Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Word made Flesh (A Christmas day sermon from John 1:1-14)

Fr Richard Rohr shares a fascinating story he learned from a seasoned African missionary. When the priest first arrived in an African village he began by celebrating the Eucharist in a simple manner. He said to the people, “Now I’m going to celebrate a very simple means of sharing God’s love with you. Those of you who want to join in this meal are entering into God’s love.” Then he held out the bread to them and said, “Whoever eats this bread believes that your people are one people.” He explained to them the implication of this simple gospel, “That means you can’t hate one another anymore.” That’s how he shared the gospel.

Unknowingly, the priest had violated a custom of the tribe; namely, the men ate together, while the women and children ate separately. It was a disgrace for a man to eat with a woman. Unwittingly, the priest had gathered men and women around the sacred table and fed the bread to men and women as equals. This disturbed them, and the natives reacted quite vocally. The priest raised his voice over the murmurings and said, “In Christ there is no distinction between male and female.”

The people were dumbfounded at that statement. They wanted to know who this Christ was who made no distinction between men and women. The priest tried to explain, “He is the father of all. That means you are all brothers and sisters, and when you eat this bread, you are one in Christ.” At this, some began to move away, because it was humiliating for men to eat with women.

The great challenge for the priest was to communicate the gospel in their cultural context. For the priest the Eucharist struck at the very heart of the gospel, so his approach was to invite them to the sacred meal and as simply as possible explain to them, day after day, the meaning and implication of the ritual. He kept telling them they were one people and they were to love one another. In fifteen years, this created something of a social revolution in the tribe.

One day, the men came and literally laid their weapons at his feet, saying to him, “If the gospel you preach to us is true, if this Jesus, this Son of the Father, loves us in this total way, and if he is the Father of all the people in our village and the Father of the people in the village down the road, then we can’t kill them anymore.” Rohr comments, “In fifteen years this tribe learned what Western Civilization hasn’t been able to learn in two thousand years with all its complex versions of Christianity.”

The missionary told Fr Rohr that he saw no point in confusing these people by telling them about all the different denominations in Christendom. He just wanted to communicate Jesus’ and the Father’s love to them. After fifteen years, there were over ten thousand practicing Christians who were celebrating the Eucharist.

Then, a bishop of Rome assigned to investigate the situation asked the priest, “Do these people know that they are Catholics?” The priest responded, “No, I haven’t told them that yet.” The bishop tightened up and thought the situation was entirely out of control. He insisted that they had to know they were Catholic. The priest replied, “They are a catholic people. They are a universal people, open to all that God is saying and doing.” The bishop threw up his hands and returned to Rome.

The priest started thinking about how upset the bishop was and that perhaps he should teach them about the seven sacraments. So he gathered some of the elders together and explained to them that a sacrament is an encounter between God and humans, and that there were seven of these. All the elders looked puzzled, and finally one of them said, “But we thought there were at least seven hundred!”

It was at that moment the priest realized that he would be limiting their perception of Divine Reality if he were to insist that there were only seven moments when God encounters humans. These people were already sacramentally minded and more incarnational than even the most devout Westerners. They had no problem thinking that God communicates with humans through signs, symbols, rituals, and gestures; their  whole lives were filled with these things. They couldn’t imagine limiting these to seven. One of the great realities that the Christian religion has given to the world is the truth that God is here among us in many forms and expressions.

We who are followers of Jesus, we look to Jesus as the definitive, quintessential incarnation and revelation of God. Now, I do not insist that this must be so for all people, but for you and me who are followers of Christ, Jesus is our model and guide as to what God is like. We look to Jesus first of all.

And while we look to Jesus as a unique revelation of God, we need to remember that we are all unique, and the Divine character and goodness that was incarnated through the life and teachings, the death and resurrection of Jesus, can be incarnated in you and me in similar ways. Jesus shows us the human potential. According to John’s Gospel incarnation is the way God will save the world – that is heal the world, redeem the world, liberate the world, transform the world, and bring peace to the world.

The two particular aspects of the nature of God that are highlighted in John’s prologue are grace and truth: “The Word became flesh (and to keep this simple, the reference to Word or Logos is just another way of referencing the Divine) and lived among us, and we have seen his glory . . . full of grace and truth.” I think we are pretty clear on what grace is and hardly needs any elaboration, but our understanding of truth probably needs expanding and maybe even in some ways correcting.

