Sunday, August 28, 2016

God’s Upside-Down, Inside-Out Kingdom (A sermon from Luke 14:1, 7-14)

Why did Jesus teach the way he did? Why did he tell stories and say provocative, even shocking things to give his hearers pause? Remember, Jesus’ culture was an oral culture and most of his hearers would not have been able to read and write. His sayings were designed to be memorable – so they would not be easily forgotten. They were intended to shake things up and knock his hearers off their heels so that they would be open to seeing God and the world and their place in it differently.

We all know all too well how we are influenced and shaped by the mores, values, customs, and practices of our culture. We are all to some degree children of our culure. None of us escape the influence and impact of our culture – for good or bad. And our culture has a way of putting us asleep spiritually. Business as usual and common speech will not jar us awake. We need a jolt. Jesus’ words and deeds were designed to be jolting.

Jesus zeroed in on common assumptions and practices that he felt were in conflict with the values and ethics of God’s kingdom. In this first passage in our Gospel text for today Jesus takes on the almost universal human desire and quest for position, place, and power. Jesus says,

“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.” Then comes the conclusion: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke calls this a parable, but it isn’t really a parable in the way that we normally think of parables. Clearly, the term parable could be applied to almost anything meant to serve  as an illustration of God’s will and way. This is not a story, but rather more like wise council where Jesus is basically drawing upon wisdom teaching from his own religious tradition. The wise teacher of the book of Proverbs offers similar advice. He says, “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble” (Prov. 25:6-7). This is basically what Jesus is saying here isn’t it? I’m sure Jesus had this instruction from Proverbs in mind when he framed the advice we read here in Luke. This is wise council.

But is that it? Just good advice? Jesus is certainly not laying out a strategy for acquiring honor is he? I’m pretty sure Jesus is not saying: You need to be humble so you will be exalted. The host may invite you to a place of honor or he may not, that is the prerogative of the host. Jesus, of course, would have no interest in providing any kind of strategy for gaining honor. When the disciples were caught arguing about who should be the greatest among them, Jesus tore into them and told them they were acting like tyrants and rulers who pursue lordship  over others. He reminded them that as his disciples they were called to be servants – and not just servants of people they liked, or people who would reward them or honor them or recognize their service. Oh no, Jesus told them that they were called to be servants of all. And here in the next paragraph of the Lukan text it becomes clear who the “all” includes -  “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”

This teaching of Jesus calls to mind a story that the late Fred Craddock tells about the time years ago when he was pastoring in Tennessee. There was a girl about seven years old who came for Sunday School, and sometimes her parents let her stay for worship. Her parents had moved from New Jersey with the new chemical plant. They were both upwardly mobile and very ambitious, and didn’t see any need for church.

On Saturday nights her parents hosted parties at their house as part of the upwardly mobile thing to do. They made sure they invited the right people – the people at the top of the chain. But almost every Sunday this beautiful little girl was in church.

One Sunday morning Craddock looked out and noticed that her parents were with her. And then after the sermon, at the close of the service, when an invitation to discipleship was extended, Mr. and Mrs. Mom and Dad came to the front and confessed commitment to Christ, which caught Fred by total surprise. Afterward Fred asked, “What prompted this commitment?”

They said, “Well, we had a party last night again, and it got a little loud and we woke up our daughter. She trotted downstairs to about the third step.  When she saw that we were eating and drinking, she said rather loudly so all could hear, ‘Can I say the blessing?’ Then she just rattled off, ‘God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food. Good night, everybody.’ Then she trotted back upstairs to her bed. Well, someone said, ‘Oh, it’s late, it’s time to go.’ Someone else said, ‘We’ve stayed too long.’ Within two minutes the room was empty.”

They told Fred that as they began cleaning up, picking up crumpled napkins and spilled peanuts and half sandwiches, and taking empty glasses on trays to the kitchen, mom and dad met with trays in hand at the kitchen sink. They looked at each other, and dad expressed to mom what both were thinking. He said, “Where do we think we’re going?” They came to the startling realization, maybe for the first time, that they were investing in the wrong things – that they were focusing on, being caught up with the wrong things.

Wisdom like Jesus shares here is designed to get us to pause and ask these kind of questions of ourselves: Where are we going? What are we looking for? What’s are real purpose? There really isn’t anything too radical here, but the conclusion strikes a theme that reverberates throughout Luke’s Gospel: the exalted will be humbled and the humbled will be exalted. A reversal is coming. Things will be turned upside down and inside out.

This theme is introduced my Mary in her Song of Praise at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel: Mary sings in the past tense. She imagines God’s kingdom as something already implemented. She says, “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Things will be not as they are because God is going to turn the world upside-down and inside-out. Jesus imagines an alternative world. This is not business as usual. And in this world the lowly are exalted and the hungry are fed. The powerful are brought down and there is a level playing field.

This first passage prepares us for next passage/paragraph that is somewhat shocking. Jesus says: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, [And why is that?] in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.” [And we might ask, What’s so bad about that?]

Depending on how you view your relatives, this could be your favorite verse in the Bible. Jesus is intentionally being provocative here, like when he says, “Sell all your possessions, and give to the poor.” Or when he says, “If your hand causes offense, then cut it off.” We would no more cut off our hand than we would stop sharing meals with our friends and relatives. Jesus, of course, is making a point. And what is that point?

Jesus says, “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Jesus says invite the poor, because they cannot repay you.

