Sunday, June 25, 2017

To fear or not to fear (Matthew 10:16-18; 24-39)

I love the story that is told about young Teddy Rooselvet. Some if not many of you have heard me tell this before. (By the way, the reason I will tell stories 2, 3, and 4 times is because good stories need to be remembered and retold in different contexts.) As a little boy he had this fear about going to church. When his mother inquired he told her that he was afraid of something called the “zeal.” He said he heard the minister read about it from the Bible.  He imagined “the zeal” was something like a wild animal or dragon hiding in wait in the hallways or under the pews at church. 

Using a concordance his mother looked up the word zeal and when she read to him John 2:17 in the AV he told her that was what he heard. The text is about Jesus’ protest in the Temple where he turned over the tables of the money changers and drove out the animals. The text reads, “And his disciples remembered that it was written, ‘The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up.” He was afraid the zeal that lived in God’s house was going to eat him up. 

Some people are conscious of their fears while others are not. For some folks fear operates at the subconscious level. It’s real and present, but lurks underneath the surface so one may not even be aware of its presence. Fear is certainly a factor in how we relate to God.

There are number of passages in the Hebrew Bible, our – the Christian’s – Old Testament, where fear of God seems to be commended such as: “The fear of God is the beginning of the wisdom.” In my seminary days I did a word study of “fear” and discovered that the way fear was used in the OT is quite a bit different than the way we talk about fear today. I concluded from that study that the Hebrews often employed the term “fear” to denote respect and reverence. To fear God was to reverence God; to stand in awe of God. Sometimes today’s Gospel reading is used to encourage fear of God. Jesus says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear God who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Destroy here, by the way, does not mean to torture, but to terminate, to do away with, to kill. The threat is a threat of termination, not torture. Most people who promote and preach fear as a positive response to God stop right here. They don’t go on to read the rest of the text.

In the passage that follows Jesus paints the picture of a God whom no one should fear. This God, the God of Jesus, takes notice of a little sparrow that falls to the ground and the God of Jesus knows the number of hairs on our head, which is just a colloquial way of saying that God knows us intimately and deeply cares for us. Jesus then says, “Don’t be afraid. You are much more valuable than sparrows.” The argument he is making is this: If there is anyone to fear it would be God, for God is able to terminate our very existence. God holds the key to life. God’s Spirit indwells us and gives us life, and God could withdraw God’s Spirit at any time, in which case, soul and body would become lifeless. But (and here’s the good news) there is no need to be afraid of God, because God cares intimately and deeply for each one of us.

The context for this teaching is a setting of persecution by the hostile powers who are intent on punishing and even killing disciples of Christ who work for justice and truth. Just as they rejected Jesus, we too can expect to be rejected by the powers that be. And while the powers that be can kill us, we need not fear them, because the God who is judge of all will be with us and God is for us (as Paul so beautifully says in Romans 8). If there is anyone to fear it would be God, but God is our Abba, our loving, compassionate motherly father and fatherly mother. So, “Don’t be afraid.”

This is such an important teaching. Why is it so important? I will tell you. You can obey a God you are afraid of, but you will never love that God deeply with all your heart and soul and strength. You may say that you do and even convince yourself you do, but you can’t. You can’t really love deeply anyone you are afraid of. So if you are going to love God, you need a God you don’t have to be afraid of.

Now, even though the Hebrews spoke of the fear of God in a more positive sense than people tend to do today – as reverence and respect – still it had its drawbacks. It still conveyed some notion of distance. From the Hebrew point of view, one didn’t get too close to God. There were exceptions to this tradition, but this was the dominant one. There was a popular saying in the Hebrew tradition that one could not see God and live. And anyone who has ever read the Bible knows that there is a good deal of divine violence and divinely sanctioned violence in the Bible. So getting too close to God was not recommended.

This is why the portrait we have of Jesus in the Gospels is so remarkable. Jesus speaks of a God who cares about a little sparrow that falls to the ground and knows and cares for us each one individually. In the ancient Hebrew tradition the group was often more important than the individual. Jesus emphasized both the community and the individual within the community, and said that God even loves those who are God’s enemies, raining blessings on all people, the just and the unjust alike. In Jesus we meet a totally non-violent God. This is the central message of the cross and why the cross is so important to us. On the cross Jesus is executed by the powers that be. He bears the wrath and hate and fury of the powers that be, without returning it upon his haters and killers. This is how Jesus bears the sin of the world. The powers that crucified Jesus represent all of us and our entanglement in the unjust system. He died on account of sinners, because sinners crucified him. And he died to rescue us from our sin, by showing us how to stop the violence and the hate. We stop it the way Jesus did – by absorbing it, by bearing it, by making forgiveness and reconciliation possible thus stopping the cycle of violence and death. 

On display in St. Patrick’s cathedral in Dublin hangs an ancient door with a rough hewn, rectangular opening hacked out in the center. Roy Honeycutt, who for many years was president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the days when that school was a highly esteemed theological institution, told this story.

In 1492, two prominent Irish families, the Ormands and Kildares were in the midst of a bitter feud. Besieged by Gerald Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare, Sir James Butler, Earl of Ormand, and his followers took refuge in the chapter house of St. Patrick’s cathedral, bolting themselves in.

