Monday, January 30, 2017

What Does God Require? (a sermon from Matt. 5:1-12 and Micah 6:1-8)

Biblical interpreters call this passage in Micah a lawsuit oracle. It is a proclamation of indictment or judgment against the covenant people, most likely the leaders of Israel toward the end of the eighth century BCE. The prophet rails against religion that is awash in liturgy and ritual, but devoid of substance. When we turn this in on ourselves the truth of it is that we might never miss a worship service, we might give a full tithe of our income to the church, we might serve in various capacities within the church structure and organization, and still, we might completely miss doing God’s will.

What is God’s will? How does true religion express itself? Micah is quite explicit. O mortal, cries the prophet, what is good? What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.

The three things Micah highlights that God requires are mentioned specifically in three of the beatitudes in Matthew 5. One could easily make the case that all the beatitudes relate to the three areas Micah addresses. Last week from Matthew’s reading we noted that Matthew has summarized Jesus’ message as a proclamation of God’s kingdom. In the Sermon on the Mount that follows Matthew shows us what is most central to Jesus and the kingdom he proclaimed. So what does God require? Let’s start at the end of Micah’s list and work backward. What does it mean to walk humbly with God? Micah doesn’t mention walking humbly with one another but surely that is implied. The beatitude that speaks to this specifically says: Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Notice too that the promise relates to this earth, not heaven. Later in the Sermon Jesus will teach us to pray: Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. God is concerned about this earth; heaven is in great shape. Heaven is doing fine. The earth – not so much.

So what is meekness? Meekness is not weakness. Jesus exercised a lot of personal charisma and authority, but he did not use his personal power and authority for personal gain or acclamation. He never attempted to coerce or force others to yield to God. And he emptied himself of all personal ambition. To be meek is be humble, it is to have a healthy view of oneself. Being humble is not about self-loathing or denigrating one’s self. It is not about walking around crying, “Woe is me, I am a great sinner.” You may be a great sinner, I may be a great sinner, but we are still children of God, created in God’s image, whom God loves with an eternal love. We need to remember that in our creation stories original blessing is more important and comes before original sin.

Meekness is not weakness, and humility is not timidity. In fact, it takes great courage to constrain ourselves from responding to violence with violence as Jesus taught us. Jesus relinquished all claims to worldly power, but he certainly wasn’t powerless. He relied upon a different kind of power – the power of Spirit, the power of love. It was the Spirit of Love that compelled Jesus to confront and challenge the religious and social powers of his day with the spiritual reality and a future vision of a kin-dom of mercy and justice.

You can always tell a humble person by the way their presence puts you at ease. In Matthew 11 Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” When you are in the presence of a humble person you feel at ease. It doesn’t matter what position or place that person occupies in society, high or low, you feel totally at ease, you feel at rest in their presence.

I read some years ago where Rolling Stone magazine interviewed Scott Weiland of the band, “The Stone Temple Pilots.” This was just after he had been released from prison, having served a term for drug possession. In the interview he kept using the word “humility.” The reporter asked him to define the term. Scott Weiland said, “It’s not me thinking less of myself. It’s me thinking of myself less.” I love that explanation. Humility means I am less self-absorbed so I can be about in a healthy, life-affirming way what is really important? The next two items on Micah’s list tell us what is really important: to love mercy and to do justice.

The beatitude that parallels the call to love mercy says: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” They receive mercy because their heart are open to God and the needs of others. One biblical scholar interprets mercy as “compassion in action.” It’s not just feeling sympathy or empathy for others. And while feeling sympathy and especially empathy are good things, mercy is about more than feeling for others, it’s about doing for others. When the blind cry out to Jesus in Matthew 20:30, “Son of David, have mercy on us,” they are not asking for sympathy or even empathy; they want healing. Mercy is action based.

I read in the news about an act of mercy by a number of plumbers last weekend who went to Flint, Michigan to install water filters. All the facets in Flint need water filters because of the lead in the drinking water. Plumbing Manufacturers International donated the faucets, and over 300 plumbers across the country poured into Flint to donate their time and skill. They were able to replace faucets and filters in over 800 homes. This was a corporate or collective or act of mercy. An act of mercy can be an individual act or it can be a collective, communal act, but it always involves some sacrifice extended for the benefit of others.

How important are such acts of kindness and mercy to those in need? In the judgment parable of Matthew 25, acts of mercy constitute the basis of judgment. Those who are judged are judged on the basis of how they acted and treated the most vulnerable among them, the ones Matthew calls “the least of these.” In fact, in responding to the needs of the most vulnerable they were actually responding to the cosmic Christ. The cosmic Christ says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” The Christ so intimately identifies with the vulnerable of the world that to care for them is to care for Christ.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing in the text about what one believes. Nothing. It’s all about what one does. In fact, when you get to the end of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says in 7:21, “Not every who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” According to Matthew it’s not what we believe or confess, but what we do that matters.

This brings me to the first thing on Micah’s list of what God requires: to do justice. The corresponding beatitude reads: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” The word translated “righteousness” can also be translated “justice.” This is not a beatitude about personal righteousness; it’s about restorative justice or social justice. Restorative justice is not about what is legal; it is not about satisfying some demand of the law. It’s not about someone getting what he or she deserves. Rather, it is about establishing systems and structures in society that are fair, just, and good. According to Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, justice or righteousness has to do with actions that improve and maintain well-being in the community, particularly those actions that give special consideration and show special attentiveness to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.

The Hebrew prophets railed against religious and political leaders who spurned justice, but yet were very pious and religious. For example in Isaiah 1 the prophet tells the people of Israel that God rejects all their sacrificial offerings and rituals and expressions of worship. God doesn’t delight in any of your worship, says the prophet. Then he tells them what God requires: “seek justice, (then he spells out what it means to seek justice), rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” That’s what justice looked like in that day and time. The prophet says, “If you want to please God, then take up the cause of the oppressed and the most vulnerable in your society.” In that day and time that generally included three groups: widows, orphans, and foreigners (undocumented persons, immigrants).