Earlier in this Gospel Jesus says, according to Luke, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” It’s important to understand that in this beatitude Jesus is not saying it’s a good thing to be poor, nor is Jesus suggesting that being poor meets some meritorious condition for living in the kingdom of God. It is unfortunate that we tend to read Luke’s, “Blessed are you who are poor” in light of Matthew’s version which reads, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” We tend to read Luke in light of Matthew as if being poor in spirit is a good thing. I have read it that way myself, but I am now convinced sisters and brothers that I have been reading into it what is not there. To be poor in spirit is basically to be crushed in spirit. Of course, one can be crushed in spirit without actually being economically poor, but how often are the economically poor crushed in spirit. Poverty is crippling. And of course, the lame and crippled are mentioned along with the poor because so often the poor are the ones who end up crippled in other ways as well - physically, emotionally, psychologically, socially, and spiritually. 

When Jesus says that the poor are blessed he is not saying that the poor have an advantage. For some reason I used to think that. They are clearly disadvantaged, and this is why they are blessed. This is why Jesus gives them special attention. It’s not because there is merit in being poor; just the opposite. It’s because they face such hardships and challenges and are often victims of systemic injustice that they are given special attention and focus from Jesus. Of all people the poor need friends and advocates and allies who will stand with them and for them, because they so often are made to feel as if they are the reproach of society.  

In a June article in the New York Times by op-ed writer Nicholas Kristof, Kristof noted that the US has reinstated a broad system of debtors’ prisons in recent years in effect making it a crime to be poor. He points out that impoverished defendants have nothing to give and that the system disproportionately punishes the poor and minorities, leaving them with an overhang of debt which is crippling and crushing.

He offers Amanda Goleman, age 29, as an example. She grew up in a meth house and began taking illegal drugs at age 12. Her education came to a halt in the ninth grade when she became pregnant. For a time, she and her daughter were homeless. But now Goleman has turned herself around. She has had no offenses for almost four years and has been drug-free for three. She has held a steady job and even been promoted, but she is a single mom and struggles to pay old fines while raising her three children, ages 2, 10, and 13. Goleman says, “It’s either feed my kids or pay the fines, but if I don’t pay then I get a warrant.” Four times she has been arrested and jailed for a few days for being behind in her payments; each time, this created havoc with her children and posed challenges for keeping a job. This is how our society punishes and stigmatizes the poor. Will a secular society care for the poor? Listen to all our politicians running for office. It’s always about the middle-class, but never about the poor.

This is why Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor.” This is why Jesus tells us to host parties for the poor. This is why Jesus says invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Because God loves them and cares about them. They are as loved by God as any one of us. And because they have special issues and needs and because they are so often demeaned and diminished and beaten down by society, they have a special place in God’s heart. They are especially endeared to God and those who share the heart and passion of God.

We all know how poverty can be and often is a self-perpetuating cycle. Sociologists and psychologists tell us that the factors contributing to this are often very complex. We will never sort it all out, but we should know that the system is rigged against them, making it that much harder to break free. It is not our place to judge. It is our place to care – to do what we can. It is our place to be their advocates. It is our place to encourage and empower. It is our place to care, because God cares so much. Blessed are the poor, says Jesus, for theirs is the kingdom of God.

Jesus says, “Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” to feast at the table. They are our sisters and brothers. We share the same Divine Father and Mother, the same Holy Spirit, the same connection to the Divine Reality who is the source of all life. We are at one with them. They are family. God doesn’t call them failures. God calls them daughters and sons.

So sisters and brothers, what do we call them? Do we share the heart and passion of God? Do we stand with Jesus or against Jesus? If we stand against the poor, we stand against Jesus. Blessed are the poor, says Jesus. Invite the poor, says Jesus. For such are the ways of God’s upside-down, inside-out kingdom.

Our good God, create in us a desire to know and share your passion for those who are the most vulnerable and who face a distinct disadvantage. Fill our hearts with your compassion. Keep us from judgment. And help us to discern and reject the critical attitudes and prejudices and animosity that is often directed toward the disadvantaged by people in power and society in general. Raise up kind, generous, just, and compassionate officials, judges, police officers, business leaders, and others in power to help bring mercy and justice into a system that favors money, power, and position. Help us to be authentic followers of Jesus. Amen.  

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Longing of God ( A sermon from Psalm 103:1-8 and Luke 13:10-17)

Life is good. Life is hard. Sometimes life is more good than hard. Sometimes life is more hard than good. Many of us live our lives in a context where we experience some degree of both. There are people, however, who face such overwhelming hardships and difficulties in life that their trials overshadow what goodness there is. This inequity and imbalance is due to two realities. One, it’s due to the randomness of life, which we cannot do much about. We have no control over many of the circumstances that affect our lives. That’s one factor. The second reason is due to the injustice and evil in the world, which we can do something about if we are willing.

I believe the Psalmist captures something of the longing of God when he says that God wants to forgive all our sins and heal all our diseases. Of course, we know that many do not experience God’s forgiveness because their hearts are closed to it and we certainly know that all our diseases are not healed. But I believe this expresses God’s longing. It’s what God wants for us. God’s longing, according to the Psalmist is to “redeem us from the pit” of death and crown us with “love and compassion.” God’s longing is to “satisfy our desires with good things so that our strength is renewed like the eagle’s.” When the Psalmist says that the Lord “works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed,” the Psalmist is expressing both God’s longing and God’s present activity. God works on behalf of all the oppressed. However, God is limited in what God can do because God depends on you and me to do God’s work. This is what it means to be the body of Christ in the world. This is why God gets angry with God’s people when they practice or support injustice. We are called to be God’s advocates for justice in the world.

