Sunday, August 27, 2017

Intentional Spirituality (A sermon from Romans 12:1-8 and Matthew 16:13-17)

A few years ago three Canadian neuroscientists at the University of Toronto and Wilfrid Laurier University who published their research in the Journal of Experimental Psychology discovered that as people make more money and feel more powerful physical changes in the brain occur that make one less empathetic towards the people around them. They found that a special brain area, known as the mirror system, is filled with cells that activate when you carry out an action, like opening the door or walking across the room, or when you watch someone else do that action. It’s part of how we get inside other people’s heads. And because what we do is linked with how we feel or what we want, the mirror system is what helps us empathize with another person’s motivations and struggles.

What they discovered is that those who feel more powerful and more well-off show far less activity in the brain region that helps us feel empathy. In other words, as one climbs the social ladder, as one grows in position and power, the more affluent and powerful one becomes, the tendency is to feel less empathy and compassion toward others. According to Daniel Keltner, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley “Power diminishes all varieties of empathy.”

If that is true and I have no reason to doubt their conclusions, this means that for most of us who are more well-off and have more freedom and power to choose than much of the rest of the world, we will have to be more intentional about nurturing a spiritual life and living out the love and compassion of Christ. The research, of course, does not mean that we can’t, it just means that statistically we are less likely to reflect the empathy and compassion of Christ than others who may be in a different position. Maybe Jesus intuited this when he said such radical things like: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”; or “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation”; or when he said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” So this means that we have to be intentional in our discipleship to Christ and in nurturing a life of love and compassion, which is at the heart of true spirituality and what it means to follow Christ.

Paul admonishes the Christians at Rome to be transformed by the renewing of their minds. And in the way he structures the admonition he suggests a pattern of intentionality that we can bring to this process. First, transformation begins with commitment. He says, “Brothers and sisters, . . . present your bodies (your whole selves might be a better translation; it’s less literal, but it captures the meaning) as a living sacrifice to God.” And of course our model is Jesus. Jesus is our model of a “living sacrifice.” The problem with most atonement theories that focus almost exclusively on Jesus’ death is that they ignore the rest of his life. Jesus died the way he lived. I suspect that when the first disciples spoke of Jesus’ death in a redemptive way they intended it as a symbol for the life of love and sacrifice that he lived, as is so beautifully communicated in the Christ hymn that Paul draws on in Philippians 2. Jesus gave himself completely to the cause and will of God. He gave himself to restorative justice for outsiders and compassion for the very ones the religious gatekeepers wanted to push aside. And it got him killed. God didn’t send Jesus to die. God sent Jesus to show us how to live and the powers that be crucified him. Jesus lived a life of love and compassion all the way to the cross. That’s what makes his death meaningful and redemptive. His death is a symbol that gathers up his entire life. His life ended in a premature death on a cross because he lived his life as a "living sacrifice" to God and to humanity. His death was the culmination of a life of compassion, truth-telling, and dispensing grace to all the "wrong" people. The cross is a symbol of self-giving love that Jesus embodied in life as well as in death.

So, a life of commitment, presenting our whole selves as a living sacrifice for God’s cause in the world means secondly, non-conformity to the domination system. Paul instructs, “Do not be conformed to this world.” Living out a life as a “living sacrifice” means non-conformity to the conventional values of society, so that we can be shaped by the values of Christ. All of us have been influenced by the negative “isms” of our culture – materialism, consumerism, exceptionalism, elitism, nationalism, sexism, and racism. The way we overcome these negative “isms” is through our obedience to the teachings of Jesus and by following his example. And when we make that commitment we have the promise that the Spirit of Christ who is in us will empower us to fulfill our commitment. Paul says earlier in this epistle in Rom 8:2: “The law (meaning power) of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free from the law (the power) of sin and death.” Sin and death is just a shorthand way of talking about all the destructive isms and addictions that diminish and destroy our relationships and our lives.