As the siege wore on, the Earl of Kildare came to the conclusion that the feuding was foolish. Here were two families, worshiping the same God, in the same church, living in the same country, trying to kill each other. So he called out to Sir James and pledged on his honor to end the conflict.  

Afraid, as the inscription reads, of “some further treachery,” Ormond did not respond. So Kildare seized his weapon, punched a hole in the door, and in a daring act of peacemaking thrust his hand through the opening. It could have been cut off, but instead it was grasped by another hand inside. The door was opened and the two men embraced, thus ending the family feud. From Kildare’s noble gesture of peacemaking came the expression, “chancing one’s arm.” 

Chancing one’s arm is always risky. It could get one killed. But it’s the way of Jesus, the way of peace. It’s the way of the cross and Jesus tells us to take up our cross. By losing our life we find life. By sacrificing our grudges and resentments and anger, and by offering forgiveness, we discover life. By the way, for the first several decades practically all Christ followers were pacifists. This is how they understood Jesus. To take up the cross was a call to non-violence. Now, I have to admit I am not a true pacifist even though I preach against violence. I believe in and preach non-violence, but if it comes down to kill or be killed, I will kill. But clearly, the first followers of Jesus believed Jesus revealed to them and us a non-violent God.

Now, sometimes a verse in our text today is referenced by those who try to argue that Jesus supported violence in some situations. Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” But then if you read what immediately follows about kingdom loyalty dividing families, you realize that the use of the word “sword” here is clearly metaphorical. Jesus often employed highly figurative, and sometimes shocking language to make his point. Like when he said, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” We don’t read that literally do we? It’s a shocking metaphor that makes a point. And here Jesus is using the word “sword” in the figurative sense of that which severs and divides. He doesn’t mean it literally. In fact, when the temple police came to arrest Jesus, in all the Gospel accounts one of the disciples draws his sword, and Jesus immediately rebukes him and tells him to put it up. Why? Because violence is not the way of Jesus.

When Jesus tells Pilot in John’s Gospel that his kingdom is not of this world, he does not mean that his kingdom is somewhere else in some other world, some heavenly place. After all Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is heaven.” What Jesus was telling Pilot is that God’s kingdom does not share the violence and greed and lust for power and control that characterizes earthly kingdoms. And that’s as true of our democracy as any autocracy. Fortunately our democracy has safeguards against violence, but it’s still all about control. Look at how our Congress currently operates. It’s all about winning and control and very few of them seem to care about the common good, and all of us suffer the consequences from that and many of us get caught up in it. Such are the kingdoms of this world. Nevertheless, we have to work within the kingdoms of this world, within the unjust worldly systems to help to bring about God’s will on earth. God’s kingdom has to work with and through earthly kingdoms as corrupt as they may be, but God’s kingdom does not partake of the violence and greed and love of power that characterizes the world’s kingdoms.

Now, I want to close by talking about this teaching where Jesus is purported as saying that he has come to divide the family such as setting son against father and daughter against mother and making enemies of one’s own family. Again, Jesus is using hyperbole as he often does, but he is talking about how loyalty to the kingdom of God divides. But let me address first those who use loyalty to Jesus language to preach exclusivity and condemn people of other religious faiths. Unfortunately, this is how some Christians use a passage like this.

It’s important to keep in mind that we do not have the actual words of Jesus; we have the Christian interpretation and version of Jesus’ words. Jesus was a Galilean Jew with Galilean Jewish parents which makes it highly unlikely that he knew a lot of Greek. But even if he did know some Greek, in teaching his fellow Palestinian Jews Jesus would have taught in their common language, which was, of course, Aramaic. Also, the sayings of Jesus were not written down when he first said them. They were later remembered and passed down orally – passed on by word of mouth – most likely years before they were ever written down. All Jesus scholars point out that what Jesus actually talked about would have been loyalty to God or the kingdom of God not loyalty to himself. (Unfortunately, even someone as astute as C.S. Lewis missed . . . ) But as Christians passed on this teaching it’s easy to see how loyalty to Jesus makes its way into the saying. We Christians believe Jesus is the definitive revelation of the character of God and the values of God’s kingdom. So, in the course of transmission, loyalty to Jesus takes the place of loyalty to the kingdom, because we are talking about the same thing. People of other religious faiths do not believe what we believe about Jesus, but they may indeed embrace the values that Jesus lived and modeled. So, no Christian should use a saying like this as proof that people of other religious traditions who believe something different about Jesus cannot know God. They can know God and serve God by modeling the values of the kingdom of God that Jesus taught his followers to embrace and do.

So, that brings me to the second point and this is really important. Being loyal to Jesus then is not loyalty to some version of Christian doctrine about Jesus or anything else like that. It’s about loyalty to the values – the attitudes and actions, words and deeds – that Jesus embodied and called his followers to live. So, loyalty to Jesus is about loyalty and commitment to love our neighbor as ourselves, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. It’s about commitment to care and uplift and liberate “the little ones,” those most vulnerable and disadvantaged, the ones Jesus invested so much time with and cared so much about. It’s about doing acts of mercy and working to create a just system for the common good. That’s what loyalty to Jesus is. By the way, that’s why church is important or should be important. Church should be about forming worshiping, serving communities that can inspire and empower its members to love the way Jesus loved and be committed to the work of healing and liberation the way Jesus was.  