In story after story in the Gospels we see Jesus, as the quintessential Son of Man, as the representative human being, sharing God’s longing. We see Jesus doing God’s work to bring forgiveness to those who are willing to receive it. We see Jesus bringing healing to the physically, mentally, and spiritual broken. And we see Jesus bringing liberation to the oppressed and to victims of injustice.

There is no doubt Jesus had a widespread reputation as a healer, but I also believe that the individual healing stories in the Gospels were meant to be read as parables of the good news that Jesus embodied and proclaimed. They are rich in symbolical and spiritual meaning highlighting the healing and wholeness and liberation God wants to bring into our individual lives, our communities, our society, and into our entire global village.

Here is a woman who has been crippled for eighteen years and unable to stand up straight. The text says she was bound by Satan. Satan simply means “adversary” and I read Satan as a symbol for the oppressive system – a patriarchal, male dominant system that had left her crippled. We miss this in the English translation but in verse 11 the Greek text says she was crippled by a “spirit of weakness.” The NSRV and NIV both simply read “spirit” and so this is easy to miss, but the Greek text reads “spirit of weakness.” This spirit of weakness had crippled her, made her feel weak and of no account.

What might have happened those eighteen years ago that so crippled her life? Was she abused by a domineering husband who treated her as inferior and unworthy? Was she silenced by the men in her community when she cried out for help? Was she forced to live a battered life in silence because she had no advocates crying out for justice? All we know is that she was crippled by Satan; crippled by the adversaries of God’s justice. This spirit of weakness, this spirit of oppression had beaten her down and diminished her own spirit.

Jesus’ own religion was often used by those in power to reinforce and justify the oppression of women in that culture, just the way our religion was used to justify slavery in our own national history or to justify exclusion and condemnation of our LGBT sisters and brothers today. One of Jesus’ primary roles was that of reformer, which eventually got him crucified by the powers that be.

Sometimes we hear people say that religion is a major source of oppression and injustice in the world. Or they might scapegoat a particular religion and say this religion is a major problem in our world. But sisters and brothers, it is not religion in general or a religion in particular that is the source of oppression and injustice. It’s how we use religion that is the problem.

In our story, the misuse of religion is symbolized in the leader of the synagogue. His concern is not for the crippled woman. Nor does he particularly care that Jesus has healed her and restored her sense of personhood and dignity as a true daughter of Abraham and a daughter of God. His concern is that Jesus did this on the Sabbath. The religious gatekeepers, whom this synagogue leader represents, had imposed some very strict laws to guard the holiness of the Sabbath. When Jesus healed this crippled woman on the Sabbath, Jesus disregarded the holiness of their laws and opted for a holiness of compassion instead. (Under the Mosaic covenant the main mantra was: “Be holy because God is holy.” But interestingly the one place in Luke’s Gospel that alludes to that changes it up so that it reads, “Be compassionate, just as God is compassionate.”) Jesus didn’t reject the holiness of the Sabbath. He rejected their understanding of what that holiness involved and the laws they had established to guard that holiness.

For these religious gatekeepers religion had become a way to control who they would let in and who they wanted to keep out. They cared very little it seems about the plight of the oppressed and destitute. What they cared about was their own position and power and authority to set the rules and maintain the status quo. And you know sisters and brothers, this kind of unhealthy, life diminishing use of religion can be found in all religious traditions, and it has frequently marked our own Christian history. In fact, we see it reflected in our own sacred scriptures. Not everything in our Bible is good and life affirming, which is why it’s so important to read scripture critically and discerningly and spiritually.

A case in point that goes right along with this story is how our scriptures have been used to both liberate women and to oppress women. Mainline biblical scholarship argues that of the 13 letters that bear Paul’s name, seven are clearly authored by Paul. (These seven undisputed letters are 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Romans, and Philemon.) There is no debate around these letters. And in these letters Paul’s stance toward women is miles ahead of his culture. In the churches he founded women preached and prayed and occupied positions of leadership. Gender was not a factor. Paul viewed women prophets and teachers as his co-workers in the ministry. The theology that Paul based this on was a social and spiritual vision of oneness in Christ which eradicated all barriers of race, gender, and social status. In fact, there is good reason to believe that the practices of these early Pauline churches stood in stark contrast to the hierarchical and patriarchal culture and practices of Roman society. And there is good reason to believe that this caused those churches to come under the scrutiny and suspicion of Roman officials. And that may explain why there was such a pushback against these egalitarian practices in the church. They were afraid Rome would crush them.  

We see something of this pushback in the household codes reflected in Ephesians and Colossians – in the instructions given to husbands, wives, children, and slaves. Pauline scholars debate whether or not Paul actually authored these books and the arguments are inconclusive on both sides of the debate. If Paul was the author (which I personally doubt) then Paul was pushing back against his own earlier egalitarianism. However, mainline biblical scholarship is quite unanimous in their conclusion that 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus were written several decades after Paul’s death by someone within the Pauline tradition, writing in Paul’s name,which, by the way, was not uncommon in the ancient world. (Disciples of prominent teachers were known to write in the name of their teachers after their teacher died.)  And in 1 Tim 2:11-14 the writer bearing Paul’s name makes a serious attempt to correct Paul.