The key question for us, which is the question raised in our Gospel reading in Matthew 16, is this: Do we trust Jesus enough to follow him and do what he says? That’s the issue. When Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” he is not asking them for a doctrinal statement regarding what they believe about him. Jesus is not wanting a verbal confession of some propositional belief which can mean very little. When you read this question in its context and in light of the passage that follows Jesus is preparing them for what’s ahead. Jesus is headed to Jerusalem and plans on speaking truth to power. I’m sure he had already decided to protest the inequities and injustices of temple religion by overturning the tables of the money changers. That wasn’t a temple tantrum, that wasn’t a spur of the moment decision any more than his peace march into Jerusalem on a donkey was a spontaneous decision. Both were planned. Jesus’ actions in the Temple constituted a staged protest of the injustices of temple religion. And Jesus knows in doing what he did he is going to be killed and so he tries to warn and prepare his disciples. He knows that in all likelihood he will be killed by those in power. And so he says to his disciples, “If you are going to follow me, then you must take up your cross too. You must be willing to lose your life for the sake of God’s kingdom which I preach and embody.”

They think they are ready, but they are not. They still think Jesus is going to restore the fortunes of Israel and Jesus catches them arguing about who among them is going to be the greatest, who is going to have the most power and authority. They still don’t get it! Just like so many of us don’t get it. Some of us think the gospel of Jesus is about going to heaven and being raptured from this earth, when in reality Jesus wants us to follow him so we can be transforming agents on this earth, which God cares deeply about. Jesus wants us to speak truth to power and give our whole selves as a living sacrifice to spread God’s justice and compassion in the world.

So when Jesus says, “Who do you say that I am?” what he is really asking them is: “Do you trust me enough to follow me all the way to the cross? Are you willing to confront the injustices and untruths of the world? Are you willing to speak truth to power and at the same time love your enemies? Are you willing to stand with and for those oppressed and at the same time refuse to be conformed to the world, refuse to allow the hate of the oppressor to become hate for the oppressor. That’s what Jesus is asking. He is saying, “If you believe and trust that I have been sent by God to be a healer and liberator, then fall in line behind me and I will teach you how to be healers and liberators.” This is why he sent them out in pairs to do what he had been doing. Jesus calls us to live out our sonship and daughtership to God the way he lived out his sonship to God. Of course, will not do this in the same way Jesus did in his time and place. But this certainly involves a commitment to healing and liberating ourselves and others from the demonic systems in which we get trapped.

And this leads me to the third thing that Paul says about intentional spirituality and discipleship. Commitment – presenting our whole selves as a living sacrifice for God’s cause and for the good of others the way Jesus did; and resistance – refusing to allow our culture, the economic, social, and political systems we are part of to shape us into their mold; commitment and resistance should lead to service. Service is the third component of this process of intentional spirituality and discipleship.

Bishop Leontine Kelly, was the first African-American woman to be appointed Bishop in the United Methodist Church. Her father was a pastor and she grew up in a parsonage. When she was a little girl he was assigned to a church in Cincinnati, where the community had changed and he was the first African-American assigned to that congregation. The church facilities were magnificent: awe-inspiring Gothic architecture, beautiful polished wood, stained glass windows, and a huge crystal chandelier in the sanctuary. Presidents had worshiped in that congregation. Just as impressive was the parsonage. 

Bishop Kelly says that it was so big that each of the children had his or her own room - something quite new for them. One day the kids were playing in the basement and they discovered a hole behind the furnace that seemed to lead to a tunnel. They asked her to go with them to explore it, but she went to find her father instead. They all went down to investigate and when her father saw what was there he became very excited. He said, “I think we have found something; let’s go over to the church and look.” So they did and found more tunnels.

That night around the dinner table her father told them, "Children, I want you to remember this day as long as you live. Today, we've found a station on the underground railroad. The greatness of this church is not its Gothic structure, the polished wood, its crystal chandelier. The greatness of this church is below us. For these people dared to risk their lives to help the poor, frightened run away slaves find their freedom and that was the mark of their greatness." For us service rarely involves risk to our lives. However, the way we are going as a country it is not inconceivable that this could change and our stand for what is right and good could be a risk to our lives.

Service can take many forms. We all have different abilities, talents, and callings. No one gift, no one capacity for service is valued more by God than any other. We are many members with many functions and capacities to serve one another and our world. But given the diverse ways we can serve, generally our service for God’s cause in the world will involve in some way working for restorative justice in society and engaging in deeds and works of mercy and compassion. We may engage in justice and mercy directly or indirectly in any number of ways, but will we engage. We will participate in the loving, healing, restoring, reconciling, and liberating work of Christ.