Truth in John’s Gospel, and in early Christianity in general, is not doctrinal or factual or propositional. It became that later in church history when creeds became popular. In this Gospel, however, Jesus is the way that leads to truth and life. Truth pertains to life – God’s life – and in particular the life embodied and modeled in the way of Jesus. So truth is first and foremost about a way of life.

It’s not about getting your beliefs correct. In fact, there is no standard dogma in scripture or anywhere where we can determine correct beliefs. In early Christianity there was quite a bit of diversity. And of course, God is so much more than any of our beliefs. When I talk about beliefs I like to talk about healthy and unhealthy beliefs, life affirming beliefs and life diminishing beliefs, not about correct or incorrect beliefs. In my opinion, a false belief is a belief that if acted on diminishes our lives in some way.
Truth relates to life. To live truly is to live with integrity and generosity and humility. To live in truth is to live for what is good, just, and right for all people.

Our scripture text today says that the Word that Jesus embodied, we too can embody. Our text suggests that what Jesus received we too can receive, that what Jesus incarnated we too can incarnate, and we do that by learning and receiving from Jesus. The text says that as many as receive Jesus, as many as believe in his name, they receive the power to become children of God. The way I read that is that they receive the power to fulfill, to actualize what they already have and realize or fulfill who they already are.

We all bear the image of God and we all are God’s daughters and sons. We all have the Divine life residing in us. Paul told the philosophers in Athens in Acts 17 that we are all God’s offspring and that in God we all live, move, and have our existence. Here in John’s prologue we are told that the Divine Source of Life is responsible for everything that exists and that this life is the light of all people. This light enlightens everyone, says John. Human beings may acknowledge this or be completely blind to the source of this light. Different religious traditions give this Light different names, but it is the same light that we see so beautifully radiating from the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

According to this text we Christians access this Light and Life by receiving Jesus, by believing in his name, that is, we enter into the experience and flow of the light and life of God when we open our hearts and minds to the grace and truth that Jesus lived out for us. We receive the power to live out our sonship and daughtership to God, we receive the power to actually mirror the image of God, when we trust in the sufficiency and adequacy of the grace and truth embodied by Jesus, and when we commit ourselves to the values that Jesus fleshed out for us. We receive power to reflect the light of God’s grace and truth when we are faithful to live out and practice daily the grace of Jesus and truth of Jesus. This is what faith is. We believe in and trust in the way of Jesus and we strive to be faithful everyday to actually living out our commitment to embody in our lives and relationships the grace and truth of God.

I love the story the late Fred Craddock use to tell about the time he and his wife were on vacation in the Smokey Mountains. The had left the kids with grandparents and they had just set down in a new restaurant called the Black Bear Inn which featured a beautiful view of the mountains.

As they waited for their food they were engaged in conversation by an elderly gentleman. Fred learned later that the gentleman who conversed with them had been twice elected governor of Tennessee. When he found out that Fred was a Disciples of Christ minister he pulled up a chair and told Fred his story.

He grew up in the mountains there and his mother was not married when she had him. In those days there was a lot of shame in that. So the reproach that fell on his mother fell also on him. When they went into town he could see people starring at him and making guesses as to who his father was. At school the children said ugly things to him and so he stayed to himself at recess and ate lunch alone.

Then in his early teens he began to attend a little Disciples of Christ church back in the mountains called Laurel Springs Christian Church. They had a minister who was both attractive and frightening. He had a chiseled face, a heavy beard, and a deep voice. He would go just for the sermons. He told Fred he wasn’t sure why, but his sermons did something for him. He would arrive just in time for the sermon and hurry off quickly afterward. He was afraid a boy like him might not be welcome there.

One Sunday some people queued up the aisle before he could get out and make his way to the door, So as he stood there kind of pinned in he felt a big hand on his shoulder and he knew it was that minister. He turned around and looked him in the face. The minister paused and he just knew the minister was going to make a guess as to who his father was. A moment later the minister said, “Well, boy, I know who you are. You’re a child of . . .” then he paused again and continued, “Boy, you are a child of God. I see a striking resemblance.” Then he swatted him on the back and told him to go claim his inheritance. He told Fred there in that restaurant, “I left that church house a different person. In fact, that was really the beginning of my life.”

