Sunday, July 24, 2016

Prayer is about giving not getting (A sermon from Luke 11:1-13)

In Flannery O’Conner’s short story called The Turkey, a little boy named Ruller has a poor self-image because nothing seems to turn in his favor.  At night he overhears his parents talking about him rather negatively about how unusual he is. 

One day he is walking  through the woods and happens upon a wild turkey that had been wounded.  He starts after it thinking, “if only I can catch it and go home with that turkey slung over my shoulder they will say, “Look at Ruller with that wild turkey!  Ruller, where did you get that turkey?” And he imagines saying, “Oh, I caught it in the woods. Maybe you would like me to catch you one sometime.”  But then a thought flashes through his mind, “God will probably make me chase that damn turkey all afternoon for nothing.” He feels like it is wrong to think that way about God, and yet he can’t help it.    

Ruller finally catches the turkey and starts to think that maybe it’s a sign of God’s change of mind towards him. He even begins to feel some gratitude. He considers giving his one dime away. He prays that if God will send him a beggar he will give his dime away. And sure enough, a beggar shows up and he puts his one dime inside her hand and goes on.

Ruller then notices a group of country boys creeping up behind him.  He says to the boys, “Y’all wanna see this turkey?” “Lemme see it,” one boy says.  And Ruller hands him the turkey. As soon as the boy has it in hand, he slings it over his shoulder and is gone.   

The boys are out of sight before Ruller moves. He starts back toward home. He walks slowly at first, and then he starts running as darkness descends. This is how O’Conner ends the story: “He ran faster and faster, and as he turned up the road to his house, his heart was running as fast as his legs and he was certain that Something Awful was tearing behind him with its arms rigid and its fingers ready to clutch.”

Now, sisters and brothers, if for any reason in the back of your mind you have this image of God as Something Awful then there is hardly any reason to pray. You might have good reason to fear, but not pray – unless of course you are praying that the Something Awful will spare you and leave you alone.

How we imagine God has everything to do with how we pray or even if we pray. This is one reason I spend so much of my time in my writing and teaching trying to help folks like you and those who read my writing imagine a very good and gracious God.

Of late, I have been posting excerpts from my sermons on my facebook page. Prior to the sermon I will post previews of the upcoming sermon and then afterward I will post excerpts with links to my webpage where this sermon is posted in its entirety. Last week I heard from two persons on facebook I hadn’t seen or talked to for a very long time. If you were here last Sunday or possibly read the sermon on line you may remember I admonished you not to worry about the afterlife, about heaven and hell. I said that because God is good the afterlife, whatever it may involve, will be good. My admonition was, “Chill. Relax. Don’t be afraid. God is not a tyrant or a monster or an angry deity. God is love. God is good. So whatever the afterlife involves it will be good because God is good.” Apparently, for my two facebook friends, this was just too much to take in without comment.

One who responded was a former parishioner at the church I left to come here in 2002 who informed me that she was glad I left. The other person is a young lady who was just a kid when we lived as neighbors in Flatwoods when I pastored FBC Greenup in the early 90’s. She is a member of the church where I grew up in Westwood. She responded by quoting the passage in Luke where Jesus is purported as saying, “Do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing . . . [rather] fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell.” If the passage ended here then we might be led to believe that O’Conner’s fictional character is right, God is Something Awful. But immediately following that statement Jesus says in Luke: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are more value than many sparrows.” Jesus says, “Do not fear. Do not be afraid.” On the surface it sounds like Jesus is contradicting himself, but what he saying is this: If there is anyone to fear it is God, because God could kill you and throw you into hell. (Keep in mind that some Jews during the time of Jesus believed God would throw some people in hell – not all Jews, but many – just like many Christians believe today.) But, says Jesus, no need to be afraid, because God is not that kind of God. If God cares about the birds that fall from the sky, certainly God cares for you. God even knows the number of hairs on your head. So don’t be afraid” (see Luke 12:4-7). In other words: If there is anyone to fear it would be God, but you don’t have be afraid of God, because God cares for you. That’s the logic of this text.

This is the God we can talk to and be comfortable around. It all comes back to how you imagine God doesn’t it. When it comes to nurturing a relationship with God, how you conceive of God is everything. It determines whether you relate to God in fear or in love. I can assure you of this. You will never really love a God that you are afraid of.

The argument for the good and gracious character of God turns on a “much more” kind of analogy. If earthly parents want what is good for their children and give their children what is good for them, how much more does God want what is good. God is always better than the most gracious, good, and loving person you know or can imagine.

This is how the model prayer orients our praying: “Our Father, our Abba. Our good and loving God. Let your name be so regarded as holy.” God’s holiness as Jesus so beautifully embodied and expressed is a holiness of compassion and grace. It is a holiness expressed in an open table that treats the condemned and marginalized as equals and fellow children of God. In fact, the mantra that Jesus championed was not so much, “Be holy as God is holy” because there was so much misunderstanding about what God’s holiness meant. Rather, for Jesus it was (as we read in Luke 6:36): “Be merciful (or Be compassionate) just as your Father (your Abba, your good and gracious God) is merciful.” You see, God's holiness according to Jesus is a holiness of compassion. 