These factors – our commitment, resistance, and service – will lead us to become a transformed and a transforming people. Actually we will be a “being transformed and transforming people because it is a process and we never fully arrive. As we submit to the process of being transformed, we will simultaneously become agents and instruments of transformation in our families, our communities, and our society. Personally, this will mean a “renewing of the mind” as Paul says. Richard Rohr likes to say, and I tend to agree, we act our way into new ways of thinking more than we think our way into new ways of acting. As we live out our commitment to God’s will, as we live out our resistance to the values and ways of the domination system, and as we give ourselves in service to one another and our world the Spirit of Christ will be doing a renewing, regenerating, transforming work in us and through us.

Paul says this is our “spiritual (or reasonable) worship.” This is how we honor and worship God, by commitment, resistance, and service. By being transformed and being agents and instruments of transformation in our world we honor our Creator, Father, Mother, and Lord of our lives. It is our spiritual or reasonable worship because all of this is squarely rooted and grounded in the “mercies of God.” Paul says, “I appeal to you by the mercies of God.”  God’s love is always a first love. God’s mercies are before anything else and will last beyond anything else.

I’m sure you have heard people say, “We are unworthy of love, but God loves us anyway.” I don’t believe that for a moment and I’m sure Jesus didn’t believe it either. We are not unworthy of love. We are made in God’s image and God’s Spirit gives us life and breath. We are all worthy of divine love. Now, that doesn’t mean we don’t do things that are unworthy of God. We do indeed. Some, maybe many of our words and deeds are unworthy of God. But nothing makes us unworthy of God’s love. And for that very reason Jesus tells us to love our enemies just the way God does. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are unworthy of love.

God may get upset with us. God may get angry with us over how we treat others who are also God’s children whom God loves as much as God loves you or me. But God will never stop loving you, even if you choose to never repent and open your life to God’s love. God is still going to love you. Whatever hell symbolizes, God doesn’t send anyone there. We can choose to live in hell by refusing to let God love us and by refusing to respond to God’s love. There are many right now who are living in a kind of hell because, for whatever reason, they cannot trust and open their lives to God’s unconditional love.

When we open our minds and hearts to God’s love, that’s when we start to make real progress toward renewal and transformation. That’s what compels us to commit our whole selves as a living sacrifice to God’s will and cause in the world. God’s love is what drives us to resist conformity to the injustices of the system. God’s mercies are what inspires us to give ourselves in service to one another and our world.

When you experience God’s mercies, when in the core of your being you open up your heart, your soul, your self to God’s love, then you want to be like Christ, you want Christ to be formed in you, you want to be an incarnation of Christ’s presence in the world. When you open your heart to divine love, then you loving and sacrificially give yourself to God in service to the world which God loves.

Our good and gracious God, open our hearts that we may be able to know the breadth and length and height and depth of your love that you have made visible and tangible in the life and teachings, the death and resurrection of Jesus. May we know through your Spirit at work in our spirits the surpassing greatness of the love of Christ that we might be empowered to offer our total selves up to your loving cause, and find the strength to resist conformity to the injustices of society, and be willing and ready to serve others in a spirit of empathy and compassion. May we be filled with the fullness of your grace. I pray in the name of Christ. Amen.


Monday, August 21, 2017

The Path to Reconciliation (A sermon based on the story of Joseph; Genesis 45:1-15)

The Joseph story is a beautiful story. And while I cannot share the ancient biblical writer’s view of how directs human affairs I believe it has much to teach on the dynamics of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Joseph is the youngest of the brothers and clearly his father’s favorite son. Joseph knows this and does not shy away from it nor does he seem to express any humility in his good fortune. He dreams of being in power and shares his dreams of grandeur with his bothers and how they along with their father and mother will bow down to him. Joseph gives them reason to dislike him.

The brothers plot against Joseph and he is sold to some Midianite traders. They tell their father a wild animal devoured him and their father mourns for Joseph many days. Meanwhile, Joseph ends up in Egypt as a slave to one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard. Through a series of up and down experiences Joseph finds favor in the household of Pharaoh, and rises to become second in command answering only to Pharaoh himself.

