Sunday, December 31, 2017

Keeping Hope Alive (a sermon from Luke 2:22-40)

In our Gospel story today Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple. Interpreters point out that Luke collapses two different Jewish rituals into one – the purification of the mother and the redemption of the first born. These were actually two separate rituals observed at different times, but in this story Luke combines them, reminding us that for the Gospel writers the proclamation of good news was always more important than getting history and the traditions right.

The offering that is presented by Jesus’ parents tells us something about the economic conditions in which Jesus was raised. The law required a lamb for the offering, but it had a poverty clause that permitted the offering of turtle doves or pigeons for those who could not afford to bring a sheep. And this is what Mary and Joseph bring. I suspect growing up poor helped to nurture within Jesus a real passion to help the poor. He knew how systemic poverty entraps and diminishes people. When Jesus sets forth his agenda in Luke’s Gospel, he defines his mission in terms of Isaiah 61. He says that the Spirit empowers him to bring good news to the poor, to open the eyes of the blind, to free the captives, and liberate the oppressed. Blessed are the poor, says Jesus, for the kingdom of God belongs to them. God’s kingdom is the great equalizer where the first will be last and the last will be first, unlike the kingdoms of the world where there is huge disparity.

Luke mentions Israel’s longing for God’s future liberation through two expressions. Simon speaks of “the consolation of Israel” and the prophet Anna speaks of “the redemption of Jerusalem.” But clearly Luke does not limit this future hope to God’s covenant people. He says that the child will be a light of revelation to the Gentiles for God’s salvation is prepared for all peoples. God’s plan is all inclusive. It is universal, not exclusively limited to one group of people, even if that group of people played a special role in the unfolding of God’s salvation. God’s salvation is for all.

When the early followers of Jesus spoke about the future salvation of the world they employed a popular language or form of expression that developed in the intertestamental period called apocalyptic. To us it seems a very strange way of communicating. Apocalyptic is a highly hyperbolic or exaggerated language often employing strange and bizarre imagery and symbolism – angels blowing trumpets, beasts arising out of the sea, stars falling from the heavens, and the like. Paul, for example, is using apocalyptic language when he says to the church at Thessalonica,
“For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air.”

I grew up as a conservative evangelical where belief in a literal, bodily, personal second coming of Jesus was considered one of the fundamentals of the faith. I believed that the heavens would split apart and the glory of Jesus would appear in the sky as he returned to the earth to judge the world and set up his kingdom. I suspect many of you were taught this and probably still believe this, which is okay. I don’t believe in a literal second coming of Christ, which is okay too. That is the neat thing about our fellowship. We welcome diversity of belief. Being a Christian is not about believing all the right things; rather, being a Christian is aspiring to live and love like Jesus. Everything else is open for discussion. Now I don’t want to spend too much time on this, but I do think I owe it to you as your pastor to explain why I don’t believe in a personal second coming of Christ. Please understand that my intent here is not to convince you to change your belief, but simply explain why I see things differently at this stage in my faith journey.

First, second coming language is apocalyptic language and I see no reason to take some things symbolically and other things literally. I interpret it all symbolically. Apocalyptic language is the language of parable and poetry. It’s metaphorical, not literal. Second, I see no reason for Christ to return, because Christ is already here. Now, I do not mean to say that the man, Jesus of Nazareth is here, who was crucified by the powers of the world, and whom God raised from the dead. Yes, Jesus is called the Christ, but it is clear in the writings of Paul that Paul understood Christ to be a broader reality than the divine/human man Jesus. Paul spoke of Christ being in us and our being in Christ. He called us the body of Christ in the world. So if Christ is here, with us, among us, in us, being incarnated through us, then the Christ does not need to return.

The third reason I am not looking for a personal return of Jesus (and this is the real clincher for me) is because I don’t expect God to engage humankind in the future in a dramatically different way than God has engaged humankind in the past. If 99.9 percent of all the scientists in the world are correct (and I believe 99 percent of the scientists), then human life evolved over a course of millions of years. I believe science and religion should support one another, that they should be complementary not contradictory. I have no reason to doubt these scientists. It doesn’t seem likely to me that God is going to change so drastically how he relates to the creation. I see God as intimately involved in this whole process. I don’t believe God is somewhere out there stirring the pot with God’s finger (that’s a metaphor by the way). I believe God is right here with, among, and in the creation moving us forward. God is such an intimate part of this whole process that God experiences both the pain and joy of the creation. Clearly, this is a slow process and all part of the great Mystery. It is interesting, I think, that when Paul speaks of the redemption of the world In his letter to the Romans he includes all creation. He says that the whole creation groans in labor pains awaiting full redemption.

So, for these reasons I believe that if God is going to bring about a just world, a world of peace and righteousness, God will do it through you and me. God will do it through Christ’s body in the world. We are God’s plan for the redemption of the world. I can understand why many Christians are afraid to even entertain this idea, because it puts an awful lot of responsibility on us doesn’t it? It’s a whole lot easier to believe that Jesus is going to come back to earth and do this all for us so that we don’t have to. Whatever Paul may have believed about the second coming he emphasized our responsibility in the redemption of the world. Listen to what he says to the church at Corinth: “I have made myself a servant to all, so that I might win more of them.” That’s a heavy load to bear isn’t it? He says, “To those under the law [the law of Moses] I became as one under the law . . . To those outside the law I became as one outside the law [then he says that he is under the law of Christ which he calls God’s law – that is, the law of love]. . . To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” Then he concludes by saying, “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings (see 1 Cor. 9:19-23)” I suspect what Paul means by “blessings” here is very broad, but certainly this includes the blessings of a just world, a redeemed world, a world healed and made right and whole, a world of peace and righteousness.

When we consider our spiritual and moral evolution as a species it can be discouraging. We can’t be much past adolescence can we? Our intellectual and technological evolution has obviously outpaced our religious and moral evolution. We have made great strides in extending life expectancy and fighting diseases that once cut life off prematurely. And yet, millions of people still are not able to access these resources. That’s a moral problem because of systemic injustice. We have used our technological know-how to create weapons of mass destruction, and we have amassed enough weapons of mass destruction to destroy the planet several times over, and still we think we have to make more of them. And we all know how systems large and small – governments, corporations, all kinds of political, economic, social, and religious systems, global, national, and local, can become pervaded by injustice and evil. When a system becomes saturated by sexism, or racism, or nationalism, or exceptionalism, or materialism, or any other destructive or deadly “ism” that system can do great harm.   

So how do we keep hope alive? How do we sustain hope that the world can be different, that we can be different? How do we nurture hope in Life when the powers of death appear to be so prevalent and dominant? Without a whole lot of elaboration I suggest three practices we can engage in to keep hope alive.

First, we can learn how to listen to the Spirit – to the still small voice of God. Contemplative prayer is about listening rather than asking. I still ask God for things. I make requests. But I am learning to listen more than I ask. Sometimes we are the answer to our prayers, but we don’t know it, because we haven’t taken the time to listen. I think of the man who had a lakeside cabin and liked to go for a brisk swim in the mornings. One morning he took to the water earlier than usual. While he was some distance from shore, a late morning fog, thick and dense, came suddenly rolling in over the water.  He could barely see a few feet in front of him. Then he realized that he had lost his bearings; he did not know where the shore was (which, by the way, is a very apt description of where we are as a nation today). He started to panic and began thrashing about in the water, starting this way, then stopping and launching out in another direction. Then he realized how foolish this was and became very still. So still he could hear birds singing in the distance. Then he heard a car horn and next, he heard his wife calling for him, and he was able to make his way back to shore. And you know sisters and brothers, nurturing this capacity to listen is not just for own salvation. The redemption of the world may depend on enough of us developing the capacity to hear God speak and then the courage to follow God’s leading.

Second, we keep hope alive by learning how to live responsibly and lovingly within a community. Living and loving responsibly within a community enables us to focus beyond our private ego and moves us beyond our preoccupations with our personal wants and interests. A church, a faith community when it is actually being the body of Christ in the world grounds us in God’s larger story – what Jesus called the kingdom of God.