When we first read these teachings on prayer it is common to assume that what Jesus is insisting on is persistence. But actually, I don’t think that is it at all. If you read the parable as a lesson in persistence, then the implication seems to suggest that if we are persistent enough we will eventually wear God down and get what we want. That, I think, is not only really bad theology – it misses the point.

The culture in Palestine during the time of Jesus was an honor and shame culture, and high priority was given to hospitality. To fail to be hospitable brought shame on the one or family who refused or failed to be hospitable. Again, it’s a “much more” kind of analogy. We might imagine someone forcing the hand of a neighbor to be hospitable, but God is “much more.” You don’t have to keep beating on the door to get God’s attention. Because God is with us all the time. Actually, when I am talking to God, I am talking to my deepest self, my true self where the Divine dwells.

When I first started praying years ago with any persistence I imagined God as out there, somewhere else. Typically, we think up there, but mainly somewhere else rather than here, looking at us and relating to us from a distance. I imagined a God who from time to time would intervene into our world to control events, circumstances, and people.

I have given up that image of God. I am now convinced that God controls very little. Isn’t it obvious really? Just look around. Surely God believes in freedom much more than God believes in control. Clearly, God deeply respects and regards our freedom, even when we use that freedom in abusive and horrendous ways.

I still believe there is great mystery to prayer. I believe that our prayers connect to positive forces and powers that we do not understand to help with healing, wisdom, and guidance. But I also realize that the way God works in our world and in our lives is much more subtle and indirect than I or most of you like.

When you think about it, everything God wants to do in the world God does through you and me, or it doesn’t get done. Paul, I think, understood this when he employed the image of the church as the body of Christ. How does God, the living Christ, make God’s self known and bring about peace and justice in the world?

The only way I know God can do this is through you and me, through people who are willing to be instruments of peace and conduits through whom God’s love and grace can flow. This is the meaning of incarnation. God becomes incarnate through us as we are led by God’s Spirit, Jesus being our supreme example and model.

Remember what Paul says in Galatians, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” These are qualities we embody when God is working in our lives. These qualities become present in our demeanor, our conversations, our actions, our relationships. The Divine Spirit works in this material world through material means – flesh and blood – you and me. It’s the only way God gets things done in the world.

Prayer then is the means by which I open my life to God. Prayer is the means by which I become aware of and sensitive to the ways of God’s love and make my life available to communicate God’s love through my life.  

Here I need to say something about the line that ends this Lukan passage on prayer, because if you take the language literally it really gets confusing. It’s based on this “much more” argument: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”

The language of the Spirit is just another way of talking about God’s active presence in our lives and in our world. The biblical language and the language we use in our hymns and litanies to describe the Spirit can be very confusing. We tend to use spatial language. We talk upon the Spirit coming upon us or descending on us, but remember, this is all metaphorical and symbolic language.

The Spirit gives us life and breath. Without the Spirit, without the life of God flowing in us, we would not be alive. The Spirit is with us, around us, in us – all the time. So the question then: In what sense do we need to ask for the Spirit since we already have the Spirit?

What we need to ask for, sisters and brothers is readiness, awareness, enlightenment, openness, and a willingness to be yielded to the Spirit who is always with us and wants to show us new wisdom and inspire us to a greater love.

Prayer is our way of being available to participate in Divine love. It is not a way to get things from God. If we think prayer is a way to get things from God, then prayer is useless as a spiritual discipline and exercise. Prayer then becomes just another means the ego uses to assert itself and pursue its own self-interest.

True prayer is listening to God and asking God to make us formable, teachable, guidable, and changeable into the likeness of our gracious and compassionate Lord. We must keep the main thing the main thing. Prayer is a spiritual exercise that opens us to the Spirit who is always with us and is the one who empowers us to love.

That sisters and brothers is the power of prayer. Prayer is not our means to acquire for ourselves; it is God’s means for empowering us to give ourselves for the good of others and our world. It’s not about getting; it’s about giving. It is the power to love.

Our good and gracious God, help us to see that what you want from us is our love, because you have already given us your love. Help us to discover over and over again what your love looks like and feels like. And may we not keep it to ourselves, for then it wouldn’t be love. Let us realize that the only way to grow in love is to give love away. Give us the wisdom and will to participate in your loving ways in the world. In Christ’s name. Amen.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing (A sermon from Luke 10:38-42)

Let’s begin by being clear on what this story does not teach. Martha is busy attending to things, making sure the food is prepared and being the proper host. Mary is setting in the presence of Jesus listening to his teaching. Martha rebukes Mary and even turns to Jesus expecting him to back her up. But Jesus rebukes Martha and commends Mary for choosing the “better part.” Why does he do that? Why does Jesus commend Mary but rebuke Martha?

