jesus to help us “see” through his eyes so that out of our own pain and grief we can minister to the pain and grief of others and in that very ministry we ourselves will be made whole. We must try to see through the eyes of Jesus and if we can, then we will see value of forgiveness and compassion. We will see the things that make for peace.  

Our good God, we can be so blind, just like the folks for whom Jesus grieved and wept, who could not see the things that make for peace. Help us to see. Help our country to see. Help our world to see. In the name of Christ. Amen.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Igniting Spiritual Passion (a sermon from Philippians 3:4b-14)

In this passage, which reflects Paul’s intense spiritual passion, Paul seems to be taking on a group of Christian Jews who were apparently insisting that in order to please God all Christians needed to fully keep the Jewish law in its entirety. In response Paul says that if anyone could glory in keeping the law it would be him. He took great pride in his heritage and his strict obedience to all things Jewish. He was so serious about his obedience to the law that he considered himself “blameless.”

But all the things that Paul put great value and stock in, he deemed as “rubbish” in comparison to “knowing” Christ and “gaining” Christ. When Paul says that he wants to know Christ he is not talking about knowing facts about Christ. One of the things that has always puzzled interpreters of Paul is how few references he makes to the historical Jesus. It was the living Christ that occupied his attention, whom he encountered in a dramatic way as a Pharisee and which changed the course of his life.

Also, when Paul says that he wants to “gain” Christ he is not talking about gaining rewards from Christ or even gaining Christ’s approval or recommendation. He is talking about gaining the righteousness that constitutes the character of Christ.

Paul says: “I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ, and [then -he clarifies and elaborates on what that means] be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.”

I have no doubt that many Christians have misunderstood and misappropriated this passage and other writings from Paul because they have misunderstood what Paul means by “faith” and what he is talking about when he talks about “righteousness.” Whenever the English word faith appears in Paul it is the translation of the Greek word pistis. The simple English word “faith” cannot translate the full meaning of the Greek word. It takes four English words to capture the meaning: faith is just one word, the other words are belief, trust, and maybe the most important word (certainly the one most neglected) is faithfulness. Belief, trust, and faithfulness are all part of what it means to have faith.

Belief, which has typically been emphasized by evangelical Christians, is just one component, and not really the most important component. I can illustrate the role belief plays by a story I like to tell about a minister who officiated at the funeral of a war veteran. A few of his comrades asked the minister to begin the service by leading them to the casket where they would pause in a solemn moment of remembrance and then he would lead them out. This the minister proceeded to do, but instead of leading them out he lead them straight into a broom closet, where they all had to make a hasty retreat in full view of those gathered for the service. The point of the story being that if you are going to follow someone, make good and sure the one you are follower knows where he or she is going. In order to be a faithful follower of Christ, I must, of course, believe that Christ knows where he is going. That’s the role of belief, to believe that Christ is worth following. 

Now we all, I’m sure, believe other things about Christ, and many of my beliefs have changed over the years. However, central to being a Christ follower is the belief that Christ is worth following. But belief is only one aspect of what Christian faith is. I may say I believe, but if I don’t follow, if I’m not faithful to the way of Christ, I do not have faith. I may have belief, but not faith. Faith includes belief, trust, and faithfulness – all three.

Also, in the NRSV the phrase in v. 9 “through faith in Christ” is marked with a footnote. The footnote offers another translation: “through the faith of Christ” with the emphasis being on faith as faithfulness – in other words, through the faithfulness of Christ. If we follow that translation, and many Pauline scholars argue we should, then what Paul is saying is that he is passionate about gaining the righteousness that comes, not through law keeping, but by being true to the faith or faithfulness of Christ. And of course, from all we know of Christ through the Gospels, Christ emphasizes love not law. Jesus said love of God and love of neighbor is the fulfillment of the whole intent of the law. So the righteousness that Paul aspires for is a righteousness of love not law.  To gain the righteousness of Christ means nothing more or less than bearing the fruit of divine love. And the way a Christian does that is by being faithful to Christ.