Joan Chittister tells about being a child and having polio the year that would later be described as the last of the great polio epidemic in the U.S. Polio hospitals everywhere were full. Every day brought new patients in on gurneys—men, women, children, infants, people of all ages. She tells of being in a room with sixteen others, too young for adult rehabilitation and too old for the children’s units. She felt lost, scared, angry, and very very alone. Depression hung like a morning mist over that place. They were all strangers quarantined together.

She heard the woman in the corner crying every day and every night. Others lay on their sides in silence. Then one day, one of the men came rolling into the room, tilting the wheels on his chair. “Anybody wanna race?” he called out. “We’re getting ready.”
The woman who cried all the time screamed at him, “Just get out of here. I just want my privacy. Even my husband wouldn’t barge in on me like this.” The man in the wheel chair just shook his head. Chittister spoke up, “I do. I want to race. But I don’t have a wheelchair.” “Don’t worry kid,” he said, “we’ll be back as soon as you get one.” Then he spun around and rolled out of the room. Chittister writes, “Those wheelchair races saved me. I never won any of them but my arms got stronger by the week and I learned to handle the chair. And, most of all, I laughed a lot and made new friends and had a great sense of the possible that carried me for years.” She learned that it isn’t what happens to us that counts, it’s what we do with what happens to us that makes all the difference.” She became involved in that community and it gave her hope.

And lastly, we can keep hope alive by intentionally practicing the golden rule – by doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. The prophet asked the question: What does God require? In response he said, “To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Most of us do a fair job at being kind and expressing mercy. We are not quite as good at walking in humility. And we are even worse at doing justice. And right now at this time in our world and our nation there is nothing more important than doing justice.

Some of us just shy away from the task when we consider how daunting it is to challenge huge systems where injustice is inseparably intertwined within the system – whether it be a government system or social system or even a religious system. But here’s what we can do. We can start right where we are. I hope you are reading some of the stories that are being published about dreamers – undocumented folks who came here as children. This is their home. They were kids when they were brought here. Maybe there parents were fleeing war or poverty or just wanting a better life for there family, but they were brought here as children. They don’t have another home somewhere. Our government has failed them miserably – they are still undocumented because our representatives failed to give them a path to citizenship. And right now unless Congress acts, the present administration will deport them, just as they have already deported many undocumented. They don’t care about separating families. I hope you have read some of their stories. I read this past week that the administration is even making the argument that separating mothers from their infants and toddlers is a good thing. I hope you understand how unjust and merciless deporting these “dreamer” is. We say, “What can we do?” We can speak up and speak out and refuse to be silent. We can at least do that, can’t we? When we are silent we complicit in the injustice. Do you remember those judged in Matthew 25? They are not judge for what they did, but for what they didn’t do. They are judged for doing nothing to help downtrodden. If an acquaintance or friend says something racist or something full of contempt, speak up. Say, “As a follower of Jesus I am offended by that remark” and tell them why you are offended. We who claim to be followers of Jesus need to be followers of Jesus. .

You know sisters and brothers, there are times when it’s no easy task keeping hope alive. When Simon and Anna spoke words of promise and hope to the parents of Jesus and to the people who worshiped in the temple it was during the dark days of captivity to Rome. No matter how dark it gets there is always some light, and we can live and walk in the light if we listen to the Spirit, engage in community, and do unto others what we would have them do unto us. We think of Jesus as being the light of the world, but Jesus said that we are the light of the world and the salt of the earth.

Our good God, help us to see that we have a responsibility for keeping hope alive. We can’t manufacture hope. We can’t magically conjure up hope. But we can create the space for your Spirit to lead us. We can maintain practices of prayer and worship and community, and give ourselves to the kind of relationships that sustain hope. Help us to be faithful to these practices and relationships that nurture hope. Help us to be good and kind and generous and compassionate, to live honestly and humbly, to pursue justice and mercy, so that by loving one another we can create an atmosphere where hope can thrive. Give us the determination and will to say “yes” to life no matter how pervasive death seems, and give us the faith to trust you to fill us with hope. 

Sunday, December 24, 2017

What does an encounter with God do for us? (A sermon from Luke 1:26-38)

Not every encounter with God is as momentous as Mary’s encounter with the angel in today’s Gospel story. But Mary’s experience can be viewed as a kind of archetypal experience. What I mean is that our encounters with God can do for us what Mary’s encounter did for her. Any authentic encounter with God gives us at least two things that are foundational to a heathy religious life and a transformative moral life. First, an encounter with God gives us solid ground we can stand on.

Luke says that when the angel appeared saying, “Greetings, favored one!” she “was much perplexed . . . and wondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Then the angel declared, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” I find it interesting that almost every time an angel of God appears in the biblical tradition, the first thing the messenger of God says is, “Do not fear?” It would seem that fearing God (being afraid of God) has been a major problem throughout human history. In primitive cultures human sacrifice was practiced as a way of appeasing the deity and averting the anger of the deity. As culture advanced animals replaced humans, and in our biblical tradition there are echoes that would suggest that even among the Hebrews  human sacrifice predated animal sacrifice. Throughout our religious history we have had a fairly frequent propensity toward projecting our fears onto God. We have imagined a god ready to pounce upon us like a predator upon its prey unless we offer the necessary sacrifices or perform the necessary requirements to placate the deity. Thus we make God into our image. It is not insignificant that in our Gospel text today twice the messenger of God assures Mary that she has no reason to be afraid, because she is “favored’ or “graced” by God.

For Mary to fulfill her role in the divine plan she needs to know in the core of her being and in the depths of her heart that she need not be afraid of God, but rather, that she is loved with an eternal love. This was not based on anything Mary did. This was not based on merit or status or any accomplishment. Mary is just an ordinary Jewish girl trying to get by in a very patriarchal culture. It would not have been anything unusual, I think, for a young Jewish girl to be made to feel inferior and to be afraid of God. So twice the messenger assures her that she is favored with God – she is graced and loved and does not need to be afraid. And this is what an authentic encounter with God does for all of us. It gives us ground to stand on. We don’t need to cower in fear, because we are loved with an eternal love.

I feel certain this is what Jesus’ vision at his baptism by John was about. Jesus saw heaven open and the Spirit descend in the form of a dove. He heard the voice of God say, “You are my Beloved Son, on whom my favor rests.” He would have another encounter with the same Voice affirming his beloved sonship on the mount that we call the mount of transfiguration. All the symbolism here, both with Mary and Jesus, points to this type of experience as a foundational experience for transformational service and ministry. It’s the kind of experience that liberates us from fear and insecurity and frees us to engage in works of mercy and justice for the cause of God in the world, not out of fear, but out of love – love for God and love for others, all of whom bear the image of God and are themselves children of God, even if they don’t know it or have yet to claim it.

Some people are afraid of such encounters with God and try to dismiss and diminish them. They will argue that the only thing we can actually hang on to is scripture, not our experience. I believe our experience and our scriptures function together as a kind of check and balance. Any time our experience makes us less loving than the Jesus of our Gospels, the Jesus of scripture, then it’s time to question our experience. Or any time our reading and interpretation of scripture calls into question our experience of God’s unconditional love, then we need to question our understanding of scripture. It’s a kind of check and balance. Our experience and scripture, scripture and our experience.

I love to tell the story about the Jewish fugitive in Nazi Germany who was fleeing for his life. He came to a small town and sought out the house of the Christian pastor, hoping to find refuge. He knocked on the door and when the pastor opened it, he told his story and asked if he could stay a few days until it was safe to travel again. The pastor invited him to step inside and wait. The pastor knew that if this young man was caught hiding there the whole town would be held accountable and the whole town would 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 young man who came to your door seeking refuge?” 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.” Not everything in the book affirms our experience of God as a God of unconditional love, which is why our experience of God needs to inform our reading of scripture. On the other hand, not every experience which we might mistakenly attribute to God is of God, so a careful reading and study of Jesus in the Gospels is necessary.  