He says, “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man, she is to keep silent.” This is quite a throwback isn’t it? And it’s in clear opposition and contradiction to Paul’s egalitarian practices in the churches he founded.  Here’s the reason the writer gives for this instruction: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” That is terrible theology sisters and brothers, most likely born out of fear. The writer of 1 Timothy is basically arguing that women are to be silent in church because they are morally inferior and are more gullible. I have no doubt that this was their way of trying to bring the Pauline churches to be more in line with Roman culture. So clearly, here is an example in our own Christian tradition were our religion (the Christian faith) is used as a means of control, and in particular, as a means to keep women subjugated to men. As Richard Rohr often says: Our sacred texts mirror our own spiritual growth and enlightenment or lack thereof. It’s three steps forward and two steps back. And that very pattern (progression – regression; forward – backward) is reflected in scripture.

And of course, Christian leaders and churches are still doing the same thing today with regard to women. There are many churches in our country where women are not equal to men and are denied certain leadership roles because of their gender, and as you all know this is especially prevalent in Southern Baptist churches.

In our Gospel story Jesus exposes the hypocrisy of this kind of religion. He points out how the synagogue leader and his fellow gatekeepers make exceptions to their Sabbath rules to lift their own ox or donkey out of a pit, but will not lift a hand to lift this crippled woman out of the pit she had been living in for eighteen years. It’s no wonder, sisters and brothers, that the percentage of people in this country who describe themselves as nonreligious is the highest it has ever been. There are multiple reasons for this, but certainly one of the main reasons is that they see too much of this kind of hypocrisy in the church.

But on the flip side, healthy religion can be the most transforming force in the world. I would argue it is the most transforming force in the world. We sometimes forget that most of the really great reformers in human history were deeply devoted religious persons. Martin Luther King, Jr was a Baptist minister and it was the best of the Christian tradition that inspired him and many of his associates and followers. So religion can be used for good or evil. It can be used as a means of controlling others, creating worthiness systems, justifying prejudices, and elevating the ego on the one hand. (And we see this use of religion in the way some of our scriptures try to justify violence and prejudice and oppressive structures). But on the other hand, sisters and brothers, religion can be the means for great spiritual and moral advancement, for personal and social transformation, and for healing of the broken and liberation of the oppressed. The Isaiah passage (58:9b-14) that we read earlier suggests that our healing and liberation is connected to the healing and liberation of everyone else. It is in offering healing to others that we are healed. It is in working for the liberation of others that we are set free. It is in loving others that we find love.

I think one of the reasons large segments of the church have gotten so far off track is because we have put the emphasis on the wrong things. We put the emphasis on things like doctrinal conformity and believing correctly. We put the emphasis on the afterlife rather than this life. And this last one may need some elaboration.  

I love the story about the florist who mixed up two orders on a busy day. One arrangement was to go to a new business and the other to a funeral, but they got mixed up. The next day, the guy with the new business stormed into the shop visibly upset. “What’s the big idea? The flowers that arrived for our reception said, ‘Rest in peace.’” The florist said, “Well, if you think that’s bad you should have seen the people at the funeral who got the flowers that said, “Good luck in your new location.” I think we really got off track when we turned the good news of God’s healing and liberating grace into preparing for a new location.

In the Christianity of my childhood, youth, and even young adulthood, salvation was primarily about escaping hell and going to heaven. I didn’t know at the time that attributing that meaning to salvation imports something into the idea of salvation that is not present in the Gospels at all. In the Gospels being saved is about being made whole; it’s about being healed, being liberated, being freed from powers of death like this woman in our story. Salvation in the New Testament relates far more to this life than the next life.

Now, I certainly believe in an afterlife. When I am asked about the afterlife my common response is: I haven’t the faintest idea what life after death will be like or look like or feel like, but I believe it will be good, because I believe God is good. That is the bottom line for me. God is good so whatever the afterlife involves it will be good.

Jesus believed in resurrection. His followers believed in resurrection. Paul wrote a long passage in his first letter to the Corinthians arguing that there will be a future resurrection, because apparently some in the church were questioning it or even denying it. But here’s the catch. Whatever they believed about the afterlife (and it’s really hard to know what they believed because they don’t tell us much) they connected it to this world, not some other world someplace else. Paul wrote in Romans 8 about how this earthly creation anxiously longs for and awaits final redemption. Paul and many of the early Christians believed that the new creation of God would be right here and extend to all creation. It would involve, they believed, the transformation of this world, not evacuation to some other distant world. I believe Christianity really lost it dynamic power to transform people, transform communities, and transform society when it changed the emphasis from this world to the next.

It is true that we are pilgrims on a journey, but it is not true that this world is not our home. This world is God’s good creation and as long as it exists it is our home and we are called to invest in it and be good managers and caretakers of it.

I love my religion. I love my faith and the sacred scriptures and traditions that have been passed on to me. I love the beauty and grace and love and faith and hope I see embodied in the stories about Jesus and the stories and teachings of Jesus. I can see the longing of God in these sacred stories and writings. And the deeper I dive into them, the more I want to experience and share and participate in God’s longing, which is nothing less, nothing short of a longing for a world transformed by love. Amen.

Gracious God, the best of our tradition and scriptures teaches us that you long for a world marked by grace and hope, love and mercy, peace and justice, where all people have the capacity to thrive, not just survive. O God, let that be our longing to. And give us the will and courage and heart to translate that longing into the actual practice and pursuit of mercy and justice. Amen. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Living as a Christian Mystic

In both the canonical literature (Proverbs) and in the Apocrypha (Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon) divine wisdom is personified as Lady Wisdom (the Greek word for wisdom is the feminine noun sophia). Lady Wisdom/Sophia is described with divine attributes and characteristics. In Proverbs 8:22-31 she was the first thing created and participated with God in the creation of the world and is now present everywhere. In the Wisdom of Solomon she is described as “a spotless mirror of the working of God and an image of his goodness.” She “pervades and penetrates all things.”