What Jesus is saying is that our commitment and loyalty to the values of the kingdom of God (which means being loyal to Jesus and to God) – our loyalty and commitment to works of mercy and justice, to taking care of the little ones, to peacemaking and forgiveness, to healing and liberation – our loyalty to these values of God’s kingdom and the way of Jesus must take priority over everything else, even our basic family relationships. That’s what this teaching is about. This is what is so hard for us, namely, commitment to God’s kingdom always involves expanding and enlarging our little world and vision. That’s why a person committed to Christ will give of themselves to help others and speak out against injustice even though it may upset members of their own family. Because their first priority is God’s kingdom.

Now, that’s tough. There is no sugar coating this. This is a hard teaching. I sometimes wonder how many Christians in churches across our country and our world, and I include myself, because I question myself too, I question my own loyalty too – how many of us are really that loyal to the kingdom of God? I wonder this about myself. Am I really that loyal? Maybe we should all give that some thought.

Our good God, I am so thankful that you are a God who takes notice of falling sparrows, because you surly notice and care for us when are falling too. I thank you that Jesus revealed to us that you are a God we do not need to be afraid of. A God that we can deeply love – because you deeply love us. We have to confess that in so many ways we fail to model your love – I know I do. And we struggle with the loyalty you ask of us and want us to be committed to. And the only reason you ask such loyalty is because you want us to love others with the same kind of love you have for each of us. Help us to know, O God, just as we used to sing when we were kids, how “deep and wide” is your love for each of us and the whole wide world, and not only know, but love that way too.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Love, Laugh, Live (Gen. 18:1-15; 21:1-7)

The story begins with the phrase: “The Lord appeared to Abraham.” But what is not clear is how the Lord appeared. The text says that Abraham saw three men standing near him. Three strangers wandering over to his tent in the heat of the day. Three travelers. But then when Abraham speaks the text says “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant.” Then he proceeds to offer the strangers rest and refreshment. He welcomes them and extends hospitality urging them to stay for a while and be refreshed, which hospitality they accepted.

There is a lot of ambiguity here. Three men show up in front of his tent and in this encounter Abraham experiences God. Maybe so much is left out because when any of us experience God it is always a matter of faith. Such encounters are always ambiguous. Such encounters only make sense to the one who has the experience and can always be interpreted in other ways. Stories like this prepare us for the Christian teaching of incarnation where we meet God in flesh and blood, in human lives and experiences, just as Abraham meets God in the lives of these three men.

Thomas Merton had an experience that changed the way he looked at others. It was 1958 (the year of my birth). He had been in Louisville meeting with a publisher. Afterward, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets, as he walked through the shipping district of the city, he was suddenly overwhelmed by the realization that he loved everyone around him. In his words, he came to the realization “that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness.” He said that he saw the “secret beauty of their heart.” He wrote, “It was if they were all walking around shining like the sun.” That was his experience, and it had a profound transforming influence in his life.

The writer of the Gospel of John in his prologue says that the true light which shone so brightly in Jesus, the Word made flesh, is present in all of us. The Gospel writer says the true light is the light of all people and enlightens everyone. There was a window in time when the veil was lifted for Merton and he could see the light of God radiating from each person. Merton wrote, “If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty no more greed . . .  I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.”

That last line of Merton’s is intriguing. I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. In John 10 there is a passage that Richard Rohr suggests may be the most highly enlightened text in all the Bible. Jesus is being accused of blasphemy by the Jewish leaders because he claimed to speak and act on behalf of God and thus in their minds was making himself equal with God. In rebuttal Jesus quoted the Psalmist in Psalm 82. In that Psalm the Psalmist hears God say to God’s people: “Give justice to the weak and the orphan (notice – not just show them mercy, rather, give them justice. Fix the system) maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” But someone might say, “By what authority do we do these acts of justice?” The Psalmist writes “I say, ‘You are gods.’” Who are gods? The Psalmist says, “You children of the Most High, all of you.” The Psalmist then clarifies: Even though you will die like mortals, you are nevertheless gods. We have the authority to represent God in doing mercy and contending for justice.

Lest we think the Psalmist has lost his marbles Jesus quotes this very Psalm in John 10. To the Jews who were accusing him of blasphemy because he claimed to speak and act for God Jesus says, “Your own scripture says that all children of God are gods. So how is it that you accuse me of blasphemy simply because I claim to speak and act on behalf of God as God’s Son?” Let that sink in for a minute. Yes, we are mortal, but we bear the image of God. The light of God dwells in us. So yes indeed, we can speak and act on behalf of God who seeks justice for all people and calls us to be his representatives and agents to enact justice and do mercy.