Sometimes I am charged by biblical inerrantists of minimizing the word of God. My response is always this: On the contrary. God’s word is living and powerful; it is dynamic and constantly present. It cannot be confined and constricted to a book, no matter how sacred that book is. When we confine God’s word to a book, we minimize the word of God. God’s word, sisters and brothers, is God actively speaking, God revealing, God interacting with us right now. God may use the stories and accounts in our sacred scriptures to do that – to make known God’s will – but God is not limited to our scriptures by any means. As the poet so beautifully expresses: “Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.”

I suspect that the writer of 1 John was trusting his inner experience of God, which he calls an anointing, when he spoke about God being love. He wrote: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love, does not know God, for God is love.” Obviously, the kind of “knowing” he is talking about is experiential knowing, not academic or informational knowing. It is not knowing intellectually, but rather knowing through experience. He goes on to say that love casts out all fear and that to abide in love is to abide in God, for God is love. Wherever love is present, God is present. Our authentic experience of God and our faithful reading of scripture affirm this.

Author Sue Monk Kid tells about finding an old bundle of Christmas cards while poking around in the attic looking for a picture frame. As she sifted through them she found a card that had meant a great deal to her one year when she was seven months pregnant. She was terribly tired of waiting and yearned to hold her baby in her arms. Then the card came. On the front was Mary, great with child, and inside were the words, “Let it be.”

Kidd felt a kinship with Mary; she felt as if Mary had come to show her how to wait through her pregnancy. She writes, “Don’t fret so, the card seemed to say. You can’t control the life in you. It grows and emerges in its own time. Be patient and nurture it with all your love and attentiveness. Be still and cooperate with the mystery God is unfolding in you. Let it be.” The text on the card became the means through which she encountered a living word from God.

This brings me to my second point, which I will not labor over as much as the first. An  authentic encounter with God not only places us on the solid ground of God’s unconditional love, it also opens up to us a vast Mystery to explore.

In 2 Samuel 7, David wants to build God a house, but God doesn’t want a house, because once a house is built then the temptation will forever be to limit and confine God to God’s house, which is what we so often do with our creeds and doctrinal statements and our particular religious traditions. I certainly did. I grew up like so many of you in a particular tradition that taught certitudes about God and discouraged serious  questions and inquiry. Now, don’t misunderstand me. There is nothing wrong with worshiping and serving God in a particular house, in a particular tradition. In fact, it is important to be able to call someplace home. But, when we start thinking that our house is the only house where God can dwell, then we severely limit God and our experience of God.

God is so much more, and when we discover solid ground in God’s unconditional love, we are set free to explore the Mystery that God is. These two outcomes of an authentic encounter with God go hand-in-hand. Once we encounter the God whose essence is Love, we no longer feel any need to cling to fearful and childish images of God, like the torturing god or the Santa Clause god, who is making a list checking it twice in order to find out who is naughty or nice.

Mary found herself grasped by love – held on to, chosen and called – by a greater Someone, and that gave her the courage to participate in a larger story. Standing firmly on that ground, held and gripped by loved, she found the courage to say “yes” to God’s call. She was willing to be led beyond her comfort zone, beyond her house of certitudes to a new place. She had to leave her safe place, but she found a better place (not as safe, but better) in God’s love and purpose. Mary found no security in her circumstances. She found her security in God – in God’s choice of her, in God’s love and acceptance, not in her status, or name, or reputation, or place in the world. Mary would be deeply wounded in her participation in the Love and Mystery of God. Her son would be crucified by the Romans as an insurrectionist. Living out her calling would not be easy. Mary shows us that when we are secure in God’s love, we can courageously participate in God’s story even though it may at times lead us into suffering.

In a sense Mary personifies the entire mystery of how salvation is received. In the Gospel of Luke Mary functions as the ideal disciple. She epitomizes trust. She finds solid ground in God’s love and calling, and she trusts God to lead her into the mystery. She surrenders to the process of incarnation. She not only gives birth to one who for many people will become the definitive expression of God’s grace and truth, but she herself becomes an incarnation of what trust looks like. She was willing to be become part of the incarnation of God, and that is your calling and mine.

As we enter into the Mystery we realize that incarnation can never be limited to one house, to one person or tradition. Incarnation was happening before Jesus, it was happening after Jesus, and it’s happening right now, hopefully in your life and mine. Paul understood this. This is why he called us the body of Christ. This is why he spoke so frequently about our being “in Christ” and Christ being in us, or our being in the Spirit and the Spirit being in us.

The great mystery is that we cannot NOT live in the presence of God. We are totally surrounded by God all the time everywhere. The prayer attributed to Saint Patrick captures it well: God beneath you, God in front of you, God behind you, God above you, God within you. We do not earn this. It’s all grace. But our experience of this Mystery is largely a matter of being tuned in, being aware, being able to trust and surrender to this Greater Love at work everywhere all the time.

Mary was willing to trust and surrender to this Great Love and Mystery, to allow the Christ child to be formed in her. What about us? Are we willing to trust and surrender to this Great Love and Mystery? In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he put it this way: “All of us [not just some of us, but all of us], with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror [the glory resides in you and in me] are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” This says Paul, “comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (3:18). Are we willing to create the space and time and opportunity for the Spirit of Christ to do a good work in us and through us? Are we willing to surrender our ego and trust the Spirit to form the image of Christ in us?

Our Good God, we are so distracted, so preoccupied with other things – buying the right presents, decorating the house, entertaining, and so much more – that we hardly have time to think about the things we have talked about today. We thank you for this church, for this place and time where we can again be reminded of what is foundational, namely, your unconditional love for each of us and your presence with us and in us. I pray for each of us that we might have an encounter, an experience of your love that will open our eyes to your vastness and to your abiding and surrounding presence. May we not be afraid to have the small, little houses in which we have tried to confine you and control you come crashing down, so that we might be part of your ongoing incarnation in the world.  Amen.   

Sunday, December 17, 2017

A Voice Crying in the Wilderness (A sermon from John 1:6-8, 19-28)

The wilderness theme throughout the biblical tradition is multi-layered and rich in meaning. It has both negative and positive overtones. The wilderness can be a place of failure and collapse. But it can also be a place of renewal and restoration. Israel was tested and tried in the wilderness. It’s where the covenant people of God murmured and complained and forsook God. But it’s also were the people repented – turning from their injustice and sin – and experienced renewal and hope. God provided for them in the wilderness – with manna and water – and led them by the pillar of cloud and fire. In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus encounters “Satan” in the wilderness, and he is ministered to by angels.

John is a voice crying in the wilderness – outside the halls of power, beyond the jurisdiction of the gatekeepers, away from the religious establishment – calling both the gatekeepers and the common folk to repentance and renewal.

John’s Gospel emphasizes John’s role as light showing the way to the true light – made known so beautifully in Jesus – but in all of us. The true light, says John’s Gospel, enlightens everyone – not just those who had historical contact with Jesus of Nazareth or just those today who have been taught the Christian tradition and scriptures. This light was bright in the one whose coming we celebrate at Advent. God looks and loves like Jesus. But this true light that shown so brilliantly in and through Jesus is in each of us, waiting to enlighten us, to reveal to us the grace and truth of God.

And you know sisters and brothers, sometimes we have to be led into the wilderness and face the harshness and challenge of the wilderness before we are ready to open our hearts and minds to see the light of divine grace and hear the voice of truth.

Each of our wilderness experiences are unique, and paradoxically, they are also very common. Some wilderness wanderings we fall into through no real fault of our own. There are circumstances over which we have no control. The company downsizes and we lose our job. Our health takes a rather drastic turn for the worst and suddenly our health and maybe our very lives are threatened. An accident leaves a loved one physically and/or mentally challenged. And on and on it goes. It’s the hard stuff of life that’s totally unpredictable.

There are other wilderness experiences that we bear total or partial responsibility for. We get angry and lash out and relations with friends or family are disrupted and broken. We nurture a grievance that becomes a grudge, and we become eaten up with a desire for retaliation and vengeance that turns us into bitter and hateful persons. We struggle with an addiction that may cause us to sacrifice our very souls in order to feed the addiction.

So what do we do? We can be open to see what really is. We can listen to the voice crying out in the wilderness preparing the way for the grace and truth and wisdom of God to find a place in our lives.