This is the same language used in the prologue/introduction of the Gospel of John. The language of Lady Wisdom is used to talk about the Word (Logos) that “became flesh.” This Word/Wisdom is the light that is in all people (John 1:4) and enlightens everyone (John 1:9). This same language is applied to Christ in Colossians 1:15-20 who is described “as the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (this is right out of Proverbs and the Wisdom of Solomon). “In him” (Christ here takes the place of Lady Wisdom), says the writer, “all things hold together.” Then the writer envisions “all things, whether on earth or in heaven,” being reconciled to God by Christ (Christ here the symbol for the Wisdom of God – love, grace, truth, etc – that became incarnate in Jesus). In 1 Cor. 1:24 Paul identifies Christ, especially his cross, with the Wisdom of God.

Now, I know this sounds like pretty heavy stuff. I think that in many ways ancient peoples were more adept than we are in reading religious language metaphorically, symbolically, and spiritually. We have a tendency to literalize such language.

One of the really important truths to be gleaned from this, I’m convinced, is that the Divine Wisdom (God, Sophia, the Christ, Holy Spirit, use whatever language you are comfortable with), which we have come to know and experience in a special way through the human person of Jesus, is the light in all of us.

In the Wisdom of Solomon Lady Wisdom is described as the “breath of the power of God and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty.” This is the breath/Spirit that sustains our lives. This light (Spirit, life force, wisdom) is with and in all of us. We bear God’s image. We are all as Paul says in Acts 17 “God’s offspring” in whom the Divine dwells (“in him we live, move, and have our existence”).

The practical truth that can be gleaned from this is that we all came from God and live in God and will be brought together in God. The problem is that so many of us don’t realize our divine birthright and destiny, and therefore we live as if we are on our own.

What would it mean for us to wake up every morning and say, “God lives in me. God is in me and I’m in God. I bear God’s image and I am God’s son/daughter. Help me today, O Compassionate One, to live as the Christ. Let me be aware of your participation in my life and help me to be led by your Spirit so that I might cooperate with you in the work of mercy and justice that you want to see done in the world.” What a difference we could make!

Monday, August 15, 2016

Mercy Is Not Enough (A sermon from Psalm 82 and Isaiah 5:1-7)

In my little book, Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls), I share a story to draw a distinction between acts of mercy and acts of justice. They are not the same thing.

Once there was a town built just beyond the bend of a large river. One day some of the children from the town were playing beside the river when they noticed three bodies floating in the water. They ran for help and the townsfolk quickly pulled the bodies out of the river.

One person was dead, so they buried that one. One was alive, but very sick, so they put that person in the hospital. The third turned out to be a healthy child, who they placed with a family that cared for the child and took the child to school.

From that day forward, a number of bodies came floating down the river and every day, the good people of the town would pull them out and tend to them—taking the sick to the hospital, placing children with families, and burying those who were dead.

This went on for years. Each week brought its quota of bodies, and the townsfolk not only came to expect a number of bodies each week, but also developed more elaborate systems for picking them out of the river and tending to them. Some even gave up their jobs so they could devote themselves to this work full time. The townspeople began to even feel a certain healthy pride in their generosity and care for them.

However, during all those years and despite all their generosity, no one thought to go up the river, beyond the bend that hid from sight what was above them, and find out why all those bodies kept floating down the river.

Here, sisters and brothers, is the difference between acts of mercy and social justice. Mercy is about rescuing those who are drowning and tending to their immediate needs. Social justice is about changing the conditions responsible for sending all those people floating down the river in need of mercy. While mercy is about giving a hungry person some bread, social justice is about changing the system so that no one has excess bread while some have none. Mercy is about helping the poor; social justice is about eliminating poverty. See the difference. God’s kingdom calls for both.

This is the kind of justice the Psalmist and the prophet Isaiah are calling for in our sacred texts today. Our text in Isaiah is a proclamation of judgment against a people who were called to be an example of restorative justice to the world. Instead of being a light to the nations they had created a system of inequity and injustice like all the other nations around them. The prophet proclaims that God planted Israel as a vineyard among the nations to be a light reflecting the kind of world God wants – where all people are able to thrive. But Israel’s vineyard had become overgrown with the briars of injustice and the thorns of oppression that led to impoverishment and marginalization.

It is true that some of the pictures of God painted by the writers of our scriptures are at times puzzling and contradictory, especially when God is viewed as a champion of violence. But there is a strong tradition that sees the God of the Hebrews as a God of restorative justice. The Psalmist says that God loves justice (94:4) and Isaiah says that God’s rule or will is sustained by justice (9:7).

In the Book of Deuteronomy the writer proclaims that the great God who is the God of all gods is not partial and takes no bribes. The scripture says that God “executes justice for the orphan and the widow” and “loves the strangers (the aliens, undocumented), providing them with food and clothing.” Hence, the scripture says, “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:17-19). If the justice of God informed our immigration policy there would be no talk of a wall or mass deportations. We would be seeking compassionate solutions that would keep families together and provide refuge for those fleeing life threatening situations.

Unfortunately, we have been shaped by a very rampant individualism that dominates our society. We have been so influenced by this over emphasis on individual rights that many people think of justice almost completely in terms of criminality and litigation. Justice, they think, is someone getting what they deserve. Of course, this Americanized view of justice has little in common with the prophetic view of justice that pervades the biblical tradition.

