Monday, February 27, 2017

Who are we listening to? (A sermon for Transfiguration Sunday - Matthew 17:1-9)

I know I’m not the preacher originally planned for this pulpit exchange. But you know, sisters and brothers, sometimes you just have to take what you can get. [Note: This Sunday I exchanged pulpits with Rev. Sandy Lacey the pastor of First Presbyterian church, Frankfort, Ky. The minister that was scheduled to to be at First Pres. couldn't make it, so when Sandy was lamenting that at our clergy gathering I volunteered to take his place. Our churches benefited greatly from the exchange] 

The story is told that Franklin Roosevelt often complained about the long receiving lines at the White House. He said that no one really listened. One day he decided to try an experiment. To each person that shook his hand, he said in a low voice, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.” Guests responded with phrases like, “Marvelous, keep up the good work.” “We are proud of you, sir.” The ambassador of Bolivia, however, leaned over and whispered to the President, “I’m sure she had it coming.” Maybe you had this coming.

Who are we listening to? Well, hopefully you will listen to me today. Maybe you have heard the little ditty: My preacher’s s eyes I’ve never seen / Though light from them may shine / For when he prays, he closes his / And when he preaches, mine.  I sometimes tell my congregation that I welcome crying babies in the service, because at least I know someone is awake.

In our story today Jesus is transfigured in the presence of three of his disciples. The Divine Voice repeats the affirmation that was first uttered at Jesus’ baptism: This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. While the revelation at Jesus’ Baptist was primarily for the benefit of Jesus, here the revelation or epiphany is for the benefit of his disciples. Here the Divine Voice commands emphatically: Listen to him. Don’t listen to those voices who want an insurrectionist to lead them against Rome. Don’t listen to those who clamor for a miracle worker who can provide for all their needs. Don’t listen to the threats and anger of the religious leaders who want to silence Jesus and evoke fear in his followers. No, says the Voice, you listen to Jesus.

When I read the baptism story I am asking myself: Do I hear the divine voice saying to me: You are my son. Do we hear the Divine voice saying to us, you are my daughter, you are my son, in you I am well pleased. Can we hear that voice? If not, why not? Because that is who we are. We are all the dearly beloved daughters and sons of God. So the question that confronts us at Jesus’ baptism is: Have I claimed by faith who I am and am I living out that reality? Am I becoming who I am?

When I read the transfiguration story I am asking myself: Who am I listening to? Am I listening to the one who embodied and incarnated so beautifully what it means to be a son or daughter of God? And what does that mean for me right now?

If we are listening to Jesus, then we cannot be listening to the voices that are screaming, “America first.” As much as we all love our country and all the freedoms guaranteed by our democracy – such as the freedom to publicly advocate for or peacefully protest against policies and laws that we consider to be just or unjust – as much as we value such freedoms, we must listen to Jesus who says: Seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness or a better translation, God’s justice.

When Jesus says seek first God’s righteousness or justice he is not talking about righteousness as personal piety or justice as in getting what one deserves. When Jesus talks about God’s righteousness or justice he is talking about righteousness or justice in the prophetic tradition. The prophets railed against those who were devout in their observance of religious customs and rituals but neglected and took advantage of the orphans, the widows, and the aliens or strangers – the three most vulnerable groups in ancient Israel. In our culture this would be the poor, the disadvantaged, and the undocumented. Jesus also added to that the religiously condemned and socially marginalized. To seek God’s justice is to seek restorative or social justice for all these vulnerable children of God.

If we are listening to Jesus, then we cannot listen to the voices ignited by fear, insecurity, and civil religion that are proclaiming “America first.” For disciples of Jesus it must always be the kingdom of God first and God’s healing, merciful, liberating, restoring, and reconciling justice.

If we are listening to Jesus, then we cannot listen to the voices that are saying “me first.” Just before the transfiguration scene Jesus tells his disciples about his death – how he will undergo rejection and great suffering and be killed by the powers that be. Then he says, as if trying to weed out the crowd, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow me.” Jesus is preparing them for rejection and suffering, and he makes it clear that there can be no discipleship apart from self-denial.

Now, don’t misunderstand. He is not saying, “hate yourself.” In fact, we can only love others to the degree that we love ourselves. If we don’t value our own lives then we are not likely to value the lives of others. What he is telling them and us to do is deny, relinquish, let go of, die to our little selves, our egotistical selves, our self-centered selves, what Thomas Merton called our false selves.