I have had a number of online conversations with people, when they become aware of my very conservative background – that, for example, my first two degrees were from very conservative theological institutions – they inevitably want to know what turned me around, what led me to embrace a more inclusive Christian faith. I am unable to point to any one experience that did it for me. All I can do is say that at some point in my journey a crack opened enough for the light to get in. And once that happens, sisters and brothers, there is no going back. Apparently, it just takes a small opening. It just takes a little bit of humility and courage and interest in the truth. If a crack opened in my life, it can open in any one’s life.

When we read of Paul’s conversion and calling as told by Luke in the book of Acts in the way Luke tells the story it seems that Luke may have believed that some of Paul’s experiences prior to that encounter may have prepared the way. Up until a crack opened in his heart, I doubt Paul felt even a tinge of guilt for his murderous hate and actions against Jesus’ disciples. He was convinced that he was doing the will of God in ridding the world of followers of Jesus. What he did to disciples of Jesus he did in the name of God, in the name of truth. It shouldn’t be hard for us to understand that. Just think of all the mean stuff and racist stuff and sexist stuff and just plain crazy stuff that is done today in the name of Jesus.

In Luke’s telling of the story Paul’s dramatic turn-around occurs in chapter 9. But in chapter 7 Luke tells the story of the martyrdom of Stephen, where Paul was present. The Jewish leaders were enraged when Stephen charged them and their followers of being a stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, and constantly resisting the Holy Spirit. He called them lawbreakers and betrayers of the truth. If someone said that to us we wouldn’t like it very much either would we? Luke says that when they heard this, “they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen” (7:24). According to Luke Stephen, “filled with the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” He then said to the crowd, “I see the heaven opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” Then Luke says they covered their ears and rushed at him, dragging him outside the city they began to pelt him with stones. Luke says that those who engaged in this violence “laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul” (that Paul’s Jewish name). Then Luke says that Stephen knelt down and cried out just before he died, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” In Luke’s version of the crucifixion Jesus cries out from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke ends the story by saying, “And Saul approved of their killing him.” And then one chapter later, in chapter 9 Luke says that Saul, “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” acquires permission from the High Priest to seek out any who belonged to the Way, men and women, (that’s how disciples of Jesus were known, followers of the Way) and to bring them bound to Jerusalem. Then, as Paul pursued this objective traveling toward Damascus he had an encounter with the cosmic Christ that changed the direction of his life. He became what he hated and persecuted – a follower of the Way.

I cannot help but think that when Saul or Paul witnessed the death of Stephen, and the grace and courage he displayed, a crack opened. I cannot help but think that after Paul witnessed the true light as it shown through Stephen and the true voice as it spoke through Stephen, that Paul began to doubt. The text doesn’t say that, but I cannot help but think that he was less sure of himself. Maybe he allowed himself to start questioning his motives and his biases. I cannot help but believe that a crack opened up just large enough for the light to shine through. And when it did it knocked him for a loop. At first it was a blinding light. It was blinding because it called into question almost everything Paul stood for and lived for. Paul had to learn how to see all over again. By the way, he didn’t switch Bibles, he just learned how to interpret it differently, which is what many of us have learned haven’t we?

When the crack opened and the light began to shine into my mind and heart it was far less dramatic. As I said, I can’t pinpoint any single experience or encounter. But it was no less consequential. To draw from the title of a book that was a part of this turn-around in my life, I began to see Jesus again for the first time. Teachers and authors like Marcus Borg and Richard Rohr became lights in the darkness, voices in the wilderness, setting me on a new path, a new journey. I suspect Stephen was a light, a voice in the wilderness, that the grace and confidence and fearlessness he exhibited in his death had a profound, though unconscious impact on Saul, opening up a crack for the light to get in.

For you it doesn’t need to be someone like Stephen, or John the Baptist, or Richard Rohr or Marcus Borg, it could be someone else or something else, that helps to jar open a crack, and a crack is all that is needed. God just needs a little bit of humility, a little bit of honesty, a little bit of uncertainty, a little bit of vulnerability, a little bit of courage and trust, that’s all God needs to shine the light of grace and truth into our minds and hearts and to set us on a new course and direction.

Actually the light shines from within, not from without. It may take a light from without to activate the light that is within, but the light of truth and grace already resides in our minds and hearts. We are already children of God. We are already loved and chosen. We just need to claim and become who we already are. We just need to allow the light that is already in us break through the shell of dogmatism and pride and prejudice and certitude that has encased it – that has hardened our hearts and blinded our minds.

And once the light penetrates the darkness, once the truth takes hold, there’s no going back. We begin a new journey. We realize that we, too, are called to be light in the darkness. We, too, are called to be a voice in the wilderness. We are called to be to someone else, what someone else was to us – a light and a voice.

Mother Teresa tells about a young French girl who came to Calcutta to work in their home for dying destitutes. After ten days she came to see Mother Teresa. She hugged Mother Teresa and told her that she had found Jesus. When Mother Teresa asked where she had found Jesus, the girl said, “In the home for dying destitutes.” Mother Teresa then asked her what she did after she found him. The girl said that she went to confession and Holy Communion for the first time in fifteen years. Mother Teresa asked, “Then what else did you do?” She said, “I sent my parents a telegram telling them that I had found Jesus.” Mother Teresa then gave her this advice. She said to the girl: “Now, pack up and go home. Go home and give joy, love, and peace to your parents.” She went home radiating the Spirit of Christ. Once she saw the light she became a light. Once she heart the voice she became a voice.

When we do an act of kindness for someone we are being a light in the darkness. When we give of our time and resources to help someone in need we are being light. When we affirm the worthiness of someone who is feeling unworthy we are being a voice. When we stand up for and speak on behalf of someone marginalized we are a voice crying in the wilderness. (We have had to do this a lot in the wilderness our democracy is in today). We will be light in the darkness and we will be a voice in the wilderness when we allow the Spirit of Christ to radiate God’s love through us. When we speak and act in the spirit of compassion and mercy, in the spirit of forgiveness and grace, in the spirit of fairness and equality, in the spirit of acceptance and affirmation, in the spirit of generosity and goodness, and in the spirit of inclusiveness and unconditional love, then we are letting our light shine in the darkness and our voice ring out in the wilderness. Once we see the light and hear the voice, we cannot but then become the light and the voice so that others might see and hear.

Out good God, some of us may need to see the light and hear the voice, so help us to have enough humility and honesty and uncertainty and faith, that a crack might open just enough so that your light might shine in and that your voice might be heard. And help us, Lord, to realize that the more we see the light of your grace and hear the voice of your truth, we must live and speak and share and bear witness so that others may have a chance to see and hear too. 

Sunday, November 26, 2017

What Matters Most (a sermon from Matthew 25:31-46)

This parable is not really a parable – it is but it isn’t. One scholar calls it an apocalyptic drama. Scholars who have studied Matthew in detail see the author’s hand all over this. Some argue that the author probably composed it. Of course, there is no way to prove that. What we can say for sure is that the teaching of this apocalyptic story strikes a theme that is dominant in Matthew’s Gospel, namely, doing the will of God, expressing mercy and justice, engaging in acts of lovingkindness. These are the things that Matthew’s Gospel emphasizes and these are the things that matter most.

I hope you know not to take this judgment scene literally. This is an apocalyptic story. Apocalyptic literature is full of symbolism, sometimes rather strange and bizarre symbolism, like the Beast with ten heads or the great red dragon in the book of Revelation. In apocalyptic symbolism everything is exaggerated; it’s full of hyperbole. And when you think about it, most of Jesus’ parable contain elements of exaggeration. This was his way of grabbing the attention of his listeners to make his point or points. The shocking element, the exaggerated element could be an astronomical debt that one could not have possibly accrued or an admonition to cut off one’s arm or pluck out one’s eye if such is prone to cause offense to a brother or sister. We don’t take that literally.

In this judgment scene all the “nations” stand before the King. Or we could say “all the peoples of the earth” or we might even say, “all the peoples of the earth who had never heard of Jesus,” because all those who are judged in this story give the appearance that they had never heard of Jesus. So, it could well be that “all the nations” here is a reference to all those outside the particular covenant arrangement that God made with Israel and the church.