Justice and mercy go hand-in-hand but it’s important to understand the difference, because mercy is not enough. Some of us are real good when it comes to mercy, but not so much when it comes to justice. Whereas mercy responds to the immediate needs of the homeless and the poor by offering shelter and food, justice confronts the systems we live in that create homelessness and poverty in the first place. While mercy is about giving a hungry person some bread, social justice is about trying to change the system so that no one has excess bread while some have none. Mercy is about helping the victims of war; justice is about peacemaking and eliminating the conditions that lead to war. The work of justice tackles such issues as poverty, inequality, war, racism, sexism, materialism, nationalism, heath care, violence, immigration, and the environment. Workers and advocates for justice often find themselves at odds with huge, blind economic, political, social, and religious systems that dis-privilege some while they unduly privilege others—systems, by the way, we each live in and are all complicit in – which of course complicates the struggle.

Bob Riley, a conservative, was elected governor of Alabama in 2002. He discovered that Alabama’s tax code had not been changed since 1901. He pointed out that the wealthiest Alabamians paid three percent of their income in taxes while the poorest paid up to twelve percent. Out-of-state timber companies paid only $1.25 per acre in property taxes. Alabama was third from the bottom of all states in total taxes, and almost all of that came from sales taxes, which of course, are paid in higher proportion by people who need to spend most of their income on basic needs. So a totally unjust tax system. So Governor Riley proposed a tax hike, partly to dig the state out of its fiscal crisis and partly to bring more money into the state’s school system. He argued that it was their Christian responsibility to attend to the needs of the poor more carefully. This meant that wealthy Alabamians would have to pay more taxes. The leader of the Christian Coalition of Alabama spearheaded the opposition. He said, “You’ll find most Alabamians have got a charitable heart. They just don’t want it coming out of their pockets.” The law was defeated and the schools remained underfunded. What Bob Riley attempted to do, but failed to accomplish was bring about justice. He was seeking justice in their tax system. Do you see the difference? Every act of justice is an act of mercy, but not every act of mercy is an act of justice.

The work toward social or restorative justice is rooted in the awareness that all people have worth and dignity – that God loves the whole wide world, not just my little part of it. It is difficult work. Ask Congressman John Lewis and he will tell you how challenging it is. He endured much suffering in the struggle for civil rights. In his book, Across that Bridge, he writes, “The struggles of humanity will not be corrected in a day, a week, a year, or even in a generation. Those of us who are active participants in the struggle must recognize that we are part of a long line of activists who have come before. . . . Each individual participates in this conflict where he or she is actively or passively engaged. The divine spark that is resident in each of us challenges us to be the light and stand up for what is right. We can decide whether to obey the call of the spirit or abide in denial, confusion, or hostility to the truth. But once we have heard the voice calling us to act, we cannot rest until we do something. And it is when we find the courage to act on that calling that we can finally begin to find peace.”  And I would add not just peace in our world between alienated groups and nations, but peace in our own hearts. A deep, true peace, not a shallow, superficial one.

What does God require? Both the prophet Micah and Jesus are clear: To walk in humility before God, to engage in acts of mercy, and the most difficult, but maybe the most important, to work for the justice of all. And sisters and brothers, this is not baseball. We shouldn’t think God will be pleased if we get two out of three.

These three areas of divine will delineated by Micah form a triangle and if you remove one of the sides it is no longer a triangle. If we point the triangle straight up and then fill in all around it we have a pyramid. Of the pyramid the base is the critical part because it supports the rest of the structure. I have no doubt that from the divine vantage point the base has to be built out of social justice, because it’s the only way we could ever get a just society. I’m sure that’s why the prophets over and over and over again proclaim the need for social justice. So what does God require? First of all – to do justice and then to do mercy and walk humbly with God and everyone else.

Our good and gracious God, help us to see that being a disciple of Jesus calls us to look beyond ourselves, beyond our own good and well-being to embrace your love and passion for the good of others. May we realize that we are all in this together, that no one group is better than another group. Inspire us to sees the good of others and to act in mercy toward those in need. And empower us not to give up on the difficult work of confronting systems and structures, institutions and organizations that promote favoritism and exclusion. Give us the courage to challenge systems of injustice and to work for that which is good, right, fair, and just.

Monday, January 23, 2017

A Good Conversion (a sermon from Matthew 4:12-23)

In our Gospel text today Matthew pictures Jesus as a great light offering hope and direction to those dwelling in darkness. Matthew gives us a one sentence summary of the message he proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The alternate reading given in the footnote is, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” It can be rendered either way.

Some interpreters picture Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet announcing the imminent arrival of God’s new world of peace and restorative justice. The Hebrew prophets spoke of such a world poetically. Isaiah prophesied of a time when the one to come would establish a kingdom of “endless peace . . . with justice and with righteousness.” It would be a time when all the peoples “would beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Some interpreters understand Jesus to be announcing the soon coming or imminent arrival of God’s new age of peace and justice.

Other interpreters read this differently. They see Jesus as more of a mystic than an apocalyptic prophet. For these interpreters the kingdom or rule of God Jesus is announcing is not the future kingdom of peace and justice, but the dynamic rule and presence of God that is already here. They emphasize that the kingdom is a spiritual reality that one experiences and lives in now by faithfully assimilating and embodying the values and virtues of Jesus.

Personally, I don’t make the distinction. I see no reason to choose one over the other. I see Jesus as both prophet and mystic. As prophet Jesus speaks truth to power, and as mystic Jesus teaches people how to know God. As both prophet and mystic Jesus speaks God’s truth and reveals God’s love. On the one hand, I believe that God’s dream for the world is a world of justice and peace. A world of equity and equality. A world where all have enough not just to survive, but to thrive. A world where people of different religion and tradition and nationality live in peace, supporting, caring, helping, and loving one another.

I also believe that the presence and will of God is being done right now by people who are awake and sensitive to the Spirit of God who is at work in our world and in our lives right now. So, in one sense God’s vision for a just and peaceful world is yet to be fully realized. But on the other hand, God’s Presence fills the world and is actively engaged in our world drawing us into participation to work for a just world.

So what is our part in all of this? Our part is to be open and receptive and obedient to God’s Presence (to God’s Spirit, to the living Christ) who is in us and among us so that we can be God’s agents and instruments in doing God’s will right now and in working toward the realization of God’s dream of a just world. Our part is to surrender to God’s will and engage the world as God’s image bearers. Our part is to yield to Divine Love and Mercy and work for the good of all God’s children. God works in our lives and through our lives so that God can bring peace and justice to the world. God works through committed willing human beings. The call to repent is a summary of Jesus’ call to participate in this great work of worldly redemption and renewal – of our personal lives, relationships, communities, and all the structures and systems of society at large.