In this passage Paul goes on to say that in addition to sharing in the righteousness of Christ, his passion is to share in the sufferings of Christ and the resurrection of Christ. Now when Paul talks about sharing in the resurrection of Christ in this passage he is not primarily talking about a future resurrection. Paul certainly believed in a future resurrection, but his emphasis here is on experiencing the power of the resurrection, the power of new life, right now.

So this is the goal toward which Paul presses. This is the prize which Paul pursues the way an athlete trains for a major athletic contest. This was at the heart of Paul’s spiritual passion, namely: to know Christ and be like Christ by participating in the righteousness of Christ, the sufferings of Christ, and the resurrection of Christ.

So what does all this have to do with nurturing spiritual passion in our lives today? I see at least three very practical lessons or applications we can make. First, we can nurture spiritual passion in our lives by practicing a righteousness of love, and Jesus, of course, is our model. Jesus shows us what a righteousness of love looks like  

Most of us are not innate zealots like Paul. Most of us come nowhere near experiencing the kind of spiritual passion that moved Paul. But we can nurture our spiritual passion by practicing love, by engaging in acts of kindness and mercy. By the way, the word that is translated righteousness in the Hebrew Bible and in the Greek New Testament always includes the idea of justice – not retributive justice, not punitive justice, but rather restorative justice – the kind of justice that restores relationships, restores integrity, restores what is good and fair and right and equitable, and restores our sense of communion with God. It is a righteousness or justice rooted in the golden rule (treat others the way you want to be treated) and love of neighbor (love others as you love yourself).

Christian love is always more about what we actually do than what we feel. We should never think that we have to feel a certain way or be excited about something before we do it. We are just as likely (and maybe more so) to act our way into new ways of thinking and feeling, than we are to think or feel our way into new ways of acting.

Jesus, we know, was committed to the healing and liberation of all people. Jesus we know was inclusive and indiscriminate in his love, though he was especially drawn to the poor and the marginalized. And if we want to know Christ and share his passion for the healing and liberation of others, then we must engage in acts of love and righteousness right now, regardless of what we feel. Whenever I have begun an exercise program I have never felt like it. Usually what I feel like is laying on the couch watching a movie with a bag of popcorn. But once I begin and get in a routine the passion for it follows. The passion often comes after we get started. And we can start right where we are – in our work setting, at home with spouse and kids or grandkids, in the network of relationships we are already part of.

So one thing we can do to nurture a sense of spiritual passion is practice a righteousness of love. We can speak words of kindness, do acts of mercy, share generously of our resources and time with others, and try to be as inclusive in our love as Jesus was. Regardless of what or how we feel, we can just do it, and expect the passion to follow.

Second, we can nurture our spiritual passion by letting go of the past and by giving ourselves to the present moment. Paul says that in pursuing his goal of knowing Christ and being like Christ: “the one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal . . .” Paul had a lot in his life to regret, but apparently he invested no time in it. He was focused on living in the present.

Most of us have made enough mistakes in life that if we wanted we could spend a lot of time wallowing in guilt and regret. But what good is that? Some have been hurt deeply in life by people they trusted and it would be easy to play these painful grievances stories over and over in our minds. But what good is that? Those who dwell on the ways they have been offended or hurt by others usually harbor anger and bitterness, which not only poisons their own lives but the people they most care about.

I have been reading a little book on Leadership that draws upon the leadership and experiences of Nelson Mandela. Mandela did not allow his past to determine his present and the future. On the day Mandela turned 84 a worker at one of the insurance companies in Cape Town told about rushing out to buy a newspaper the day Mandela was inaugurated as State President to read about the ceremony. He said he was amazed to read that Mandela had invited one of his former prison guards to attend. He recalled how that day was the first day he had ever seriously thought about forgiveness.

On that same day Joe Seremane, once a leader of the Democratic Alliance in opposition to Mandela’s African National Congress said this of Mandela: “I cannot understand how a man who personally suffered so much can champion forgiveness and reconciliation to the extent that he has done. Madiba does it with such ease that, in spite of my skepticism, I feel invited to try exploring the extraordinary power of forgiveness.”