It is important that I pause here and say something about that. The covenant that God enters with Israel first, then later with the church, doesn’t mean that Israel or the church are more special, more loved, or more blessed than everyone else. That idea has been the source behind much pain and damage inflicted upon the world in the name of God by religious people who think they have a corner on God. In Genesis 12 when we read of God’s choosing and calling of Abraham and his seed, his descendants, we read that God’s intention was for Abraham’s seed – the people that emerged from this relationship with God – would extend the blessing of God to all people. The covenant people were chosen, not to be blessed above or over against the peoples of the world, but to communicate God’s chosenness and blessing to all the peoples of the world. And the same thing can be said of the church.

I believe in inviting people to enter into a covenant relationship with Christ. I believe in inviting people to become disciples of Jesus. You can call that evangelism if you want to. I believe in it because I am a disciple of Jesus and I know first-hand through personal experience that one can know God and serve God, one can love God and love neighbor, by being a disciple of Jesus, by being faithful to a covenant relationship with God through Christ. But, and this is very important, I am not biased enough to assume that my way of knowing God is the only way to know God. I do not know enough to claim that my way of loving God through discipleship to Jesus is the only way to love God. It would be prejudicial and arrogant of me to dismiss and discount other religious traditions that I have never practiced. Who am I to claim exclusive possession of God? We of course, don’t possess God anyway. God possesses us. The earth is the Lord’s and all therein. I only know what I know, which is very little indeed. And the same goes for you too sisters and brothers. If you put all our understanding about God together, we really don’t know didlly squat. God will always be Mystery with a capital M.         

In this story the Christ identifies with the least of these in a very personal, intimate way. When those who gave the basic necessities of life – food, shelter, clothing, personal care, and health care – to these who are identified as the “least of these” the King says, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.” In other words, when these people who had never heard of Jesus showed mercy and extended hospitality and cared for the “Least of these” they did it to the Christ. The Christ stands in union and in solidarity with these unfortunate ones who are in such dire need.

Do you remember in Luke’s account of Paul’s encounter with the living Christ on the Damascus Road what Christ said to Paul? At the time Paul was a fierce persecutor of the followers of Jesus. His passion was to wipe them out, to rid the world of them. His religious zeal was so ainted and twisted by his hate and prejudice that he thought he was doing God’s will by ridding the world of disciples of Jesus. In that encounter the risen Christ says to him, “Saul (that was Paul’s Jewish name), Saul, why do you persecute me?” Not why do you persecute my followers. But rather, why do you persecute me?  The risen Christ so identified with the suffering ones and persecuted ones that he could say, “When you persecute them, you are persecuting me.”

Some scholars of Paul who accept the basic trustworthiness of Luke’s account of Paul’s conversion and calling believe this was the experience that set the tone for Paul’s whole theology that developed around this idea of being “in Christ.” Paul uses that phrase numerous times in his letters. We are one in Christ. We are in Christ and Christ is in us. This is why Paul can speak of the body of Christ. Paul calls a local church the body of Christ, he calls the universal church the body of Christ, and he even says that all people are in Christ and will be made alive in Christ in 1 Corinthians 15.

So according to this teaching whenever we do a deed of loving kindness to someone in need, we are doing it to the Christ. This teaching had a major impact on the ministry of Mother Teresa. She considered her work with the outcasts of Calcutta to be work done for, with, and to Jesus. She remarked once, “We serve Jesus in the neighbor, see him in the poor, nurse him in the sick; we comfort him in his afflicted brothers and sisters.” At her funeral she was eulogized for having exemplified this very passage in ministering to the needs of the outcasts and unfortunates. She could see Christ in the disfigured faces of the despised and rejected, the sick and destitute. In her book No Greater Love she writes, “Hungry for Love, He looks at you. Thirsty for kindness, He begs from you. Naked for loyalty, He hopes in you. Sick and imprisoned for friendship, He wants for you. Homeless for shelter in your heart, He asks of you. Will you be that one to Him?”  (88-89) 

Tony Campolo tells the story of being on a landing strip just outside the border of the Dominican Republic in northern Haiti. A small airplane was supposed to pick him up and fly him back to the capital city. As he waited, a woman approached him holding her child in her arms. The baby was emaciated—his arms and legs were like sticks and his stomach swollen from lack of food. She held up her child to Campolo and began to plead with him, “Take my baby! Take my baby!” she cried, “If you don’t take my baby, my baby will die. Please take my baby! 

Campolo tried to explain why he couldn’t take her baby, but she would not listen. No matter which way he turned, she was in his face, crying, “Please, mister, take my baby!” She kept saying, “Take my baby to a hospital. Feed my baby. Save my baby. Please take my baby! Campolo breathed a sigh of relief when the Piper Cub airplane came into sight. The minute it touched down he ran to meet it. But the woman kept running after him screaming, “Take my baby! Please, take my baby!” Campolo boarded the plane as fast as he could. The woman ran alongside the plane as it started to take off, the child in one arm and with the other banging on the plane. 

Halfway back to the capital, Campolo says it hit him with a force. He thought of Matthew 25, where Jesus says to the righteous, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink . . . in as much as you did it to the least of these, you did it unto me.” Then he realized that the baby was Jesus.

When the mother’s child suffers, the mother suffers. When one of the least of these suffers, the Christ suffers. Frankly, most of us just don’t get how closely the Christ is connected to all of us, how the the Christ is at one with the creation. By the way, the least of these are only the least from the perspective of humankind, not from the perspective of God. In God’s mind and heart, there is no least or most – we are all God’s beloved daughters and sons. And those who are fortunate enough to experience something of the heart of God know that. And they know it, not because the Bible tells them so, but because the living Christ tells them so, and then they find confirmation in the Bible. It’s like the old hymn says, “You ask me how I know Christ lives, he lives within my heart.” We know that all people are God’s beloved children because we have experienced the love of the living Christ, not because of a written document no matter how sacred that document.

A few weeks ago I talked about Thomas Merton’s experience in downtown Louisville where he felt at one with all the people around him, though he did not know any of them personally. He knew from his encounter with God that all these people were his sisters and brothers. He says the walls of separateness came down and he felt he belonged to all these people and they to him. The kingdom of God is actually the kin-dom of God. The “least of these” are not charity cases, they are our sisters and brothers.

In story after story in the Gospels we see Jesus reaching out to the poor and vulnerable, standing with the marginalized and disenfranchised, lifting up the downcast and downtrodden, healing their bodies and liberating their minds and setting their hearts free of fear and anxiety. What this story teaches is that of all things spiritual, social, moral, and religious this is what is most important of all. And to make the point stick the storywriter appeals to heaven and hell. Don’t take this literally. This is hyperbole. The symbols of eternal life and eternal punishment are employed here to point out how important this is, so no one will dismiss this teaching as irrelevant or insignificant. And yet it seems, when you consider the church at large, this is exactly what we have done. How many expressions of Christian faith are you familiar with where the emphasis is on religious beliefs or practices – where the push is on believing the right teachings or practicing the right rituals. This sacred story cuts through all of that by not saying a single word about religious beliefs or rituals. The people here who stand before the King never heard of Jesus. They couldn’t believe in Jesus because they never heard of Jesus. The indictment is not: Why did you not believe in Jesus? The indictment is: Why did you not care for your sisters and brothers when they were in need, when they were destitute, when they were defenseless, when they were the most vulnerable? Why did you not do for them and provide for them.  And notice too. They are not judged for the evil they did; they are judged for the good they did not do. Let that sink in for a moment brothers and sisters.  

If we take this story seriously, it says a lot to us about what we should be doing. Obviously we have our limits. We can’t give to everyone or every good and just cause. We have to be somewhat selective do we not? But clearly this story shows us where our focus needs to be and where we must channel our service. Serving “the least of these” at the very least means engaging in personal acts of loving kindness towards them. It means working in the trenches – in soup kitchens, women shelters, and food pantries. And it means supporting and advocating for public policies that are good for them. If serving them means anything surely it means this much.