Let’s begin by laying to rest one explanation very quickly. It’s not because contemplation is more important than activism. It’s not because prayer is more important than service. Jesus is not disparaging the active work involved in hospitality, nor is he elevating worship over hospitality. Both work and rest, prayer and ministry, solitude and service,  hospitality and worship are equally important in the grand scheme of the spiritual life.

We can trace a pattern in Jesus’ own life of active engagement in teaching, preaching, and healing, and then withdrawal from that active life to periods of prayer and solitude. It’s the pattern of the first creation story where God creates and then God rests. It’s not about one over the other; both are equally important. Activism, service, engagement, participation on the one hand; and solitude, prayer, study, and worship on the other hand.

So why does Jesus rebuke Martha and commend Mary? The key I think is found in Jesus’ words to Martha: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” Many things create anxiety and distraction; one thing simplifies life

The problem is not that Martha is busy and actively engaged in providing hospitality for her guests. In fact, that is indeed a very important work. The problem is in the spirit in which she is engaging in being a host. She is distracted and unfocused. She is an anxious presence. Clearly her ego has the upper hand. When she asks Jesus to put Mary in her place she questions the judgment and lack of consideration of both Jesus and her sister, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?” Catch the emphasis on “me.” She is clearly operating out of the false self, the ego self, the little self. She is offended at her sister and at Jesus for encouraging her sister, because after all Jesus no doubt is pleased to find such a focused pupil in Mary who is very passionate about listening to what he is saying.  

Mary, living in the moment, is focused on being a disciple, while Martha is anxious and frustrated because Mary isn’t doing what Martha thinks she should be doing. Some interpreters have pointed out that sitting at the feet of Jesus assumes the status of disciple, student, pupil which was common to rabbinical instruction. In the Jewish world that prevailed in Jesus’ time women were not permitted to do. There was no law against it, but this was commonly held tradition and custom. Receiving rabbinical instruction simply was not a woman’s place.

Could Martha be offended that Mary is assuming a man’s role and breaking with tradition and custom? That’s quite possible. Or maybe it’s more about control. We are told that this is Martha’s house. We might naturally assume that Martha is the older sister, though we don’t actually know that. Mary is not doing what Martha expects her to be doing. So maybe Martha is realizing that she cannot control her sister. A lot of problems in relationships center around the issue of control do they not?

I think for you and me, we have to begin with the question: What is the one thing that is necessary? Jesus says, “There is need of only one thing.” In a wonderful scene in the movie “City Slickers,” Curly (Jack Parlance), the tough-as-nails, wise-to-the-ways-of-the-world, trail boss, asks Mitch (Billy Crystal) if he wants to know the secret of life. Curly says, “It’s this,” holding up his index finger. Mitch retorts, “The secret of life is your finger.” Curly, never batting an eye says, “It’s one thing. The secret of life is pursuing one thing.”

What is the one thing? What is the main thing? If you have listened at all over the last several weeks to my sermons or have read them on line, you know what I am going to say don’t you? In last week’s text, which immediately precedes this story about Mary and Martha, what does Jesus tell the scribe to do in order to experience eternal life? He tells him to love. He tells him to love God by loving others as he loves himself. Paul said in his letter to the Galatians: “The only thing that matters is faith working through love.” If faith does not produce love it has no value. Paul said in his correspondence with the Corinthians that of faith, hope, and love, love is the greatest. The main thing is to love others as we love ourselves, because only love can heal and liberate and transform. Love is the power of God at work among us and in us inspiring forgiveness and reconciliation, and empowering our work for peace and justice in society. This is what Mary is learning at the feet of Jesus – how to love.

We can become so easily distracted. I heard about a man who turned his basement into an alternative world. He liked model trains (I’m not talking about Boyd Lawson here. Gene would never let Boyd do this). His whole basement was trains - trains passed through little communities, with stores, gas stations, schools, houses, where little people dotted the landscape. They crossed bridges over rivers, beside lakes where boats sailed and kids swam. And while his alternative world grew more and more elaborate this man became more and more distant from the people who cared about him as his real world deteriorated around him.

One of the ways Christians get distracted from the main thing, which is loving others, is by focusing on the afterlife. For some Christians the gospel is about heaven and hell, and saving people for the next world, though Jesus clearly taught that the kingdom of God is about healing and liberating people for this world – freeing people to love others. When the focus is on the afterlife then it is quite easy to dismiss matters of justice, equality, peacemaking, and the common good. If it’s all about being evacuated from this world to another world then this world becomes increasingly irrelevant. Even though it is true that our time here is limited, this world is our home for now and God loves this world and longs for its healing and redemption. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, in Romans 8 clearly believed that God’s redemption of this world extends to creation itself. If we keep the main thing as the main thing then we will engage in faithful stewardship of the resources of this planet and be about the work of taking care of it, not exploiting it or abusing it.