A famine ravages the land as far as Palestine. Jacob hears that there is grain in Egypt. Joseph knowing in advance there would be a famine had carefully stored up grain during the years of plenty so there would be grain during the years of famine. Jacob sends his sons to Egypt with money to buy grain.

Joseph had married and we are told that his first child he named Manasseh for he said, “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house.” He had a new home and new family and wanted to forget all about his former life. But it was Joseph who was responsible for dispensing and selling the grain, and so his brothers had to come to him. His brothers did not recognize him, but Joseph recognized them. And the storywriter says that “he treated them like strangers and spoke harshly to them.” He accused them of being spies and had them all imprisoned for three days. Well, can you imagine the feelings and emotions that came flooding back as Joseph struggled with his demons for three days. He now had power over that the question we are all drawn into is how we he use this power.  

Joseph learned in questioning them that his father had another son whom he did not know. So he decided to release his brothers under the condition that they would return to him with their younger brother. And to be assured that they would return he kept one of them, Simeon in prison. They said among themselves, “Alas, we are paying the penalty for what we did to our brother; we saw his anguish when he pleaded with us, but we would not listen. That is why this anguish has come upon us.” Joseph heard all they said, but of course, they had no idea it was Joseph or that he could understand their Hebrew. The text says, “He turned away from them and wept.” Joseph is now dealing with his own demons.

Joseph is undecided about what to do. I get the sense that he is stuck. Stuck, I’m sure, in his memories of the pain and hardship inflicted on him by his brothers. I’m sure he had been replaying in his mind and in his emotions the horror of what his brothers had done to him. So the big question is: Can he let that go? Can he reach out in forgiveness? Right now he is stuck.  

A powerful illustration of how we can get stuck on a different level is found in a scene in the movie, Bridge to Terabithia. Ten-year-old Jess Aarons has his world turned upside down by a free-spirited ten-year-old girl named Leslie Burke. In the woods adjoining their homes, an old dilapidated tree house becomes an invitation into the enchanted kingdom of Terabithia.

One Friday, when they’ve been rained out and cannot enter their magical world, Jess complains about Saturday’s chores and having to go to church on Sunday. Leslie asks Jess if she can come to church with him. Jess feels certain Leslie will hate church, but he takes her along anyway. On the ride home in the back of the truck a conversation ensues between Jess, Leslie, and Jess’ little sister May Belle. Leslie, who had never been to church before says, “That whole Jesus thing is really interesting isn’t it? . . . It’s really kind of a beautiful story.” May Belle interjects, “It ain’t beautiful. It’s scary! Nailing holes right through somebody’s hand.”

Then Jess chimes in, ‘May Belle’s right. It’s because were all vile sinners that God made Jesus die.” Leslie questions that interpretation of the story. She asks, “You really think that’s true?” “It’s in the Bible,” responds Jess. Leslie, in a puzzled and questioning tone says, “You have to believe it, but you hate it.” Then she says, “I don’t have to believe it, and I think it’s beautiful.” May Belle jumps in, “You gotta believe the Bible, Leslie.” “Why?” asks Leslie. “Cause if you don’t believe in the Bible, God’ll damn you to hell when you die.”

Leslie thinks that’s just silly and she is shocked by such a dreadful image of God. She asks May Belle for her source. May Belle can’t come up with chapter and verse, so she turns to Jess, who can’t quote the Scripture either, but he knows that it is somewhere in the Bible. “Well,” Leslie says, “I don’t think so. I seriously do not think God goes around damning people to hell. He’s too busy running all this.” With that Leslie raises her arms to include the sky and the trees and the whole beautiful landscape before them.

Jess and May Belle had been (like we all are) indoctrinated into a particular version of the Christian story and thought they had to believe it. Leslie knew she didn’t have to believe it if she didn’t want to, but then she didn’t see what they saw. She thought it was a beautiful story. She saw it with a new set of eyes.

Maybe what we need when we get stuck, whether it’s in a negative view of God or some painful story in our past, what we need is to be able to see with a new set of eyes. But even before that, we probably first need to realize that we are stuck – stuck with a little, petty God, or stuck in our prejudice, or stuck in resentment and bitterness, or stuck in a craving for vengeance. There are many ways we can be stuck.   

