Sunday, October 22, 2017

Knowing God (A sermon from Exodus 33:12-23)

The sacred storywriter tells us that Moses prays, “Show me your ways, so that I may know you.” This is, I believe, the universal longing of the human heart. One ancient interpreter of the faith said, “The heart of man is restless until it finds its rest in God.”  Of course, not everyone would identify this existential angst, this missing element in our lives as a longing for God. In fact, it’s usually disguised as something else. We might think that the something that is missing is something in our marriage or our vocational career or in our friendships. We might think of something physical or material or emotional – rather than spiritual. And I’m sure there are things missing in those areas of our lives, because none of us have it all together do we? So I am not suggesting that every need, every longing, every bit of angst we experience is spiritual. But all these other longings and needs are echoes of our greatest need of all, which is spiritual. It is the need to consciously connect with the Ultimate Source of our lives.

Today I would like to suggest three stages in knowing God. The first stage is knowing that I’m loved and chosen by God. I remember being taught John 3:16 as a kid in Sunday School and being told to substitute my name where the text says, “God so loved the world.” Instead of reading God so loved the world, I was told to read it as, “God so loved Chuck.” And it is true. God’s love is very personal and special.

And we all need this. We all need to know we are loved, that we are special. Children need to feel special as part of their healthy development emotionally and socially. One of the joys of being a grandparent is that we get to do this for our grandkids over and over again and then leave it to their parents to smooth out their rough edges and remind them that while they are special there are limits right? We grandparents get to focus almost exclusively on the special part don’t we? 

When Addie was around two years old she loved to hear stories about herself. I remember one day Melissa and I being at the swimming pool in Versailles with the girls and Melissa had to take Sophie to the bathroom, so Addie was left with me. She didn’t want to be left with me. She wanted Nan. Well, there’s only so much of Nan to go around. So sometimes just get stuck with Pap. Addie started to cry. Do you know how I got her to stop crying? I held her real close, which she at first resisted, and I started telling her how special she was. I told her the story of the day she was born and how excited we were when she came into the world. Then I told her about some of the experiences we have shared together in her brief time in the world. Soon she calmed down and had her arm around my neck as she listened to me tell her how much she is loved and how special she is over and over. We Grandparents get to do that.

We need to know God loves us as we are, that we are special to God. But if we get stuck here, as many do, then we could be left with a distorted image of God and an unhealthy kind of spirituality. A healthy relationship with God requires more than just knowing that we are loved and chosen. It requires an understanding that everyone else is loved and chosen by God too. This is the second stage of knowing God. One of the dangers of substituting our names in place of “world” in John 3:16 is that we forget that God does indeed love the world. You are special to God, but you are no more special than everyone else. The second stage of knowing God is knowing that God loves my Jewish friends, or Buddhist friends, or Muslim friends, and even my enemies, as much as God loves me. And they are capable of knowing God within their own traditions as intimately as we know God within ours. They are also just as likely to get stuck at first stage spirituality the way we get stuck.

I’m not sure the covenant people of God understood this at this time in their moral and spiritual development. Moses prays that God would accompany Israel in their journey to the promised land by making God’s presence known in some distinct way. Perhaps Moses is asking for some visible sign. “In this way,” says Moses to God, “we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.” I suppose it’s okay to believe that we are God’s favorites when we are children, but at some point we have to grow up. Because if we get stuck at the beginning stage, we could end up doing more harm than good.  

I have sometimes said and heard some of you say this too, when discussing some of the beliefs Christians have today; I have said, “I just hope their faith does them and others more good than harm.” Some beliefs when translated into practice are harmful. And this is one of them: Believing that God loves us more than God loves others. Believing that we have the truth while others don’t. Believing that we are special and chosen, while others have been passed over. 

Certainly a healthy love of self is needed in order to love others. So we need to feel chosen and loved. But there also comes a time when we need to realize that we are all in this together and that we are all loved and chosen by God. According to the Abrahamic tradition, God called out a people, entered into covenant with that people, so that through that people all people/nations of the earth would be blessed.

Our calling as the chosen people of God is to spread the message of chosenness to everyone else, so they too will know they are loved by God. If the life and story of Jesus tells us anything, it tells us that we need to communicate this chosenness from a place of solidarity, from a place of unity and service to others as our equals, not from a place of superiority or dominance. Unfortunately, the missionary activity of the Western church too often has been conducted from a place of superiority, rather than solidarity and unity, and we have done a lot of harm in the world as a result.  

Samir Selmanovic, in his book It’s Really All About God, tells about an experience he had on the morning of September 11, 2002. One of the Christian family radio networks had lined him up for an interview. He was mentally prepared to tell about the many ways they had learned to love the city and its people in the aftermath of 9/11.   

While he was waiting to go on the air, he heard the two co-hosts boasting about Christianity, literally patronizing the world. He suddenly found himself disoriented by what he heard, and realized that he was not ready for the interview at all. He had to quickly rethink what he was going to say, because he knew what they were going to ask. And it came right on schedule: “Pastor, tell us, don’t you find people in New York more ready to receive the gospel after the tragedy? Aren’t they more receptive than ever to the message? Can we take this city for Jesus?”

Selmanovic paused and said, “No. New York is a great opportunity for us Christians to learn. Most of the people here feel that to see the world our way would be a step backward morally. They see Christians as people not dedicated to following Jesus on earth, but obsessed with their religion. They see us as people who are really not interested in the sufferings on earth like Jesus was but driven with the need to increase the number of those worshiping this Grand Jesus in heaven. They wonder why, of all people, we are the first to rush to solve the world’s problems with weapons instead of patience and humility. I learned,” he told his radio hosts, “that it is we who need to be converted after September 11 to the ways of Jesus.”

How do you think that went over? We Christians are the ones who need to be converted to the ways of Jesus. The radio personalities didn’t ask for clarification. They quickly changed the subject and cut the interview short, not even halfway through the time allotted. In reflecting on his experience Selmanovic says: “I realized that it is our Christian superiority complex that makes us an inferior force in making the world a better place.”

If we Christians are to be a positive force in the world, if we are to contribute to the common good and help bring about a just world, then a lot more of us will need to move beyond first level spirituality. We will need to move beyond Christian exceptionalism and elitism. We will need to move beyond dualistic – ‘us’ versus ‘them’ – thinking if we are going to be a source of renewal and hope. We must stop and repent of the many ways we relate to the world from a place of superiority. If we don’t change, if we Christians cannot break away from old ways of thinking and believing and doing, and be converted to the more compassionate and inclusive ways of Jesus, then we will continue to do more harm than good.  

So the first stage of knowing God is knowing that we are chosen and loved by God. The second stage is knowing that everyone else is chosen and loved by God too. The third stage is: We know God’s inclusive love through human relationships and experiences.

In this interchange between Moses and God, God speaks these strange words: “I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” This, of course, is symbolical language (all religious language is symbolical language). We should know, of course, not to take this in any literal sense. The writer is using human imagery to speak of the Divine. But what does it mean? Who can say for sure what it means?

I read it as a way of expressing how God speaks and works in the world. There are many things we will never know about God, because we are finite and God is infinite. We simply cannot know and see the “face” of God, the totality and essence of God. God is in some ways completely beyond us. But in other ways God is part of us. God is in us. We live because God lives in us. We Christians like to say that we live because Christ lives in us. It’s the same as saying God lives in us – we just employ the language of our tradition. As Paul said to the Athenian philosophers in Acts 17 according to Luke: “We are all God’s offspring” and “in God all of us live, move, and have our being/existence.” So here’s the paradox. God is hidden in the world and God is revealed in the world. Both are true.