And these three disciples who were with Jesus on the mount had not yet learned to do that. Peter would later deny he even knew Jesus, and a little bit later, in chapter 20, James and John ask Jesus if they can sit on his left and right in his kingdom. In Matthew’s version they have their mother ask Jesus on their behalf if they can occupy first and second place. Clearly, they have not learned to deny the little self, the ego self and they completely misunderstand the nature of God’s kingdom. They are looking for a high place and position, for prominence, prestige, and power. Jesus says that tyrants and people in power like to lord it over others. But not so with you. The kingdom of God is not about greatness, it’s about service. It’s not about being first, it’s about serving others. In fact, Jesus says in several places in the Gospels, that in God’s upside-down kingdom the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

If we listen to Jesus, then we cannot listen to those voices that are shouting “America first” and we cannot listen to those voices that are proclaiming, “me first.” Now, on the positive side, if we listen to Jesus, then we must listen to the Divine Voice that says, “Love first.” It’s not America first or me first, it’s love first.

In chapter 22 Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment in the law. Jesus says that the greatest commandment is twofold: love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus says: On these two commandments – love God and love your neighbor – hang all the law and the prophets – all the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.

In the transfiguration story Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus. A number of interpreters believe that Moses and Elijah function as representatives of the law and the prophets. Jesus is first transfigured. Then Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus. Then while Peter is talking nonsense a bright cloud overshadows them, and out of the cloud the divine voice says, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, listen to him.” And then Moses and Elijah, as if in a Star Trek scene, are transported out as suddenly as they were transported in. Jesus then touches the disciples, who have cowered down in fear, and when they look up, the text says "they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.”

Clearly, Moses and Elijah have secondary roles, but I do not think that Matthew is teaching that Jesus supersedes the law and the prophets. I think this is Matthew’s way of showing continuity between Jesus and the prophets, and his way of showing that the very best of the law and the prophets find their realization and fulfillment in the life and teaching of Jesus. What does it mean to listen to Jesus?

- Listening to Jesus means heeding the call to love the world the way Jesus loves the world.
- Listening to Jesus means breaking down barriers and inviting all people to the table of fellowship, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, place in society, or anything else.
- Listening to Jesus means engaging in works of healing and liberation, forgiveness and reconciliation.
- Listening to Jesus means standing with and for the poor and vulnerable, the disenfranchised and the marginalized, the excluded and rejected.
- Listening to Jesus means loving all people with an expansive, magnanimous, persistent love – and loving even those who would call themselves our enemies.
- Listening to Jesus means putting love first – in our families, in our church, in our community, and society at large.

Paul was listening when he said of the three great spiritual realities – faith, hope, and love – love is the greatest. The writer of 1 John was listening when he said that where ever love is God is, because God is love. The writer of Ephesians was listening when he said that to be imitators of God we must live in love as Christ loved us.

The kingdom of God is really the kin-dom of God, because it’s all about mercy and justice; it’s about relationships and working for the common good. I love the poem written by Cynthia Kirk titled, Kin-dom Without Walls. (Not Kingdom, but Kin-dom)

Imagine a place / Where mercy resides, / Love forms each heart, / Compassion lived out with grit and determination. / A place where lavish signs / Mark each path barrier free.

Imagine a place / Where skin tones are celebrated / Like the hues of tulips in springtime. / Where languages inspire / With symphonies of diversity. / Where Respect schools us / In custom and history / And every conversation / Begins with a bow of reverence.

Imagine a place where each person wears glasses, / Clarity of vision for all. / Recognizing each one, everything / Made in the image of God.

Imagine a place / Where carrots and pasta / Doctor’s skills and medications / Are not chained behind barbed wire - / Food, shelter, health care available for all.

Imagine a place where / Every key of oppression / Was melted down to form public art / Huge fish, doves, lions, and lambs / On which children could play.

Imagine a place where / People no longer kept watch / Through the front window / To determine whether the welcome mat / Would remain on the porch.

Such is the work / The journey / The destination / In the kin-dom of God.

Can we imagine such a place? Can we be such a place?

Maybe we can if we will close our ears to the voices that say, “America first”
Maybe we can if will turn away from those voices that are clamoring, “Me first”
Maybe we can if will heed the divine voice incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth that says, “Love first.”

Who are we listening to? I hope we are listening to Jesus who is the voice of love.

Our good God, there are many voices in today’s world that would mislead us and deceive us. Help us to tune into your voice – the voice of love that we see in the life and actions of Jesus and that we hear in his words and deeds. Give us, O God, eyes to see, ears to hear, and the will to obey the voice of love.

Monday, February 20, 2017

We all belong (A sermon from 1 Cor. 3:18-23 and Matthew 5:38-48)

In this paragraph in Paul’s correspondence with the church in Corinth Paul returns to an earlier theme where he contrasts the foolishness of the world with the wisdom of God. Here the point he makes is that the church expresses the foolishness of the world in their boasting about human leaders. Paul’s response, I think, is wonderfully creative and constructive.