The call to repent is a call to change. And what do we need to change? Well, we need to change our minds and hearts in any number of ways so that we have a larger, truer, understanding of and commitment to what is really important – to what God wants done. This may involve a change in our priorities so that we are not just focused on our own glory or position or place or piece of the pie, so that we are free to nurture loving relationships, give help and show kindness to others, and act in compassion and mercy. When Jesus calls the fishermen and says, “Follow me and I will teach you how to fish for people,” he is inviting them to participate in a great story and great work that involves fishing for people, that is, catching people up in the great net of God’s love; winning people over to the side of love and goodness and mercy and justice. This is what the Christ is calling us to do as well. Christ is calling us to a work of healing and liberation – of making people whole and freeing people to love. He is calling us to invest in relationships so we can build up one another and advance the common good together.

We need to realize that the invitation to participate in God’s will on earth is an invitation to participate in something that is large and great and wonderful, but it challenges many of our biases and prejudices and our cultural conditioning. It challenges our egocentricity and basic selfishness. It challenges our narrowness and greed. It challenges our consumerism and materialism and nationalism. It challenges everything that is an obstacle to love, because the call to participate in God’s will is a call to love – to love better and to love broader.

We all have this desire to love within us, but we need to tap into it and allow God’s Spirit to enlarge it and spread it around. John Philip Newell tells about the time his wife and son and son-in-law were at the international airport in Glasgow when a terrorist attack occurred. His son-in-law Mark had taken Ali, his wife, and Cameron, their youngest son to the airport. As they were inside the terminal making their way toward the ticket counter, suddenly in front of them hundreds of people came running in the opposite direction. A jeep packed with explosives had just driven through the front window of the terminal and burst into flames. As soon as they caught sight of the jeep and spotted one of the terrorists on fire Mark yelled, “Drop your bags. Run.” Fortunately, the explosives did not detonate. Later when Mark, their son-in-law recounted what was going through his mind at that time he said, “I was listening for the moment of explosion. I was trying to decide when to throw myself over Cameron.” He was prepared to give up his life to save Cameron.

John Philip Newell says that Mark said this not in any way trying to make himself look good, but simply as a straightforward, honest account of what he was thinking. And though his son-in-law does not claim to be religious, Dr. Newell says that this touched him as an expression of the heart of God. And what a contrast between the sacrifice his son-in-law was willing to make and the sacrifice of the terrorists. The terrorists had a twisted concept of love. There God was a God who only loved a certain kind of people and wanted to destroy everyone else. The terrorists were willing to die for their distorted, hate-filled cause in order to achieve a reward in the afterlife. Mark was simply acting out of a love that looked beyond himself. Authentic conversion is about nurturing and developing this desire to love that is within all of us.

I define religious conversion as the divine-human process that transforms one into a more loving person. I define Christian conversion as the divine-human process that transforms a person into someone who loves like Jesus. The only difference between religious conversion in general and Christian conversion in particular is that Jesus is our reference point and goal. We Christians see in the life of Jesus a definitive revelation of God’s love. So our goal is to love like Jesus. But any good, genuine conversion is always about nurturing and developing our human capacity to love. A good conversion is about loving better and loving broader.

By loving better, I mean that we are able to love the people we already love with greater intensity and passion and sacrifice and loyalty. By loving broader, I mean that we are able to extend and expand our love beyond our little circle of family and friends or our kind of people. This is hinted at in our text. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Jesus goes to the “Galilee of the Gentiles” to preach the gospel of the kingdom of God. Gentiles make it into the genealogy of Jesus in chapter 1 and in chapter 2 Gentiles described as magi from the east come bearing gifts to the infant Jesus. Though Jesus’ primary ministry was to his own people and nation, it is clear that he did not exclude others. He intended his people to love outside their limited boundaries. So when we come to the end of Matthew’s story the risen Christ charges the disciples to take the good news to all nations and peoples.

A powerful illustration of what it means to love broader comes from an experience Will Campbell recounts in his autobiography, Brother to a Dragonfly. His friend, civil rights worker Jonathan Daniels, had just been gunned down in cold blood by volunteer Deputy Sheriff Thomas Coleman. Will was livid with grief and rage over Jonathan’s murder.

In the aftermath of that tragic event Will’s agnostic friend P.D. East reminded Will of a conversation they had years earlier. In that conversation P.D. had challenged Will to give him a definition of the Christian faith in ten words or less. What would you say? Here’s how Will defined it: We are all bastards, but God loves us anyway. That’s what he said to his agnostic friend. Now his friend decided to challenge Will’s succinct definition of the gospel. P.D. tore into Will: “Was Jonathan a bastard?” he asked. Will commented on how Jonathan was one of the sweetest, most gentle guys he had ever known. P.D. pressed him. His tone almost a scream: “But was he a bastard?” Will knew that P.D. had him cornered. So Will finally conceded. “Yes,” he said.  P.D. came firing back: “All right. Is Thomas Coleman a bastard?” (the one who killed his friend Jonathan) That was easy. “Yes, Thomas Coleman is a bastard,” said Will. P.D. said: “Okay, let me get this straight . . . Jonathan Daniels was a bastard. Thomas Colman is a bastard. . . . Which of these two bastards do you think God loves the most? Does God love that little dead bastard Jonathan the most? Or does God love the living bastard Thomas the most?” Will says that the truth of the gospel hit him with conversion force. Will was overcome with emotion. He found himself weeping and laughing simultaneously. Will says to P.D.: “Damn, brother, if you haven’t went and made a Christian out of me.”

What was Will saying when he said, “Damn, brother, if you haven’t went and made a Christian out of me.” He was saying to P.D, “You have helped me to see what it means to love like Jesus. You have helped me see how deep and wide, how better and broad is the love of God. God’s love even extends to those who have nurtured hate instead of love. It extends to murderers and terrorists. To those driven by their prejudices and biases. God doesn’t give up on any one. God keeps reaching out to all of us – to turn us away from our hate and greed and egotism. God keeps trying to convert us, to win us over to love and grace and compassion. God keeps fishing for people hoping to catch some with the net of divine love, and God calls us to go fishing too. We are the lures God uses to draw people into his net of love. Follow me, says Jesus to every would-be disciple, and I will teach you how to catch people with love.