The great perennial, universal truth that Judeo-Christian religion has brought to the stage of human history is the truth of incarnation. We know God because God makes God’s self known through human experiences and relationships, and in the world all around us. Richard Rohr says incarnation really began with the Big Bang, when time and space and matter all came into existence in our universe. At the time of the Big Bang God expresses God’s self in a way that in time (it takes a lot of time) will bring forth life and then in “the fullness of time” become particularized in human beings fully alive. Jesus, of course, is our model of a human being fully alive. Jesus is our definitive expression of what God is like. This is why we aspire to be like Jesus, because to be like Jesus is to be like God, who indwelt Jesus and who indwells you and me.

So this symbolical “backside” of God, I believe, speaks of our capacity as image bearers of God to see and know the invisible God through our human relationships and experiences in this visible, material, physical, tangible world. Matter has always been the hiding place for Spirit. God resides in the depths of things. God resides in the depths of our souls, which is why that when we find our true self, when we know our true self, we know God.

I love the expression in the text where God says: “I will make all my goodness pass before you.” If we have eyes to see, if we are tuned in, we can find and experience divine goodness all around us. We just have to open the eyes of our hearts and invite the light of that goodness to penetrate and then permeate our souls.

God’s goodness saturates the air we breathe. God’s goodness is not an add-on for believing or doing the right things. It’s not just given to the saved or to some chosen group. It’s not just doled out on churched or religious people, or a prize for measuring up. It’s not earned or dispensed as a reward. God’s goodness is what sustains all life and it is inherent in all life. It is not just now-and-then, filling the gaps. God’s goodness is the very fullness of God that fills all reality.

If we really want to know God and experience God’s goodness, then we will need to rid ourselves of our biases, especially the bias of thinking we alone, our group, our religion has the truth and others don’t. We will need to let go of the Christian exceptionalism and elitism most all of us were taught. And we can say “Yes” to God’s goodness by saying “yes” to our own capacity to love and share that goodness as image bearers of the divine.

Gracious God, may we recognize that the angst we often identify in a variety of ways reflects a deeper longing that many of us are not even aware of – to know you and your goodness. Help us to know, O God that we are loved and chosen – not exclusively, but inclusively. That your love reaches everyone. May we grasp just how wide and broad and deep it is. Let our hearts be open to your goodness. May we learn to see and experience your goodness in a variety of ways – in our relationships and experiences every day. Show us your ways so that we may embody your ways and so that others may find you in us. Amen. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Not just for funerals (A sermon from Psalm 23)

There is no way to prove this, but I suspect that no scripture has been read as often as Psalm 23. I can’t prove this either, but if there was a way of accessing all my comments and messages that I have delivered at funeral and celebration of life services over the years, I would wager that I read Psalm 23 at some point in the liturgy, either in the service itself or at the graveside in every one of those services. But let’s not relegate this text to funeral services. It is a passage for pilgrims of all types at all stages of our journey, not just in the final one. It’s a witness to the presence of God through all of life.

The passage begins with a statement that many have aspired to, but few, if any, have actually attained.  Really, I think this whole Psalm sets forth spiritual realities in their ideal form, that we never experience fully, but experience in varying degrees.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Have you ever came to the place in your spiritual life where you want for nothing? I haven’t. And I would question whether any of you have either, if you are honest. Most of us have any number of wants. Sometimes our wants control us and may even consume us. I doubt very seriously that any of us have entered a place of spiritual rest where we are completely and totally content. In fact, I wonder if it is even humanly possible.

The Psalmist describes this state of spiritual contentment and rest in a beautiful, rich pastoral scene of dwelling in green pastures and beside still waters. Spiritual rest is such an important aspect of the spiritual life that we are introduced to the idea in the first creation story as being essential to the Divine life. Following a series of creative acts, the story says, “God rested.” Jesus modeled a life of spiritual rest for his disciples by periodically withdrawing from the crowds and entereing into prayer and solitude. If Jesus needed a balance between active engagement and spiritual rest certainly we do too. In Matthew’s Gospel the living Christ invites us into his rest. He says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

Entering into spiritual rest is important, but it is not an end in and of itself. If you have kids or grandkids you might have seen the movie “Cars.” These cars have personalities and can talk. Imagine one of these cars pulling in to fueling station and as the gas is dispensed the car says, “O this feels so good, I think I will just sit here and feel good all day.” Cars get filled with fuel so they can hit the road running and get to where they need to go. Jesus, our spiritual mentor, modeled in the Gospels a life of spiritual retreat and solitude that fueled his tank and empowered his mission and ministry.

I think those who tend to be movers and shakers, folks heavily invested in taking on injustice, speaking truth to power, and working to redeem unjust systems can sometimes undervalue and neglect this important dimension of our lives. This is why you see some people who invest heavily in taking on injustice sometimes just give up or walk away, becoming angry, bitter, and disillusioned. When we fail to invest in a spiritual life we might just discover that we don’t have what it takes to persevere against great odds. And justice work is very slow work against great odds. You can do this for years and not see hardly any change. And so it takes a deeper life, a deeper connection to wells of spirit to keep the joy and gratitude in our hearts that can sustain us through the slow grind. But make no mistake about it, spiritual rest and restoration ultimately sends us out into the unjust world to bear the fruits of the kingdom, to work and serve and minister to see the kingdom of God come on earth as it is in heaven.

This balance is reflected in the psalm. Just the Shepherd of our souls leads us to quiet waters and green pastures he leads us into paths of righteousness. I do not like the translation in the NRSV and some other translations that says “right paths.” The reason I dislike it is because it leaves to much up for grabs. Right paths can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. But what the psalmist actually says is “paths of righteousness.” This is captured in the alternative reading listed at the bottom of the translation.

In the biblical tradition of both testaments “righteousness” and “justice” are two closely related ideas. Righteousness includes social and restorative justice, but is the broader concept and therefore used more often. Frequently the two words are used interchangeably in our tradition and righteousness would be better translated justice in certain passages. Hebrew and OT scholar Walter Brueggemann says that a righteous person is one who seeks to fulfill his covenant obligation to love God and love neighbor as one’s self. This is a person given to the healing and betterment of community life. He says, and I quote, “The righteous person is characteristically one who invests in the community, showing special attentiveness to the poor and the needy.”

So the righteous person is a person who on the one hand, gives to the poor, cares for the vulnerable, and does acts of mercy and kindness. On the other hand, the righteous person stands with the poor and vulnerable, and advocates for them, challenging systems that oppress them.

Last week I was walking by the television in route somewhere and overheard an NFL player being interviewed about kneeling during the National Athem. I caught it after it had started so I can’t tell you the athlete’s name. But this is what he said, “This isn’t about disrespect for anything, our flag, our country, our military; I have the highest respect for all of that.” He then went on to mention all the loved ones, all the people in his family who served or are currently serving in the military. He said, “I have the highest respect for all of them and what they are doing. This is about systemic oppression against people of color. That’s what we are protesting. And that has to change.” And he’s right. It has to change, if we are going to make any progress toward a just society that has to change. It is a simple fact (not an alternative fact, but a real fact) that people of color often receive much harder sentences at the hands of the criminal justice system than white people who commit the very same offense. It is a simple fact that racial profiling does go on in some policing communities and that people of color are far more likely to be victims of police brutality than white persons. And that has to change. The reason the good Shepherd leads us into spiritual rest is so we will have the wisdom and courage and moral strength to help bring about such change.