Abraham seems to be aware of the Light, the Divine Presence in the three strangers. It’s quite fascinating how the storywriter describes the actions of Abraham. Abraham “hastened” into the tent. He told Sarah to prepare some bread cakes “quickly.” He then “ran,” not walked, but ran to the herd to find a calf, not just any calf but one “tender and good.” (Reminds me of the father in Luke 15.) He took the calf to his servant who “hastened” to prepare it. This is the language of urgency. It’s as if Abraham knows instinctively or intuitively the sacredness and fullness and momentousness of this experience. So everything is done with haste, with a sense of urgency, as if he knows this is a window of time for a revelatory encounter with God.

When was the last time you felt such an urgency of the moment as if a window in space and time had opened up for you to experience some new revelation from God? Or maybe you have never had such an experience. Abraham was awake to the moment. He was not going to allow this moment, this experience to pass by. That’s the expression he uses in the text: “My lord, if I have found favor with you (if I have truly met a God of grace), do not pass by your servant.” He seized the moment. He redeemed the time. He laid hold of what was before him. This was a time to act, and he sensed that it would be through an act of hospitality and welcome that he would encounter God. (And that is a theme that runs through scripture. We especially see it in the life of Jesus.)

Are we open and awake to such experiences? Do we live with any sort of expectation that we might have a life transforming encounter with God today? And I wonder how many windows have opened in time that we have failed to even notice? I wonder how many burning bushes we have never turned aside to see? Many of us tend to spiritually sleep our way through life. No wonder the biblical writers tell us to “Wake up” and pay attention. Paul or whoever wrote Ephesians said, “Sleeper, awake. Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” I wonder how many possible resurrections in our lives we’ve missed because we were asleep?

I love to tell the story of the monk who was away from the monastery on a pilgrimage. He was making his way through some wilderness and could see in the distance a huge, mammoth tiger. He could tell the tiger had his eyes on him as prey. So he picked up his pace and went he did the tiger made its move. A little ways in front of him was a steep cliff. He ran to the cliff, pulled out his rope and tied one end to a stump close to the cliff, and then managed to leap over the side just as one of the vicious paws of the tiger swept pat his face. His rope was not very long, so he found himself dangling about one third of the way down. At the basin of the cliff were large boulders and jagged rocks. As he hung there he managed to get his feet lodged into the side while he tied the rope around him. Then immediately in front of him he noticed growing out of a little dirt patch on the side of the cliff the largest most luscious strawberry he had ever seen. He reached out and touched it. He then plucked it from the vine. He turned it around in his hands. He brought it up to his nose. He took in the sweet aroma. And then he bit into it savoring the bite. He then said to himself, “Without question this is the most delicious piece of fruit I have ever tasted.”

Now, how many of us would have missed that moment. We allow our fears and worries and insecurities to so get to us that we tend to miss these revelatory moments in our lives that might just make all the difference in the world.

Maybe Abraham’s actions hold the key to opening our hearts to receive God’s word to us. Abraham acts in love. He bestows welcome and hospitality. He gives them rest and nourishment and refreshment. He cares for them. He acts in mercy and grace. If we will be quick to respond in mercy and grace to those who need our hospitality and welcome perhaps then we will be ready to receive a word from God. Then, we too, like Merton, might see the light within every child of God. We might know that we all belong. We might just see how great and inclusive God’s love really is.

Love is at the heart of who God is and what God is about. For us Christians Jesus’ death has redemptive power in our lives. The reason it has redemptive power in our lives is because we see Jesus’ death as Paul describes in his letter to the Romans as a revelation of God’s love for all of us. This is not love we have earned, but love we are freely given simply because God loves us. Because Christ was committed to God’s cause and lived for God’s kingdom on earth, because he acted on behalf of the needy and powerless, because he did works of mercy and justice, because he broke down boundaries and crossed lines of separation, the wrath and violence of the powers that be was poured out on him. Nevertheless, he bore their wrath without returning it and thus revealed to all who have eyes to see the all-inclusive, all-embracing, magnanimous love of God.

If we will walk in love as Christ has loved us, if we will engage in acts of mercy and justice, if we will welcome and show hospitality to the stranger, then our hearts will be open to receive God’s word, to see God’s light, and to hear God’s voice. By the way, we can’t just show hospitality to the neighbor down the street and then support policies that turn away helpless refugees who need hospitality and welcome from our country. I can’t imagine how God would approve of that can you?

It is Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality and welcome that paves the way for the revelatory word that catches them both by surprise. One of the guests says to Abraham, “Your wife is going to have a son.” Sarah was listening at the tent entrance and found this quite amusing. Sarah and Abraham are really old folks and Sarah says, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” She is saying, “We have no potency and no competency in what it takes to make a baby. Look at us for heaven’s sake.”

The Lord asks Abraham why Sarah laughs. (We assume that God is speaking through these three strangers.) I don’t read this as a rebuke. I read this interchange in a playful kind of way. This is holy laughter and sacred surprise. In chapter 21 when their son is born Sarah says, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” I think God loves our laughter. Especially when we can laugh at our humanity. I have a saying on my desk, “Laugh often and much.” Then this wonderful question is posed, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord.”