He basically questions why the Corinthians would want to sell themselves short. In their greedy attempt to claim the biggest slice of the pie, what they don’t realize is that the whole pie is already theirs. Paul says, “Everything is yours. We all belong. We are one people. And no one has more than anyone else” (see 1 Cor. 3:21-23).

Unless you are familiar with Paul’s view of God’s new creation Paul’s words here may seem strange. Paul heralded Christ as the mediator and representative of God’s new creation. God’s new creation breaks down all kinds of barriers and brings us all together as one. Paul speaks of this new creation later in this epistle when he says that we are one body in Christ. He writes, “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (12:13). One Spirit, one body.

Some want to limit the new creation to Christians, but I don’t think we can do that, and I don’t think Paul did that either. There are indications in Paul’s letters that Paul understood the new creation to be universal and all-inclusive. There is good reason to think that Paul viewed everyone in Christ even though he also clearly taught that it was necessary to live that out practically. In 1 Cor. 15 in his discussion on resurrection Paul claims that all things (no exceptions) will be brought into subjection to the Christ and therefore to God. Paul says this in 15:28: “When all things are subjected to him (that is, the Christ), then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.” I hope you can see how  universal and inclusive and sweeping that affirmation is. God will be all in all. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he says that all people will come to submit to Christ’s Lordship. He says that every tongue will confess and every knee will bow to Christ’s Lordship. That doesn’t leave anyone out.

I believe some of Paul’s followers spelled out even more clearly how all enveloping, universal, and inclusive God’s plan is. In Ephesians the writer says (scholars are divided on whether Paul or someone later in the Pauline tradition wrote it) that God’s plan is that in the fullness of time God will “gather up all things in him (the Christ), things in heaven and on earth” (Eph. 1:10). In the letter to the Colossians, the writer says that God will reconcile “all things” (there is that phrase again) to himself through the Christ (Col. 1:19). And in Colossians the writer links this universal reconciliation to the cross – to the way in which Jesus died – as somehow (and the writer doesn’t spell this out) instrumental in making peace between all people and creation. The language is universal. Everyone will come to submit to Christ’s lordship, all things will be gathered up in Christ, all things will be reconciled to God through Christ, so that God will be all in all.  

It seems that Paul went about forming churches with the idea that these local communities/assemblies of Christ followers would give the world a taste of the new creation, a preview of what life will be like when God’s plan for the creation is realized and everything and everyone comes together in peace and oneness. Paul believed it was the calling of Christ followers to live now in light of the new creation – to be the new creation now. Paul taught that the Spirit of Christ is at work in the church presently to form new creation communities.

I can imagine how disappointed Paul must have been after a few years of forming churches when he realized how poor and pitiful we Christ followers are at actually living out and embodying the new creation of God. We have not done this very well have we? I suspect this probably accounts for some of those passages where Paul expresses his frustration. I think there were times he was just flustered with the church. I believe he was expecting and hoping for so much more. Paul was looking to create and nurture faith communities – local churches – that modeled the oneness of God’s new creation. But what he got were communities not much different from the rest of society. Almost every letter Paul wrote was in response to some problem or problems the church experienced. And of course this is true today. We don’t do a very good job in modeling – in being an example and preview – of God’s new creation.

Now, this doesn’t mean that are supposed to be some exclusive club that has an inside track on the things of God. There is more truth in the world than we will ever know ourselves and people don’t need to become just like us to be part of God’s new creation. We chide the Corinthians for their arrogance and one-upmanship, but when you think about it, that very attitude, often disguised and manifested today in more subtle ways has been behind much of the missionary enterprise of the church over the years.

What we are supposed to be as a church and what Paul hoped we would be are faith communities living out unity in diversity, embodying an expansive and inclusive love, sharing our lives with one another in a way that points others to God’s plan to bring about a new creation. If we are participants in God’s new creation then shouldn’t we be living like it? If I am yours and you are mine, and we all belong to one another, then we should be living like it shouldn’t we? This is why Paul says in chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians that of the three great spiritual realities of life – faith, hope, and love – love is greater than all. Because love is what brings about oneness. As important as faith may be or hope may be, it takes love to bring about oneness. Only love can bring about God’s new creation. The new creation is only realized to the extent that we love one another and come together in peace for the common good.

But then there is the question of: How do we respond to those who don’t see the world the way we see the world, who have no trust in or commitment to the kind of love and generosity and justice that marks God’s new creation? How should we respond to those who live almost completely out of the false self? Who believe in the survival of the fittest? Who relish subjugating others by force and lording it over others? How do we respond to those who have no intention of being at one with us? Who regard us an inferiors? Or who, for whatever reason, don’t like us and may even want to harm us? How do we respond as God’s people of the new creation? Now, this is where it really gets hard and most of us fail. Certainly the church at large has not modeled the new creation very well. The passage we read today in Matthew’s Gospel gives us some very specific instruction on how we are called to respond.