Mandela was able to do it because he chose to forget the past in order to live in the present and to give his country the best possible future. He was even able to joke about it. In a ceremony to open a Childhood Development Centre Mandela said that people often asked him why he was so active – he was 83 at the time. He said it was because of his secretary. She tells me: You have been loafing for 27 years. Now you must do some work.”

Life is in constant flux; everything is constantly moving and changing. You never step into the same river twice. When you think about it, when you meet a person you have known for years, you are really meeting that person for the first time for you both have changed since the last time you met. There is so much to see in life and so much good to do. Why miss or diminish any of it because of the mistakes, hurts, failures, and missed opportunities of the past. Let’s learn from the past, but let’s not cling to or relive the past, so we can flourish in the present.

Lastly, we must learn to accept that for spiritual growth to occur some suffering is necessary. It’s interesting how Paul connects suffering and the power of resurrection in the text. He says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” I think that becoming like Jesus in his death means accepting and bearing suffering the way Jesus did – without hate, without bitterness and anger, without the need for retaliation, and with an open life and heart toward God and others.

If we let our suffering make us bitter and closed-hearted, then we learn nothing from our suffering. But if we are open to God, suffering can nurture the fruits of righteousness in our lives – love, peace, generosity, gratitude, humility, patience, courage, and so forth.

Mandela said that after he was diagnosed with cancer he received a letter from a fellow pupil of his 8-year old grandson. The boy wrote, “I’m sorry you’re ill, but don’t stop dancing.” Given the nature and extent of our sufferings, it may be really hard to keep dancing, but if we can, if we can keep our heart open and refuse to get cynical and bitter, God can show us and teach us much.

So, how do we can nurture spiritual passion in our lives? One, by practicing a righteousness of love, two, by living in the present and refusing to be shackled by the past, and three, by accepting that some suffering is necessary.

Our good God, as share together in the bread and cup remembering the suffering and death of our Lord, help us to see that in the many little deaths and losses we experience on this earthly pilgrimage, we have daily the opportunity to experience the power of Christ’s life. Even though death is all around us, and working in us, may the present moment of our lives be a testament to the power of love and life. Amen.  

Did God forsake Jesus? (the fifth saying of Jesus from the cross)