The gospel of the kingdom is a gospel that challenges those of us on the left and on the right. For those on the left the temptation is to make the gospel mainly about social causes. And don’t hear this as me demeaning or downplaying social causes because work for restorative justice and equality is a vital part of the gospel of the kingdom. But it’s also more than that. It may be a lot easier to invest in some social cause than it is to love well the people right in front of us, especially those who are against our cause.

For those on the right the temptation is to make the gospel about some judicial arrangement to magically remit the penalty of our sins and offer heaven in its place. If that’s all the gospel is then why even worry about the hard task of loving others and working for the common good? Why even worry about justice for the downtrodden or lifting up the oppressed, if the gospel is just about believing the right things and going to heaven when we die. I do not doubt that we will go to heaven when we die, but that’s not what the gospel of the kingdom is.

The gospel of the kingdom of God, the gospel of Jesus is about love. It’s about loving our neighbor as ourselves – and that includes our enemies as well as our friends. It’s about loving better the people we know and care about and it’s about loving broader so that we extend this love to people we may not like and those we don’t even know. And our conversion to love is never ending. We never arrive. It’s a process and a journey that is ongoing. It’s an adventure in growing and learning how to love better and to love broader. It’s all about learning how to love like Jesus.  

Gracious God, show us how to love like Jesus. Fill us with your love so that we can show others how much you love them. Keep converting us Lord from our narrowness to your wideness, from our resentment to your forgiveness, from our anger to your mercy, from our exclusiveness to your inclusiveness, from our selfishness to your generosity, and from our hatred to your love. Help us to see that no matter how much or often we fail, or how often we disappoint you, you continue to love us with an eternal love and will never give up on us. Help us to keep growing and nurturing this desire to love that you have given us, that is basic to our humanity. May we never stop growing in our capacity to love like you. Amen. 

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Come and See (a sermon from John 1:29-42)

In the first paragraph of our Gospel reading we have John’s counterpart to the baptism of Jesus. Here in John’s version it is cast in the form of John the Baptist bearing witness to Jesus. The story ends with John proclaiming, “I have seen and testify [bear witness] that this is the Son of God.” Then what follows is an encounter with Jesus by two of John’s disciples, who become followers of Jesus, and this leads to a third encounter. Two of the three disciples are named in the story, Andrew and his brother Simon Peter. They become disciples become someone bore witness. Both stories are about faith sharing.

The questions that are asked are full of spiritual symbolism and meaning. When Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?” we should read that as an invitation to look into our own souls and ask ourselves what we are looking for in life. What is it that we want? Some folks are so busy just trying to survive, to protect their family and loved ones from danger, to make sure they have enough to eat, or that they can get an education, or that they are safe, they hardly have the time or energy to explore any deeper existential and spiritual meanings. If life were fair, which of course it isn’t, everyone would have the same opportunity to explore the existential and spiritual meaning of that question, but life as we know is not fair. (And part of our work as disciples of Jesus is to do what we can to make it fair for people when the system is rigged against them.) Think about that question. What are you looking for in life? What are the people you are most close to and care most about looking for in life?

John’s disciples ask Jesus, “Where are you staying?” This is not intended to simply be understood as a question about where Jesus was living. The word that is translated “staying” is the very same word used in other places in this Gospel for discipleship. For example, it is used in John 15:4 where John develops the imagery of the grapevine to talk about discipleship. In that passage Jesus says, “Abide in me [that’s the word], stay in me, dwell in me, as I abide [there is the word again], stay, dwell in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides/stays/remains/dwells in the vine, neither can you unless you abide/stay/dwell in me.” So when they ask, “Where are you staying or abiding?” on a deeper level the question is, “Where do you find your source of meaning? From where do you draw your energy, your life force, your vitality, your passion? What inspires and empowers you and gives your life meaning and purpose and fills it with hope? What is it that makes you the loving person you are?

When Jesus responds by saying, “Come and see’” he is issuing an invitation to become something. The capacity to see – what we see, how we see – has deep spiritual significance and meaning in John’s Gospel, and not just in John’s Gospel, for this is true of the rest of the New Testament as well. What we see and how we see is the key to spiritual life and personal growth. Jesus is inviting them to explore for themselves, to experience for themselves, his source of faith, hope, and love.

So how do we go about entering into this sort of conversation with others? How do we bear witness? All of this relates to what Christians have generally called evangelism. What is evangelism and how should we go about it? Obviously, Christians have different opinions about what evangelism is and its importance. Your understanding of evangelism may differ from mine and that’s okay. No one speaks an infallible word on the subject. And I can only tell you what I have come to think about it and how I think we can best go about it.

First, let me say what I think evangelism is not. Evangelism is not simply maintaining or growing or expanding the institution. But let me quickly add, that doesn’t mean the institution is not important. As a church we function as an institution, as an organization. That may not be the essence of who we are or what we are about, but we exist as an institution, and there is something to be said about maintaining and growing the institution. That’s not what evangelism is, but it has its place. If the institution is a viable, helpful, enriching, life affirming institution, then maintaining and growing the institution has an important place. But that is not evangelism.

And as important as maintaining or growing a healthy institution may be, it’s important to distinguish the two. My first calling right out of seminary was to be part of the ministerial staff of a very conservative, Southern Baptist church not too far from where I grew up. My responsibility included teaching at their Christian school and pastoring a small satellite congregation that was considered a mission of the mother church. So while we were a separate congregation we fell under the umbrella of the main body. I thought things were going well at the congregation I pastored. We were healthy and attracting some new people. My wife was doing some great work with the children. In fact, when I resigned they were more upset that they were losing my wife than me. And really, we were doing quite well, I thought. The senior pastor didn’t think so. His point of contention was that we were not baptizing enough people. Now he and the church we were affiliated with subscribed to the theology that If you did not believe in Jesus as your Savior you would have to face eternal damnation. If you believe that, that indeed is a powerful motive for evangelism isn’t it? If you really believe that your loved ones will be damned forever if they do not believe in Jesus then you should be compelled to do anything and everything to get them to believe. Right? So we might understand why the pastor was so concerned about evangelism. However, that was not the main reason he was upset with me that we were not baptizing more. That was his theology, but that was not the reason. Our numbers at our little church contributed to their numbers, that is the numbers of the mother church. The people we baptized went on their church record. And it was clear that his intention was to put his church on the top ten list as one of the top churches in baptisms in the Kentucky Baptist Convention. Before I judge him too harshly, I have to pause to consider my own motives and admit that my own motives may not be as pure as I think they are. We all operate out of mixed motives.