Jean Vanier in his wonderful little book titled, Becoming Human tells about a friend who wrote to him about her grandfather. He was an Australian who had served in the First World War. He had been gassed by the German army and was left permanently impaired. He remained terribly bitter toward all Germans. He called them: “Those wretched Huns.” His bitterness and prejudice poisoned his whole family even down to the third generation. It took this woman a long time to overcome her grandfather’s legacy. She wrote to Vanier: “All my life I’ve tried to rid myself of the prejudice against the German people that has been programmed into me.” It was a slow process. Overcoming years of indoctrination, overcoming a heritage of prejudice and a legacy of hate can be very hard.

But there is no way forward unless we do. We have to confront the ways we get stuck.  We have to admit our bitterness and hate. And whether it’s rooted in a long history of distortions and prejudice, or whether it springs from our own longings for vengeance and retribution – it has the same effect in staining and souring our souls. It makes us little. I get the sense that Joseph is struggling with these feelings and emotions.

So when we get stuck in our negativity, and when we can’t see past the pain and hurt, or past the anger and bitterness, maybe we need to step back and take a wider, deeper look into our own heart and soul. Maybe that was part of the dynamics of what Joseph was doing as he struggled with how to respond to his brothers.

One of the things we might be able to see if can take a wider, longer, deeper look into our own hearts is the part we may have played in the breach of the relationship. Maybe it was just a small part, but we realize that we were not totally blameless. There was nothing Joseph did or could have done to justify the crime committed against him or the pain inflicted upon him, but maybe, just maybe he began to realize that the way he played up his father’s preferential treatment and his braggadocious dreams of grandeur and greatness contributed to the resentment and anger his brothers felt toward him. Are we honest and open enough to consider the ways we may have contributed to broken relations with others? Few of us rarely are completely innocent.

Following the first round of interactions with his brothers there is a second round. Eventually the brothers have to go back to Egypt for more grain, and they have to bring Benjamin, the youngest with them, because that is the condition that Joseph had set. Joseph is still struggling with what to do. I’m sure he is still replaying his painful memories. In this second round as they leave he hides his own silver cup in Benjamin’s sack and then sends his aid out after them. Of When the cup is found in Benjamin’s sack he plans to keep the boy and send the others back. They know it would destroy their father. Judah steps us and makes a passionate plea begging Joseph to allow him to serve the boy’s punishment. This becomes the moment of grace for Joseph. This is the moment he decides to forgive his brothers.

I heard about a man who had committed a violent crime and was imprisoned. One day he became violent with other inmates and ended up in solitary confinement. In the solitude of solitary confinement he became aware that he had lost everything – his work, his family, his mobility, as well as his dignity and self-respect. He wanted to die. But suddenly there rose up in him what he called “tiny stars of love.” He had this urge to rediscover love and find himself again. In the darkness a ray of hope came through. It was the moment of his conversion. He clearly still had a lot of work to do and a lot of baggage to get rid of, but that was where he turned it around. It was a moment of grace.

When we experience such moments, when the light finally breaks through and we see just how blind we have been, how hardened or unenlightened or prideful or prejudiced, all we can do is say, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound . . . I was blind but now I see.”

Part of what we begin to see is our own complicity in the brokenness of the world, the brokenness of our relationships, and the brokenness of our lives. We begin to see that we are part of a common humanity and that we all are loved with an eternal love by the Divine Father and Mother who is over all and within all. We begin to believe that we can change, that we can evolve and grow – that we don’t have to remain stuck. We begin to yearn and long for unity, for peace, for reconciliation. We want to be liberated from our prejudices, from our negative feelings and disdain that led us to dismiss certain people and groups treating them as less than ourselves. When we are touched by God’s grace we become repentant and want to open our lives to others that we had previously rejected and condemned and excluded.

This is the work of grace God wants to work in every human heart. In writing to the Corinthians Paul says that the love of Christ urges us on and we regard no one from a human point of view.  I read Paul as saying that we all form a new creation in Christ and that it is God’s goal to reconcile the world. Our part is to live into it. Our part is to allow the Spirit to form us and change us and reconcile us to God and one another.