This, by the way, is why being a follower of Jesus has political implications. I’m not talking about partisan politics. I’m talking about policy politics. Regardless of whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, if you take seriously this sacred story and what it teaches then you have to care about our legislators putting together, for example, a compassionate immigration policy that provides a clear path to citizenship. Surly that is part of what it means to welcome the stranger. If welcoming the stranger in our context means anything surely it means as much.

Now, sometimes it gets more complicated. How do we best address poverty, malnutrition, criminal justice reform, the huge economic disparity, just health care, fair tax reform, and so forth. There are no simple answers. If we care about the mistreated, the poor, the oppressed, the most vulnerable among us then we have to care about the laws or lack thereof that affect them. We may well disagree on the policies that will help them, but surely we can come to some consensus on doing some good for them. What would tax reform look like if we actually cared about “the least of these?” Here’s where both political parties get it wrong. We woudn’t be giving big tax breaks to the really well-off for sure. But we wouldn’t be giving tax breaks to the middle class either. If anything we would be paying more taxes so those disadvantaged and more vulnerable wouldn’t have to pay any.  

I like the way Philip Gulley puts it. He says, “The question is not whether we should mix Christianity and politics. To follow Jesus is to be political. The issue is whether our understanding of Christianity makes the world more gracious or less gracious. Do we work against injustice, oppression, greed, and self-absorption, or do we defend the status quo? Do we take seriously Jesus’ call to “bring good news to the poor, . . . proclaim release to the captives and . . . let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18), or do we treat Jesus as our team mascot? Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives all face these temptations.” If caring for the “least of these” means anything, if loving our neighbor means anything, it surely means working for a just and equitable society in which every person is valued and respected.”    

Let me close with a word about judgment, because all of us will face the Divine Judge. All of us will stand before the Judge of all the peoples of the world. Will Willimon tells how his father-in-law, a Methodist pastor, attempted to comfort a grieving family whose son had just died while committing a crime. They were obviously in grief because their son had died, and the grief was intensified because of the way he died and what people were saying about him. This wise pastor says to the grieving family, “Just remember that when your son is judged neither I nor anyone else in this town will be making the judgment. The judge will be Christ, the one who is the embodiment of mercy.” You know sisters and brother, the Christ loves you more than you even love yourself. And I believe that God knows just what to do for each of us that will further transform us into the image of Christ.  

Our good God, help us to see that what really matters is how well we care for one another, and especially how well we care for the least of these, the most vulnerable and disadvantaged among us. Forgive us, O God, not just for the times we have reacted in anger or treated someone badly or selfishly hurt a brother or sister, but forgive us too, Lord, for our many failures, for all the times we have missed opportunities to show grace and kindness, or stand with and speak for those treated unfairly by others. May we come to realize that we are all family, we are all one kin, that regardless of how different we may be in so many ways, we are one in Christ. In whose name I pray. Amen. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Meeting God (a sermon based on Matthew 25:1-13)

The New Oxford Annotated Bible calls this an “apocalyptic parable” and Matthew probably intended it as such. However, in more recent times a growing number of biblical scholars and religious writers have rediscovered the ancient wisdom tradition that some of the early followers of Jesus embraced. These teachers, instead of putting all the focus on some future coming, would emphasize Christ’s coming to us right now, again and again and again.

The last couple of weeks I have talked about “knowing God” and “loving God.” Today I want to talk about “meeting God,” not in some future apocalyptic event, but right now. If you have been listening to what I have been saying this may seem like a paradox, which it is. I said last week that there is a sense in which we are all spiritual beings, because the Spirit of God, the Divine Presence is the reality in whom we live, move, and have our existence as Paul told the Athenians in the story in Act 17. The challenge for us is allowing the Spirit – the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ – to fill and pervade and direct our lives.

Now, today when I talk about meeting God I am talking about becoming aware of God, of being conscious of God and encounters or experiences of God. And sometimes these experiences of God are life changing and mind altering. The renowned Trappist Monk, Thomas Merton, tells about an experience he had in 1958 that had a transformative impact upon his life. He had just been to Louisville to see a doctor. Then standing on a busy intersection at the corner of Fourth and Walnut Street, in the center of the shopping district, Merton had something of an epiphany. He says, “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.” In describing this experience Merton says it was like waking from a dream of separateness. Through this experience he realized that all these people that he knew nothing about were his sisters and brothers, and that they, like himself, were all connected to the Divine Source that sustains all life.

William James, who was both a psychologist and a philosopher, wrote about such experiences in a now classic book titled, The Varieties of Religious Experience. Though published over a century ago, it is still in print, and some have argued that is one of the  most important nonfiction books published in English in the twentieth century. James  observed several things common to these experiences, which he called mystical experiences. He noted that they are extremely difficult to talk about, to try to explain or put in words. They are usually very brief. They involve a vivid sense of knowing and seeing reality, that is, seeing “what is” more clearly than one ever has previously. And one cannot make them happen. These experiences cannot be programmed or planned. They can only be received. They fall “upon” the recipient. Religious persons who have had these experiences often speak of people and things having a kind of radiance or luminosity. And they speak of feeling a sense of union with the Divine and a connection to everything. One might say something like, “I felt at one with the One.” It’s practically impossible to put into words.

I don’t know if you have had an experience or experiences like this. If you have you probably haven’t told anyone, simply because such experiences are so hard to explain and put into words. I certainly wouldn’t tell anyone simply because of the many ways it could be misunderstood. Such experiences are hard to talk about. So then, we can’t make these happen. However, there are some things we can do, like the maidens in our parable, to prepare for, to be ready for such “meetings” or “comings.”  

One thing we can do is be watchful. The parable ends with this admonition: “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” These meetings with God cannot be arranged, but we can be ready to receive them. Certainly spiritual practices help ready us. We are engaging in one right now – participating in community worship is one spiritual practice that most of us engage in on a regular basis. We can nurture an inner life. We can give observe times of silence and solitude, quieting the clamoring voices of our maddening culture so we can hear God’s voice, which actually is the voice of our true self. There are spiritual guides who can help us do that. The writings of Henri Nouwen and Richard Rohr have guided me and helped me to hear the still, small voice in the midst of other voices.  

Brother David Steindl-Rast tells about a festive day in the early 1980’s, when Bernie Glassman Roshi, a Zen teacher who is known for his commitment to social justice, was being ordained as abbot of Greystone Mandala in New York. Zen teachers from far away had come for this sacred ritual. All sorts of holy symbols were on disiplay and filled the place. Between the chants that were part of the service there were times of sacred silence. Into this silence, suddenly a beeper went off. Steindl-Rast said he felt sorry for the one who had forgotten to turn off the alarm, because it seemed such an eruption into this holy service. But Bernie Glassman, the teacher being ordained spoke up and announced, “This was my alarm. I have taken a vow to interrupt whatever I am doing at high noon and think thoughts of peace.” He then invited all who were present to join him for a sacred moment of thinking about and praying for peace. He said, “Our world so needs it.” That’s a spiritual practice. Spiritual practices, spiritual disciplines keep us focused so that the mind and heart of Christ might be formed in us. 

Another thing we can do besides being watchful is wean ourselves of negative habits and patterns in our lives that cause us to be unloving, frustrated, preoccupied, and divided. Much of our growing and becoming and allowing the Christ image to be formed in us is connected to our “letting go.”  Other teachers describe this as dying to our ego, or renouncing the little self, or relinquishing our false attachments. Basically it involves a   letting go of our inner defense mechanisms that we use both consciously and unconsciously to protect our egos. These negative responses keep us bound to our fears, anxieties, and insecurities. It takes some inner work to do this: to first, recognized and confront our negative patterns and inner fears, and then second, to let them go.

What fear is holding us back? What frustration is controlling our thoughts? What are we  afraid of that keeps us from being the courageous truth tellers we are called to be? What is it that keeps us preoccupied with our little, ego dominated self? What causes us to be self-defensive, or angry, or feel so empty or bored or burdened? There are habits, attachments, ways of thinking, attitudes, and behaviors that we simply need to be weaned from, that we need to let go of so we can grow and become more God-like (which, paradoxically, means to become more fully human).  