I can imagine that there were some in John’s church who felt like that when they opened their lives to the grace and truth of God embodied in Jesus. The challenge for us is to do that daily. To daily trust in the power of God’s grace and truth that we have come to experience in Jesus and then nurture this grace and truth so that the life of Jesus grows in us and is expressed in our relationships, in our attitudes and actions, and in all we say and do.

Our good God, we celebrate this Christmas day the Word made flesh. We give thanks for the grace and truth made visible in the person and life of Jesus of Nazareth. And we commit ourselves anew to live and embody the grace and truth of Jesus every day. Open our eyes so that we can see where we need to grow, where we need to let the light of your grace and truth shine into our own hearts, and may we then let it shine for others to see.

Monday, December 19, 2016

God With Us as Guide and Liberator (An Advent sermon from Matthew 1:18-25)

They shall call him Emmanuel, which means, God with us. Christians of different traditions may utilize different images and words to talk about how Jesus incarnates the Divine, but all of us see in Jesus a representative of God with us. When I look at Jesus I see a special revelation of the goodness and grace of God, whose life and teachings serve as a guide for my life and as a means of liberation.

Let’s talk first about God as Emmanuel being our guide. Joseph is not a dominant figure in the birth stories, but here, in the way he responds to Mary’s pregnancy Joseph functions as a kind of model for all of us.  

What do I mean? Consider how Joseph responded when he discovered that the wife he was pledged too was pregnant, and of course he assumed she was pregnant by another man. He assumed that she had been unfaithful. The text says that Joseph “being a righteous man (or just man) and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” Matthew says that Joseph was “a righteous or just man.” What does that mean? For the scribes and Pharisees and other devout persons that would have meant that Joseph kept and obeyed the law of God, just as for many Christians today being righteous or just is understood as obeying scripture. Now that sounds good, right? But the deeper issue here is this: Is slavish obedience to the law – or scripture in general – always the right thing to do? Is doing what the Bible says always the will of God?   

What does the law tell Joseph to do? In Deuteronomy 22:21 the law says quite specifically what to do regarding a woman who has been found to be unfaithful: “She shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house.” That’s what the Bible says. The Jews under Roman rule did not have the authority to carry out capital punishment, but Joseph could have made life extremely difficult for Mary. But Matthew says that because Joseph was “a righteous man” he wanted to handle this quietly so as not to bring public shame and disgrace to Mary. In other words, because he was a righteous person he decided not to obey the Scripture that judged and condemned her.

In one of Richard Rohr’s daily meditations he wrote: "God restores rather than punishes, which is a much higher notion of how things are “justified” before God. The full and final Biblical message is restorative justice, but most of history has only been able to understand retributive justice. Now, I know you’re probably thinking of many passages in the Old Testament that sure sound like serious retribution. And I can’t deny there are numerous black and white, vengeful scriptures, which is precisely why we must recognize that all scriptures are not equally inspired or from the same level of consciousness."

A favorite preacher of many preachers is the late Fred Craddock. Dr. Craddock was a New Testament scholar and homiletician who taught aspiring ministers how to both read their New Testaments and preach. In a sermon on this very text Dr. Craddock says: “Joseph is a good man, and he rises to a point that is absolutely remarkable for his day and time. He loves his Bible and knows his Bible and bless his heart for it. But he reads his Bible through a certain kind of lens, the lens of the character and nature of a God who is loving and kind. Therefore he says, ‘I will not harm her, abuse her, expose her, shame her, ridicule her, or demean her value, her dignity, or her worth. I will protect her.’”  Craddock then asks, “Where does it say that, Joseph? In your Bible? I’ll tell you where is says that. It says that in the very nature and character of God.” What is Dr. Craddock suggesting?  He is saying that the Bible doesn’t always give us a reliable picture of the true nature and character of God. Certainly there are texts that are highly enlightened and reflect the highest level of human consciousness, but there are others texts which are more deeply entrenched within the biases of their culture.

Who was Joseph listening to? He was listening to the God who was with him. He was listening to the God he had come to personally know and experience. Joseph decided not to listen to the scripture that said to stone Mary, in order that he could listen to the voice of Divine Mercy and Grace.

Jesus did the same thing. In story after story in the Gospels we see Jesus practicing inclusion, practicing love of neighbor, identifying with and welcoming the marginalized, the poor, and the oppressed. In story after story we see Jesus reaching out to the most vulnerable people in his society, healing the sick and liberating the demonized.