Sisters and brothers I can assure you that if God is as good as the Jesus of our Gospels believed God is, then we needn’t worry about the afterlife. If God is as good as Jesus teaches, then the afterlife is all going to be good. I will say to you what my son used to say to me, usually when I was upset with him, “It’s all good.” “Chill, dad,” he would say, “it’s all good.” I find myself saying to Christians who believe in a literal hell. “Just chill sister. Relax brother. It’s all going to be good, because God is good. God is not a tyrant. God is not a monster. God is not an angry deity. God is love. God is good.” The afterlife will be good because God is good, so let’s focus on the main thing – namely, loving each other here and now.

Anything can become a distraction. When I became passionate about kayak bass fishing, at first I was content to go to the lake by myself. I am an introvert by personality type. But then I realized how this could easily become a distraction, so I decided to push against the grain of my introvert personality and employ my passion as a way of making new friends and perhaps as a way of expressing something of God’s love outside the bounds of my church community. So I became engaged in the Kentucky kayak anglers community and I am developing relationships with people who have no religious affiliation at all and some who have very different beliefs and views than I have. I realized that as I live out my passion for bass fishing I can do so with the intent to love others and express God’s love in the new relationships I am forming. I just began a friendship with a young man in his late 20’s or early 30’s whose life is consumed with bass fishing. He’s given me some really good tips. I have learned some stuff from him. And I thought, you know, I might be able to help this kid become a little more balanced in life. I love to bass fish, but I have to keep the main thing the main thing, which is about loving others. Whatever your passion – golfing, painting, gardening, whatever – consider how you might use that to love others.

Now, I need to move in a different direction. Sometimes we will say something is a distraction, which is not really a distraction at all, but we claim it as a distraction in order to avoid doing what Christian love beckons us to do. I am thinking in particular about engaging in public discourse about the great issues facing us as a society: immigration, health care, issues of equality, gun violence, care for the poor, and so forth. How many clergy simply avoid the issues of today because they know how messy it can be to speak out and contend for justice.

Rev. Amy Butler’s articles for BNG are posted the same day as mine, so I have been reading them. She is the pastor of Riverside church in NYC. She tells about meeting a new friend, who upon finding out she was a pastor, said to her, “I am so frustrated.” He told Rev. Butler how he had pulled his pastor aside recently and told her how surprised he was that she wasn’t talking about the political situation in our country, given the state of things right now. He said to her, “Pastor, can you tell me how my faith might help me make sense of the unbelievable political situation in our country?” He said, “She looked at me, shaking her head, and said, ‘Well, I guess all I can tell you is that you should pray about it.’” Rev. Butler’s new friend looked at her incredulously and said, “Can you believe that? Pray about it? Her answer made me despair for the future of the church. Because if we’re not talking at church about how our faith informs our everyday lives, and especially this election cycle, then what is the point of church at all?”

Personally, I love to hear Christians talk like that. Unfortunately, however, Christians who have this kind of concern tend to be the exception, not the norm - at least in our neck of the woods.

Rev. Butler in her article which is titled, “If the church won’t speak out, who will?” says this (I have included this quote in your worship bulletin as a meditation today): “If we really believe what we say, that our faith should inform the whole of our lives, then we cannot leave our values and beliefs at the door when it comes to public discourse. While the separation of church and state is critically important to the freedoms we experience in America, I wonder if we use it too much as a convenient excuse not to talk about some very hard and uncomfortable things. Separation of church and state insures that government does not exercise control over religion or favor one religion over another. It does not mean we separate our values from our public engagement. Some peoples’ values are informed by Plato or Ayn Rand or Machiavelli. If your values are informed by the teachings of Jesus, you may bring them to bear on the public discourse. In fact, if your values are informed by the teachings of Jesus, you must bring them to bear on the public discourse.”

We must never confuse partisan politics with being politically engaged over the issues of our day such as care for the poor, immigration, health care, gun violence, our inequitable economics, racial profiling, and so forth. If we love people and if we love what is right and good and fair then how do we not engage in public discourse over these critical issues of our time?

The reason Jesus commends Mary is because Mary chooses to break custom and tradition and listen to the voice of Love. That’s what’s she’s listening to – the Voice of Love. That’s the Voice we must listen to. That’s the one necessary thing sisters and brothers. Sometimes that means that we will be busy preparing food and setting tables because that’s what love calls for. Sometimes it means being silent and holding our tongue. Sometimes it means speaking up and out on the critical issues of our day. Sometimes it means sitting quietly with a family in their grief. Am I listening to the Voice of Love? Am I doing what Love tells me? That’s the one thing, the one question to rule all questions. The world doesn’t need our anxious presence. Most people in our world are indeed distracted and worried about many things. What they need is someone to come beside them who models a different way, a non-anxious presence. They need someone who embodies the way of divine love.