The story is told about a country boy who had a great talent for carving beautiful dogs out of wood. Every day he sat on his porch whittling, letting the shavings fall around him. One day a visitor, greatly impressed, asked him the secret of his art. He said, “I just take a block of wood and whittle off the parts that don’t look like a dog.”

What we need to do is whittle away all those parts – all those attitudes and actions, all those prejudices and biases, all those ego centered patterns that don’t look like Jesus. Some of the questions I can ask: Am I unbiased like Jesus? Am I compassionate like Jesus? Do I love like Jesus? Do I have the courage to speak truth to power like Jesus? Do I care for the marginalized and disenfranchised like Jesus? If not, then what is hindering me from being more like Jesus – having his mind and heart? What is keeping me from participating in his dream for humanity and for the world? What do I need to be weaned from? Some of us may need help, particularly when we are unable to identify or see what it is that is keeping us bound. Some folks may need to join an AA group. For others it may mean being part of a faith community like ours. We may need to find a good spiritual guide or maybe a psychotherapist. We need to do whatever we can to identify the things that are hindering us from living the Christ life and let them go.                              

I love the way Paul or a disciple of Paul puts this in Ephesians: “Put away falsehood . . . put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander and malice,” [because none of that looks like Jesus right?] rather, he says, “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us.” We take off the worst of our humanity, so we can cloth ourselves in the best of our humanity, and Jesus, is our definitive and quintessential example and guide. He is the Son of Man par excellent. The title Son of Man simply means the human one. He is the human archetype of what we are called to be and he represents what is possible for each of us to become.

So what can we do to ready ourselves? We can watch, we can wean ourselves of our fears and negative patterns, and one more thing we can do is engage in works of mercy and justice. Almost always one’s engagement with the world takes on new energy and vitality and zeal after an encounter with God. After Merton’s experience of God in downtown Louisville Merton began to pour himself into relationships with some of the leading peace activists of the day. Some, like Daniel Berrigan, would visit him in his hermitage. He corresponded with Martin Luther King, Jr. He also reached out to leaders of other religious traditions, such as Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. But even if we have never had an experience like Merton, or what William James calls a mystical experience, our calling as followers of Jesus is to act mercifully and graciously toward all people and pursue restorative and social justice for the most vulnerable. And when we engage in works of mercy and justice we are readying ourselves for such an encounter with God.
In colonial New England a meeting of state legislators was plunged into darkness by a sudden eclipse, during which many of those present panicked and others moved to adjourn. But one of them said, “Mr Speaker, if it is not the end of the world and we adjourn, we shall appear to be fools. If it is the end of the world, I should choose to be found doing my duty. I move you, sir, that candles be brought”

For disciples of Jesus, our duty is to love God and love others as we love ourselves. Our duty is to engage in deeds of mercy and kindness, and to pursue justice for all people, especially the poor and vulnerable. And that’s our duty regardless. Even if we cannot point to any experience of the transcendent or the ineffable, that is still our duty. And when we do our duty we ready ourselves for whatever God wants to show us.

So then, sisters and brothers, we cannot will or plan these special encounters with God. There is a great mystery to it all. But we can be ready and whether we have an encounter like Merton’s or not, we can still grow and allow the Christ image to be formed in us.

So first, let’s be watchful, let’s be awake and alert to the divine presence that fills all things. And we can do that by nurturing a life of prayer and by giving attention to our inner life. Let’s learn to listen to the still small voice of God, which calls to us out of our true self. Second, let’s wean ourselves of negative attitudes and habits and all those negative patterns in our lives and relationships that quench the Spirit and hinder the Spirit from completing the good work of conforming us to Christ. And third, let’s work the works of God – works of mercy and justice – trusting in the power of love.

In the parable the oil for the lamps is “the” important commodity. It’s the lack of oil that makes the unwise maidens unwise. The wise maidens brought extra oil, so they were prepared. I see the oil as a symbol for the energy, the inner power that that keeps us moving and engaging and serving others. It is the power of the Spirit, which is the power of love. The Spirit is always enlarging us, moving us beyond our little selves, and empowering us to love better – to love inclusively and unconditionally

I have no idea why some people have these unique encounters with God, these mystical moments, and others don’t. But I do know that if we will pay attention to how God is working all around us and in our world and give attention to developing an authentic inner life in Christ we will be ready to see God’s image in others, perhaps even in our enemies. If we will learn to let go of the negative biases and attitudes and behaviors that diminish rather than enrich life, then we will be ready to grow and mature and become more Christ like. If we will give ourselves to doing the compassionate and loving thing, the merciful and just thing, then we will be ready to be instruments of God’s peace and justice in the world. And these are the things that really matter.

Gracious God, create in our souls a thirst for the living water and a hunger for the bread that is life enriching and sustaining. May Christ be formed in us so completely that what we will is what you will. May we share your heart, O God, O living Christ and be ready for anything that you want to show us and teach us. As we eat the bread and drink the cup in both remembrance of love demonstrated in the life and death of Jesus and in celebration of the Christ’s living presence among us and in us, may you fill our lives with the love of Christ that our lives might be a source of blessing and help to others. Amen.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Lessons in Being Human (a sermon from Micah 3:5-12 and Matthew 23:1-12)

In her book, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott tells of her conversion to Christianity. After a number of years of self-destructive behavior and spiritually wandering about, she found herself attending a small Presbyterian church. She says, “I went back to St. Andrew about once a month. No one tried to con me into sitting down or staying. I always left before the sermon. I loved singing, even about Jesus, but I didn’t want to be preached at about him.”

Her life at the time was a mess. Her dearest friend was dying of cancer. She was despondent following an abortion. She was addicted to alcohol and spent a number of days in a drugged and alcoholic stupor. And she was in the midst of a deep depression. It can’t get much lower than that. Nevertheless, she felt a presence. She says it was like a cat eyeing her, “I felt him sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love, and I squinched my eyes shut, but that didn’t help because that’s not what I was seeing with.”

One week later, Lamot was sitting in a pew at Saint Andrews and the singing touched a chord deep within her.  She says, “I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running along at my heels, and I walked down the dock past dozens of potted flowers, under a sky as blue as one of God’s own dreams, and I opened the door of my houseboat, and I stood there a minute, and I hung my head and said, ‘F*** it, I quit.’ I took a long deep breath and said out loud, ‘All right. You can come in.’” That was the beginning of her faith journey.

Lamott was fortunate to find a little church that didn’t try to save her, that didn’t try to control her, that was patient and gracious and kind, and that gave her the freedom to find God when she was ready. They didn’t try to scare her or manipulate her by threat of punishment or promising the reward of heaven. And in surrendering to God she surrendered to a process that would enable her to claim her humanity.

I have no doubt that religious faith and expression is at its best when it helps us become more human. What do I mean? Some spiritual teachers suggest that we do not need to become more spiritual. They say we are already spiritual. We need to become more human. And that happens when we who are already spiritual beings allow the Spirit to work in our life to bring forth the fruits of the Spirit, which is the very best of our humanity. That’s what I mean when I say that religion is at its best when it helps us become more human. Healthy, transformative religious faith and practices will help bring out the very best of our humanity by teaching us how to open our lives to the Spirit. It’s not religion that does it. It’s God at work in and through our humanity that does it. But healthy religion provides the mechanism, the means through which the Spirit works in our life to make us more loving, caring, compassionate, humble, and good.

The two texts we read today from Micah and Matthew are basically denunciations of religion gone awry. Micah denounces the priests and prophets in Israel who teach for a price and give oracles for money. If the price is right they will tell you what you want to hear. In the name of God “they abhor justice and pervert all equity.” Social justice and restorative equity are the fruits of the kingdom of God. Authentic religion always leads us there, false religion perverts and subverts what is right and just and good. Healthy religion promotes the common good; unhealthy religion cares nothing about it.

Matthew denounces religious leaders who lay heavy burdens on people and care mostly about their own place and power. They seek seats of honor and glory, while they bind up their people with burdensome rules and regulations that are nothing more than systems of meritocracy and worthiness

Micah and Matthew denounce religion that serves to diminish rather than enrich our humanity. They denounce religion that is used for selfish and egotistical ends rather that teach us how to love God with the totality of our being and love out neighbors as ourselves. They denounce religion that uses fear to control others, rather than in love serve others. I suspect to one degree or another all of us here have been part of religious systems that used fear and threat of punishment to elicit the sought after response.