One of the major problems in ancient Israel that created poverty and oppressive conditions for the most vulnerable such as the orphan, the widow, and the stranger or non-Israelite, had to do with the accumulation of wealth among the elite and the inequitable distribution of resources. Wealth was determined by possession of land. The poor did not own land. They worked for those who did, and were easily taken advantage of.  

So to eliminate this concentration of land/wealth by a particular group the law required that every Sabbath year, every seventh year all debts throughout the land would be forgiven. This was across the board amnesty – the complete elimination of debt every seven years. Every fiftieth year, called the year of Jubilee, all land was to be returned to the original family. It didn’t matter how people had lost their land, it was all to be restored. Think about this. In Israel every fiftieth year a radical redistribution of land was to occur. The reason given for this redistribution according to Deut. 15:4 was this: “There shall be no poor among you.” They realized there can only be justice if poverty is eliminated. As long as there is poverty there is injustice in the land.

In Luke’s Gospel Jesus begins his ministry by defining his mission, his agenda in terms of Isaiah 61 (You can read this in Luke 4). Jesus declared his mission as one of proclaiming good news to the poor (now sisters and brothers good news to the poor is the elimination of poverty, that’s what the poor want to hear – a way out of their poverty, they know the system is rigged against them), the recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the captives (in other words, there would be no indentured servants tied to big land owners), and liberation of the oppressed. That’s how Jesus defines his ministry in Luke 4. Then he says, according to Luke, he is sent to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and that sisters and brothers is a clear allusion to the year of Jubilee, when land reverted back to the original family.

The Psalmist in our text today sees God holding judgment in the divine court. God says to the rulers, the elite, the wealthy: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?” Now, don’t you think God could ask us that same question?

Let me read you a story shared by Rev. David Jordan in an article he wrote recently for Baptist News Global:

Two stories. Two young men. One white. One black. It was a number of years ago now. I was a pastor in the suburbs of Washington, in a multi-ethnic congregation of people from the very poor to the quite wealthy.

The first story began with a call I received from the wife of a young, 35-year-old father and husband, a rising and seemingly successful stock broker in our church. “Sam has been arrested,” she said. Embarrassed, heartbroken and desperate, she wondered if I could go to him. Sam was charged with fraud and cocaine possession. He had confessed and was pleading for rehab and mercy. He had two young girls in school; he had been their soccer and softball coach; he still had so much to live for and so much yet to do. He also had a good lawyer.

I visited Sam — as his pastor, his advocate and his friend. He sat on a nice bed with a colorful quilt while pastel paint tones and comfortable furniture offered a calming ambiance to his room in the rehab center. It was expensive he said, but necessary for his full recovery.

We prayed together and were very hopeful that all would work out for the best. He was getting the help he needed, the judge appeared to be open to leniency, and this lovely facility gave every indication that he would get his life back and could start over with a second chance.

I got another call not long after that one. “Leo is in prison. He would like to see you.” Leo was 15, big smile, sweet spirit and a very hard life. He never knew his father; his mother had serious learning disabilities and the grandmother he lived with openly spoke of the money she got from a couple of sources to raise him as her only income. She never hid her ambivalent feelings about Leo’s presence in her life. Nevertheless, Leo remained resilient, caring and positive.

I went to the prison where he was being held. In stark contrast to the fine rehab facility of the previous story, I had to sit on one side of thick plexiglass with a phone on my side and a phone on his side. Leo was ushered in from the jail cell where he was being kept. Wearing an orange jump suit and hands chained together in front of him, he shuffled sadly across the dreary gray space that led to the plexiglass barrier between us. His expression was filled with shame. He slumped with resignation in the cheap plastic chair on the other side of the window.

He had been a passenger in a car that a friend had taken for a joy ride. He didn’t realize that the vehicle was stolen. “Dave, I thought he bought it with the money he had been making from working at Wendy’s. That’s what he told me, and I believed him.”

Two stories. Two young men. One convicted of fraud and cocaine possession. The other a passenger in a car he didn’t realize was stolen. The first was given a gentle slap on the wrist. The other, harsh treatment in difficult conditions for any age, but Leo was 15. He was also African-American and at the mercy of a system he didn’t understand and had no advocates in. Sam was white and well-connected.

Can you hear the God of the Psalmist saying to us: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality.” Can you hear the thunder of God’s voice as he says to all of us: Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.”

And why must we give ourselves to the restorative justice of God? Because, says the Lord of the Psalmist, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you.” We are made in God’s image. We are God’s daughters and sons. We are called to be God’s representatives and image bearers in the world. We are called to stand for what is good and right and just and merciful.  

Our symbol for justice in this land is a blindfolded woman holding a balance scale. I don’t think that image would set well with God’s prophets. They would say, “Take the blindfold off and open your eyes. Look and see all the injustice and inequity in the land.”

This is not easy work. It is challenging and difficult. Injustice gets deeply embedded within the systems and structures of society. Calling it out can get you in trouble. It got Jesus crucified.

The prophet Micah asks the question: What does God require? Then he answers it: To love mercy, to do justice, and walk humbly with God. Sisters and brothers, loving mercy is not enough. It’s a good thing, but it’s not enough. We must do justice. We must stand with and speak out for all the victims of injustice. And if we can’t, if we won’t, if we don’t, let’s not pretend to be the body of Christ in the world.