When was the last time God surprised you? If you say you can’t remember, then I would ask, “Why not?” Maybe we have forgotten how precious life is. Brother David Steindl-Rast tells about visiting in Africa a place that had been through the horrors of war. In his visit he came across groups of children gathering on busy street corners after dark, setting up small alters to pray. The children were completely undisturbed by the hustle and bustle of adults all around them. Steindl-Rast was told that children started this custom during the bloodiest weeks of the war. One generation of children had handed it on to the next generation for more than a decade. He says it dawned on him that “only a heart familiar with death will appreciate the gift of life with so deep a feeling of joy.” We should do whatever it takes to nurture in our minds and hearts an awareness of just how precious life is.

Mary Oliver is an award winning poet. She offers I think a beautiful formula for living with surprise, laughter, and gratitude. She says: “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: To love what is mortal, to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it, and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”

Can you love what is mortal? Can you see the light of God within what is mortal? Can you see the stranger as your brother, as your sister? Can you welcome them and make them feel at home? Can you offer them hospitality and refreshment? Can you accept them as your own? We all belong. We are all one. If we could just see the light in the stranger.

Can you hold on to them with the love of Christ? Can you hold on to the hope of God’s kingdom? Of a world of mutuality and equality, of mercy and justice. This is a real challenge today isn’t it? When we see people in power abuse it over and over. Can we hold on to God’s dream of a world where everyone has enough to thrive, not just survive, when we see how the system is rigged so that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Can you hold on to love, to peace, to faith and hope?

And when the time comes to let go, can you let go?

Our good and gracious God, let us wake up to the light in all of us, and wake up to the grace and goodness all around us. Let us wake up to your love so that we might be channels through which your love can flow to others. Let us not give up on doing good, doing acts of mercy and justice. Let us forgive and seek forgiveness for wrongs done. So that we might live fully, so that we might know laughter and surprise, and be filled with gratitude for all the wonders of this life. 

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Beyond Who is Within (2 Cor. 13:11-13)

Not all churches who follow the lectionary observe Trinity Sunday. And I have to admit I have avoided this too. Today, however, I have decided to focus my sermon on it.

The word Trinity does not appear in the New Testament and there is no attempt by any biblical writer to try to define or describe the Trinitarian language that they utilize as in the passages we read today. Which makes sense, because how can you explain what is unexplainable. This is why so many churches avoid Trinity Sunday. Let me offer a caveat as we begin. God – the Divine, Ultimate Reality – is beyond language and beyond our limited, finite capacity to understand. So whenever we attempt to define God, we automatically limit God.

Trinitarian language is a way of talking about the God – the Divine Reality – that we have experienced through Jesus and the Spirit. When we start to literalize these images, as many Christians tend to do unfortunately, is when we start edging up to idolatry. Here’s the problem: When we literalize an image of God, any image, we then limit and confine God to that image. But God is so much more.

Why do you think Christians whose governing image of God is Father get so upset with other Christians who call God Mother? Why is that? Because they have allowed their image of God as Father to become literalized in their thinking. And so they actually start believing God is male. So if God is Father, then God cannot be Mother. Such thinking is actually idolatrous, because it confines God to an image.

When Israel concocted the golden calf as an image of their God and bowed before the image, the problem was not the image itself. What made that so idolatrous is that they turned their dynamic, ever-growing relationship with the God of all reality into a single, limited, finite image. They said, “Now, this is what our God is.” And whenever we limit God to a single image and say, “Now, this is what God is” we are guilty of doing the same thing. There are Christians who do that today with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Now listen sisters and brothers, this is important: All God language is symbolic language. Trinitarian language not excluded. Trinitarian language is the language of experience, it’s the language of encounter. For these early Christians this is the language they used to talk about their experience of a God who acts on our behalf to redeem, heal, and liberate us from our bondages. It’s not a precise language by any means; it’ not the language of science; it’s the language of spiritual experience. In other words, we employ this language to talk about the manner in which we Christians experience God. People of other religious traditions will use different language. But this is our language. This is our experience.

The image of God as “Father” is a frequently used image to speak of God, which is all quite natural, considering that Jesus often used this image. What we need to remember though, is that it is just an image.

Why this image? Clearly the fact that the world of Jesus was a gender segregated, patriarchal world has, no doubt, much to do with it. However, the Aramaic word Jesus used speaks of a loving, personal, caring Parent. It might have even been used to speak of a loving father or mother the way “mankind” was used to speak of humankind in general.

Is God literally a human father? Of course not. And while Jesus used this image frequently, he did not do so exclusively. Jesus also pictured God as a mother hen gathering her chicks. In his parables Jesus would sometimes balance male and female images. God is the shepherd who searches for the lost sheep; but God is also the woman who searches for the lost coin. The kingdom of God is like a man who plants a tiny mustard seed in his field; the kingdom of God is also like a woman who mixes up the leaven in the bread. These are all just images. Theologians Jurgen Moltmann and Leonardo Boff speak of the motherly Father and the fatherly Mother. Always remember sisters and brothers, all God language is symbolical language.