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
When Mother Teresa’s private journals were published after her death, the startling revelation to so many was that her writings spoke of long periods where the absence of God was more real to her than God’s presence. In these extended dry periods, she did not sense nor feel God’s presence.
The only word that Mark’s Gospel tells us Jesus uttered from the cross was this word of abandonment: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It’s a question, not a declaration and it reflects the sense of God’s absence that overtook Jesus when he was hanging on the cross.
Jesus is echoing the cry of the Psalmist in Psalm 22, who is looking for God’s deliverance, but God does not act. Jesus was not expecting deliverance. He had already conceded to his fate. He wrestled with this in Gethsemane. Mark tells us that he was “distressed and agitated” and said to Peter, James, and John, whom he asked to accompany him and pray for him, “I am deeply grieved, even to death” (Mark 14:33–34). He asked his “Abba,” his good and compassionate Father/Mother to take the cup from him, but it was not to be.
The “cup” that Jesus refers to was not just the cup of physical suffering unto death. It was that, but it was much more. This is where Mel Gibson’s version of the passion got it wrong. Was it the humiliation, rejection, the scorning, mocking, the malicious hate and evil hurled upon him by the powers that be? Was it the desertion of his closest friends and partners? Surely all of these sufferings were part of it, but there was still more.
In treating Jesus as a scapegoat, the actors in the crucifixion were not only despising and disparaging the love of God that Jesus personified and embodied, they were denigrating and demeaning their own humanity. I believe that for Jesus to witness the depths of human corruption, the complete denunciation of the good, was even more painful than the physical sufferings or the humiliation and rejection he experienced. Whereas Jesus represented humanity at its best, what was done to Jesus at Golgotha represented humanity at its worst. Jesus had come to show humanity the way of humility and love, but what he felt was the full force of humanity’s arrogance and hate.
The darkness that Mark says came over the land may well function in the narrative as a symbol for the evil unleashed upon Jesus. In Mark’s portrayal (followed by Matthew) the darkness was so thick, the hate and evil so heavy and dense, that the light of God’s presence could not break through into the consciousness of Jesus. Jesus, whom the Gospels present as continuously Spirit-filled, immersed in the reality of God’s goodness and grace, cannot, on the cross, lay hold of God’s presence.
Is Mark capturing something that was real? Was Jesus actually forsaken by God? Was this in reality the eclipse of God? I don’t believe that for a minute.
In his novel Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry observes that Christ did not descend from the cross except into the grave (that is, he didn’t overcome his killers by miraculous power). If he had, says Berry, he would be the absolute tyrant of the world and we his slaves. For if he had, then “even those who hated him and hated one another and hated their own souls would have to believe in him then. From that moment,” writes Berry, “the possibility that we might be bound to him and he to us and us to one another by love forever would be ended.”
Berry argues that God is present “only in the ordinary miracle of the existence of God’s creatures,” in “the poor, the hungry, the hurt, the wordless creatures” and in this “groaning and travailing beautiful world.” Berry cuts against the grain of our privatized, compartmentalized way of seeing life, reflecting a more universal and inclusive worldview. Berry writes, “We are all involved in all and any good, and in all and any evil. For any sin, we all suffer. That is why our suffering is endless. It is why God grieves and Christ’s wounds still are bleeding”
Mark’s passion story invites us to trust in a God who participates with us in our suffering. God is not “out there,” but in us and with us, sharing in our pain and loss. In Jesus’ once-upon-a-cross humiliation and in the ever present bleeding wounds of the living Christ we find a brother. In his cries of forsakenness we discover a comrade and friend. He descended into our “hell” and suffered it, in order to empty it of its malevolent power. Our disappointments and discouragements, our failures and defeats, our feelings of abandonment and rejection, do not separate us from Christ, but draw us into fellowship with him. Theologian Jurgen Moltmann points out that Jesus’ suffering and death “is the most comprehensive and most profound expression of Christ’s fellowship with every human being.” Jesus’ cry of forsakenness connects us to a God who stands in union and solidarity with every suffering soul.
(The reflections above were adapted from my book, Why Call Friday Good? Spiritual Reflections for Lent and Holy Week).

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Loving like God (a sermon from Luke 15:1-3;11b-32)

I feel rather certain that the father in this story is intended to be an image of God. Of course, the point of emphasis has to do with the attitude and actions of the father, not the maleness of the father. God is not male or female. God is not a person the way we are persons though God is able to relate to each of us personally. God is Spirit. Gender is irrelevant. The question is: As God’s sons and daughters how are we called to be like God, whether we use a father image or a mother image or some other image? And that question, unlike many questions that we ask about God, has an answer that is really pretty simple: the most important way we are called to be like God is in the way we love others.

We can become more like God in the way we love, first, by becoming more inclusive in our acceptance and compassion for others. Bibles that list headings before segments and units of text generally call this section the parable of the prodigal son. Unfortunately, that sometimes influences how we read the story, and we may miss the wider message of the parable. This story is not just about a rebellious son who comes home; it’s about two sons and how much the father loves both sons and the extent to which the father will go to draw both sons into a loving relationship within the household.

What is important not to miss is that father loves both his sons equally. We usually emphasize his love for the son who returns home, but the father loves the elder son  who refuses to join the party as much as he does the younger son who has returned.

The older son is angry and bitter and upset that the father is displaying such love toward the younger son who treated the father with disdain. The older son has been obedient and faithful. He says to the father, “All these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours [did you catch the separation, the distancing] came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes you killed the fatted calf for him.”