So what is evangelism? If evangelism is not maintaining or growing the institution, as important as that may be, and if it is not saving people from eternal damnation (and some of you may believe that is what evangelism is, and if you do that’s okay, but personally I don’t), so I have to ask myself, “What is evangelism?” My very simple definition of evangelism is: Helping people discover who they are. And who are they? The same as who we are - the children of God. (Remember last week's sermon). They are children of God. We are all the sons and daughters of God, even if we don’t know it yet. So I define evangelism as helping people discover who they are, helping people discover that they are the beloved daughters and sons of God. I define discipleship as helping people become who they are. Evangelism is helping people discover who they are; discipleship is helping people become who they are.

So how do we do that? I loved the movie 42, The Jackie Robinson Story. In that movie  Branch Ricky, who is the general manager of the team, helps Jackie discover and become his best self, his true self. In many ways he mentored him, he encouraged him and empowered to be someone special, to be a model and inspiration to others. I have no idea if this was historically the case, but it was certainly so in the movie.

When Branch Ricky first calls Jackie in and invites him to be part of their organization, he is forthright and upfront about the kind of abuse that would be heaped upon him, as the first African American to play in major league baseball. Jackie’s first response is: “Do you want a player that doesn’t have the guts to fight back?” Branch Ricky says, “No, I want a player that has the guts not to fight back. People aren’t going to like this. They’re going to do anything to get you to react. Echo a curse with a curse, and they will hear only yours. Follow a blow with a blow they will say the Negro lost his temper, that the Negro doesn’t belong. Your enemy will be out in force and you cannot meet him on his own low ground. We win with hitting, running, fielding. We win if the world is convinced of two things, that you are a fine gentleman and a great baseball player. Like our Savior, [Branch Ricky was a devout Methodist] you have to have the guts to turn the other cheek. Can you do it?”

Branch Ricky, in a sense, was issuing a call, dare we say, a divine call? Dare we say that his voice was the voice of God calling Jackie to be the best he could be, to live out his identity as a son of God in very difficult circumstances. Jackie responds, “You give me a uniform. You give me a number on my back. And I’ll give you the guts.”

There is one scene where Jackie faces unrelenting verbal assault from the manager in Philadelphia. And Jackie almost losses his composure, he comes ever so close to giving in to his instincts to fight back, to return the wrath, blow for blow. Jackie is angry, and he retreats inside the doorway to the locker room and smashes his bat against the wall. Branch Ricky meets him there. He tells Jackie that he can’t fight, but he also tells him that he can’t quit, that there are too many people who believe in him and respect him.

Jackie asks Ricky if he knows what’s it’s like to live day in and out with all this hate and contempt poured out on him as a kind of scapegoat. Ricky says, “No, you’re the one. You’re the one living in the wilderness – 40 days – all of it, only you.”

Jackie says, “There’s not a thing I can do about it.” Rickie says, “Of course there is, you can get out there and hit and get on base and score. You can win the game for us. Everybody needs you. You are medicine, Jack.” As the Dodgers take the field, Ricky puts his arm around Jackie and asks, “Who is playing first?” The question is, “Are you going back out there and take your position. Are you going to live out your identity?” Jackie says, “I’m going to need a new bat.” He goes out and ends up scoring the winning run.

I don’t know how historically accurate that is, but what a great illustration of how we can bear witness, how we can call out the best in one another, and how we can invite others to discover who they are.

Back in the 1990’s, Rodney Stark, a specialist in the sociology of modern religion, applied his methods to ancient Christianity. He discovered in his research that Christianity spread at a rate of about 40 percent per decade, which held steady over several decades. He discovered too, that people came to Christianity not primarily because they experienced dynamic worship or were hearing great sermons. It wasn’t great logic or compelling arguments that reached them. Rather, they entered into Christian faith through relationships. As Christians looked out for one another, took care of the poor, the sick, and the most vulnerable, valued the gifts and contributions of each member, especially widows and orphans, especially the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, their friends and neighbors took notice.

I love what Richard Rohr says. Rohr asks, “Why did Jesus come?” He says, “Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity. It didn’t need changing. God has organically, inherently loved what God created from the moment God created it. Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.”

Maybe one of the things we can do to help people discover who they are is invite them to consider a different image of God. That God is not primarily this stern Lawgiver who condemns and excludes people who do not conform to God’s holy standards. Rather, God is primarily a great Lover, who loves all his/her children unconditionally and wants their very best.

We can do what Jesus did. We can invite people to the table of fellowship and friendship. We can welcome people the way Jesus did. We can accept all people as God’s children no matter how different we all may be. And we can affirm their capacity to bear God’s image and reflect God’s love whoever they are and wherever they go. We can do our best to really love people with Jesus’ kind of love. We can do our best to treat one another with compassion and dignity and grace and say, “Come and see.” Come and experience for yourself the magnitude of God’s love and discover who you really are – God’s beloved daughter or son.

Our good God, give us an interest that goes beyond our own well-being and inspire us to participate in a story that is much greater than our own little story. Help us to have the passion, the courage, and the will to find ways to say to friends and others, “Come and see.” Give us a real desire to help one another discover and become who we are. Amen. 

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Who Am I? (A sermon from Matthew 3:13-17)

This baptism scene of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel functions as a declaration of faith or proclamation of faith in Jesus as the representative Son of God. Mark and Luke’s versions of the story serve this purpose too, but it’s particularly characteristic of Matthew. Historians read stories like this and wonder about what really happened, but the more important questions for people of faith relate to meaning. What does this mean for us and what are the implications for you and me?  

For all of us here Jesus is the preeminent Son of God. We may have differing beliefs when it comes to the specifics in understanding the deity and humanity of Jesus, but for all of us here Jesus is the quintessential Son of God. He’s the one we look to whether we call him Savior, teacher, prophet, Lord, or friend. Matthew’s story of Jesus birth was intended to set Jesus apart as one chosen by God for a very special work. Christians differ in their understanding and interpretation of that work, but without question, we all agree Jesus takes center stage right?