In the first paragraph (5:38-42) Jesus says, “Do not resist an evildoer.” A better translation would be: “Do not violently resist an evil doer.” Jesus is not saying don’t resist. He is saying don’t do it violently. In fact, there are some things we have to resist, but we must not do it violently. What follows that admonition are some examples of how Jewish people in bondage to Rome might protest injustice and retain their dignity in a society that did not allow for protest. Roman society was an authoritarian society, not a democracy. In our society, thank God, nonviolent protest is our constitutional right. That wasn’t true for Jews who were Roman subjects. So, turning the other cheek, giving one’s cloak as well as one’s coat to the  oppressor, and carrying the oppressor’s baggage an extra mile, were all creative ways a Jew living as a non-citizen under the power of Rome might protest the injustice of Roman society in a non-overt way – in  way that might not get you killed. Jesus creatively offered his Jewish followers a strategy to protest oppression and injustice in an authoritarian society that did not allow such protests. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. developed their own strategies of nonviolent resistance drawing on the spirit behind these examples.   

In the next paragraph (5:43-48) Jesus addresses motive. Jesus makes clear that any attempt at calling attention to injustice through non-violent action must be done in love for the oppressor, not hate or revenge. You see, God wants to redeem the oppressor, not get even, and we must want that too, because such is the love that marks the new creation of God.

God loves all of God’s children. God loves those who don’t know they are God’s children and even those who want nothing to do with God. God loves even those who take pleasure in hurting and harming others –those who do terrible things. God doesn’t withhold good things from evildoers. Jesus points out that just like the sunshine and the rain, God’s love is poured out on all people indiscriminately. So then, sisters and brothers, if we aspire to live as God’s children in this world, then we must aspire to love the world the way God loves the world. God can’t force anyone to change, but God will not give up on anyone. So we can’t either. Perhaps we can find some creative ways to oppose injustice and still love the oppressor.

In his book, Jesus Is the Question, Martin Copenhaver writes about the special relationship a church he served as Associate Pastor had with Lloyd and Maisie Vactor who were missionaries with the United Church of Christ. Lloyd served as president of Dansalan College in the Philippines. While his primary goal was to provide a quality education for all the students who attended, his secondary goal was to improve the relationship between Christians and Muslims. Where the college was located in Marawi there had been four centuries of hostilities between Christians and Muslims. Violence was common.

On March 9, 1979 eleven armed men, members of a Muslim sect, kidnapped Lloyd from his office and held him for ransom. The senior minister where Copenhaver served as Associate sent out this report and request to the congregation: “Pray for Lloyd in his captivity. Pray for his wife, Maisie, as she anxiously awaits word. Pray for both the Christian and Muslim communities in the Philippines, that the violence might stop. And pray for Lloyd’s captors, that they might know the peace of God.”

Rev. Copenhaver says that he remembers well some of the reactions to the request to pray for Lloyd’s captors. Some questioned why they should pray for their captors. Others said they would pray that the captors would get what they deserved.
While Lloyd was held captive, the church received word that his wife, Maisie had died. The church started a memorial scholarship fund in Maisie’s name for American women who might want to pursue ministry or social work, as she had done.

After twenty days of captivity, Lloyd was released as quickly and inexplicably as he was abducted. No ransom was paid, but they released him. In the weeks after his release, a question arose about how the money should be spent. Lloyd was given the choice as to how the funds would be used. He decided to keep the money as a scholarship fund, but he did not want it to be used for American students. He wanted the money specifically earmarked for Dansalan College students who are part of the very Muslim sect that kidnapped him and threatened his life for those weeks he was in captivity. Copenhaver says that while they decided to help one of their own, Lloyd decided to give aid to his enemies. Lloyd did not regard them as his enemies. He regarded them as children of God who needed to start living out that reality.

We are to love our enemies because Jesus told us to and they, too, are children of a loving God. Love is the only thing that makes peace possible. Remember sisters and brothers, the kingdom of God is really the kin-dom of God. God’s new creation is all about relationships. Just maybe – I know it doesn’t happen very often – but maybe our willingness to channel God’s love toward those set against us, just might turn an enemy into a friend. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.

Everything is yours sisters and brothers. We all belong. I am yours and you are mine. And so are those people down the street who don’t like you. We are one people. Our hope is that someday that oneness will be realized. We are called to model that oneness, to treat each other with respect and dignity, and to work toward reconciliation. We still have to speak out and tell the truth and stand up for the marginalized, but we don’t have to do that in a vengeful or hateful way. Because even the oppressor is our brother and sister.