O God, help us to embody a different way – to not be an anxious presence, to not be so worried and distracted. Empower us to be better lovers – lovers of what is good, true, and right. Lovers of one another. Lovers of people who are very different than we are. Lovers who love with the love of Jesus. Amen. 

Monday, July 11, 2016

Love is something you do (A sermon from Luke 10:25-37)

This teaching on love gets to the heart and soul of God’s will for humanity. Everything else is secondary. I wonder how so many Christians over the years have missed this. I wonder how I did for a significant part of my life and ministry.

Matthew’s version of the teaching on love says, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” In other words, these two commandments – to love God with the totality of our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves – constitute the goal and fulfillment of healthy religion and what God longs to see in human relationships and society. Jesus is saying that everything that was good about the Torah and the writings of the classical Hebrew prophets pointed to this ultimate goal, namely, to teach us how to love. (That doesn’t mean, by the way, that everything in the law and the prophets teaches us how to love. Not everything in those writings are helpful in this regard. To assume they are is the fallacy of biblical inerrancy. What Jesus is saying is that the overriding goal and usefulness of the law and the prophets is to teach us how to love.)

Luke’s version of this takes a different track than Mark and Matthew. In Luke’s version the question asked by the scribe is different than in Mark and Matthew. In Mark and Matthew the question asked is, “Which is the greatest commandment in the law?” In Luke the initial question by the scribe is, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

The question itself reflects a view of religion that is grounded in a system of meritocracy. I believe there are two serious errors when it comes to religion that turns religion into something harmful and destructive. One is religion as a justification for entitlement. Some people justify their negative treatment and disregard for others on their claim to have exclusive rights to God, to be God’s chosen. They think that because they inherited a particular racial or national or religious identity that sets them apart as God’s chosen.

Another serious blunder of religion is to think that because most of society operates on a system of meritocracy, that is, a system of rewards and punishments that God does to. This assumption seems to be reflected in the question posed by the scribe: What must I do to inherit eternal life. Eternal life is viewed, by the scribe, as a reward that is given to those who meet the requirements.

I think the scribe is part right and part wrong. I believe there is a “doing” that opens us up to the eternal life of God, but I don’t believe that that this life is a future reward. I believe eternal life is both now and later. It is both present and future. But it is now before it is later. When Jesus talked about the kingdom of God he spoke of the kingdom as both a present reality and a future prospect. Jesus told some religious leaders, “The kingdom of God is within you.” It’s here right now within you and among you.  Eternal life is here right now. Eternal life is first of all a kind or quality of life before it is a quantity of life. The only reason it is eternal is because God is eternal. Eternal life is God’s life present within and among human beings. Eternal life is life in God’s Spirit, life in relationship and partnership with God’s will.

The critical question is: How do we access this life? How do we enter into the experience of it? What does it look like and feel like? This is where the Jesus story in our text comes in. God’s eternal life looks like a Samaritan putting his own life on the line by taking the risk to stop and help someone who appears to desperately need help. Being moved by compassion he did what was necessary. He bandaged his wounds and brought him to an inn and paid for his care. What does eternal life look and feel like? One word can capture it. Love.

Some think that this first command to love God is more important than the second command to love our neighbor. In my view it is just the opposite. The only way we are capable of loving God is by loving our neighbor who is a child of God. By the way this is what the little epistle of First John teaches. John says, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us . . . God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God” (4:12a, 16b). In other words, wherever love is God is.

And this is true regardless of what one believes about God. When you love others as yourself, when you feel compassion and show mercy, you are expressing the eternal life of God, whether you realize it or not. There is no other way to love God other than by loving others as we love ourselves. If our faith does not help us do that, then our faith is useless. Remember what Paul said to the Galatians: The only thing that matters is faith working through love. A faith that does not produce love is a useless faith.

How have so many Christians missed this? I missed it for quite a few years. But when you think about it, it’s not hard to figure out why we have gotten so far afield. This loving stuff is gets messy. It’s just so much easier to make faith a matter of believing doctrines and doing certain religious practices isn’t it? Loving others is hard work.

Anyone who has been married or been with their partner in life for a considerable period of time knows this. There are times my wife has to bear through my craziness and sometimes I have to bear through hers. I like to tell young couples planning to marry or say in their ceremony that marriage is never just about 50/50. Sometimes when your spouse is having a tough time you have to give more and vice versa. Some days it’s more like 80/20.

In Luke’s version Jesus responds to the question with a question. Jesus asks him how he reads the Law. The scribe supplies the answer that Jesus gives in Mark and Matthew. (From a strictly historical perspective it’s hard to imagine the scribe giving this answer. Luke changes things around to fit his purpose in telling the story.)  So the scribe answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” In response Jesus says, “Do this and you will live.”