In Nazi Germany a Jewish fugitive fleeing for his life came to a small town. He sought out the house of the Christian pastor, hoping to find refuge. He knocked on the door and when the pastor opened it, he told his story and asked if he could stay a few days until it was safe to travel again. The pastor invited him to step inside and wait. The pastor knew that if this young man was caught hiding there the whole town would be held accountable and suffer greatly. So immediately he withdrew to his prayer room and closed the door. He asked God for guidance and then opened his Bible. He happened to come upon the verse in John’s Gospel that says, “It is better for one man to die, than for the whole people to parish.” He knew he had his answer. So he sent the man away. Later that night an angel appeared and asked, “Where is the fugitive?” The pastor said, “I sent him away as the Holy Book instructed me.” The angel said, “Did you not know that he was the Christ? If you would have looked into his eyes, instead of first running to the Book, you would have known.”

If we will look into the face of Jesus to see what God is like we would realize that God always prefers mercy to judgment, that God is always more interested in inclusion than exclusion, that in God’s world human need always take precedence over some legal code or law.

Or if we would just look into the faces of our sisters and brothers all around us we could see the longing and heart of God. We can look into the faces of the sick and see God’s longing for a world where sickness and disease or some other kind of human suffering cannot snatch away a child or loved one in the prime of life. We can look into the face of the destitute and see God’s longing for a world where everyone has enough to thrive, not just survive, a world where one group is not allowed to lord it over another group or have too much when another group has so little. We can look into the face of someone put down and demeaned and we can see God’s longing for a world that puts an end to all the marginalization and condemnation of other religions and races. We can look into the faces of the impoverished and displaced and those dying from explosions and gun fire and see God’s longing for a world free of poverty and war.

If we will allow it, God is with us as a guide to show us how to use our sacred texts to inspire love and mercy, rather than judgment and condemnation. And sisters and brothers if we just open our eyes to what is buried deep in our own hearts we would see that God longs to save us from our prejudices and greed, from our own fears and frustrations, so that we can be more grace-filled and merciful.

And this brings me to my next point. God is with us as a guide to show us how to love and God is with us as a liberator to set us free to love. According to Matthew’s story the angel instructs Joseph to name the child Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. The kind of salvation many of the Jews in Palestine longed for during Jesus’ day was salvation from the Romans. The Romans were the oppressors. The Jews of Palestine were under the heavy arm of Rome. The Jews were in servitude and were heavily taxed, even though Rome permitted some measure of self-governance, particularly with regard to their religious laws and social customs. But the Jews had no rights. Rome could pretty much do as they wished. So you can see that what many Jews longed for was a Messianic figure who would rescue them from Rome – a kind of rebel leader who would rally the people and forcefully lead them in defiance of and liberation from Rome.

Jesus, of course, was not that kind of liberator, but we would be greatly amiss to think that God’s salvation does not involve liberation from oppression. In fact, later in this very Gospel Jesus offers some very specific examples of how his people might creatively, nonviolently stand up to Roman oppression, though it still carried considerable risk. When Jesus told them to stand their ground when they were slapped and humiliated by a Roman citizen or some Roman authority by offering the other cheek, or when he instructed them to carry a Roman soldier’s bag an extra mile after being pressed into demeaning service, he was giving them a creative strategy for nonviolently standing up to and protesting injustice. Certainly Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God included salvation from all those oppressive forces and systems that stood in the way of creating a just and good world.

Did you know that the word that is translated “save” in the Gospels is most often translated “heal” or “make whole” or “make well?” It’s the same word in the Greek. To be saved is to be healed. To be saved is to be made whole or well. To be saved is to be liberated from destructive powers, whether that’s physical or mental illness, oppressive systems and structures, or one’s own personal demons and sins. Salvation is about being healed, liberated, and made whole spiritually, psychologically, physically, socially, and relationally.

So in light of this broad understanding of salvation, what might the significance be of this saying announced to Joseph by the angel: “He will save his people from their sins.” The Jewish Christians who first read this may have been thinking, “What we need is salvation from Roman oppression?” Maybe the point is this: Just as important as liberation from oppressive forces from without, is liberation from entrapping forces from within.