James Mulholland who was serving as an American Baptist pastor at the time tells this story: A little girl, her mother, and grandmother were driving home from church one night, after watching a Christian movie about the end of the world. The movie threatened terrible consequences for all those who hadn’t accepted Jesus as their Savior. On the way home, 5 year old Stacie piped up from the backseat, “I want to ask Jesus into my heart.” Her mother and grandmother, instead of questioning why a five year old suddenly wanted to “accept Jesus,” especially just after seeing a film that portrayed the fires of hell, were nevertheless overjoyed. Without really asking if a five year old could actually understand what it means to commit one’s self to a religious faith, they led Stacie in a prayer to accept Jesus as her Savior.

I suspect most of us here understand why a parent and grandparent would do that. I suspect that many of us, maybe most of us grew up in religious traditions where the main point was to get people saved. I was fired from my first church because I wasn’t saving/baptizing enough people.  (I was able to negotiate a six month severance package and I felt pretty good about that). I pastored a mission of a larger church. Now, here’s the catch. Our numbers at the mission church were added to the numbers of the mother church. So our baptisms showed up on their records. The Senior pastor let on like he was so concerned about getting souls saved – you know, rescuing the perishing. To be honest I don’t think he even believed what he preached. But he wanted his church to be one of the top five churches in the state of Kentucky in baptisms. He wanted his name listed in the state paper and the honor and prestige of being a successful evangelistic minister. He coveted one of those “chief seats in the synagogue.”

So if you grow up in that kind of religious tradition like I did and probably most of you, you want to do anything you can to get your little one saved – to be assured they are going to heaven. So little Stacy’s mother and grandmother were delighted Stacie made this decision and they didn’t stop to inquire why she would want to ask Jesus into her heart. Mulholland says that the next day five year old Stacie, less somber and more mischievous misbehaved. Her mother said, “You know Stacie, a little girl who asked Jesus into her heart shouldn’t act that way.” Little Stacie shot back, “Well, I can ask him out too.”

Stacie’s grandmother interpreted that to mean that little Stacie had figured out the nature of the universe – one can choose to accept God or reject God. That’s some theological mind for a five year old isn’t it? You and I know what was behind Stacie’s decision and her reaction to her mother don’t we? As Mulholland suggests here was a little girl who simply was one, sensitive to fear and two, resistant to control. I love what he says, “We don’t need to accept Jesus into our hearts; we need to have the same heart as Jesus.” That’s really good. And that’s the difference between religion that seeks to control and religion that seeks to liberate. That’s the difference between religion where the goal is to get people into heaven, and religion that wants to see heaven come to earth and God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven. That’s the difference between religion that is almost exclusively focused on our personal happiness and eternal destiny, and religion that while caring about our personal good is just as concerned about the common good.

A woman once asked a religious Teacher, “Which is the true religion?” The Teacher replied, “Once there was a magic ring that gave its hearer the gifts of grace, kindness, and generosity. When the owner of the ring was on his deathbed, each of his three sons came separately and asked him for the ring. The old man promised the ring to each of them.

“He then sent for the finest jeweler in the land and paid him to make two rings identical to the original. The jeweler did so, and before he died, the father gave each of his three sons a ring without telling him about the other two.

“Inevitably, the three sons discovered that each one had a ring, So they appeared before the local judge to ask his help in deciding who had the magic ring. The judge examined the rings and found them all to be alike. He then said, ‘Why must anyone decide now? We shall know who has the magic ring when we observe the direction your life takes’

“Each of the brothers than acted as if he had the magic ring by being kind, honest, gracious, generous, and thoughtful. The Teacher concluded, ‘Religions are like the three brothers in the story. The moment their members cease striving for justice and love we will know that their religion is not the one God gave the world.”

One reader of this story has commented that authentic religion is not about a ring to possess, but a love to express. You know sisters and brothers, I don’t believe there are a hundred different paths to God and that one is just as good as another. Some expressions of religious faith diminish our humanity rather that enrich our humanity. Some religious teaching fosters hate rather than nurturing love. So all religious traditions do not lead to the same place. That’s just as true of the different versions of our own religion, Christianity.

Now, I don’t want to completely downplay belief and suggest that what we believe is unimportant. Beliefs are important because we do tend to live up or down to our beliefs. For example, if we believe that God tortures people, then we could easily believe that our nation is being an instrument of God when our nation tortures people. Bad beliefs can lead to bad actions. But this idea that God cares as much about what we believe about God as God cares about how we live for God and how we treat and love one another is simply not true. As the little book of James says, “Faith without works is dead.”

There’s a little story in our Gospels where a disciple comes to Jesus and says, “’Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you’” (Luke 9:49-50). Clearly Jesus did not care that the one the disciples wanted him to rebuke was not part of their group or may have believed some different things than his disciples believed. That did not bother Jesus. Jesus was the boundary breaker, not the boundary maker.

Why is it that we think that our church, our doctrine, our religion, our faith is the only right one? Once upon a time I used to go to Baptist conferences. I can just hear some denominational leader pointing to some place on a map saying, “Here’s where we need to plant a church, because there are no churches in a ten mile radius.” Well, if you drive around that ten mile radius you might find a whole slew of churches. What that religious leader meant was, “There’s no Baptist church in that ten mile radius. There’s no true church. There’s no evangelistic church. There’s no doctrinally correct church. There’s no right church. You know, sisters and brothers, I just don’t have time to listen to that kind of nonsense any more. Where did we ever get the idea that God cares about our being right anyway? What God cares about is our being righteous – about doing works of mercy and justice – doing what is right and just and loving and good.

I love that little judgment fable in Matthew 25 about the goats and the sheep. They end up in vastly different places don’t they? It’s because one group believed all the right things and the other group believed the wrong things right? Wrong. What mattered? It was all about giving food and clean water to the destitute. It was all about caring for the sick and the stranger (dare we say the undocumented person). It was all about attending to those put in prison (dare we say especially those who were victims of an unjust judicial system) I saw a statistic the other day I couldn’t believe – 70 percent of those in jail have not been convicted of a crime, they are simply folks who are too poor to pay their bale. And some say we are a Christian nation. That’s only because the word “Christian” doesn’t mean diddly squat these days.

Well, I could have read more in Matthew 23. These woes on the religious leaders goes on and on for 30 some odd verses. “Woe to you hypocrites, you lock people out of the kingdom of God, but you are not in yourselves . . . Woe to you blind guides, you hypocrites. You clean the outside of the cup and plate, but inside you are full of greed and self-indulgence. . .  Woe to you, you whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside are full of the bones of the dead and all kinds of filth. . .” You would like to fire me for sure if I preached one of those kind of sermons. The scholars tell us that Matthew probably added a good deal of this, and he probably did, but he didn’t add all of it. Jesus clearly was not fond of any type of religion that diminishes our humanity.  

Religion at its best helps us to become more human. Religion at its best inspires, compels, empowers, and teaches us how to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and how to love our neighbors as ourselves. And the neighbor according to Jesus clearly includes everyone, even the one who is our enemy.

Is your faith making you a better person? A more loving, caring, kind, compassionate, empathetic, humble, authentic person? If it isn’t then what good is it? The writer of James says “it’s dead” – it’s barren and useless. Healthy religious faith, in our case, healthy Christian faith will bring out the best of our humanity.

Our good God, keep us from using our religious tradition in an arrogant or exclusive way. And may we, like Jesus, be willing to confront and challenge those parts of our tradition that are not helpful – that are more life diminishing than life enriching. May we constantly be growing, evolving, changing, and becoming more human – more kind and loving and gracious and good and willing to risk and stand with and for those that others may use as a scapegoat. Let us not think that we have the truth and others don’t, but let us be able to see just how little we actually know about you and how much we still need to learn. And most of all, enable us to trust in your unconditional love, even if we have never experienced that in our human relationships. May we intentionally desire and practice those things that will help the Christ image to be formed in us. Amen.