Next, the Psalmist suggests the possibility of having a banquet in hell. Even when we walk through the darkest valley God is with us on the journey and invites us to celebrate life even in the midst of death. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” The enemies we face might be powerful economic, religious, political, and social systems that would chain us down and crush us. Or the enemy may be cancer or some physically and emotionally ravaging and debilitating disease that diminishes life. The enemies we face could be of our own making or they could be the natural consequence of the acts of nature or others like hurricanes or earthquakes or terrorist attacks or random shootings like the horrific one in Las Vegas. Or the enemies could be our own inner fears and insecurities, feelings of loneliness or isolation or depression, or feelings of bitterness and resentment.

The Psalmist is suggesting that the Good Shepherd of our souls is able to help us confront and overcome these enemies and can lead us into a celebration of goodness right in the midst of all the badness.   God’s mercy and goodness follow us and pursue us into all the hells of our lives – whether these hells are of our own making or the work of other persons, systems, or circumstances.

On this day as we observe Holy Communion we are reminded that our Lord, our spiritual guide and mentor, descended into hell – not literally of course, but it was a real hell nonetheless, when he was executed on a Roman cross. Even his closest disciples, in whom he had invested the most, deserted him. Jesus knew they would. He knew they were not strong enough or courageous enough to take up their cross too and walk with him through his darkest valley. And yet when he shares a final meal with them, he promises them forgiveness.

It is unfortunate I think that we have done so much theologizing about Jesus’ statement of forgiveness in the final meal. We take that promise of forgiveness and we make it fit whatever atonement theory we cling to. And I think in doing so we miss what it was probably all about. I suspect Jesus, knowing his disciples will abandon and desert him, is promising them forgiveness. At some point in the aftermath of his death and their failure he knows they will remember his words of forgiveness. I wish people could believe that. That no matter where we go or what we have done or whatever hell we live through, God’s goodness and unfailing love, God’s mercy and forgiveness pursue us there.

As we share this sacred meal together today maybe one meaning we can attribute to this Holy Communion is this: We are in this together. We are on a journey, a pilgrimage together. No matter what hell any of you go through, the rest of us will be there to walk with you through it. No matter what enemies we face that seek to diminish our lives, the rest will be there to face them with us.

O God, as we eat this bread and drink this cup help us to realize that our discipleship to Jesus means walking with one another through the hells of life. It means helping one another celebrate life in the midst of death. Amen

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Fruits of the Kingdom ( A sermon from Isa. 5:1-7 and Matt. 21:33-46)

This parable is found in all three Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Matthew, as usual, adds to it some details that give it a particular flavor unique to Matthew. In its original setting in Jesus’ ministry, it is likely Jesus tells a shorter form of this parable in anticipation of his death. He has already been rejected by the religious leaders who are now plotting a way to get rid of him. In the narrative Jesus tells this parable after he stages a protest in the Temple overturning the tables of the money changers. That prophetic act of Jesus sealed his fate. Now it’s just a matter of time.

The parable is based on Isaiah’s song of the vineyard in Isaiah 5. This passage in Isaiah 5 is called by the prophet a love song. In that love song the owner and caretaker of the land diligently prepares and plants a vineyard with tender-loving care. But instead of producing good fruit, it yields sour grapes. And so the caretaker decides to let it be. The result is that the vineyard gets trampled down and destroyed.

The song of the vineyard is an allegory. The vineyard represents God’s covenant people, called out to communicate to the world the grace and goodness of their God. The prophet explains why God allows judgment to fall. He says, “God expected justice, but saw bloodshed.” That’s the reason for judgment. God expected that the people he called to be divine image bearers to the world would reflect God’s passion for the downtrodden, the outcasts, the poor, and the aliens in the land. God expected the fruit of righteousness and mercy. But instead, God’s vineyard, God’s covenant people bore the sour fruit of violence and bloodshed. Instead of peace, they pursued war. Instead of justice, they took advantage of the vulnerable.

In the parable in Matthew 21 the same type of allegory is developed. The “tenants” represent the leaders of the covenant people. The landowner is God. The vineyard, here though, is God’s kingdom, unlike in Isaiah where the vineyard represents the covenant people of God. The servants who are rejected, mistreated, and killed represent the prophets. The son, of course, is Jesus. The other tenants symbolize the new community of Christ made of both Jews and Gentiles committed to Christ’s teachings. This story in Matthew 21 highlights two themes that are fairly prominent throughout the biblical tradition and are as important to us today as they were in Matthew’s community then. The two themes are grace and judgment.

While judgment falls on the violent tenants of the land, it only falls as the last resort, after all attempts at reconciliation have been exhausted. Twice the landowner sends his servants to collect the harvest, and in both instances the tenants respond violently, even killing some of them. Then he sends his son, saying to himself, “They will respect my son.” The landowner takes a great risk in sending his son. And pays for it. Because the greedy and violent tenants see this as an opportunity to take possession of the land. They say, “This is the heir, let’s kill him and grab his inheritance for ourselves.” So then the question is asked, “What do you think the landowner will do to those tenants?”

The question of course is rhetorical. In Mark’s version Jesus answers his own question and says in a rather straightforward manner, “He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.” Matthew’s version Jesus says, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” In typical Matthean fashion there is an added harshness to to Matthew’s version of the story, but of special note is the emphasis on producing fruit.

Matthew adds a postscript to the parable that Luke and Mark do not have. In Matthew’s version Jesus says, “The kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” Only Matthew has this phrase, “the fruits of the kingdom.” Throughout Matthew’s Gospel there is a frequent emphasis on fruits, on doing the will of God. Judgment falls because they failed to produce fruits, they failed to do the will of God, they failed to pursue justice, to dispense mercy, and walk humbly with God. When Isaiah calls the people of his time to seek justice, he says, “rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (1:17). These are the fruits of the kingdom. The kingdom of God is about a just world; it’s about a just society; it about the will of God being done on earth as it is in heaven.  It’s about liberating the oppressed, opening the eyes of the blind, freeing those captive to the demonic systems and powers of the world, and bringing good news to the poor.

Consider for a moment Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. The conclusion to Jesus’ teaching on the mount puts all the emphasis on bearing fruit. Isn’t it interesting that in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 there is not a single teaching about what to believe. Every single teaching is about what to do and how to live. In conclusion Jesus says, “Every tree (doesn’t matter if you are a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, or an atheist) that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.” I think we should be honest and acknowledge that most of us were not taught this. I grew up in a typical conservative SBC church and I was taught that one would be judged on the basis of whether or not one believes in Jesus as Savior, but that is not what the Gospels teach. In every single judgment text in Matthew, Mark, and Luke participants in God’s kingdom are not identified by what they believe, but by what they do. This emphasis is even found in John’s Gospel.

The Gospels teach that just as God’s grace is for all, God’s judgment is for all too. Most Christians don’t want to think about that. They think that just because they are Christians they escape God’s judgment. But according to the Gospels God is no respecter of persons.  When we, as God’s people called to be the body of Christ in the world fail to bear these fruits of the kingdom, we too, just like the covenant people of God under the old covenant come under the judgment of God. All the judgment texts in the Synoptics have to do with fruits, rather than faith.

Does that scare you? It shouldn’t. And here’s why. The judge is full of grace. The judge is an unconditional lover. The judge is Abba the loving Father Jesus prayed to and spoke about. I do not presume to even guess what God’s judgment might look like or what form it might take. But what I’m convinced of, sisters and brothers. is that whatever God’s judgment involves, however painful it might be, or whatever suffering it might cause, it’s all for the purpose of restoration and redemption. God’s judgment is not punitive or retributive. God’s anger is but for a moment, say the prophets. God’s grace and mercy are forever. We all will pass through the “fire.” The fire of divine judgment is not intended to consume us, but rather to purge and purify us, to refine us and teach us how to be like our Abba, our heavenly Father and Mother. Do you know what God wants from us? God wants us to share God’s heart, to treat one another in love and grace, forgiving one another, defending the helpless and liberating the oppressed. God wants us to engage in works of mercy and justice. And I believe God will do whatever God can do to get us to that level of maturity, just the way we attempt do with our own children. God’s judgment is about the discipline and correction that is needed to rid us of our prejudice and hate, and turn us into little Christs.