Notice, Jesus does not say, “Believe this and you shall live.” Again, we wonder how did Christianity get so far off track of the teachings of Jesus. Jesus says, “Do this and you will live. Do this and you will share and experience the eternal life of God.” Do what?” Love. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Or we could paraphrase. Love God by loving your neighbor as yourself, because that’s how we love God. We love God, not by believing the right things about God, but by loving others. How could we as biased, limited human beings ever get our beliefs about God right anyway? We love God not by believing the right things or performing a bunch of religious rituals (not that these are totally insignificant). But the issue is: Do our beliefs and rituals make us more loving? Because that’s the main thing.

I love the story Phillip Gulley tells about the time when, as a young minister, he accepted a call to pastor a Quaker meeting in Indianapolis. It was a small community, but very loving and caring community.

The main reason for the contagious caring spirit that characterized that faith community rested in the presence of a couple who had helped start the congregation years before, Lyman and Harriet Combs. When Gulley met them in 1990, they were retired and had devoted their remaining years to ministering to others. Lyman volunteered each day at a homeless shelter. Harriet made it her practice to be available to anyone in need. She babysat, transported people to appointments, tended the sick, visited the lonely, and did so, says Gulley, with such good humor and joy that to be in her presence was a redemptive experience.

Over the years, the small faith community there took on their demeanor. A light, joyful, and grateful spirit infused the church’s worship and ministry. The little church was incredibly generous, regularly emptying its bank account to help the less fortunate.

Because of the church’s close proximity to several resources for the homeless, they were frequently visited by mentally ill persons, all of whom were warmly welcomed and made to feel at home. So often, people who needed to be touched in a special way, after a divorce, after the death of a loved one, or in the throes of a very painful experience, they would stumble into there little church and find strength, comfort, and hope. And the church eventually attracted more people. But as gracious as the people of the church were, Gulley would often find himself frustrated by their apparent indifference when it came to growing their numbers. On one occasion, frustrated that the community was not growing as quickly as he’d hoped, he asked Harriet why that was. Her response was, “I guess it was never our goal to have a large church,”

Their denomination, as almost all denominations do, had spent considerable resources trying to attract new participants to their congregations, so Gulley was taken aback by Harriet’s response, which seemed to contradict their denomination’s priority. Gulley was young and energetic and wanted the numbers to increase. So he asked Harriet, “Then why are we here?” Rather than getting upset with her immature pastor she said smiling, “To love.” That’s why we are here: to love. Gulley could have passed for the scribe and Harriet for Jesus. Do this and you will live, says Jesus. You will spread life in its fullness wherever you go.

The story that follows in Luke (which is unique to Luke by the way) is not simply an illustration of what love is and what love looks like. It is that, of course, but’s that’s not why Jesus tells the story. Jesus tells the story in response to the attempt of the scribe to justify his lack of love. The scribe asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Maybe consciously or even unconsciously the scribe senses his deficiency, as we all do I suspect. So Jesus tells the story to close any loopholes and so we can be clear who we are to love?

The Sunday School version of this story simply admonishes us to be like the good Samaritan and show love to our neighbors, but leaves the question, “Who is my neighbor?” unanswered. The Sunday School version misses the main point of the story.
Samaritans and Jews had a long standing feud. Not much different than the feud between many Jews and Palestinians today. Jesus, a Jew, makes a Samaritan, someone who had different beliefs and practices than his own people the hero in the story, while the two Jewish clergy are the insensitive, uncaring ones who failed to love. How do you think that story went over with Jesus’ fellow Jews, especially the Jewish religious gatekeepers?

To get the sense of it today, we might retell it by making the one who shows mercy a Muslim (the good Samaritan becomes the good Muslim) and the two who pass by a Christian pastor and a priest.

So who is my neighbor? Well, everyone is my neighbor. The drug addict, the Chinese family across the way who keep chickens and when the wind blows a certain way – O my. Who is your neighbor? The guy next door who keeps throwing his grass on your side of the yard, the belligerent co-worker who thinks of no one but himself, the racist down the street who has a confederate flag flying in his driveway, the fundamentalist Christian who thinks you are going to hell because you go the church where that liberal, so-called Baptist pastor preaches his heresies. And yes, sisters and brothers, we are called to love them as we love ourselves. Yes we are.

You say, “But I don’t want to love them.” Hey, I don’t either. But then Jesus asks us, “Do you want to live? Do you want to share in my life, my passion, in what I am about and doing in the world? Do you want to experience and share in the eternal life of God? If you do, then love them. Learn how to love them.”

If our Christianity is not encouraging us and teaching us how to do that, then we might as well be athiests. Jesus says, “Do this and you will live.” Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”

Our good and gracious God, help to realize that if are not becoming more loving persons then our faith, our religion, our Christianity does not have much value. Help us to see that love is not only the main thing; it’s the only thing that really matters. As we share together in the bread and cup may we be inspired to renew our commitment to love as you love each one of us. Amen.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

A Community of Grace (Gal. 6:1-16)

In his book, If the Church Were Christian, Philip Gulley tells about an interesting conversation he had in a local restaurant. Gulley had entered at noon, could see that the restaurant was full and turned to leave. But as he did, an older gentleman who was seated by himself invited Gulley join him. Gulley was familiar with the man only by reputation and knew him to be intelligent, somewhat outspoken, but also capable of great kindness. Gulley also knew that the man self-identified as an agnostic.