Then the father responds, “Son [He calls him son. Despite his refusal to join the party, he is the father’s son.] you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours [can you sense and feel how inclusive and sweeping that declaration of belonging and acceptance is]. “We had to celebrate and rejoice” says the father, “because this brother of yours [he could have said “son of mine,” but he says “this brother of yours” for they are all in this together, they all belong, they are one family] was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

Luke points out in his introduction that the Pharisees and scribes were upset with Jesus because of the way he welcomed to table fellowship tax collectors and sinners. Clearly from Luke’s point of view the elder son represents the critical religious leaders and the younger son the tax collectors and sinners. We should not make the mistake of thinking that because Jesus confronted, challenged, and critiqued many of the Pharisees and scribes that he did not love them or view them as God’s children. In fact, on three different occasions in the Gospel of Luke we find Jesus eating with Pharisees. We should never assume that because Jesus had a deep passion for the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed that Jesus didn’t care about the well-to-do or the religious leaders. Jesus loved the oppressor as well as the oppressed, and instructed his disciples to do the same. Love your enemies, he taught, pray for them and do good to them. The reason, says Jesus is because God “is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” “Be merciful [or compassionate],” says Jesus, “just as your Father [or Mother] is merciful [compasstionate] (see Lk. 6:27-36).

As you well know, before Nelson Mandela became president in South African there was an oppressive system of apartheid in place that gave white people huge socioeconomic and political advantages denied to blacks. In Mandela’s early days the white employees who were part of the past administration were anxious, sure that they would be swept aside in favor of those who never had a chance before.

A few weeks after his inauguration Mandela met with his staff. The staff representative, after complementing him on his victory said, “Mr. President, I do not know how to put this. Our reason for requesting this meeting is simply to know why you are torturing us.” Mandela was shocked. He said, “Wait a minute. Did I hear you say that I am torturing you.” He said, “I clearly understand the meaning of the word ‘torture’, and it is a word I hope will never be used to describe how I relate to other human beings.”

The staff representative said, “I am sorry, Mr. President, may I say it again? All of us here, Sir, know that our jobs in here have to be terminated. What is troubling us is that since you took over you have not said anything to us.”

Mandela said, “Help me to understand. What were you expecting me to do?” The staff representative replied, “Mr. President we understand very well why you should have your own people around you. All we want to know is when the changes will be effected?”

With a huge smile on his face, Mandela looked around and cast his eye on everyone in the room. Then he said. “But you are my people. Since I came into this office, everything has been managed extremely well. I am pleased with the way you are working. Unless you do not want to work with me, all I can say is that I find you very supportive and competent in your role. Maybe you would like me to request formally, ‘May I work with you.’” There was total silence. They were all stunned. Then he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, since we know that silence means consent, you will excuse me because I have to attend to my next appointment.” With that Mandela walked out of the room.

Whether you are a sinner or a Pharisee, the prodigal or the angry brother, Christian or Jew or Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu or something else, American or Asian or Syrian or whoever, God says “You are all my people.” The more we realize our sense of belonging and connection to everyone else, that we all constitute God’s household, then the more we will be empowered and energized to love all people. And the more inclusive we become in our love of others, the more we love like God.

Second, we become more loving like God when we become more forgiving of the faults and offenses of others (and that includes ourselves). This story teaches something very important about forgiveness. The father’s disposition and commitment to forgiveness is unconditional, even though the capacity of each son to receive forgiveness is conditioned upon his response. God forgives unconditionally, but our experience of God’s forgiveness is conditioned upon our response to God’s forgiveness. We have to receive the gift. That’s just the way forgiveness works. And this is why we pray, “forgive us our sins, as we forgive the sins of others.” Forgiveness always flows in two directions at once.  

In the story when the father sees the son from a distance returning home, he runs to his son, embraces him, and kisses him before the son says a single word. The father does not wait till the son confesses or repents before he envelops him in love. The father has clearly already forgiven. And the story seems to suggest that the younger son doesn’t really have a deep change of heart until he experiences the unconditional acceptance and forgiveness of the Father.