A number of Christians read into this description of Jesus as “Son of God” all that they have come to believe about Jesus, or what the creeds and Christian doctrine has said about Jesus as Son of God. And I suppose there is nothing wrong with that, though personally, I find it more helpful to read this passage in light of the ways this designation was used in the Hebrew scriptures and the way it would have been understood by Jesus’ first followers. So I ask: What did it mean for Jewish people in the time of Jesus to call someone a son of God?

In ancient Israel the king was called the son of God. And this was not unique to Israel. In fact, designating kings as sons of God was common throughout the ancient Near East. In fact, in other societies the king was even called God and the deification of the king was usually announced at the king’s coronation. Of course, in Israel, because of their monotheism, because of their belief in one God – “the Lord, our God is one” – they would never equate their king with God, but they did call their king the son of God, and apparently this designation was proclaimed at the king’s enthronement or coronation. In Psalm 2, which is believed to be a coronation psalm, the psalmist says speaking for God: “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.” Then he says of the decree of God: “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” The begetting of the king as God’s son was connected to his coronation, to his enthronement ceremony. So here clearly to be a son of God is to be a representative of God in carrying out some special work.  

Also, the covenant people of God collectively, as a whole were called son of God. In Exodus 4 Moses receives his orders from God and God tells Moses to say to Pharaoh: “Israel is my firstborn son.” Hosea in referencing God’s deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage speaking on behalf of God says, “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (11:1). So the people of God collectively were said to be God’s son.

Then too, in the Hebrew scriptures the heavenly hosts are called “sons of God.” The story of Job begins with the sons of God presenting themselves before the Lord. The NRSV says, “heavenly beings” but in the Hebrew it is “sons of God.” Also, in other ancient Jewish literature charismatic teachers and holy men are sometimes called “sons of God.”

Certainly the NT writers attributed to Jesus special status as Son of God. John’s Gospel calls Jesus the unique Son of God. But I find it helpful not to read later creeds and doctrines about Jesus that developed much later back into this title as the Gospel writers employ it. What Matthew is saying through this baptism story is that Jesus as son of God is set apart by God for a special mission and work. And while we regard Jesus as the quintessential or preeminent son of God, and look to him for guidance and instruction Jesus is not alone in being a son of God. In fact, Paul made this an important aspect of his gospel.

Paul tells the Galatian Christians that God sent his Son Jesus to engage in special redemptive mission. But then he tells the Galatians that they too are children of God. He says, “Because you are children, [that is, because you too are daughters and sons of God], God has sent the Spirit of his Son [that is, his son, Jesus] into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!” Abba was the way Jesus addressed God and it speaks of a close, personal, intimate relationship. The relationship that Jesus of Nazareth had with God as son of God is available and accessible for each us as well, who are also the daughters and sons of God. The Spirit of the Son resides in us. We are the daughters and sons of God. All of us – whether we know it or not.

So let me ask you? Do you see yourself as a beloved daughter or son of God? If not, why not? Unfortunately the Christian doctrine of original sin and what some Christians call total depravity I believe has contributed to the difficulty some Christians have in seeing themselves as God’s beloved sons or daughters. If one sees himself or herself as totally depraved or as nothing but a sinner, then it’s probably rather difficult for that one to see herself or himself as a beloved daughter or son like Jesus. And yet, that is who we are! That is our original blessing that comes before original sin. Of course we have all missed the mark. We have all failed and erred and fallen in one way or another. But the first thing and most important thing, before all of that is that we are God’s beloved daughters and sons.

I love the Greek legend about Helen of Troy. In this legend Helen is kidnapped and whisked across the seas to a distant city where she suffers from amnesia. In time she is able to escape from her captors. She roams the streets and becomes a prostitute in order to survive. Back in her homeland, her friends, however, refuse to give up on her. One admiring adventurer who never loses faith sets out on a journey to find her and bring her back. One day as he is wandering through the streets of a strange city he comes across a prostitute who looks strangely familiar. He asks her name and she responds with a name that he didn’t know. Then he asks if he could see her hands. He knew the lines of Helen’s hands. When he looks at her hands he realizes who she is. In great joy he looks at her and exclaims, “You are Helen! You are Helen of Troy!” “Helen” she says in a whisper. And when she speaks her name, her true name, the fog begins to clear and a sense of recognition comes over her. This is the beginning of her new life as she assumes the life of a queen she had been all along.

What might it mean for you and me to live up to our identity, our daughtership and sonship as the daughters and sons of God? The first thing of course is to really believe it, to trust in our hearts that we are the daughters and sons of God. This is the first thing about us and the most important thing. I’m afraid that some folks have been told so often that they are sinners and deserve nothing good that it’s hard for them to accept that the first thing and most important thing about them is not that they are sinners, but they are children of God and loved by God unconditionally.

It’s interesting that in Matthew’s version the Divine Voice says to the crowd, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” But in Mark and Luke’s versions of the story the Divine Voice addresses not the crowd but Jesus. Matthew gives Jesus’ baptism a public setting and emphasizes the proclamation of Jesus’ sonship, whereas Mark and Luke suggest that this was a personal experience, maybe a personal epiphany, where the Divine Voice speaks directly to Jesus in the second person (not third person as in Matthew), “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” And maybe we need both experiences. Maybe the only way we can really hear the Divine Voice is by hearing it both within ourselves and by hearing it from others in order to really believe and trust it.    

If a person or group has been marginalized, treated as inferior, beaten down by bad religion or bad social law or custom, maybe that person or group needs to hear words of affirmation and welcome and acceptance from others before they can actually believe and trust that God welcomes and accepts them. Maybe we all need that to some degree.

Lillian Daniel, a UCC minister tells about having to move every couple of years when she was in school because of her parents work. She writes about how difficult that was:

You enter the school cafeteria and freeze. You clutch your lunch and wonder. Where do I sit? Will I be welcomed? Will I be ignored? The noise of the lunch room hits you like a bomb. It is so loud and full, but for you it is empty. All that chattering, shrieking, and laughing does not include you, and it never has. You are the outsider. You have nowhere to sit. . . .  “Is someone sitting here?” you ask at a table with an empty seat or two. You are greeted with a shrug. “Go ahead.”

You remember your last school where, when you asked, “Is someone sitting here?” they said, “Sorry, it’s taken.” So you sat somewhere else and then spent the lunch hour looking at that still-empty seat, and the girls around it whispering to one another, saying, “That was mean,” when their laughter indicated what it really was, to them: funny. After that, you wondered if you would always eat alone at this school. And now, sitting here, living this moment one more time, you sit down and wonder: Will they talk to me? Will I ever eat with these people again?