I have no idea what God’s judgment in the future state of our souls will look like. But I’m convinced that whatever form it takes it will be for our good, because God is good. God is not going to torture anyone. I’m not saying that divine judgment will not be painful; it might be very painful, but it will be ultimately for our good. I can imagine lives being terminated if no redemption is possible, but I can’t imagine the God of Jesus torturing anyone. We are the ones who want vengeance, not God. We may have to live through some hells in order to get to heaven, but the hells are of our own making.

I was writing about this via social media and a minister friend responded by saying, “I believe in hell because I have lived in hell before.” He went on to define hell as separation from love, as well as self and others. That’s a good example of taking the Bible seriously, but not literally. It has been my passion in ministry help people do this: If we just understand and accept that all scriptural language is symbolical, figurative, metaphorical, and hyperbolic language, I have no doubt some of us would have a much healthier image of God. That has been one of my passions in ministry is helping people nurture a healthier image of God.

Joe Phelps is the pastor of a very progressive Baptist church in Louisville. He shares an experience that I think speaks to the kind of fruits God expects from us. Three or four years ago Joe was ticketed for failing to follow directions at the scene of an accident. He contended his innocence and was compelled to have his day in court. He didn’t think he needed a lawyer. He had his photos and he could defend himself so he thought. Phelps wrote about this in an article at what is now Baptist News Global. I want to read what he wrote:

“A Wednesday evening court date conflicted with my schedule, but I arrived for court with evidence of innocence and anxious to plead my case. What a disappointment to learn after an hour that the purpose of this particular appearance was to schedule another court date. A month later I arrived as instructed before 9 a.m. and entered the uncomfortable silence of a room full of those awaiting trial. This might take a while, I thought. During the next hour it dawned on me that I was in a scene like the children’s game “Which one of these is not like the other ones?” I was the only “person of no color” in the room, which prompted the question: Why would only persons of color, and one white guy, be required to show up for court?

“We averted our eyes from each other throughout the next hour as we listened to names called and cases dispatched. Yet our numbers weren’t shrinking. In fact, as we entered Hour Three, not one person in the courtroom had heard their name called. More surprising: None of my fellow court waiters appeared to notice or feel frustrated but me, though surely some of them were missing work, too. Or paying for sitters. Or missing class.

“As the only person of no color, I felt safe wandering into the prosecutor’s office to inquire why so many invisible people appeared to be cutting in line. I was tutored that cases in which attorneys appeared on behalf of the accused have the privilege of jumping to the head of the docket (thus nullifying the definition of the word docket), while the rest of us wait. “Then, why didn’t you just schedule us to arrive at 11:00?” I asked. I was told to sit down.

“An hour later my case was called. Showtime! Wait – the officer who issued the citation was not present, so the case would be rescheduled. I’d seen enough ‘Law and Order’ to ask for a mistrial or a writ of habeas corpus or a stay of execution or something legal sounding to avoid a repeat. No luck.

“So a third time I joined the community of the wooden benches, even taking on this community’s blank stare. And the reason for this ordeal became clear to me: I needed to see how our judicial system, like many institutional protocols we take for granted, favors those with resources and connections, to the detriment of those without resources, or in my case those too stubborn to use them.

“The result: Those least able to afford to take off from work, pay for parking, hire a sitter or miss school, are forced to show up on time, only to wait and watch while those with means go first. . . .

“I’d glimpsed the ways in which our systems betray our national ideal of “liberty and justice for all” through laws and procedures that are inherently racist. They may not appear so on the surface and may have been written originally with naive or even noble intent, but the result is the same: Certain persons, particularly black males, are disregarded, disrespected and disproportionately imprisoned with longer sentences than their white counterparts, even though the ratios of crimes committed by races are equal...”

Joe concludes by referencing an event that took place in his city that year: “In March, four young men in our city were arrested for ‘sitting while black.’ Police were searching near a crime scene for four suspects, and these four were found on their front porch. Despite evidence of their innocence they were booked and jailed. It took considerable time, energy and money but this week the court exonerated them. But not before one missed his high school prom and graduation and all had their reputations impugned and their lives traumatized. Perhaps no one intended racism, but like pollution, it’s the invisible poisons that are the most insidious.”

We must eliminate these invisible poisons says Pastor Phelps. Why? Because that’s what disciples of Jesus do. These are the fruits God expects us to produce.  And sisters and brothers, it’s what we do that counts. And if what we believe does not translate into what do, if what we believe does not translate into the fruits of the kingdom, then maybe we need to ask ourselves what exactly we believe. Or at least if it’s doing us any good. The work of the kingdom of God will take us into the criminal justice system, the economic system, the educational system, the political system, into our work place and our family dynamics, into our relationships and friendships, and into every area of our lives. This is what discipleship to Jesus involves. This is what the kingdom of God is about. And this will be the basis of our judgment.

But you know, there is no need to be afraid, sisters and brothers. Because whatever form the judgment of God takes, whatever it may involve, if it does its job, it will always leads us back to the loving Abba of Jesus and God’s infinite mercy and grace.

Our good God, help us to understand that your anger at injustice always arises out of a heart of love. Teach us how to love the way you love and to care about the things you care about. Amen.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Obeying God and Hating It (the story of Jonah)

A pastor I know tells about a Bible study group in a church that he served a number of years ago that decided to study the book of Jonah. Well, this group got hung up on the whale scene. They read the story not as a parable, but as a historical narrative. And they concluded that Jonah must have been swallowed by a sea grouper because a whale’s mouth is not large enough to ingest a human. They were so excited about their discovery they even asked their pastor to make an announcement to the church about their findings. Well, the pastor was able to get around it by telling them that he didn’t want to take credit for their research, and they should find some other way to share their conclusions. I have no doubt those folks probably missed the whole point of the story. I don’t know why some religious folks have such a hard time accepting that fiction and parable and metaphorical narratives are better conveyers of spiritual truth than history.

What I am about to say I hope will not sound egotistical. So I will preface it with this. I get a lot of things wrong. God knows that, my wife knows that, the people who know me best know that, and I suspect some of you know that too. Especially if you have been here for all 15 years of my pastorate. But one thing I am very confident about is knowing how to read the Bible. And if you will hear what I have to say, if you will listen, I can teach you how to read the Bible too. Most Christians today, sadly, don’t have a clue how to read the Bible. The Bible is a holy book. It’s our sacred text. But it’s also a human book. And despite what some big-time Baptists who have big churches say, God did not write the Bible. God is the subject of the Bible, but not the author. Fallible human beings are the authors, who had no more of an inside track on God than you do or I do. They were people of faith on a journey of faith just like you and me. If you can understand that and accept that it will help you immensely in reading the Bible and applying the Bible in healthy, redemptive ways.  

Some of these writings in our sacred texts are the most highly enlightened, inspired, and potentially transforming texts that you will find anywhere. And some of the writings in our holy book are rather petty and punitive and even terribly wrong. The Bible reflects the struggle all of us have in living by faith and trying to figure out God’s will. The Bible  read rightly will lead us to ask the right questions. What it doesn’t do is give us all the right answers. And so we must learn in reading the Bible to rely upon our own spiritual experience, critical study which includes literary study, church tradition, and all the disciplines such as sociology, psychology, anthropology, and so on. We must utilize reason, common sense, and even basic intuition in reading the Bible. Some biblical texts reflect the common, popular beliefs and practices of that time and culture. Other biblical texts express non-conventional, counter-cultural, highly enlightened beliefs and practices. These “breakthrough” texts, as I like to call them, have the most potential to renew, heal, and transform our lives.