The son who has taken his inheritance and squandered it finds himself in a place of desperation. The text says, “he came to himself” [NIV, “came to his senses”] “It doesn’t say he was sorrowful for the way he disrespected, disgraced, and demeaned the father. He realized he was in desperate straights and that the hired servants/employees in his Father’s house had it much better off than he did. So he makes a decision. He comes to his senses. He says, “I will confess that I have sinned, that I am no longer worthy to be called his son, and ask him to treat me like one of his hired hands.” Can you sense that there is no deep change of heart here? The son is basically looking for a way out of his desperate circumstances and he knows that being a hired hand in the household of his father would be a much better place than where he is?”

But when the father sees him coming, he runs to him filled with compassion and joy and welcomes him home, showering him with love. The father’s love is outpoured before the son even has an opportunity to say anything. In response to the father’s unconditional forgiveness and lavish display of love the son says simply, “I have sinned and am unworthy to be called your son.” He doesn’t say, “treat me like one of your hired hands,” as he intended. No more bargaining, you see. No more manipulating. He casts himself on the mercy of the Father. I get the impression that the son is stunned by the Father’s unconditional forgiveness and welcome.

When the returning son says, “I am unworthy to be called your son” the father in essence says, “Nonsense.” And the text says that the father quickly put a ring on his finger, sandals on his feet, and draped him in his best robe, all of which functioned as a  visible expression of his sonship and how glad the father was to have him home.  Whenever I hear someone say we are all unworthy sinners I like to respond by saying, “It’s true we are all sinners, but from God’s point of view not a single one of us is unworthy. On the contrary, we are worthy of God’s magnanimous love because we are God’s daughters and sons. Would you ever say to a son or daughter, “You are unworthy of my love?” Of course not. And neither will God. 

And with regard to the older son who is bitter and angry and refuses to celebrate with the family the father goes out to him. There is no condemnation. Just love and inclusion and forgiveness: “All that is mine is yours, come join the party.”

Lastly, if we are to become more loving like God, we will become more vulnerable, more willing and able to confess our faults and weaknesses to others, and risk rejection and security for the sake of others. The father is not afraid to express his deep feelings of love and pain. The father breaks all protocol and runs to the returning son, embracing him and kissing him in a fit of joy. The father does not care what others think of his position or honor or reputation. He goes out to the angry son and begs him, pleads with him [the father is not above begging] to come home and join the celebration. The father is open and vulnerable.

Anyone who loves deeply will be hurt deeply. But those who know in their gut, in their core being that they are loved with an unconditional love by God do not fear such hurt. The experience of God’s unconditional love gives us the courage to be vulnerable, to take risks, to be open and honest and express our deep feelings.

Paul Tournier was a Swedish physician who became widely known for his gift of healing – not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well. He points to the time he was practicing as an internist in Geneva as the turning point in his career. Being a religious man he began attending a small meeting in a home where people were simply being themselves, sharing deeply with one another their hurts, joys, failures, and sins. He claims that it was in this context of close community that he was spiritually transformed. When he returned to his medical practice, he found people opening up to him. Instead of talking exclusively about their physical symptoms, they began to talk about their lives. The reason they were able to open themselves up to him, is because he had become a remarkably open person.

I have no doubt that Jesus was a very transparent and open person with his disciples. In John’s Gospel Jesus says to his disciples, “I do not call you servants, I call you my friends, because everything I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” Jesus was open and transparent and shared with the disciples out of his own experience.

Obviously, we must use discretion and wisdom in our sharing with others, but the more we are secure in God’s deep and permanent love for us, the more we are free to risk and be vulnerable in our friendships with others.

Henri Nouwen points out that there is a self-emptying to this process of loving like God. He writes, “There is a dreadful emptiness in this spiritual fatherhood. No power, no success, no popularity, no easy satisfaction. But that same dreadful emptiness is also the place of true freedom. It is the place where there is ‘nothing left to lose,’ where love has no strings attached, and where real spiritual strength is found.”

The more we are able to love like God the more we are able to let go of our false selves, our littles selves in order to clothe ourselves with the Christ self, and the more we will be able to see the worth and value of all people, the more we will be able to forgive others without strings attached, and the more we will be able to share our sorrows and joys with each other.