When there is a change in power, when situations reverse, when the oppressed people come to a place of power, what is to prevent them from oppressing other peoples the same way they were oppressed? Consider how often in history when there has been a change in power, when the people on the bottom have risen up and took control, think how often the new people on top oppress their enemies the same way they were oppressed. So the cycle of hate and violence continues.

Who is mature enough to say, “Enough! No more oppression? No more violence”? Who is spiritual enough to say, “No more hate”? It would have to be those who have been and are in the process of being healed and liberated from their sins. It would have to be those who have been and are being liberated from their inner fears, anxieties, prejudices, and insecurities. Who is morally strong enough and courageous enough to resist the urge to return violence for violence and stop the cycle? It would have to be those who have been and are being freed from their inner demons, from their hate and greed and their hirst for revenge. Only then would Abraham’s seed or, for that matter, any of us be ready and able to be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth.
These are the peacemakers who preach and practice forgiveness. These are the pure in heart who embody lives of simplicity and honesty and generosity.  These are those who hunger and thirst after restorative justice, who know that no one is truly free and whole until all people are free and whole. These are the humble and meek of the earth who know that we all need the same things in order to thrive in God’s good creation. These are the faithful and diligent who sense a great responsibility to care for and manage well the creation, because they know that all life is sacred.

What if Christianity in the West had understood and emphasized this broader understanding of salvation that is depicted in the Gospels? What if Christianity in the West had realized that God’s salvation is about God’s healing and liberation of both individuals and whole communities from all these negative, life-diminishing forces within and without? What if Christianity in the West had come to see God’s salvation as peace within and without, in the heart and between persons, communities, and nations? Maybe Western Christianity would have had a greater impact for good and developed a better reputation in the world.  

God is with us sisters and brothers. Always has been, always will be. As Paul says in his letter to the Romans nothing can sever us from God’s love as made known to us in Jesus the Christ. God is with us as a guide into the way of love and peace. God is with us as liberator from all those life-diminishing powers that would oppress us physically, spiritually, socially, and psychologically. God is with us – all of us – to guide us and redeem us.

O God, let us open our minds and hearts and bodies to your healing and liberating presence. May we be led by your loving wisdom and life-affirming Spirit. May we find healing and wholeness. May we be freed of our inner demons and sins. May our lives be witnesses to your healing and transforming grace. Amen  

Monday, December 5, 2016

Breaking Down Barriers to Peace (Romans 15:1-14)

Some of us who have been following the tweets of Bana Alabed, a seven year old Syrian girl living in Aleppo, have been emotionally impacted by the ravages of war as told by a child. Late last Sunday night she tweeted that her house had been bombed. She said, “Tonight we have no house, it’s bombed and I got in rubble. I saw deaths and I almost died.” On Monday her mother posted an update that her family was on the run. What is their chance of survival? Not very good. When we hear and see these first-hand accounts of the devastation and deaths caused by war we realize how broken our world is. On this second Sunday of Advent we pray for and hopefully will commit ourselves anew to work for peace.

Our scripture text today from Paul’s letter to the Romans speaks to this longing for peace. Prior to this passage Paul has been dealing with tensions in the fellowship, offering instruction on how these tensions should be resolved. Hear once again he urges them to live in harmony with one another. He wanted the church to be a model of the future age when justice and peace would prevail in all segments and sectors of human life. In the OT text passage from Isaiah for this Sunday in Isaiah 11, the prophet paints a poetic picture of how he envisioned such a time. Isaiah says that the one who will fulfill their hopes for peace will bring justice to the poor and he will decide with equity for the meek of the earth, that is he will equalize things out and those who have been beaten down will be lifted up. One of Jesus’ favorite sayings in the Gospels is that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. All violence will abolished. They will not hurt or destroy on the Lord’s holy mountain, says the prophet. The prophet’s vision of peace cannot be dislodged, it cannot be disconnected from justice. So peace and justice go together. Any peace without justice, without fairness, without healing and liberation for all the people is a false peace.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans he urges them to live in harmony, to be at peace, and to be a model of what a world filled with God’s love and a world doing God’s will would look like. I think there are some things that stand out as barriers to peace that Paul would like to see toppled.