This motherly father or fatherly mother who is the source and creator of all that is, we have experienced through the man Jesus, through his life, teachings, works of mercy and justice, and through his death and resurrection. In the Trinitarian language of Paul’s benediction he is called “Lord Jesus Christ” bringing together the man Jesus with the risen Christ. It’s reflective of the language of Luke in Acts 2 where Peter says to the Jewish leaders and people gathered at Pentecost: “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders and signs that God did through him among you . . . this man . . . God raised . . . and made him both Lord and Christ/Messiah.” The first Christians simply connected the pre-resurrection man with the post-resurrection titles – the Lord Jesus Christ. Again, it’s the language of experience. We have encountered God – the Ultimate Reality – in the man Jesus of Nazareth whom God raised up and appointed Lord and Christ.

Next Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is given other names in the NT. John’s Gospel while using the adjective “Holy” to describe the Spirit, also calls the Spirit the Spirit of truth or simply the Advocate (sometimes translated as Comforter or Counselor). In John 4 the writer says, “God is Spirit.” Spirit is another image for God. Paul calls the Spirit both the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ and sometimes uses these terms interchangeably in the same passage.

Again, this is the language of experience (I can’t say this is often enough). This is how we encounter God right now. We encounter God as Spirit or in Spirt. We encounter God as the living Christ, as the cosmic Christ, in the Spirit of Christ. The One who is beyond all of us is all also within us as Spirit. So, the great Mystery we call Father or Mother or simply God has made himself or herself known in the man Jesus of Nazareth whom God raised and made Lord and Christ. This God comes to us right now, today, this very moment as Holy Spirit, as Advocate and Comforter, as the living Christ. Now if you try to define or label or categorize or propositionalize what I just said then you are chasing a rabbit that will get you lost and may just lead you right up to the golden calf.

Now, what I think is significant in the Trinitarian language of Paul’s benediction in the text today are the ways the Trinitarian God is referenced, which captures the heart of our experience of God.

Paul wishes upon them and us the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. How do we know God as a God of grace? Well, there are a number of ways, but the most definitive way we Christians know God as a God of grace is through our encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ in the Gospels. The man Jesus we have come to love in our Gospels is a Jesus who speaks and acts in grace on every page, in almost every encounter, in every healing work, and in every work of mercy. Every time Jesus sits down to eat with tax collectors and sinners, Pharisees and prostitutes, Jesus becomes our living model and incarnation of divine grace.

As you are well aware I often begin my formal prayers with: “Our good and gracious God.” How do I know God is good and gracious? Because that has been my experience of God as I have encountered God through the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is the lens through whom we Christians see God and experience God.

Next, Paul mentions the love of God. That should be no surprise since for Paul the very heart and essence of God is love. Love is at the core of who and what God is. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he argues for the superiority of love over all other virtues and realities: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three [more Trinitarian language, but in this Trinity there is a clear superior]; and the greatest of these is love.” Again, sisters and brothers, this is the language of experience. The church that gave us the little epistle of first John says that wherever love is God is. Why? Because God is love. (If you want to read that argument read 1 John 4.)

I love the story about this rough, tough mountaineer who was known for his quick temper and his readiness to fight. He was very skilled with his hands and could do carpentry and mechanical work very well, but did not finish high school, though he eventually got his GED. Some think he was resentful that his circumstances were such that he was not able to pursue his education. (Of course, some of us have an education, but we can’t do didly, right?)

Well, it seemed like the tiniest spark could set him off. Then one day he accompanied his young nephew to a school function because his nephew’s parents had other obligations. He met his nephew’s teacher and at first sight just fell head-over-heels in love. It took him a long time to get up the nerve to even ask her out. How could such a woman so knowledgeable and sophisticated and articulate love the likes of him? But, you know, love is a mysterious and wondrous thing, and she returned his love. The day they were married at the reception a friend who had noticed that he never seemed to get angry anymore asked what why this was the case. His response was simply, “I don’t know. All I know is that I ain’t got nothin’ against nobody.”

How do you explain it? He encountered a deeper love that changed him. This is what we have encountered through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and as Paul says here, through the communion of the Holy Spirit. The love of God and the grace that the historical Jesus so beautifully incarnated, we experience right now through the Holy Spirit or we might say the living Christ. (The Holy Spirit and the living Christ are not two different realities, just two different ways of talking about the same reality.)

The word communion emphasizes relationship; it points to a deep spiritual and emotional connection. Paul in other places talks about the “fellowship of the Spirit.” Again, it’s the language of experience. We call the Divine Reality that we encounter in the heart and soul of our being Spirit or Holy Spirit. It’s just another way to talk about this great Mystery. We experience the One who is Beyond as Within through the communion of the Holy Spirit.  

In my Sunday School class we are working through a book by Brother David Steindl-Rast on the Apostle’s Creed. He expounds on the symbolism of each phrase in the creed. He tells about a childhood game that he played once with a cousin. They had a staring contest. They were young children laying on a blanket on the lawn bored and resentful that they were still required to take an afternoon nap even though they felt so grown-up now. It started as a contest about who could look into the other’s eyes without turning away. Turn away and you lose. But then, says Bro. Steindl-Rast, it became more than a game. Maybe this was the result of seeing their own image mirrored in the other’s pupil. Who knows? But what happened after that cannot be put into words. He says, “We fell into each other’s eyes. Like children in a fairy tale who fall into a magic pool.” They were two and yet one. He says, “When our eyes began to water, we both closed them at the same time.” They tried to laugh it off, and yet he says, “We knew we had somehow glimpsed the real world . . . at that level of intense awareness, all is love.” Though at the time neither had the vocabulary or the understanding to describe it this way, but what they had really encountered was the communion of the Holy Spirit.