Our good God, Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful.” You have called us to be agents of mercy in a tit-for-tat world that can be hard and cruel. And when we feed the hungry and care for the sick and share in the grief of your hurting children we know we are doing your will. But we also know, that is not enough. For Jesus also said, “Blessed are those who hunger after justice.” Give us the courage to stand with and speak out for those who have been given no voice. Give us hearts of compassion, but also give us the courage to confront the injustice in our government, in massive corporations, in local systems and structures in which we live our lives. Give us the honesty to admit our own omplicity in injustice. And as we come now to eat the bread and drink the cup we are reminded that Jesus was crucified by the powers that be because he was not afraid to confront and critique the religious and political leaders of his day. May we find that same courage. Amen.   

Christian, Baptist, Evangelical? Just call me a Jesus follower (then again, maybe not)

Chuck QueenBaptist historian Bill Leonard, in his brilliantly insightful way,recently called attention to the multiple problems in identifying as an evangelical today. What does it mean to be an evangelical? Leonard shared how a “religiously unaffiliated” friend asked him, “Aren’t you evangelicals just the Republican party at prayer?” Leonard points out that with over 75 percent of self-identified evangelicals deciding to vote for Trump the term has been emptied of its historical significance. Dr. Leonard is content to simply be known as a Christian and a Baptist. But what do these terms mean in today’s topsy-turvy religious world?
Click here to read full article at Baptist News Global

Monday, August 8, 2016

I’m supposed to do what? – money and the kingdom of God (Luke 12:13-34)

Maybe you heard about the lay preacher that often traveled to little churches around the countryside and preached. He always gave his regular offering to his home church, but it was also his custom to put a little something in the offering plate where he preached. There was no offering taken that morning but he noticed an offering box in the back, so as he and his young son who accompanied him that Sunday left the church after the service he dropped a five dollar bill in the offering box.  As they made their way to the car one of the deacons came running after him.  “Wait a minutes preacher,” he said, “it’s our custom to give the preacher what is received in the offering box” and he handed him a five dollar bill. As they drove off, his young son said, “Dad, if you would have given more, you would have gotten more, wouldn’t you?” 

Is that true? If you give more, you will get more? The prosperity preachers who are getting rich off the gifts of their perishioners would like to convince us it’s true. Of course, they don’t preach, “Give your money away to those in legitimate need. They preach, “Give your money to me and the good work we are doing here and you will be blessed.” What he means is, “Then I will be blessed.”

Now, I have to tell you that Jesus says some things that I really struggle with, and that’s never more true than what he says about money and possessions. (Now I haven’t forgotten to read the text, I will get around to the Gospel reading in a minute. And there is no need to worry, because my introduction is half the sermon.)

Recently, Baptist historian Bill Leonard wrote a really good piece in Baptist News Global titled, “Christian, Baptist, Evengelical – two out of three ain’t bad.” Leonard points out how in contemporary society the word evangelical has diverse meanings and with over 75 percent of self-identified evangelicals today voting for Donald Trump the term has completely lost its historical significance. So Leonard sheds the term evangelical and prefers to simply be known as a Christian and a Baptist.

In my monthly column for BNG which will appear this Tuesday I refer to Leonard’s post. The title I have given them for my post is a take-off on Leonard’s (of course, they sometimes change the titles the authors submit): Christian, Baptist, evangelical? Just call me a Jesus follower (then again, maybe not). In my piece I ask, “What does the term Christian and Baptist mean?” And I conclude that all these terms – Christian, Baptist, evangelical – have such diverse meaning in contemporary society they hardly mean anything at all. So then, just call me a Jesus follower, but then again, maybe not. Why do I add, “maybe not.” The reason I say, “maybe not” is because Jesus says some pretty radical things that I really struggle with.

Here’s how I end my piece (I have included this as a meditation piece in your worship bulletin): If one is honest about what Jesus says about loving others (including one’s enemies) and about sharing one’s possessions with others one has to admit that Jesus wasn’t very practical at all. Indeed, he was over-the-top radical. He was far more radical than I like or even aspire toward at this stage in my spiritual journey. I don’t care to admit that I’m not anywhere close to being as loving as Jesus, nor am I detached as Jesus was from other things and obligations. I do not reflect his simplicity of life, nor his exclusive devotion to God’s restorative justice and will on earth.

Like so many of my friends, I’m more of a “moderate,” certainly not close to being as radical as Jesus. I’m a would-be disciple who struggles with the hard sayings of a radical prophet, mystic, teacher, healer, and reformer, who I call my Lord. Is he my Lord? Sometimes I’m not sure. And what I mean when I say “I’m not sure” is that there are times when I struggle with Jesus’ over-the-top radical teachings.

We are not the only ones. If you read Paul’s letters it’s fairly clear that Jesus’ early followers had as much trouble as you and me living out his teachings. However, there is at least one instance of a church in the book of Acts that attempts to seriously apply Jesus’ teachings on giving away possessions.

Listen to how Luke describes the first church of Jerusalem in Acts 4:32-35: Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. [I remember my dad saying to me one time right after I was married when I went to borrow some tools, “What is mine is yours.” I have said that to my own kids. But I wouldn’t say that to just anyone, nor would you.] With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

Well now, what do you make of that? I love to quote this passage to Christians who think that somehow capitalism is God ordained and socialism is of the Devil. The text says that everything they owned was held in common. Who lives like this? I don’t. You don’t. We don’t even aspire to live like this do we? We want our own stuff. I am not about to give my super duty Lews wide spool reel and heavy, fact action 7, 11’ Shamano swimbait rod to some common pool. I will let you borrow it, but you better give it back, okay. 