Great God, I pray that we might experience your love in such a deep way that our hearts are changed and we are able to love others with your kind of love. Help us Lord to do a better job giving the world a taste of what your new creation will look like and feel like. Amen. 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

For the sake of the world (a sermon from 1 Cor. 3:1-9 and Matt. 5:21-26)

A minister was walking out of the church one Sunday after the morning worship service and noticed a bulletin with some writing on it that had been tossed aside in one of the pews. His curiosity got the best of him, so he picked it up and read it. One of his parishioners had apparently been inspired to poetry during his sermon. This member had scribbled out on the worship bulletin: To dwell above/ with the saints we love/ Oh, that will be glory!/ But to dwell below/ with the saints we know/ Well, that’s a different story.

Paul chastises the congregation at Corinth for their divisiveness. They were creating factions around certain leaders. It was all about their own egos and their need to shine brighter than the rest. So the congregation was pervaded by in-group/out-group divisiveness rooted in their own egos and petty jealousies.

Paul calls them babies (infants). Though he does say they are babies in Christ. In other words, he wants them to know that even though they are acting childish, like little babies, they still belong to the Christ. They are still God’s beloved daughters and sons, even though God is not pleased with them.

Paul also says that they are “of the flesh” (in fact, he says this twice). What does he mean – “of the flesh”? Aren’t we all of the flesh? We are, but Paul here is not talking about flesh and blood. Paul uses the term “flesh” in a rather peculiar way in some of his letters that seem very strange to us. Paul invests the word “flesh” with moral or ethical connotations. In Galatians and Romans Paul talks about the works of the flesh – that is, attitudes and behavior that stem from the ego. So from Paul’s perspective, these life patterns and habits and behaviors that are “of the flesh” are of the kind that are self-centered, self-indulgent, and full of pride. “Of the flesh” attitudes and actions tear down rather than build up; they demean and diminish others rather than uplift and affirm them. So Paul calls them out and says, “You are acting like babies, you are of the flesh, you are unspiritual, you are at the mercy of your selfish, egotistical inclinations.” They were acting like brats, rather than the servants they were called to be.

Sisters and brothers, if we aspire to live as the loving sons and daughters of God, if we are to become who we are, then, we too, must confront the ego. The kingdom of God is not about position or place or power. It’s not about accolades or acclamation. It’s not about appearances or achievements. It’s not about prestige or prominence. All of that, all of it, is of the flesh. It is childish and unspiritual.

When I was at Grace Seminary in the early eighties, there was a story that circulated about the president of the seminary, Dr. John Davis, when he was a boy. I love to tell this story, especially because it’s a fishing story. He was an avid fisherman, and when he was a kid he use to go fishing some with an elderly man who taught him a lot about fishing by the name of Frank Lloyd. On one fishing trip he and Frank decided to split up and go different directions on the trout stream and meet back later at a set time. There was a remarkable contrast in their appearance and approach. Young John Davis was fast moving, energetic, decked out in all the latest fishing gear—new fly rod and reel, new chest waders, new box of artificial flies—he had invested most of his grass cutting money that summer to purchase all the latest equipment. Frank Lloyd, on the other hand, was about as crusty as a piece of burnt toast. The gear he used he had for years. He had tape holding his fly rod together. When they met back at the designated spot in the late morning, young John Davis had not landed a single fish; Frank Lloyd had already caught his limit of native, brook trout.

Davis was humbled and sought Frank’s advice. So he took the young man back to a place in Davis’ section of the trout stream, where he knew there was some trout. At Frank’s instruction Davis crawled up to the edge of the trout pool. Frank told him to place his fly on a leaf and float it down the stream until it was in the spot where the trout were most likely to be laying. Then he instructed him to twitch his rod ever so slightly several times so that the fly seemed to be jumping on the leaf. Then, at Frank’s command, Davis twitched it a little harder and the fly landed in the water. When it did, the water exploded and Davis reeled in a hefty, native brook trout. Frank Lloyd said to young John Davis, “That’s how you do it, son. You get down on your hands and knees and keep yourself out of the way.”

Any authentic spirituality has to confront the ego and struggle to keep it out of the way. We have to confront our longings and desires that are rooted in the need for self-glory, honor, and control. And this can be a real struggle, like Jesus’s struggle in the desert with Satan. I see Jesus’s encounter with Satan in the desert as symbolic of the struggle we all have to have with the little self, the false self, what Paul calls the flesh.