I don’t know what it takes to make us aware of our blindness, our prejudice, our pride. I don’t know what it is that causes the light to come on, for “tiny stars of love” to rise up within us, for us to let go of our painful hurts and the need to replay all the grievance stories of our past. I don’t know what it will take for that to happen in your life and in my life, but if it hasn’t happened, I pray that it will.

Our good God, you are well aware of the many ways we get stuck that keeps us from being reconciled to you and reconciled to our sisters and brothers. We get stuck in ways of thinking and believing that keep us from fully trusting in you as a God of love and grace. We get stuck harboring biases and negative attitudes toward others thinking that you don’t love them the way you love us. We get stuck in our prejudices, our pride, our selfishness, our anger, and resentment. Help us to look deeply and honestly and clearly into our hearts and may we know that you are calling us to be more – to be more accepting and forgiving and embracing – the way you accept, forgive, and embrace all of us. Amen. 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Stepping into the Storm (Matthew 14:22-33)

I know what it is like to be afraid on the water. I was nine or ten years old and my dad took me with him on a fishing trip with a work buddy. At the time we had a small boat, maybe 15 or 16 feet with a 50 horse power motor. We were at Lake Barkley catching crappie. It had been a good evening. We were in a school of crappie when dark clouds began to gather over the horizon. We were having such good luck we didn’t want to leave and as a consequence stayed on the lake too long. The storm came on us quick and we had to get across the lake back to the dock. It was slow going as waves pounded the boat. We were taking on some water from the the waves. Then the motor died. I had never seen my father afraid before. He made sure my life jacket was tight and then gave me some instructions on what to do if the boat capsized. The look of fear on his face terrified me. I can’t remember a whole lot about my life at that point in my history, I was probably 9 or 10, but I still remember those feelings of fear. Fortunately, my father was able to get the motor started again without too much delay. But I will never forget the fear I felt at that moment even though it was so very long ago. 

The disciples are caught in a storm. Some of them were seasoned fishermen. It’s what they did. They were on the water everyday. They knew how quickly a little vessel could be upended. The waves and wind are pounding them. Then they see something or someone coming towards them. The text says they were terrified.  Now, let me say here at the beginning that this is not a story about avoiding storms nor it is a story about avoiding the fear such storms produce. Fear is, first of all, a simple reaction to threat or danger. And sometimes it can be a constructive thing. It has its place in helping to keep our children safe. Most children that is. It never seemed to be much a deterrent for our son Jordan, who went tumbling down the basement stairs on two different occasions. One time he was on a three wheeler and it was intentional.

Some fear is necessary, but fear can also be debilitating and oppressive, when one lives in fear constantly. I suspect that many of the kids who cross our border illegally are sent here by parents who live in daily fear for their children’s lives. None of us should judge them and say, “How could a parent send their child out like that?” You and I don’t know what it would be like to have children faced with a lifetime of violence and poverty. Maybe we would do the same. Maybe we would say the risk is worth it?

This story is not about avoiding storms or the fear they evoke, nor is it about stilling them. There are some who are quick to point out that Jesus did indeed still the storm, and they draw the conclusion that if we just had enough faith Jesus would still our storms too. That, I think, is a misreading of the story. Stories have meaning on many different levels. At one time scholars thought that parables, the stories Jesus told were intended to convey a single meaning, though today that theory has been largely debunked and most interpreters would argue that stories of Jesus convey multiple meanings and we intersect and connect with these stories on different levels at different times in our lives. The same is true of the stories about Jesus and this story today of Jesus walking on the water and stilling the storm is more of a parable than anything else.  

On one level, this story reflects what Matthew’s church had come to believe about Jesus. The story may have been constructed around images in the Psalms. One Psalm reads: “You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.” When Jesus speaks to the disciples, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” he is echoing the name of God by which God identified God’s self to Moses out of the fire when God said, “Tell them ‘I am’ has sent you.” Matthew’s church, which many scholars believe was predominately Jewish, had come to see in Jesus God’s agent of healing and redemption for the world. And at the end of the story Matthew changes the ending of this same story in Mark. Mark’s ending highlights the spiritual dullness and immaturity of the disciples. Mark’s story ends with Jesus’ rebuke. In Mark they don’t have a clue what is going on. But in Matthew’s version of the story it’s just the opposite. Matthew concludes the story by saying: “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’” Matthew’s church is not claiming that Jesus was the one God, Creator and Father of all. But Matthew’s church is proclaiming Jesus to be God’s Son par excellent (not exclusively, but definitively) through whom God acts to heal and liberate the world.