One barrier to peace is unforgiveness. Now Paul doesn’t specifically speak about forgiveness in this passage, but he does hold up Christ as our model and he says that Christ did not please himself but sought the good of others and was even willing to bear the insults of others without any bitterness or resentment or need to retaliate. In Luke’s version of the passion story Jesus says from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  

There can be no pathway to peace – in our families, in our communities, in our societies, and in the world – unless there is forgiveness. Someone has to say, “I am willing, we are willing to absorb the offense without responding in kind, without becoming bitter and resentful, without hurting you in return.” Forgiveness is not a simple act, it is more like a complicated process. Forgiveness does not mean there will be no consequences. There may still be consequences and working through those consequences may require multiple acts of forgiveness. Forgiveness does not automatically mean there will be reconciliation and of course, reconciliation can take different forms. Forgiveness may not be enough for peace to result, restitution may be required. So you see, forgiveness is not a simple process, but it is a necessary process. Forgiveness does not automatically result in peace, but there is no peace without it.

Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche’ communities, wrote about being in Rwanda shortly after the genocide. A young woman came up to him and told him that seventy-five members of her family had been assassinated. I can’t imagine or don’t want to imagine what that would be like? I’m not sure I could ever recover from something like that. She said, “I have so much anger and hate within me and I don’t know what to do with it. Everybody is talking about reconciliation, but nobody has asked any forgiveness. I just don’t know what to do with the hate that is within me.”

Vanier said, “I understand. I understand.” What do you say to a young girl who finds herself all alone because all her family has been killed? Her problem, wrote Vanier, was the guilt she felt because she didn’t know how to forgive. So she got caught up in a world of hate and depression. Vanier said to her: “Do you know that the first step towards forgiveness is ‘no vengence’? He asked her: “Do you want to kill those who killed members of your family?” She responded: “No, there is too much death.” Vanier said, “Well, that is the first step in the process of forgiveness. The first step.”

I can’t imagine having to struggle with the demons this young lady has had to contend with. But she decided “no vengeance” and she took the first step toward forgiveness and finding peace, finding peace within herself and finding peace with others.

A second barrier to peace is the pursuit of power. There are some people who will sell their soul for a seat at the table of power. This will always be a barrier to peace, whether in the international and global arena, or within our own families. Jesus, again, is our paradigm. He is our representative and example. Paul says that Christ did not please himself, he emptied himself of all need for control and power. He did not need homage or accolades or praise. He did not need to control anyone or anything. God has never been about control. God loves freedom too much. God is present with us and the rest of creation, but God doesn’t control us or anyone or anything else. Paul says Jesus became a servant on behalf of the truth. Jesus never pursued power; rather, he spoke truth to power, which of course, ultimately landed him on a cross.

What do you think it means to be a servant on behalf of the truth? In Ephesians, which has been attributed to Paul, the writer says, “Speak the truth in love.” How do you do that? That is something that is very heavy on my heart right now. How do I speak the truth in love? How do you speak truth in love? It helps to remember who we are? We are God’s beloved daughters and sons, who are called to be servants of the truth.

Jesus resisted all temptation to acquire power and he often spoke truth to power. He tried to teach his disciples what was really important. On one occasion James and John came to Jesus seeking positions of power. They apparently imagined God’s kingdom like they thought of worldly kingdoms (like us they were very slow to catch on). So they ask Jesus if they could share the platform with him, sitting on his right and left. One version of the story says that they sent their mother to make the request. Jesus rebuke’s them by saying, “You know that the rulers of the world aspire to lord it over others. But it is not so among you. Whoever wishes to be great or to be first among you, must become the servant of all.” Mark’s version of this story emphasizes service to all – all people without distinction. And that brings me to a third barrier to peace.

A third barrier to peace is exclusion and discrimination. Discrimination and exclusion can, of course, be expressed overtly, or they can be expressed in more subtle ways. I get the sense that possibly some form of this was finding its way into the Roman church. Paul makes a special point to affirm the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s plan to bring peace to the world. He quotes four Hebrew scriptures to make this point. Two from the Psalms: “I will confess you among the Gentiles”; and “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the people praise him.” He quotes one from Deuteronomy: “Rejoice, O Gentiles with his people.” And he quotes one from Isaiah: “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”

It’s not possible to recreate the historical situation, so we can only guess what was going on. I wonder if perhaps there were some Jewish brethren who, in very subtle ways were saying to the Gentiles, “You know, we were God’s chosen first. We have priority.” Paul reminds them that it was God’s plan all along to bring everyone together. If God blessed Abraham and Abraham’s seed it was for the purpose of extending the blessing to all people, which is what the Abrahamic covenant says, right. “From you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” Paul argues earlier in this letter in chapter 5 that Christ as the representative human being through his act of righteousness or justice (which I interpret as a reference to his life that culminated in his death) justification and life comes to all.