Trinitarian language is not the language of facts or history or science; it’s the language of spiritual experience. As we join together as the body of Christ to share the bread and the cup I hope and pray that all of us here might experience something of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

What the Spirit wants to do? (1 Cor. 12:4-13, also Acts 2:1-21)

Writer Robert Roberts tells about a fourth grade class that played “balloon stomp.” In “balloon stomp” a balloon is tied to every child’s leg, and the object of the game is to pop everyone else’s balloon while protecting your own. The last person with an intact balloon wins. It’s a game rooted in the philosophy of “survival of the fittest.”

In this particular fourth grade class balloons were relentlessly targeted and destroyed. A few of the less aggressive children hung shyly on the sidelines and, of course, their balloons were among the first to go. The game was over in a matter of seconds. The winner, the one kid whose balloon was still intact was the most disliked kid in the room. 

But then, says Roberts, a second class was brought into the room to play the game, only this time it was a class of mentally challenged children. They too were each given a balloon. They were given the same instructions as the other group, and the same signal to begin the game.

This time, however, the game proceeded very differently. The instructions were given too quickly to be grasped very well. In all the confusion the one idea that stuck was that the balloons were supposed to be popped. But instead of fighting each other off, these kids got the idea that they were supposed to help each other pop their balloons. So they formed a kind of balloon co-op.

One little girl knelt down and held her balloon carefully in place while a little boy stomped it flat. Then he knelt down and held his balloon still for her to stomp. On and on it went, all the children helping one another, and when the last balloon was popped, everybody cheered. They were all winners. No one was put out of the game.

What this version of balloon stomp pictures for us is a vision of the world radically different than it is now. Right now the world operates on a system based in comparison and competition – and by the way, this is true in democracies as well as dictatorships. It’s the way almost all of the social systems operate that we are part of – in business, education, sports. Can you think of a system that you are a part of that does not to some degree function on the basis of comparison and competition?

Paul has a completely different vision for the church and for the world. Both Paul and Luke, who wrote the book of Acts, believed that the church is called by God to give the world a foretaste and preview of the kingdom of God and in a sense, be the first installment of God’s vision and dream for the world. A world that does not organize and operate on the grounds of comparison and competition, but rather, a just world of equality and mutuality where all are included and no one is tossed aside. A world where exceptionalism does not exist. There is no exceptionalism in God’s just world. It’s hard to even imagine such a world isn’t it? And yet, here’s the kicker, we who are the church, representing the body of Christ in the world, are called to model God’s dream for the world and give the world a taste of God’s new creation.

Paul described the Spirit of Christ who indwells the church and to whom the church belongs both as a “deposit” and “first fruits” of what is to come. Paul believed the church should be living now what God wants for the whole world – God’s dream for the world. Paul wanted the church to be a microcosm of God’s macrocosmic dream and will for the whole world. What I mean is: Paul believed that the local church, a local gathering of Christ followers could live out in a particular place in a particular community what God wants and wills for the world globally and universally.

In his letter to the Corinthians Paul emphasizes that every member of the community is gifted and while the various gifts serve various functions all the gifts are for the purpose of the common good: “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Paul even goes on to argue in this passage that those who seem to be of lesser value in the functioning of the body, God deems of utmost importance and bestows the most honor. God turns our value system upside down. This is why Jesus gave special preference to the poor, the downtrodden, the sick, the mentally and physically challenged, and those excluded and put down by those in power.

Luke apparently shared a similar vision of the church. In the account in Acts the Spirit of Christ fills this gathered group of Christ followers and enables them to communicate the good news in the various languages of the known world. Everyone hears the good news in their native language. Luke interprets this event as the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s dream for the world, when the Spirit is poured out on all flesh, all humankind. In that day the Spirit empowers everyone – young and old, men and women, people of all nationalities – everyone drinks of the Spirit and is filled Christ’s Spirit, which is the Spirit of love, the Spirit of grace and truth. It is the Spirit who empowers works of mercy and works of restorative justice. 

Now, I think we have to be honest and admit that the church has not done very well in embracing this vision and being an example for the world. And this is nothing new. I suspect Paul even wondered at times whether the communities he was forming could ever arise to such a vision. For the most part we have letters from Paul because the churches he formed and worked with seemed to be plagued by one problem after another. There are forces at work from both within and without the church to thwart this vision of a compassionate and just world.

And yet still, it is the church, or faith communities like the church that gives hope to the world that we might become a more merciful, compassionate, loving, and justice seeking people.

Fred Craddock tells about the time when he was a kid, and the family lost their farm and they had to move into town. The kids dressed in what was given to them by charitable organizations. The first day of school the teacher said, “Let’s get acquainted and start our school year by everyone telling what you did on vacation.”