The story of Jonah is a counter-cultural story. It is a breakout story. It still reflects some of the conventional and popular beliefs of the day, but the main point, the main theme and emphasis of the story is a breakthrough story; it is truly revolutionary and potentially transformative.

The story of Jonah is great drama. There are lots of interesting characters: a huge fish, some foreign sailors, a city of wicked people, a violent storm, a plant, and a worm. All of them end up doing exactly what God asks them to do except the preacher, except God’s prophet.

After Jonah gets his assignment, he heads toward Tarshish. No one knows where Tarshish is – this is parable not history. The point here is that it’s the farthest place from Ninevah. Ninevah is where God wants to send his prophet. Usually if we want to flee from God, God lets us, but apparently if you are a prophet of God and you have been given an assignment by God, well, that’s a different story, at least it is in this story right?  

So God sends “a great wind,” upon the sea. The story reflects the common belief of the time that God controlled the events of nature – the ancient Hebrews believed that God controlled the wind and the storm. So God sends the storm and it is some storm because the sailors, who certainly knew all about storms are scared out of their wits. Jonah, however, is sound asleep, which may suggest something about his state of mind. Perhaps he despaired of life and didn’t’ care.   

The sailors call to whatever god they think might be able to save them. When they see Jonah asleep, they wake him up, “Why aren’t you praying?” What would you have said? I like the late Dallas Willard’s little definition of prayer where he says that prayer is, “Conversation with God about what we are doing together.” If we are not doing anything together, then there is not much to talk about is there? 

The sailors decided to cast lots to discover who was bringing this disaster upon them. This was, again, a common way of discerning the will of the deity in ancient times. We even find the disciples doing this in the book of Acts. Well, Jonah won the lottery, though it was not the kind of lottery one normally would want to win. So they ask Jonah more questions, “What do you do? Where do you come from? Who are your people?” When Jonah tells them that he is a Hebrew and worships the God who made the land and the sea, it terrifies them and they ask what they need to do to pacify this God who is stirring up the waters. Again, the ancients believed that gods controlled the elements of nature and you had to pacify these gods. (By the way, some versions of Christianity haven’t moved passed that really. A number of Christians today believe Jesus’ death was a sacrifice God required in order to appease, to placate, to pacify God’s wrath and avert God’s condemnation. Not any different really than the ancient view of pacifying the angry deity.)

Jonah tells them to throw him into the sea. The sailors didn’t want to throw Jonah into the sea, but when things got desperate out went Jonah. Here Jonah finds himself in the belly of the great fish. And here Jonah prays. When you are closed in, swallowed whole, feeling engulfed by the circumstances of your life and darkness is all around, why not pray for help? It can’t hurt. Of course, if you are mad at God you might not want too. But then, if you’re desperate maybe you will anyway.

There was a time in my faith journey years ago when I was mad at God for not doing more in the world. I mean, if I was God I wouldn’t let babies die. I wouldn’t let genocides take place. I wouldn’t let evil, sick, people do terrible things to the innocent. I wouldn’t let earthquakes and Tsunamis devastate whole populations. I wouldn’t let storms like Harvey and Irma ravage the earth and human populations. And then I began to realize that maybe it was not God who was the problem. Maybe it was my perception of God that was the problem. And gradually I began to let go of this image of a controlling God and started to think more of a God intimately bound with the creation, a God coming to be “realized” in a sense through the creation, a God incarnate in creation, a God in love with the creation, a God for and with the creation, a God who suffers when the creation suffers. So I went from being mad at God who I thought controlled the world to falling in love with God who suffers with the world. I began to see the cross of Jesus not as a propitiatory sacrifice, but as a symbol of the crucified God, the God who joins us in our suffering.

Jonah prays and tells God that he will go. In the last line of Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the fish, he says, “What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.” Jonah doesn’t say that he will like doing it; he just says he will do it. He doesn’t say that he will proclaim the message with compassion, but he says he will proclaim the message. So God decides to settle for what God can get. The great fish vomits Jonah up on the shore and the text says that the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time. I’m glad the word of God comes to us a second time, and a third time, and a fourth time, and a fifth time . . .  God says to Jonah, “Get up. Go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to them the message that I tell you.” I wonder how often God has to settle for what little love and compassion God can get out of us? Like Jonah we stew in our biases and try to justify our prejudices and we take ourselves way too seriously. The good news is that God will meet us where we are and love us as we are. Now, God doesn’t want us to stay there. God wants us to grow up. God doesn’t want us to remain immature children. God wants us to become God’s friends and share God’s compassion and develop a wider view, but God will meet us where ever we are on our life journey. And if we are going to be partners with God, we need to learn how to meet people where they are the way God does.

Barbara Brown Taylor says that she has this image of Jonah rolling into town, putting up a big tent, sprinkling sawdust on the ground, arranging the benches, and spreading the word about a big revival meeting. Thousands show up; even the king is there in his purple robes. Jonah pulls out his white handkerchief, clears his throat, and speaks into the microphone, with one hand holding his big black Bible and the other shaking his finger in the air:  “In forty days Nineveh will be overthrown.” That’s the message.

This is a short sermon isn’t it? One gets the impression that Jonah is doing the least he could get by with. There is no alter call, no call to repentance, no warmth, no love, no identification with their plight. Just an announcement of what he hoped God would do – overthrow them, destroy them, wipe them off the face of the earth. 

I’m reminded of the church that fired their pastor because every week he stood behind the pulpit and told them they were all going to hell. So they got rid of him and got another preacher. One of the church members was telling a friend about their new pastor. “He’s nothing like the other guy who told us we are all going to hell; you should come here him.” So his friend goes to hear him. After the service the friend says, “I don’t get it. You fired the other guy because he told you you were going to hell. But this guy said you’re going to hell.” The church member replied, “Yeah, I know, but he seems really sorry about it.” Jonah is like the first guy.

Jonah isn’t sorry. Sometimes I will hear from someone via social media who thinks I’m going to hell, and you know, they are not sorry about it at all (lol). Jonah isn’t sorry about announcing God’s judgment. But he is sorry about the results. He is sorry that the whole city drops to their knees in repentance and averts the calamity that is about to come upon them. It’s quite comical really in the way it’s told. Even the animals repent. Even the animals are covered in sackcloth. I know some Baptist preachers if that they had that kind of success they would be putting their resume together.

Jonah, however, is not thinking of such things. The text says that this upset Jonah so much he says, “Just let me die.” The text says in chapter 4: “This was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.” He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” What a beautiful, enlightened, breakthrough kind of text, right here in the Old Testament. (Actually, there are a number of such texts like this in the OT.) God is gracious, abounding in loyal, steadfast, enduring, covenant-keeping love, slow to anger and ready to relent from punishing. Can you just imagine Jonah getting all upset, still ruled by his prejudice, still controlled by his hate, saying, “God, this is why I wanted to get away. Why didn’t you just let me go? Why did you bring me here to see this? These people ought to be wiped off the face of the earth and now you are not going to do it. Just let me go die, God.”