And in this struggle there comes a time and place where we have to decide who we are going to serve. Will we serve our little, ego-dominated, false self? Or will we serve our true self, the Christ self, the self we are created to be. There comes a time when we must decide that we are going to be servants for a greater cause and good. I said last week, being spiritual is not for the purpose of being spiritual. It’s for the purpose of being the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Spirituality is for service, it is for the sake of love. It is for the sake of the world. Paul says to the church at Corinth, “We are God’s servants, working together.” He tells them that they share a “common purpose.” I suppose one reason so many Christians are divided today is because we can’t agree on what that common purpose is. And that is a problem. There is no question about that – it is a problem and a challenge. But what we can’t do, however, is simply dismiss one another.

The reason we can’t simply dismiss one another is because Jesus won’t let us. Jesus compels us to find some way in which we can be reconciled and come together. Of course, that’s not always possible. But Jesus will not let us off the hook either. Jesus tells us to rid ourselves of all anger and contempt, and pursue reconciliation. And this shouldn’t surprise us because Jesus made love of neighbor the fulfillment of God’s will. And our “neighbor,” according to Jesus, is anyone and everyone. Common sense tells us that we can’t possibly love anyone and everyone to the same degree or in the same way. But how we love each other, how we relate to one another matters greatly, because such is the kingdom of God.

In fact, Jesus makes the point that relationships take precedence over religious ritual and devotion. Jesus is not by any means denigrating religious ritual and devotion, but he is saying in this passage that how we treat one another is the main thing. And to make his point he employs a rather shocking example. If you are at the altar ready to offer your gift or sacrifice, but then remember that someone has taken offense at you, then leave your gift there, and go to your brother or sister to make things right. Jesus doesn’t even offer any kind of judgment on whether the offense taken is justified or not, he just says, go. Why is that? Because the kingdom of God is about relationships.

Professor Tex Sample tells a story about Allen Knight Chalmers who taught at Boston University School of Theology. Chalmers was deeply involved in the civil rights movement. He would teach during the week, then over the weekend he would travel and participate in civil rights marches and demonstrations. During those years Chalmers became good friends with a black student at the seminary. The black student was from Alabama and one year at Christmas decided to go home for the holidays. His wife was pregnant, and pretty far along, but their doctor said it would be okay. The trip home was fine. They had a great time visiting with family and friends. But on the way back, somewhere in North Alabama his wife started having sharp pains. They began to rush to find a hospital. The first hospital they came to told them that they didn’t take colored people, and denied his wife treatment. By the time they found another hospital she had lost the baby and nearly died herself. When they got back to Boston University, this black student was in the words of Sample a “cauldron of fury” and who wouldn’t be. He would have nothing to do with Chalmers, even though they had been warm friends.

Chalmers would meet him in the hall way and this young man would turn away. Chalmers made phone calls and tried to meet him but to no avail. One day when Chalmers was in his office, he looked down the hallway and he saw this young man walking in his direction. So Chalmers stepped back into his office so the young man couldn’t see him, and when he was about in front of his door, Chalmers, who was a big man, reached out and grabbed this young black student, pulling him in and practically hurling him across the room. Chalmers shouted, “Listen, you have got to talk about this. You’ve got to talk and you are going to talk to me now. You are not leaving this office unless you go right over me!” The young man tightened up and in anger lashed out, “GD you, GD you, If it weren’t for you, I could hate every white man on the face of the earth.”

Where can the marginalized, the outcasts, those who are criminalized simply for being different and for fleeing war and poverty and death, where can they find someone to trust, someone who will stand with them and stand for them and be their allies and advocates? Can you be that person? Can I? Can we be that church?

I love the poem written by Cynthia Kirk titled, Kin-dom Without Walls. (Not Kingdom, but Kin-dom)

Imagine a place / Where mercy resides, / Love forms each heart, / Compassion lived out with grit and determination. / A place where lavish signs / Mark each path barrier free.

Imagine a place / Where skin tones are celebrated / Like the hues of tulips in springtime. / Where languages inspire / With symphonies of diversity. / Where Respect schools us / In custom and history / And every conversation / Begins with a bow of reverence.

Imagine a place where each person wears glasses, / Clarity of vision for all. / Recognizing each one, everything / Made in the image of God.

Imagine a place / Where carrots and pasta / Doctor’s skills and medications / Are not chained behind barbed wire - / Food, shelter, health care available for all.

Imagine a place where / Every key of oppression / Was melted down to form public art / Huge fish, doves, lions, and lambs / On which children could play.

Imagine a place where / People no longer kept watch / Through the front window / To determine whether the welcome mat / Would remain on the porch.

Such is the work / The journey / The destination / In the kin-dom of God.

Can you imagine such a place? Can we be such a place?

Gracious God, as we join one another in sharing the bread and juice, let us be reminded that this is what you want for all humanity. So let us be empowered today to express your love to our wider community and world every way we can. Amen. 