Gulley initiated the conversation by asking him about the new house he had recently built outside of town in a wooded setting. “It’s just a house,” he said, swatting away the topic as one would a pesky fly. He responded, “What I want to know is why you became a pastor.” 

Gulley told him that he found the study of theology interesting, that he valued the sense of community a church provided, and that he found it very meaningful to help others navigate life. The man responded rather bluntly, “I don’t believe in God.” Then he asked Gulley, “Would I be welcome in your church?” Gulley said, “Certainly.” Then Gulley’s new friend asked, “Would I eventually have to believe in God in order to stay there?”

Gulley thought for a moment and said, “If some people discovered you didn’t believe in God, they might try to convert you. If they couldn’t, they might grow upset with you. But as a pastor, I don’t think belief can be compelled. I only care about your beliefs insofar as they affect your behavior. Given that, I would prefer a congregation of kind atheists over a congregation of hateful Christians. But,” Gulley added with a smile, “if you became a kind Christian, I would not be disappointed.”

An engaging conversation followed. As the waitress cleared their dishes, Gulley thanked his new friend for inviting him to his table. After they paid their bills and walked out of the restaurant, the man paused to say good-bye. He said, “You know. I love the theory of the church. It’s the practice of it that leaves me cold.”

Gulley then asked him to be more specific. He said, “I can’t take the hypocrisy.” Gulley acknowledged that hypocrisy bothered him too and was quick to admit that his own conduct was often inconsistent with his professed beliefs, but that he hoped that by being in a Christian community he might become a more integrated person. His friend ended the conversation with, “Well, good luck with that. But I think I’ll just stay a humanist.”

Think about the man’s statement for a minute: “I love the theory of the church. It’s the practice of it that leaves me cold.” I have to admit, I have had church experiences that have left me cold and wanting to walk away from the whole thing, and almost did at one place in my faith journey. It was probably I good thing I wasn’t really qualified to do anything else. You have heard of “fake it till you make it.” Well, that’s what I did until I found my faith again. But what I found was so much deeper and richer. It was a faith that could handle the questions and doubts without becoming cynical. I had to deconstruct my faith before it could be reconstructed.

In Paul’s final words to the churches of Galatia he reminds them of their responsibility to bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ. The law of Christ, of course, is the law of love, the supreme law, the law that supersedes all other laws. And all other laws that are any good at all will lead us to fulfill this ultimate law, the law of love.

Now, who knows what Paul has in mind when he says, “if anyone is detected in a transgression.” And since his argument has been that we are not under law, it’s probably not very helpful here that he resorts back to using legal language. “Transgression” is a legal term. Old habits are hard to break.

Richard Rohr, in his book, Breathing Under Water, applies the Twelve Steps of AA to the spiritual life. Rohr sees the term “addiction” as a helpful metaphor for what in the biblical tradition is called “sin.” He writes, “How helpful it is to see sin, like addiction, as a disease, a very destructive disease, instead of merely something that was culpable, punishable, or ‘made God unhappy.’ If sin indeed made God unhappy, it was because God desires nothing more than our happiness, and wills the healing of our disease.”

Doesn’t that give us a healthier image of God than God as lawgiver and judge. As Jesus taught us, God is our Abba. God wants us to be free from our destructive addictions and negative patterns so we will be able to be better lovers, so we can be kind, considerate, authentic persons. How did we ever miss this and turn God into a stern, demanding ruler or judge who is mainly interested in our conforming to a standard of holiness. Jesus embodied a holiness of compassion and grace. God is like a loving parent who wants the best for us. In the Gospels the word for “being saved” means to “to be healed, to be made whole, to be made well.” How did we ever get so far off track?

Authentic Christian community combines honesty and forgiveness in the process of healing and restoration. Real healing and liberation cannot take place unless there is honesty and forthrightness. So that means destructive patterns and habits cannot be swept under the rug. We have to confront them in our own lives and when they surface in the community. Otherwise we simply become enablers and the community descends into dysfunction and deception. Our harmful patterns have to be acknowledged. But the goal is always forgiveness and restoration.

A Raisin in the Sun is a play by Lorraine Hansberry that was turned into a movie. It is about the dreams and struggles of an African American family in the 1950’s. The son, Walter, gets cheated out of a large sum of money and accepts a buy out of their new home from a white community association that didn’t want them moving into their neighborhood. The sister, Beneatha, is beside herself. She holds her brother in contempt. She tells her mother, “He’s no brother of mine. That individual in that room from this day on is no brother of mine.”