Jonah trots outside of town and plops down to wait in the hot sun. God causes a plant to spring up (here is God controlling nature again – just remember this is a parable) and grow overnight so tall and broad that it gives Jonah shade from the hot sun. But as quickly as God raises it up, God strikes it down. And Jonah is so upset again. This is God showing Jonah how selfish he is, how biased and hateful and ugly he is. This is God trying to convert his own prophet. Just like God tries to convert us, Gods daughters and sons. This is God not giving up on Jonah; just as God refused to give up on the Ninevites. And just as God refuses to give up on you and me.

I used to sing when I was a kid in Sunday School: “Red and yellow, black and white, we’re all precious in God’s sight, God loves the little children of the world.” Most of the church members didn’t believe it, but we sang it anyway. We are all little children, sisters and brothers. And God doesn’t give up on any of us. There may be folks you wish God would give up on. But your vindictiveness and dislike isn’t going to change the reality that God loves them as much as God loves you. And God isn’t going to give up on them any more than God is going to give up on you in trying to change your heart so you will feel what God feels.   

God’s love and grace are all inclusive. We can be bitter about it, like Jonah, and wish God was more narrow and exclusive and prejudiced like we tend to be. We might wish that God would only accept a certain kind of people – people who accept what we believe and teach. And there are a lot of Christians who picture God just that way. God loves our tribe, our group, our church, and if you want God to love you then you have to think and believe like we do. You have to be saved with our kind of salvation. I’m sure you have seen the bumper sticker that says, “God loves everyone, but I’m God’s favorite.” We joke about it, but unfortunately, a lot of Christians really believe that.

Could we dare ask God today to help us see through and beneath all our layers of fear and bias and bitterness, so that we might see a God who loves all people, a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, not just with our kind of folks, but with all kind of folks. And might we too ask God to help us rid ourselves of our bias and prejudice, so that we might share God’s love for all God’s children, even those who are very different than us, and even those we do not like. 

Gracious God,

We can get upset about so many things and often our frustrations reflect how far away we are from your heart and passion. We care more about what gives us comfort than what breaks your heart. Show us how to love all people the way you love all people. Show us how to love this world, this creation, this earth, the way you love this earth. Help us to grow up so that we might become mature partners with you and serve as agents and missionaries and ambassadors of your inclusive, steadfast love. Amen.  

Sunday, September 17, 2017

How great is God’s forgiveness? (A sermon from Matthew 18:21-35)

My article for Baptist News Global this month focused on the importance of reading the Bible critically as well as spiritually, and I used this text as an example. The reason it’s so important to read a text critically is that it helps to prevent us from spiritually misusing and misapplying the text. The stories and teachings of Jesus in the Gospels and the stories about Jesus in the Gospels did not drop down out of heaven on the wings of angels. Before these stories were ever written down by a  Gospel writer they were told and retold and retold. Scholars call this the oral tradition. These stories were passed down by word of mouth decades before they written. I’m sure you can imagine how these stories were altered and changed in the process of retelling them. Some details would have been omitted while others would have been added. And then the Gospel writers themselves who brought these stories together in a cohesive narrative around the framework of Jesus’ ministry also made changes to emphasize what they wanted to emphasize. Today’s text illustrates the kind of changes a biblical author might make. A critical reading of this passage in Matthew 18 suggests that the logical conclusion to the parable is in verses 32-33 where the king says to his servant: “You unjust servant! I forgave you all that debt because you asked for mercy. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had on you?” The careful reader can recall a similar conclusion to Jesus’ instruction to love one’s enemies in Matthew 5:44-48. In that passage Jesus instructs the disciples to love their enemies, to pray for them and do good to them because then they will be like their Father in heaven, who sends blessings (“rain” and “sunshine”) on the just and unjust alike. Then Jesus concludes by saying: “Be perfect (be mature, compete, spiritual) therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Luke’s version says, “Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate.” God loves God’s enemies, therefore we are to love our enemies. Here in Matthew 18 the reasoning is the same. We should forgive magnanimously just like God who forgives us all our sins.  

The parable is prompted by Peter’s question: “If a brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times.” According to one scholar there was a popular Jewish teaching in that day that a person could be forgiven three times, but not four. So Peter, no doubt, thinks he is being extremely generous and should merit a commendation from Jesus. But instead Jesus says (Jesus is always bursting our bubbles), “No, not seven times; rather seventy times seven,” which is an expression that basically means, “there is no limit on how much you should forgive.” And then to highlight this point Jesus tells the parable about an official serving in a king’s court who incurs a huge debt through the mismanagement of the king’s resources. The debt is beyond anything possible. (Jesus had a real penchant for employing hyperbolic and shocking elements in his stories to get his point across and he does that here.) The servant has a debt of “ten thousand talents,” which would have been impossible; it’s an unrealistic number. One talent was equal to the wages of a manual laborer for fifteen years. The annual tax for all of Herod’s territories was 900 talents per year. No one person could have accumulated a debt of ten thousand talents in a thousand lifetimes. The point here is that a debt was incurred that would have been impossible to repay. So, the servant finds himself in a hopeless situation. But here is where the good news is such good news. Astonishingly, the king does the unconventional, outlandish thing. He forgives the debt. Is there any doubt that the action of the king in the story is intended to represent the action of God. God dispenses unlimited and outlandish forgiveness. Period. That’s the point. Therefore, we who are children of God are to do the same.

End of story right? Unfortunately, no. And here’s where a critical reading of the text is so important. The text continues in verses 34-35: “And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured [which is so unlike God right?] until he would pay his entire debt [that would be forever, since the debt was unpayable]. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Now, a critical reading of the text would suggest that in verses 34-35 that is not Jesus speaking, rather, that’s the author speaking. You don’t need a seminary degree to recognize the clear contradiction and inconsistency here. The king takes back his unlimited forgiveness and responds vindictively punishing forever the servant who failed to practice the forgiveness he received. I have no doubt Matthew added this to the original parable. Scholars would call this a “Matthean embellishment/redaction.” In lay terms you can say Matthew has an ax to grind. Matthew, the fallible, human author of this Gospel, like all of us, struggles with the unlimited, outlandish forgiveness of God. We like to claim it for ourselves. But we have a hard time dispensing it to others.

Now, we might be able to at least applaud Matthew’s concern that he addresses with his commentary in verses 34-35. Matthew wants those in his community to forgive one another. That’s a good thing. But in so doing, in urging them to practice God’s forgiveness, he takes the focus off God’s forgiveness, he takes the focus off the immensity and magnanimity of God’s unlimited forgiveness, and turns God into a torturer of those who fail to forgive, thus diminishing somewhat the very character of God and the teaching of the parable.

Understanding this keeps us from drawing unwarranted and foolish spiritual and practical applications form Matthew’s own comments. If one takes Matthew’s comments too seriously then one might conclude that God is the kind of God who can give forgiveness one minute and take it back the next. One might conclude that one could actually do something to merit eternal damnation without any hope of redemption. One might use a text like this to turn God into a petty, punitive Ruler rather than the loving Abba that God is. Without this critical reading of the text, it would be fairly easy for one to spiritually misuse and abuse the text. That’s why a critical reading is so important.

Should we then get rid of Matthew’s comments? Should we cut them out of our Bibles? Of course not. We just need to understand the value and limitations of what the Bible is and learn to read it critically as well as spiritually. The positive thing about reading the Bible this way is that Matthew’s very human and fallible comments invite us to struggle ourselves with God’s outlandish forgiveness and our own vindictive desires for retribution, and our own unwillingness to forgive others as we have been forgiven.

And we do struggle with that don’t we? We can think of a hundred excuses why not to forgive. He needs to learn a lesson. I don’t want to encourage irresponsible behavior. She needs to learn that actions have consequences. I was the one wronged; it’s not up to me to make the first move. How can I forgive if he’s not even sorry? Oh, we can think of a hundreds reasons why we can’t or won’t reflect, why we can’t or won’t practice the outlandish, unlimited forgiveness of God.