Sunday, February 5, 2017

What does it mean to be spiritual? (a sermon from 1 Cor. 2:1-16 and Matt. 5:13-16)

What does it mean to be spiritual? There is, of course, no one answer to that question. Such a question doesn’t solicit an answer like, “What is 2 plus 2?”  Our text raises the question today because Paul writes about being spiritual and being unspiritual. Based on Paul’s words here and the text in Matthew I can say three things about a healthy spirituality. Now, what I have to say is not any more exhaustive than what Paul says to the Corinthians is exhaustive. So, what can we say about being spiritual by looking at these two texts.

The first thing I would like to say about being spiritual, is that authentic, healthy spirituality is rooted in gratitude. Paul writes, “Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God” (2:12). I think anyone who is spiritual, anyone who is being led by the Spirit understands that all of life is a gift, that we are alive because of the generosity and goodness of God.

I’m sure I have told you about the monastery where all the brothers took a disciplined vow of total silence. They were not ever to speak a word in their journey of obedience.  There was, however, one exception.  Once every five years, they were allowed to speak two words to the Abbot who headed the order. A new monk arrived at the monastery to begin his service.  After five years, he went into the Abbot’s office to speak his two words.  The words he spoke were, “Food bad!” He then got up from his chair and left.  Five years later, he returned to speak again.  This time, his two words were, “Bed hard!”  After another five years, he returned for a third time. This time his two words were, “Want out!”  The Abbot responded, “I’m not surprised, all you’ve done since you’ve been here is complain.”

That is what we do when we lose sight of the beauty and goodness of life. And sometimes life is hard and finding beauty and goodness may be a difficult work. Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr. said once to his congregation that his mother had taught him to always give thanks to God for what is left. Everything can go wrong, but if you are left with air to breathe, be thankful. Some years later, after he had lost two sons, and his own wife had been shot to death right before his eyes at the organ in Ebenezer Church in Atlanta, Dr. King was saying the same thing, “Thank God for what is left.”

When we lose a dear loved one or friend or something of great importance to us we can allow that loss to make us bitter and angry, or we can choose to be grateful for what time we did have with our loved ones and friends. We can be thankful for what is left. Even with all its pain and disappointment and grief, we can be thankful for life, knowing that there is both pain and joy.  

The second thing I draw from these texts about the spiritual life is that community is essential to a spiritual life. If the spiritual life is rooted in gratitude, it is developed or nurtured in community. When Paul says that the Spirit enables us to understand and receive the gifts bestowed on us by God, the “gifts” that Paul is particularly talking about are the gifts he mentions in chapter 12 of his letter – gifts that build and enhance community life. Paul primarily has in mind the contributions the various members of the church community make to the overall good and well-being of the community. And the gifts he does mention in chapter 12 are by no means exhaustive. They are simply representative of the kind of gifts God gives to a church community so that the church community can be about God’s will.

Being spiritual is always about more than my own spirituality. A couple of years ago I was doing some research on this topic and I came across the SBNR (Spiritual, but Not Religious) website. I read on the home page: serves the global population of individuals who walk a spiritual path outside traditional religion. But then as I looked closer I noticed that the last posting was dated June, 2012. It looked to me like the site had been started and then abandoned, which, I think, illustrates the problem being spiritual, but not religious. Healthy, transformative spirituality is hard to sustain and practice without a faith community. I believe we need the encouragement and the challenges that spiritual relationships give us. We learn from one another.

Stephanie Paulsell teaches at Harvard Divinity School and writes for The Christian Century. A few years ago she gave a presentation at Georgetown College and in her presentation she shared how she was mentored by an Episcopal priest at the University Church where she attended graduate school. She assisted him at the altar on Sundays as they celebrated the Eucharist. After several weeks of assisting, the priest asked her to take a turn as celebrant, to actually lead the Eucharist (what we call Communion).

She loved what the priest did at the altar on Sundays - she thought it was beautiful and mysterious – but she had grown up in a different tradition with a very different ritual of Communion, and so she had some real reservations. She thanked the priest for the invitation, but said, “I don’t know if I should lead this ritual, because I don’t really know what it means.” The priest said, “Oh, we don’t do this because we know what it means. We do this in order to find out what it means.”

I love that response. The priest is saying, “We don’t have all the answers. We are learning together. We are on a journey and we are learning from one another.”

Rabbi David Wolpe wrote in an article for TIME: “To be spiritual but not religious confines your devotional life to feeling good. If we have learned one thing about human nature, however, it is that people’s internal sense of goodness does not always match their behavior. To know whether your actions are good, a window is a more effective tool than a mirror.” A healthy faith community can provide a window. Rabbi Wolpe says, “Together is harder, but together is better.”