Our gracious God, you are the perfect lover. We will never love perfectly. We all love with mixed motives. Our love will always be flawed in some way. We will never reach perfection. But we can grow. We can become more like you in the way we love one another. But the pressures to conform to our culture are great. It seems today that a lot of Christians are becoming more confined and narrow in the way they love, rather than becoming more inclusive. And we all struggle with unconditional forgiveness and getting past our fears and insecurities enough to be vulnerable and transparent. But your love can move us forward. Your love can take away our prejudice, our desire to get even, our resentment and bitterness, our fears and anxieties and free us to become more like you. May it be so. Amen.  

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Thirsting for Life (the fourth saying of Jesus from the cross)

"After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), 'I am thirsty.'"

The Gospel of John is characterized by a very high Christology that is often read back into the stories of Jesus. This is undoubtedly at least one of the factors that guides the way the author (John’s community) shapes and reformulates the sayings of Jesus into lengthy dialogues and monologues. Sometimes in John’s narrative the divinity of Jesus trumps his humanity.

This brief word of Jesus from the cross found exclusively in John’s Gospel is a case in point. Jesus’s expression, “I am thirsty,” on the surface seems to reflect a very human Jesus, but in introducing these words, John presents Jesus as being in complete control, intentionally fulfilling Scripture. (All the Gospels emphasize the fulfillment of Scripture in the passion story, but John does this more than the others. The reference here seems to be to Psalm 69:22, which in the LXX (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) contains the same Greek words John uses for “sour wine” and “thirst.” Sometimes the connections the Gospel writers make with the Hebrew text are finely stretched. It was their way of emphasizing that God was at work in and through these events.)

John’s picture is very different from the portrait painted in Mark’s Gospel of a Jesus who is mostly passive and cries out, echoing the words of the Psalmist, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” There is no sense of abandonment and forsakenness in John’s passion story.

While all religious language is symbolic language, John’s Gospel thrives on symbolical and double meanings. No doubt Jesus’s saying, “I am thirsty” has a deeper meaning. From John’s perspective Jesus thirsts to do the will of God even when it involves suffering and death.

A significant aspect of what it means to be thirsty is reflected in an earlier passage in John’s Gospel,
On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:37–39)
Here John is proclaiming that Jesus is able to quench our thirst for “life” by providing “living water” that flows from within. It’s interesting that John feels the need to interpret the metaphor. The living water refers to the spiritual life mediated through the Spirit of the living Christ, which Jesus’s disciples came to experience after his resurrection/glorification.

I believe that a spiritual life centered on the way of Jesus can quench our thirst in a variety of ways. One of the primary ways, I think, is in our quest for meaning and purpose, which is intimately connected to our need for real community involving mutual caring, sharing, healing, and a passion for justice for all people.

In Death of a Salesman, Willie Loman spends his life in pursuit of being a successful salesman. He lives with the illusion that if he can be successful in his work, his life will be fulfilled. He doesn’t have the courage to face his failures or to ask the critical question if what he was pursuing had real meaning. In the end, he commits suicide. His son, Biff, says to a friend, “There were a lot of nice days. When he’d come home from a trip; or on Sundays, making the stoop; finishing the cellar; putting on the new porch ... You know something, Charley, there’s more of him in that front stoop than in all the sales he ever made ... He had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong ... He never knew who he was.” He never discovered the spiritual thirst that can make life fulfilling.

To thirst is to be alive, and those who are spiritually alive thirst for the “more” – the Transcendent, the Really Real, the Ultimate Reality. Some of us have found this thirst met through our discipleship to Jesus. We look to Christ to bring coherence, meaning, balance, and participation in a story that is much larger than our little stories. We learn to live in reliance upon the Spirit and we discover that a meaningful life is oriented around a growing intention and will to love as Christ loved.

(The reflections above were adapted from chapter 5, “Thirsting for Life” in my book, Why Call Friday Good? Spiritual Reflections for Lent and Holy Week.)