Apparently, this is how Paul’s followers understood him, because the writer of Ephesians says that God’s plan in Christ was “to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and on earth” (1:10). The writer of the book of Colossians, which also bears Paul’s name, says that through Christ God was pleased to reconcile all things to himself, whether on earth or in heaven (1:20). So God’s plan according to the Pauline tradition is to bring together, to reconcile, to unify, to make one all people and creation in Christ. Christ is the symbol here for the means and way all things will be brought together. In other words, when we can love like Jesus, when we can trust like Jesus, when we can live like Jesus, then we can all be brought together as one, reconciled to God and to one another and to all creation.

Paul wants the church at Rome and all churches to live in such a way that in their life together they become a foreshadowing, a harbinger, a preview of God’s future kingdom, God’s world of justice and peace. Paul believed that the church should be living right now the peace and justice that will prevail in God’s future world.

So, if a local church and the church universal is supposed to model for the world, that is, give the world a taste of God’s world of peace and justice to come, then we all, I think, would have to admit that we have for the most part failed haven’t we? Many churches reflect more of the culture around them, the biases and mores of the day, than the values and qualities – the peace and justice – that mark God’s future world. However, that is no reason to quit or despair or give up the dream.

Martin Buber was a great Jewish philosopher and a deeply spiritual man who lived in a different age. He died in 1965. He said, “I do not believe in Jesus but I do believe with Jesus.” What was he saying? He was saying, “I don’t believe the same things about Jesus you Christians believe, but I believe in living the way he lived and loving the way he loved.” What if the missionary endeavor of the church in the West took that approach? Instead of insisting that peoples of different cultures and religious traditions believe what we believe about Jesus. What if we rather encouraged them to live and love the way Jesus lived and loved? I wonder if we would have had a much more positive influence. Gandhi taught that our distinctive religious traditions were given to us not to convert the world to our particular religious tradition, but to bless the world.

Last week I shared a story from John Philip Newell’s book, The Rebirthing of God, about the time his father who was struggling with dementia “blessed” the car salesman (and if you missed that story the sermon is posted on my website if you want to read it). Here is another story he tells about his father during his father’s last days on earth. The people that visited his father most frequently during his father’s final days were a Muslim couple, Sylvia and Boshe. His father’s vocation involved working to provide relief for refugees. Years earlier when this couple had escaped from war-torn Bosnia, his father helped them find sanctuary in Canada. They referred to him as “father” because he had been so central to their birth into freedom and safety. Dr.Newell says that his father had always been a deeply compassionate man, but (and this will sound familiar) he had also been a very conservative man in his religious beliefs. So, while he worked with refugees the world over, at the end of the day, he thought they would be much better off if they adopted his Christian beliefs.

Dr. Newell says that even when his father was in the latter stages of dementia, he loved to pray with the people visiting him. Somehow, his words would flow when he prayed, even though in ordinary speech he would struggle for words. One sunny afternoon, Dr. Newell, joined this Muslim couple in a visit to his father. Dr. Newell asked his father to pray. They were seated in a circle and joined hands. His father prayed, “Without You, O God, we would not be. And because of you we are one family.” Dr. Newell looked up and saw tears streaming down the faces of Boshe and Sylvia. Dr. Newell says, “They knew they were one family with us, but they had never heard my father say it. His religious ego had now collapsed. The barriers had broken down.”

I dream of a world like that sisters and brothers. Can we do anything to help bring it about? Sure we can. One, we can commit ourselves to a process of forgiveness. Two, we can daily practice being a servant of all people. And three, we can recognize and admit our own tendencies toward discrimination and exclusion, and work toward inclusion, welcome, acceptance, and unity, not by focusing on beliefs that divide us, but on the compassion and love that can bring us together.

Our good God, there is too much hate, too much injustice, too much prejudice, too much ego, that divides us and even threatens our survival as a species. Cast these demons out of us, O Lord. Help us dream of a world of peace and justice. And empower us to work toward its realization – by forgiving, serving, accepting, and welcoming all who would come to the table to talk peace and work for justice.