So a spiritual life is rooted in gratitude, it is developed and nurtured in community, and lastly, it is expressed through works of mercy and justice. I am glad the lectionary paired this passage in Corinthians with the passage in Matthew where we are called to be salt and light. Being spiritual is not about being spiritual. What I mean is that the goal is not to be spiritual. We are not called simply to be spiritual, we are called to be servants in God’s kingdom. Our spirituality determines what kind of servants we will be. Even narcissists and tyrants are servants – they serve themselves. Jesus says that we are called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

Salt had multiple uses in the ancient world and so the image conveys multiple layers of meaning. Salt was used to represent loyalty and fidelity and hence we read of salt covenants. Salt was utilized in the ceremony to symbolize commitment. Eating together was called “sharing salt” and it expressed binding relationships. Salt was used as a means of seasoning food, giving it spice and flavor. And it was used to preserve meat. A preacher could preach a whole sermon on what it means to be the salt of the earth.

We are also called to be the light of the world. We are called to be a lighted city on a hill. Jesus says, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” And what are these good works? They are the works of mercy and justice we talked about last week. One NT interpreter points out that with these images – salt and light and a city on a hill – Jesus “strikes a death blow to all religion (or we could say spirituality) that is purely personal and private.” If we are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world then we can’t keep our spirituality to ourselves.

In his book, It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It Robert Fulghum tells about the remarkable work done by a remarkable man named Alexander Papaderos. He leads an institute that is devoted to healing the wounds left by war. The institute was built on land where the Germans and Cretans killed each other in the conflict that was WWII. At the wars end this man came to believe that the Germans and Cretans had much to give to one another and learn from one another. He believed that if they could forgive each other and construct a creative relationship, then any people could – they could be salt and light, they could be a city set on a hill.

Fulghum attended a seminar at that institute led by Dr. Papaderos. At the end of the seminar, Dr. Papaderos invited questions. The seminar, says Fulghum, had generated enough questions for a lifetime, but in the final moments there was only silence. So Fulghum decided to break the silence, “Dr. Padaderos,” he asked, “what is the meaning of life?” Laughter followed as the participants stirred to go. But Dr. Papaderos took the question seriously. He held up his hand and stilled the room. He took out his wallet and brought out a very small mirror, about the size of a quarter.

He explained that when he was a small child, during the war, his family lived in a remote village and they were very poor. One day, on the road, he found the broken pieces of a mirror. A German motorcycle had wrecked in that place. He tried to find all the pieces and put it together, but that, of course, was not possible. So he kept the largest piece. By scratching it on a stone, he smoothed the edges and rounded it off. He began to play with it as a toy and was fascinated that he could reflect light into dark places where the sun did not shine — into deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for him to get/reflect light into the darkest, most inaccessible places he could find.

As he grew up, he realized that the game he played with the mirror as a child wasn’t really a game at all, it was a metaphor for what life was calling him to do. He realized that he was not the source of light, but that the light of truth and understanding, the light of forgiveness and peace, the light of mercy and justice would only shine into the dark places if he could somehow reflect it.

He said to Fulghum, “I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of the world — into the black places in the hearts of people — and change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about.”

This is what we too are about. We do not generate the light, we are not the source of the light, but the light is what sustains our very life. It is the light of God and when we engage in works of mercy and justice we allow the light to shine through us, to illuminate the love of God in the world.

The purpose of lighting a lamp and putting it on a lampstand, says Jesus, is so the light can give light to everyone in the house. When the divine love is allowed to flow freely in and through us, then we function as salt and light. As salt and light we will be faithful to our covenants and commitments. We will add spice and flare to our communities. We live out and preserve the values and virtues of Jesus. We will light up our workplace, our homes, our relationships with the love of God. We will form communities of salt and light where all people are accepted and welcomed, where words and works of mercy and justice are spoken and accomplished. 

When you think about it, the question is not, Are we spiritual? We are in a sense all spiritual. We are all spiritual beings and we manifest in our lives and relationships, through our words and deeds, some kind of spirituality. It can be a God-like spirituality that is life affirming or a demonic kind that is life diminishing. The real issue is: What kind of spirituality is it? If we are learning from Jesus, then it is the kind that will make us the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  

I believe a healthy, authentic, and transformative spirituality will be rooted in gratitude; it will be developed and nurtured in community; and it will be expressed through works of mercy and justice. Given these components – on the basis of these criteria – how would you rate your spirituality?

Our good God, help us to see that we are all spiritual beings, that there is no opting out of spirituality, that we all express some kind of spirituality. May ours be of the kind that helps and heals others, rather than hurts and alienates others. May ours be of the kind that is liberating and transforming, not enslaving and debilitating. May ours form Christ in us. Amen.