Fred felt so out of place and embarrassed. One girl reported that she spent a week in Florida. Another had gone to Niagara Falls. Another kid said their family went to Washington and seen all the historical sites and all that. Fred was worried, all choked up; he didn’t know what to say. Time ran out and the teacher said, “We’ll continue tomorrow.” 

Fred didn’t want to go back to school. His father asked him why and he told him. His father said, “She asked you what? What you did on vacation? Obviously your teacher is asking you for a lie, so give her one?” And he did. When it was his turn he told the class, “We went up to New York and Washington and on an on.” Somewhere this side of Niagara Falls the teacher called him out of the room. She said, “You didn’t do all that.” Fred said, “No ma’am.” She asked, “Well, why then did you say that?” He said, “Because I am embarrassed.” “Why were you embarrassed?” He said, “Because I worked on the farm all summer before we lost it and had to move here.” That put an end to all stories.

Fred goes on to tell about how a group of women from a church brought the family clothes for the kids. There was a pair of Buster Brown shoes just his size. His mother said, “Good, you will go to church on Sunday.” Fred didn’t want to go because he figured it would be the same. Someone would ask what he did on his vacation. But they didn’t ask. Fred says that he was never embarrassed in church. He says he didn’t ever remember feeling any different, any less, any more, any different from anybody else in church. Fred says that from the age of nine he has had this little jubilee going on in his mind: There is no place in the world like church.

I believe this is what God wants for the world. And we are called to live into that vision. We are called to be a people who gives the world a taste of what can be, of what is possible, of a world where all people are valued and honored and loved. A world devoid of places of privilege. A world without exceptionalisms.

In order to do that most churches will have to leave behind their pride of privilege and dig themselves out of the shell where they have buried themselves. Instead of circling the wagons and digging in, instead of preaching a message and practicing a religion of exclusion and exceptionalism, we should be modeling to the world how a Christ led people can work with all people of all faiths or no faith all for the common good of society. And especially for the good of the most vulnerable and the disadvantaged, the ones that Jesus gave special preference too.

And so I say to our graduates who are here: A healthy church, a church that has this wider and deeper vision of a good, loving, compassionate, and just world, could help you immensely in your spiritual life find purpose and meaning and joy as you participate in God’s will and work in the world.

It is not likely that you will be able to break away from your own ego, your own agenda, your own pride and sense of privilege on your own. It’s the way almost all of us are socialized into the world that makes it so difficult. We need the help and grace and truth-telling and empowerment that we receive in a healthy faith community that is committed to the work of the kingdom of God, which embraces the earth and all that inhabit it.

It was hard for the first disciples. Before the experience of Pentecost in Acts 2, the disciples ask the risen Christ in Acts 1: “Is this the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel.” They were still locked in to their own group, their own glory, their own pride of place in the world. Are you now going to make Israel great? I wonder how many Christians are asking that today? I wonder how many Christians are praying that God would make their group or denomination or church great? I wonder how many Christians are praying that God would make their nation greater than all other nations? “God bless America first, then if you have anything left God, you can spread some blessings to those other folks. But we know they are not as special or exceptional or worthy as we are.” That’s what we are up against. And there are a lot of churches that have become cheerleaders of American exceptionalism. I think one of the reasons Jesus overturned the tables and staged a protest in the Temple of Jerusalem is because he knew that God wanted the temple to be a house of prayer for all nations, for all peoples. But the Temple gatekeepers had turned temple religion into a worthiness system rooted in a system of meritocracy and privilege.

I don’t want to downplay God’s love for the individual – of God’s love for you. God loves you with an eternal love, but God does not love you more than God loves anyone else. We are all God’s children. I can’t tell you how often I have heard a preacher tell a congregation to personalize John 3:16. Instead of saying, “God so loves the world” insert your name in place of the word “world.” I suspect that anyone struggling with low self-esteem or a diminished self-image or feeling such guilt as to think God couldn’t possibly love them, will find great comfort in knowing God loves them personally. But I think we have to be careful as well. Balance is everything. God loves you, but God also loves the world. God doesn’t love Americans anymore than God loves South Africans or Asians or anyone else.

How do we nurture a wider vision? How do we let go of our sense of privilege and exceptionalism? How do we cultivate a large, big, God-like dream of a just world? That’s where a healthy faith community is needed. You can’t do it on your own. We need the Spirit of Christ who is present and at work in the church, Christ’s body to move us and empower us. It is in the church gathered, as in this first community in Acts 2, where the Spirit gives dreams and visions to young and old. In the Christ community gathered the Spirit raises up men and women to prophesy – to tell the truth and challenge the domination system and call us to be faithful – to be loving, compassionate, justice-seeking people. An inclusive, grace-filled, justice-seeking, mercy-doing faith community can guide you into the work of the Divine Spirit in the world.

O God, may each one of us open our lives to you so that our lives become a manifestation of your Spirit. Open our eyes that we share a bit of your vision for a just world. Open our hearts that we might feel the hurt and pain that so many of your children feel who suffer from the injustices of life. Let us trust in your Spirit to guide us and fill us with the compassion, motivation, courage, and the spiritual and physical strength necessary to make a difference. In the name of Christ. Amen.