Seminary professor Thomas Long tells about the time he walked into his beginning preaching class and told the students he was giving them a test. He would not grade this test, but it was an important test nonetheless. He explained that he would list some theological words on the board and their job would be to write a paragraph for each describing how they personally experience these concepts.  “After all,” said Long, “good preaching involves taking big, sometimes abstract theological ideas and showing how they are flesh and blood realities.”

The first word he gave them was the word “hope.” They all started writing. They wrote about hoping for babies to be born, standing at the bedside and praying for healing or standing at the graveside and hoping for joy to rise from sorrow.  They knew much about hope. The second word he gave them was the word “faith.” Again, they started writing. They had stepped out in faith to come to seminary. Some of them had walked out of secure careers to become ministers. They knew about faith.

Next, he gave them the word “forgiveness.” And the pens stopped writing. When the students did write, they wrote about trivial things like a mother’s forgiving words over a broken vase or a teammate who said, “Don’t worry about it” over a missed final shot. But they knew little, says Long, about deep, healing forgiveness.  Surely, says Long, there was in there lives places where forgiveness was needed—broken relationships with parents, pain with a spouse, trouble with children, a breach of trust with a friend—but they were silent about these things.

Maybe we have trouble looking deeply at such things because should we do that, should we search our hearts about such things, we would have to acknowledge all the ways our actions and words have contributed to the brokenness and alienation. In order to understand and experience the greatness of God’s forgiveness and be able to channel that forgiveness to others maybe we have to understand and experience something of the hurt and pain our betrayals, untruths, and offenses have caused others.

The late popular Christian author Brennan Manning tells about the time he was standing outside the Schubert Theater in New York City during the intermission of a play. He says that the gentlemen in tuxedoes were in an intense discussion with the ladies in evening-gowns, and Manning says he was just about “to deliver a timeless observation that would have precluded further discussion on the subject for at least a hundred years.” Just then, an old woman peddling Variety newspapers approached. She was wearing tennis shoes and a cab driver’s cap. Manning, who was wearing a clerical collar, thrust a coin into her hand and snatched the paper.

The woman implored, “Could I have a word with you, Father.” “Yes,” Manning snapped, in a frustrated tone, “just wait a minute.” As he turned around to his friends who were breathlessly awaiting his commentary, he heard the elderly woman say, “Jesus wouldn’t have talked to Mary Magdalene like that.” Then she disappeared down the street.

Inside the theater the reality of what had just happened hit Manning with spiritual force. He had been so preoccupied with his own standing and reputation that he treated the woman like a vending machine. He put a coin in her hand and out popped a magazine. He realized that he had treated her like an object. He realized that he had shown no appreciation for the service she performed, and no interest in her life. He realized how his comments were dismissive and demeaning and assaulted her basic humanity and dignity. Manning began to wonder how his treatment of the woman might add to her feelings of worthlessness. Manning says, “If she came to church on Sunday and I was in the pulpit exhorting her to love God above all things . . . what hypocrisy [she would feel] from the man who helped undermine her ability to love anyone.” Manning says, “A shriveled humanity has a shrunken capacity for receiving the rays of God’s love.” It’s true. A person beaten down and devalued – with no self-worth or value, most likely has limited capacity for receiving love from anyone. (As a general principle; there are always people who beat the odds).

Maybe the only way we can actually experience the depth and greatness of God’s forgiveness is by digging deep into our own hearts and souls and confronting the ways  we have dismissed and demeaned others in order to advance our place or position or further our own agenda. Maybe before we can know the outlandish forgiveness of God we have to face honestly how we have hurt and offended and denigrated and manipulated others, and treated people as objects for our use.

Then too, maybe we also need to realize that when we have acted in these ways we have not only devalued and disparaged the humanity of our brothers or sisters, but whatever we did to a brother or sister we did to God.

Remember the Christ’s words of judgment in the parable of Matthew 25 (which also has several Matthean embellishments; in fact, the whole parable may have originated with Matthew). The Christ says, “I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” And they answer: “When did we not do any of these things to you, Lord.” And the Lord says, “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” The living Christ (the cosmic Christ) so identifies with every person, especially “the least” of these (who are not the least in God’s eyes, but in the eyes of the world), that to fail to be merciful to the “least” of these, the most vulnerable among us, is to fail to be merciful to the Christ. When we hurt a sister or brother, when we hurt a fellow human being, we hurt God.

It’s also important to note that in that judgment story the ones indicted are indicted not on the basis of what they did, but what they failed to do. You see, sisters and brothers, to be silent, to fail to side with, stand with, speak up for, show mercy to the oppressed, the poor, the marginalized, and the impoverished, to fail to do the just thing and the compassionate thing can be just as harmful as saying or doing something cruel and evil. And until we come to terms with how our actions and even our silence, our doing nothing, hurts others and hurts God, we will not be able to experience the outlandish forgiveness of God. And we certainly won’t be able to channel that forgiveness toward others.

Gracious God, forgive us for the many ways we have failed you be failing others. We are so often blind to the ways we have hurt others and our egos are too fragile for us to admit how we have used others for our own benefit. Help us to see just how much we need to be forgiven. So that perhaps, we might experience how outlandish your forgiveness really is. And if we cannot channel this forgiveness to others, if we cannot lavish on others your outlandish forgiveness, then we surely haven’t really experienced it ourselves. Open our hearts, work through our bodies, ignite our souls so that we might be changed and become like you. Amen.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Love is everything (A sermon from Romans 13:8-14)

Though Paul wrote his letters two or three decades before the written Gospels appear, Paul, nevertheless, would have had access to some of the teachings of Jesus and stories about Jesus being circulated in the oral tradition, that is, being told and retold and retold by word of mouth. Here, in this text, Paul puts the emphasis where Jesus places  the emphasis. Twice in the first paragraph of our text, at the beginning and at the end, Paul says that love is the fulfilling of the law. I suspect Paul was aware of the teaching of Jesus where Jesus says that all the law and prophets hang on two commands: loving God and loving neighbor. In fact, we love God by loving neighbor. It is by loving our neighbor that we express our love for God. Paul says basically the same thing, but words it differently. He says that love is the fulfilling of the law.

Paul is not saying that every single law in the Torah is fulfilled through love, but rather, what he is saying is that the real intent and overall purpose of the Law as a whole is fulfilled through love. Not all the laws and teachings in the Torah were loving. There were some laws that reflected a patriarchal culture and were quite oppressive. So not all the laws in the law were good and helpful. Paul is not saying that. What Paul is saying is that the true intent of the Law as a whole is fulfilled when we love one another.

The portrait we have of Jesus in the Gospels is that Jesus didn’t buy into to the idea that all the laws and teachings in his Hebrew Bible (the Christian’s Old Testament) were equally inspired or of equal value and authority. For example, when Jesus gave instructions on divorce he took exception to the concession made for divorce in the book of Exodus. Jesus argued that Moses was the one who made that concession as a concession to their hardness of heart, but this was not God’s will at all, even though the scripture attributed it to God. Not all scripture is equally inspired or enlightened. And Paul is not making that claim here. Paul is saying that the overall purpose of the law is to encourage love of neighbor.

Paul says something very similar in his letter to the Galatians. There he says: “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Here again I’m sure he is referencing the teaching of Jesus. To love one’s neighbor as oneself is to live out and fulfill God’s design, God’s will for our lives. And when we love our neighbor as ourselves, we are living our calling as divine image bearers. In one sense, we are never more human than we love our neighbor as ourselves. On the other hand, we are never more divine, we are never more like God than when we love our neighbor as ourselves.