By the way, some systems, some economic systems are more equitable and fair than others, but no system is God-ordained as the right system. For example, there’s no doubt that universal health care would be a much better system for the poor and disadvantaged and most vulnerable among us, than our current system of insurance driven health care. Maybe not for you and me, but for the less fortunate yes – it would be much better. Would there still be some who manipulate the system? Of course. Because greed pops us in all systems. You can’t eliminate greed. Only the love of God can do that.

So, I have said all of that to say this: There are some teachings of Jesus I really struggle with and that’s particularly true of what he says about giving away possessions. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, Luke tells us that Jesus says, “Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again” (6:30). Who does that? I don’t do that. You don’t do that. That’s not practical – it’s radical. I don’t even try to live out that teaching and you don’t either. So, let me ask you. Are we Jesus followers? And the answer is, “Yes and No.”

Now, let’s look at this somewhat radical text today in Luke 12:13-34 . . .

Verses 13-14: Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”

Maybe this brother has a legitimate complaint. Even so, Jesus dismisses the question and launches into some teaching on possessions

Verse 15: And he (Jesus) said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.

Like I said, greed pops up everywhere. Yes, some economic systems are more equitable and fair than others, but greed finds its way into all.

Verses 16-21: Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do for I have no place to store my crops? Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So it is with those who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

If I read another commentator tearing into this poor guy in our parable I might just tear those pages out. Commentators love to point out how selfish this guy is. Perhaps we should heed what Jesus says about trying to pluck out a spec in someone else’s eye while not seeing the log in our own. This guy in the story is you and me. We are the fools. Jesus is calling you and me a fool. Do you realize this? We are the fools. The only difference between us and the guy in the parable is that we don’t tear down barns and build bigger ones, we just switch out our 401k’s so we get more return on our investment. We are all fools. All of us. The only reason I feel sorry for this poor guy is that he didn’t get to enjoy his retirement.

I have to ask though, “What does it mean to be rich toward God?” It can only really mean one thing sisters and brothers. To be rich toward God is to be filled with God’s love. And I can tell you this: The more we are filled with God’s love, the more we are rich in love, then the more joy and happiness we find in giving stuff away. And that’s what it means to be rich toward God.

Verse 22-31: He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do no worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin? Yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you – you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”

Well, that sounds really good doesn’t it? But the problem is my sisters and brothers: It doesn’t always work that way! Don’t worry about food or clothing. Don’t worry about what you need to live, just strive after the kingdom, love others with the love of God, and all your needs will be met as well. Sounds great, but it doesn’t always work! Think about all of God’s children whose needs have not been met. Many of them have more love and generosity and goodness in their hearts than I do or you do. They are better kingdom of God persons than I am or you are. And yet all their needs are not met. If you or I were to give all our stuff away in the interests of loving others there is no guarantee that we would have adequate supplies to live. No guarantee. And you know that’s true.

Verse 32: Do not be afraid, little flock, says Jesus, for it is your Fathers good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

Jesus is not talking about heaven here; he is talking about giving and receiving divine love and grace which is what the kingdom of God is about.

Verse 33a: Sell your possessions, and give alms.

You want us to do what Jesus? You want us to sell our possessions and give the money away to those in need. The first question many of us want to ask is: How much do we have to give away? And the moment we ask that question we should realize how much we lack the love of God.  

If all Jesus followers actually did this we would wreck our economy. We would send the country back into recession. By the way, this is just one of many things that show we are not a Christian nation. Never were and never will be. And of course, when we call ourselves a Christian nation it shows how loosely we toss around the word Christian. The word Christian can mean just about anything today.

Verse 33b: Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart is also.

Now, we should know by now that when Jesus talks about an unfailing treasure in heaven he is not talking about some sort of material reward or benefit we earn for being good. Surely we understand that. In fact, in this very passage Jesus has already said that the kingdom is God’s gift to us. And that is what this unfailing treasure is. It’s God’s kingdom, God’s presence in our lives and the power to love. And it’s the joy, gratitude, and generosity that overflows in our lives when we are filled with God’s love.

This is the only thing that doesn’t end. Paul confirms this in his great ode to love in 1 Cor. 13. It’s the only thing that lasts. Faith and hope have their limitations, but not love. Love transcends and outlasts them all. Love is the unfailing treasure.

It’s time for me to wrap this up, so . . . What do we make of this radical Jesus telling us to live in the moment, not worry about the future, give away our stuff, and strive to love everyone with the love of God who gives everything he has away? That’s what God does. God is the great Giver. God gives everything away. God exists for the creation.

Can we all just be honest and admit that none of us are ever going to be that radical. Jesus was radical about who we should love, who we should care for, and how generous we should be. And we are never going to be that radical. Let’s just admit it. We are always going to come up short trying to live out the teachings of Jesus and reflect his radical life. We are just not that radical. We are moderate Baptists, not radical ones.

Let me just tell you what I take from my struggle with this text and maybe it’s something you can take away too or at least think about. I believe this: I believe that the more we are filled with divine love and the more we can take pleasure in loving others, then the more joy we will experience, the more spontaneous and alive in the moment we become, and the more happiness we feel in giving stuff away. That’s what I believe, sisters and brothers, that aliveness, joy, and generosity are the natural consequences of experiencing and expressing, practicing and demonstrating love for others.

I don’t come close the to the over-the-top radicalness of Jesus, but I do believe (and I have learned this from Jesus) that the more I am able to receive and give love, then the more generous I will become, the more alive I will become, and the more joy I will experience. I hope you will find that to be true as well.

Gracious God, may we be reminded of how much you love each of us and that everything in life is a gift. It’s all grace. Fill us with your grace so that we will be gracious and generous to others the way you are all the time. Amen.