“What’s your name?” the girl I have joined at the table asks me. Another says, “Where did you move from?” And at her question, my heart fills with such gratitude that I fight to keep back the tears. They have welcomed me. I have a place to sit. I will not have to eat alone in the middle of a crowded room.”

Lillian Daniel finds God in such a welcome. As well, she should, because this is what God does. God welcomes all to the table of fellowship and friendship because we are God’s daughters and sons – all of us. God invites us to believe it, to trust it, and to live like it.

But you know, sometimes, some of us, maybe all of us, need to hear the voice of welcome and acceptance coming from others, before we can hear it as the voice of God.

And once we hear that voice, once we experience the power of that affirmation, then we want others to hear that voice as well. Do you realize that through the welcome and hospitality we extend to others, through our acceptance and affirmation, through our expressions of love and friendship, the recipients of these expressions of grace may just be able to hear and receive God’s expressions of grace and love and be able to respond to God’s invitation to friendship. Maybe through our voice they will be able to hear God’s voice saying, “You are my beloved son, you are my beloved daughter, in whom I am well pleased.”

Someone might say, “Well, I don’t think God would be pleased with some of the things I have said or done.” Well, that may be true. God may not be pleased with some of the things we say and do. But, that being so, God is always pleased that we are God’s daughters and sons. A loving parent may not always be pleased with a child’s words or deeds. In fact, caring parents may be deeply grieved and hurt and angry with a child, but those parents are always pleased that the child is their child. I know God is not always pleased with my words or actions, but I know in my heart God is pleased that I am God’s son. I hope you know that in your heart too. I hope you are able to believe that and trust it. And if you do know it and trust it, I hope you will see that God needs you to help others know it too.

Our good God, as we share in the bread and cup together as your sons and daughters may we hear your voice saying to us what Jesus heard, may we experience your grace, your welcome, your acceptance, and affirmation and know from that experience that we are your beloved children. And may we be compelled by your grace to want others to know this too. Amen. 

Sunday, January 1, 2017

When Christmas is Over (A sermon from Matthew 2:13-23)

Someone said that nothing is as over as Christmas when it’s over. A colleague told about an experience he had in college when he worked part time at a discount, department store. He was working on the day after Christmas when a woman marched in, threw something on the counter and lit into him as if he had made the thing personally with every intention of it breaking on Christmas day. She told him what she thought of him, the employer he worked for and said, "I will not rest until I get my money back.”  

When she finally paused, he said, "Mam, you’re right. This is a worthless piece of junk and I don't blame you for being mad. I don't know but what I wouldn't beat someone over the head with this and I can't believe anyone would sell you this, but if you will look (he turned it over) you bought this across the street. Their tag is still on it." She picked up the item, never said excuse me or I'm sorry, and blew out about as fast as she blew in. My minister friend said that he never did mind working Christmas Eve, but hated working the day after Christmas. Apparently the Christmas spirit doesn’t last very long. 

The themes that run through Advent are the themes of hope, peace, love, and joy and we always emphasize these themes in one way or another through the prayers, songs, scriptures, litanies, and sermons of Advent. But ask anyone going through a really difficult time, anyone who is in grief from the passing of a loved one, or one who is unemployed without any prospects soon of finding a job, or someone who is struggling with a physical illness or mental illness or dealing depression – ask them and they will tell you that it is much easier to sing or talk about hope, peace, love, and joy than it is to actually nurture these in our lives.

Recently I wrote this: What do you do when you begin to lose faith in humanity? [By the way, losing faith in humanity may be losing faith in yourself] Don't say, "I still have faith in God." That don't work. To lose faith in humanity is to lose faith in God - the Divine Goodness - who indwells each one of us. So what do you do? You look around for signs everywhere and you pray at least once each hour: "God, please open my blind eyes." 

When it comes to nurturing hope and faith in the midst of very difficult and challenging circumstances, much of it is about seeing with a different set of eyes. Here is a letter a college student sent to her parents:

Dear Mom and Dad, I am sorry to be so long in writing. Unfortunately all my stationary was burned up the night our dorm was set on fire by the demonstrators. I am out of the hospital now and the doctors say my eyesight should return sooner or later. The wonderful boy, Bill, who rescued me from the fire kindly offered to share his little apartment with me until the dorm is rebuilt. He comes from a good family so you won't be surprised when I tell you that we are going to be married. In fact, Mom, since you always wanted a grandchild you will be glad to know that next month you will be a grandparent. At the bottom it read: P.S.  Please disregard the above practice in English composition. There was no fire. I haven't been in the hospital.  I'm not pregnant. And I don't have a steady boyfriend. But I did get a "D" in French and an "F" in chemistry and I wanted to be sure you received this news in the proper perspective.

Perspective is important. How and what we see is important. How we see God and God’s involvement, God’s participation and engagement in our lives and in the world is a major factor in whether or not we are able to nurture hope and faith and love and even some joy in the midst of the tragedies and sufferings of life.

Our Scripture text today is an after Christmas text, but it is still part of the birth narrative in Matthew’s Gospel. The joyful news brought by the angel is now replaced by the loud weeping of the parents whose babies were killed in the wake of King Herod's rage. Matthew's Christmas pageant ends not with tinsel covered angels proclaiming peace on earth and goodwill toward all, but with Rachel weeping for her slaughtered babies. 

We sing on Christmas "Oh little town of Bethlehem / How still we see thee lie" but we don't have any songs for this part of the story. This is not singing. This is wailing, weeping, crying in agony. The days after Christmas return us to the real world - a world where there is danger and risk and hurt and evil and injustice. A world where places like Alepo exist. A world where children die senselessly. A world that can erupt in holocaust and genocide. A world where nature can erupt violently devastating lands and lives.  

Matthew tells us that what took place in Bethlehem “fulfilled” what Jeremiah had prophesied: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” Then at the end of the next scene where Jesus flees from Herod into Egypt and then returns to Nazareth, Matthew says, “There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

What do we do with this notion that somehow what happens here “fulfills” scripture? I do not believe for one minute that God planned or predestined or ordained or in any way arranged these events. This horrendous slaughter of innocent children is not the fulfillment of a divine plan. Whether or not the writer believed it was is another question. What Matthew may have believed is a historical question and an interpretative question, but it is not an application question. Not for me anyway. That’s not how I read it or apply it.