Her mother says, “I thought I taught you to love him?” Beneatha retorts, “Love him? There’s nothing left to love.” The mother responds, “There’s always something left to love. Have you cried for that boy today? Now, I don’t mean for yourself and for the family because we lost the money. I mean for him, and what he’s gone through! God help him, what it’s done to him. Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When he’s done good and made things easy for everybody? Oh no. It’s when he’s at his lowest and he can’t believe in himself because the world done whipped him so. When you start measuring somebody, measure them right, child. You make sure you take into account the hills and valleys he’s come to, to get to wherever he is.”
I think this mother reflects how a community of grace responds to those who fail and fall. We don’t need enablers. We need folks who will be honest and shoot straight. Sometimes we need to be confronted. But we also need forgiveness and much grace.

Paul is right on when he says that when we confront sin – these patterns of destructive attitudes and behavior in our lives or in our community – we do so with both firmness and gentleness. And in doing so we acknowledge it’s all about grace. Paul says, “If those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves.” Now, it is true that we are something. We are something very special. We are the daughters and sons of God. However, we are daughters and sons of God by grace, by virtue of our humanness. We are God’s children simply because we are alive. It has nothing to do with believing or doing the right things. If we think we have something to do with it then we deceive ourselves. It’s all grace.

In the next paragraph in vv. 7-10 it would easy to misread Paul. On the surface it seems like Paul is contradicting himself, and Paul sometimes does that like we all do. He had been preaching grace and now it seems like he switches directions and resorts back to law to make his point. He declares that we reap what we sow. On the surface, that sounds like Paul is resorting back to a system of meritocracy based on rewards and punishments. But maybe not.

Paul says that if we sow to the Spirit, if we live a life of love, we will reap eternal life. Eternal life is not a reward for being faithful, it is simply life in God’s realm, and it’s now before it is later; it’s both present and future. We express, we are live out, we embody the eternal life of God whenever we act in love toward others. And what do we reap? Generally, we reap joy and peace and gratitude and fullness of life. There are exceptions of course. When we love our enemies, our enemies may not love us back, but we at least create that possibility right? On the other hand, if we sow to the flesh, if we live for the ego, if we live for our own self glory, then we reap corruption. That is, we reap alienation and hostility and estrangement. The reward or punishment is inherent in the act of loving or acting selfishly.

I love what Paul says in the last sentence of that paragraph. He says, “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, especially for those of the family of faith.” Being the church means that we are committed to the common good – it means working for the good of all. Of course, Paul does give preference to the church, which makes sense, particularly in his context. Paul and the churches he founded had no real opportunity to publicly engage and challenge the totalitarian social and political system in which they found themselves. Had they tried they would have been crushed right out of existence. But what they could do is form communities that reflected within the community the new creation of God. They may not be able to challenge the system, but they could within their community live out God’s dream and hope for the world, which would serve as a sign to the world of God’s new creation. So the church itself functioned as a prophetic voice, the church community bore witness to the love and justice of God made known in Christ through the way they treated each other in community. This is the still the purpose of the church. Our purpose is to embody and reflect the compassion and restorative justice of God in our life together as church.  

However, in our culture we have the freedom and therefore the responsibility to engage our social and political system in working for the common good. There is much we can do that Paul’s churches could not, because we live in a democratic society. We can vote intelligently. We can vote all those congressman who are in the hip pocket of the NRA out of office. Of course, to vote them out of office enough people have to share our frustrations and convictions right? So what can we do? We can write articles, talk to our friends, write blogs, send in letters to the editor; we can speak out. We can protest. If we dare, and if we think the cause is worthy and just and calls for exceptional measures, we might even engage in civil disobedience. As civil rights icon John Lewis says, “Exceptional times and circumstances call for exceptional measures.” When John Lewis and his colleagues staged a sit-in in the House of Representatives they were engaging in an act of civil disobedience. The House speaker could have called the capital police to arrest them. He’s was smart not to do that, especially since John Lewis was involved and 90 percent of the American people are in favor of the legislation Lewis and his colleagues were calling for.

Paul said earlier in the letter that the only thing of ultimate importance is the kind of faith that produces love. Now he says the same thing in a different way. Paul says that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything. In other words, what is truly important is not disputes about what is holy and what is not holy. What is important is God’s new creation where love prevails, where love is the supreme law. What is really important is God’s love being expressed through relationships and life together in community. That’s the new creation. It’s a world filled and overflowing with God’s love. And that’s what matters.

I am so glad we are a church committed to that. Clearly, we have our faults but our vision statement that we agreed upon over a decade ago is simply: Experiencing and expressing God’s unconditional love. That’s what we want to do above everything else isn’t it? Let’s not grow weary. Let’s continue to be faithful. Let’s keep incarnating God’s love, because sisters and brothers, that’s what ultimately matters.

Our gracious and good God, help us to expand our capacity to love as you love, to extend to others the kind of welcome, hospitality, and grace you extend to us. But also help us to realize that with great grace comes responsibility and a mission to serve others in the spirit of Christ’s love. Help us to bear with each other in patience and forgiveness, and empower us to work for the common good. In the name of Christ I pray. Amen.