Now, it’s important to be clear about who how our neighbors are? This is specifically addressed in Luke’s version of the saying where Jesus follows the command to love your neighbor with the story of the Good Samaritan. Now, what we need to do today is get past the Sunday School version of the story of the Good Samaritan. The Sunday School version emphasizes risk and going out of our way to love others, which is not unimportant. It’s important to go out of our way and to risk something in loving others. However, the Sunday School version doesn’t get to the heart of the story. The Sunday School version conveniently ignores who the “Samaritan” actually was. In Jesus’s time the Samaritan, to many Jews, was the enemy. Many Jews had a deep seated prejudice and hatred for Samaritans and vice versa. You may remember the story where Jesus wants to pass through Samaritan territory on his way to Jerusalem and the Samaritans deny him permission to go through. Jesus’ disciples are so livid they want Jesus to ask God to bring down fire and fury on the Samaritans. I can imagine Jesus cursing under his breath whispering to himself: “God, how do you expect me to teach love to these unenlightened blockheads.” It took some time, and some suffering, but the disciples eventually got it.

When Jesus makes a Samaritan the hero in his story of loving your neighbor, today in our culture the good Samaritan would be the Good Muslim or the Good Undocumented Immigrant. Same thing. So, because of teachings like this, it shouldn’t be hard for us today to understand why Christian groups given to exclusion and condemnation of certain people like our LGBTQ sisters and brothers hardly ever quote Jesus. They ignore Jesus or they turn Jesus into something other than who he is in the Gospels. Because if you are committed to making a group a scapegoat, like our current administration has done with undocumented persons, if you do that, then don’t expect to find a friend in Jesus. Jesus turns the scapegoat, the rejected one, into the hero.

What if the church at-large, what if Christians in mass truly loved our neighbor the way Jesus taught us to? We would have a much different reputation in the world wouldn’t we? And more of our Christian communities would actually be harbingers and living realities of God’s new creation — of what God wants and wills for the world.

Sometimes the church does live up to its calling. I heard about a Presbyterian pastor who served a rural congregation years ago with about 50 or 60 active members. There was a young woman who came to his church and presented her child for baptism. There was no father or husband around and everyone knew it, and in that day and time it was fairly common to shun and look down on such a woman. 

The day of the baptism the woman stood alone before the congregation, holding the child in her arms. The pastor hadn’t recognized the awkwardness of the situation. He only realized it when he came to that part in the baptismal service when the question is asked, “Who stands with this child to assure the commitments and promises herewith made will be carried out? Who will be there for this child in times of need and assure that this child is brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord?” When he came to that part he realized that there was no godmother or godfather on hand to answer the question. But without hesitation or rehearsal, as though on cue, the entire congregation stood and with one voice said, “We will!” That’s the church choosing to love their neighbor as themselves.

Unfortunately, as you are well aware that is not always the case is it? Once before I told you the story of Vicky Beeching. It’s worth telling again. Vickie Beeching is best known for her worship songs that are sung in churches, especially mega-churches throughout America, Great Britain, and in other English speaking countries. As a little girl she began to have an attraction to other girls her age, which only increased as she grew older. She also became aware of the negative and condemnatory attitudes toward such an attraction in her Christian culture. So she bottled it up. She wanted to be attracted to boys, but she couldn’t. She says, “Realizing that I was attracted to girls was a horrible feeling. I was so embarrassed and ashamed. It became more and more of a struggle because I couldn’t tell anyone.”

Keeping this all to herself and denying her true feelings was tearing her up inside. Her mother taught her to play the piano and the guitar. She was musically gifted and began performing worship songs at services in front of hundreds by age 16. By then, too, the shame and isolation she experienced for being gay were escalating. She spent as much time on her own as possible, pushing friends away at school, working hours in the library alone. She said it was too painful to be around people that didn’t understand. So all her energy went into making good grades and developing her musical skills. At age 23, her songwriting took her too Nashville.

For the next six years, Beeching lived in the heart of Christian conservative America, recording albums and spending a lot of time in evangelical American churches. To avoid facing her inherent sexuality, she would perform endlessly, filling up her hours as much as possible with work. By 2008, at age 29, she moved to California, the year that proposition 8 – the state law to ban same-sex marriage – was to be voted on. The Christian lobby galvanized and Beeching was booked frequently to perform at mega-churches throughout California. She found herself performing at events that were basically anti-equal marriage rallies, which, of course, added to the inner tension she already felt.

One day she noticed a white line down her forehead. The scar grew and became really noticeable, inflamed and red. The day she handed in the master tapes for what was to be her last album, she went to the doctor, and found out she had a rare auto-immune disease (linear scleroderma morphea) – a degenerative condition where soft tissue turns to scarring – a very serious condition that can cause blackouts, epilepsy, and can be life threatening. The medical professionals told her she would need extensive chemotherapy and that usually this disease is brought on by some deep trauma. Her body was attaching itself. She knew it was the stress of her sexuality and living in denial, keeping it all bottled up inside. She knew then she had to come to terms with it. She gave herself a goal that she would come out by the time she was 35, which she did, first to her parents, and then publicly.

Today this is what she says, “What Jesus taught was a radical message of welcome and inclusion and love. I feel certain God loves me just the way I am, and I have a huge sense of calling to communicate that to young people. When I think of myself at age 13, sobbing . . . I just want to help anyone in that situation to not have to go through what I did, to show that instead, you can be yourself – a person of integrity.”

She was asked in an interview why she just didn’t discard the church that considered her sinful and wrong. She said, “It’s heartbreaking. The church’s teaching was the reason that I lived in so much shame and isolation and pain all those years. [Now listen to what she says]But rather than abandon it and say it is broken, I want to be part of the change.” She decided to love her neighbor, even when her neighbor treated her as the enemy. She wanted to be part of the renewal and reformation of the church.

And you know, sisters and brothers, this is what Jesus did. When Jesus looked at the Judaism of his day in light of his own personal experience of a loving, compassionate God he could see so much that was not right. He knew that when the religious leaders judged and rejected and excluded people they labeled as “sinners” that this did not reflect the God he knew and loved. There was much in his religion that contradicted his experience of the God of love and grace, who gave priority to the poor and vulnerable. But rather than abandoning his religion, he felt called to reform it. He felt called to speak truth and model truth and confront the gatekeepers who controlled who was “in” or “out.” It got him killed, but he gave himself to the truth and love and cause of God. He became a living sacrifice and was faithful even unto death. We remember his sacrifice of love today and every time we partake of the bread and the cup. And in remembering and partaking of this sacred meal maybe we too will be willing to follow his example of sacrificial love wherever that make take us.  

Paul says in the text that salvation is nearer today than when we first started this journey. Salvation is healing. Salvation is homecoming. Salvation is liberation. Salvation is transformation. And the more we love our neighbors as ourselves, the more we enter into the healing and homecoming and liberation and transformation of God. The more we put on the Lord Jesus Christ as Paul instructs, the closer we get to reflecting the full image of God. The more we love like our Lord Jesus Christ, the more we become all that we are meant to be as the uniquely beloved daughters and sons of God.   

O God, as we now partake of the bread and cup may we sense, feel, and experience your welcome and your grace. May we know that we are loved deeply, securely, eternally, so that we will be able to love our neighbor as ourselves. And may our remembrance and celebration of the self-giving of Jesus in love for your cause in the world and for our good, inspire us and compel us and empower us to put on the love and inclusion and grace and courage of the Lord Jesus as we seek to follow him and do your will. Amen.