What this “fulfillment” language suggests, I think, is that the story of Jesus parallels and in some sense completes the story of Israel, that there is continuity between the old and the new, and that the God who was engaged in the life of Israel is now engaged in the life of Jesus to bring redemption and hope to our world. Regardless of what Matthew may have originally meant, this text reminds us that even when evil people do evil things and terrible tragedy, injustice, and suffering results, God is still at work in the midst of it all.

There is no answer – no good, satisfactory answer - to the question of why God permits so much unjust suffering in the world. And every so-called answer – without exception - creates its own set of problems, which ignites more questions. I remember reading a book in a doctrinal seminar on this issue and we had a fairly lengthy discussion about it. These days I simply avoid any discussion, because there is no answer. Though I think everyone has to wrestle with the question to get to the point where you can see that no solution is adequate. At the time, I needed that discussion. I needed to invest the time and energy into the question, so that I could get to the place where I could let the question go. You may be at a place where you need to ask that question and wrestle with it.

There are some who would like to think that some of us are exceptional, that some of us are exempt. At the Bible college I graduated from I remember having a class discussion about the rapture. Would it come before the tribulation that would overtake the earth in the last days? The professor in my class argued it would and I think everyone of us in the class accepted that view. Of course, if you don’t believe in a rapture or a final tribulation period before the second coming of Jesus then the question is really moot isn’t it. Today I find that question totally irrelevant, but it wasn’t when I was asking it. Now that I reflect on it I think one of the reasons so many Christians who believe in a final tribulation period and a rapture think that it will take place before the time of tribulation is because we would like to think that somehow God would spare us from all that suffering. But God doesn’t make those kind of promises. And this after Christmas text of horrendous suffering for the families whose babies were killed is a reminder that no one is exempt from great heartache, tragedy, and loss, and that our world can come apart any day for any of us.

When Sophie our granddaughter, who is now 6, was about 3 or so I remember her really liking the children’s story about going on a Bear Hunt. There are any number of versions of the story in print and on YouTube, but the theme is the same. Whatever the challenge, whether it is a forest or muddy swamp or snow storm, there is no going over it, there is not going under it, and there is no going around it, you have to go through it. Maybe that is a lesson in preparation for life.

Author and spiritual teacher Joan Chittister says, “There is no way to comprehend how to go through grief other than by going through it. There is no way to practice foregoing a hot rage that comes with feeling ignored or dismissed or found to be ‘essentially disordered’ – for any reason. There is no way to plan for the sense of abandonment you feel in a society that thinks differently from you; because your child is gay, maybe, or because you’re a woman and so automatically considered deficient for the work, perhaps, or because you’re not white in a white world, or because the person you thought was an eternal friend abandoned you.” She says, “Those things we need to figure out for ourselves, one situation at a time.”  In other words, there is no avoiding them, so we have to deal with them as they come. 

There are things that can only be learned by going through them. And there are things that we would rather not learn. Sometimes the events and experiences of life shatter us, and there is no putting the pieces back again, at least, not in the same way. And so we are left with doing the best we can with what pieces that are left and still work. 

There is a children’s story about a balloonist who is taking a trip over the Alps. He has his itinerary very carefully planned. But each day as he sets out, something happens to drive him off course. Instead of arriving a point A he finds himself at point B. But each day in a different place than he intended he is always able to find something positive. He says, “I didn’t know this place, but this is a wonderful place. Had I known about it, I would have planned to come here.” 

Now, we don’t live in children’s stories. And when our plans are thwarted and we are blown off course, we don’t always land in a “wonderful place.” We land in some hard, painful places. We plan on being at point A – and point A can be any dream or expectation pertaining to work, family, physical health, anything. But a storm blows us off course and we land in a very different place, maybe a place of real suffering. What do we do? What do we see? How do we respond?

Incarnation is about God with us. Yes, we celebrate a very special incarnation of God in the person of Jesus, but can we see that incarnation is not limited to one person no matter how special that person is. God is with us. God is there in Bethlehem when Jesus was born, and God is there in Bethlehem with all those mothers and families mourning the brutal slaying of their little ones. Can we trust God, can we be awake to the Divine Presence, can we invite God into the midst of our sin and hurt and pain and loss, even when healing and some measure of joy seems to have fled forever?

There is one other dimension to the story that we would do well to think about. In the suffering at Bethlehem we see a prelude to events that take place a little later when the one who escapes the wrath of this tyrant will not escape the wrath of another. It’s important for us who are followers of Christ to realize that the gospel of Jesus not about worldly power and control and success. In fact, the gospel of Jesus often puts us at odds with the powers that be. Often, the gospel of Jesus puts us at odds with the forces and powers that control government, the media, big corporations, and the economy. The symbol for our faith is not a scepter or a throne or a place of power, but a cross – the very means used for Roman execution. The cross is a symbol of humiliation and defeat that expresses vulnerability and weakness, and the cross is a major symbol of our faith.

In writing to the church at Corinth, Paul said that the very image of Christ crucified, the very idea of the Messiah executed, was to many Jews a stumbling block and to many Greeks foolishness. It made no sense. But to those “being saved,” said Paul, it is the very power and wisdom of God. That is, to those being changed by the spiritual power of cross, the cross represents the power and wisdom of God. The cross represents the power of love and the wisdom of doing what is right and just and good regardless of the cost.

Following Jesus doesn’t lead us to safe places where we avoid suffering. In fact, sometimes in our clash with the powers that be our discipleship leads us right into the middle of suffering. Our discipleship certainly always leads us to stand with and for those who do suffer from the policies and practices of the powers that be. Let’s not be afraid. Rather, let’s remember that God is Immanuel. God is with us at all times and in every place.

Our good God, may we know in the core of our being that you suffer with us when we suffer and that in our most difficult times, when beaten down for whatever reason help us to know that you are not out there, somewhere, separated from us, watching from a distance, but help us know that you are right here – among us, with us, in us, absorbing it all. Let us see and know that you are one with us. You are part of us. Your Spirit gives life to our spirit and we live because of you. Help us to see that while you do not offer us answers, you do give us your presence, and may we find in your presence, the hope and grace and faith and endurance to get us through.