So this is not a story about having enough faith to still storms or avoid storms. Nor does the story suggest in any way that God is responsible for the storms. Storms are an inevitable part of the climate we encounter on the journey. Author Philip Yancey launched his writing career with a book titled, Where is God when it hurts? He recalls receiving a phone call from a television producer just after Princess Diana had been killed in an automobile crash. He wanted Yancey to appear on his show and explain how God could possibly allow such a terrible accident to happen. (By the way, terrible accidents are happening every moment to God’s children.) Without much thought Yancey retorted, “Could it have had something to do with a drunk driver going ninety miles an hour in a narrow tunnel?” Yancey asks, “How exactly, was God involved?” God does not micromanage the planet or our lives.

There are some experiences of suffering that are simply tragic, and it is hard to find any redemptive value in them. On the other hand, we’re not likely to grow without battling some storms. Talk to any recovering addict who has been in a twelve-step program any length of time and he or she will talk to you about “necessary suffering.” They will tell you that it took what it took - coming to the end of themselves – to get them on a path toward healing and change. But “necessary suffering” doesn’t mean God causes or sends us suffering, it just means that it, unfortunately, often takes what it takes to get us moving in the right direction.

Paul, as well as other New Testament writers speak to the issue of necessary suffering, and they employ hyperbole in making the point. Paul tells the church at Rome, “we boast in our sufferings,” (that’s an exaggerated statement isn’t it?) Maybe a better choice of words would be: “We embrace our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” James, in his little epistle says, “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy (more hyperbole; who actually does that?), because you know that the testing of your faith (all forms of suffering, all hardship function as a kind of “testing”- that does not imply that God causes it or is responsible for it) produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.” Now, none of this is automatic. This outcome depends on our response. If we fail to face our sufferings in faith, suffering may just make us bitter and angry.

You may have heard the saying before, “Religion is lived by people who are afraid of hell. Spirituality is lived by people who have been through hell and come out enlightened.” Hell is not some place God sends people because they don’t believe or do the right things. Hell is what all of us have to live through to one degree or another in order to face our pride and ego, and confront the ways we need to grow and change. God’s deliverance is rarely a deliverance from; generally it is a deliverance through. Some suffering is necessary to prompt us to face the negative patterns in our lives which we tend to deny, ignore, excuse, rationalize, and minimize.

Matthew’s story differs from Mark’s in that Matthew brings Peter into the story. Peter is simply a disciple who represents all disciples. Peter takes a leap of faith into the storm. There is a wonderful scene at the climax of the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Indiana has to pass three supreme tests to reach the Holy Grail and save his father from dying. The first test is “The Breath of God” where he walks down a corridor and must bow at precisely the right moment to keep form having his head cut off. The second test is “The Word of God” where he has to walk on the right stones – the ones that spell God’s name in Latin – to keep from falling through the floor to his death. The third test is “The Path of God,” where Indiana comes to a large chasm – about a hundred feet across and a thousand feet down. On the other side is the door to the Holy Grail. The instructions say, “Only in the leap from the lion’s head, will he prove his worth.” Indiana says to himself, “It’s impossible, nobody can jump this.” Then he realizes that this test requires a leap of faith. His father says, “You must believe, boy. You must believe.” Even though every nerve in his body screams don’t do it, he walks to the cliff’s edge, lifts his foot, and then steps out into thin air. Instead of falling to his doom like Wile E. Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons, his foot hits solid ground. He lands on a hidden walkway, a hidden, solid stone walkway that supports him and takes him across.

God is often hidden, but solid nonetheless. God is with us every step of the way and will not abandon us. God may be hidden and disguised. Someone has said that God comes disguised as our life. We may not always or even frequently recognize God, but the Christ is with us always.
Many spiritual teachers drawing from their own experience have said, “When we find our true selves, our authentic selves, we find God.”

The Quaker educator, writer and activist Parker Palmer in his book, Let Your Life Speak tells about an experience he had while engaged in a program called Outward Bound at Hurricane Island off the coast of Maine. One of his tasks, a task that he feared the most, was to rappel down a 110-foot cliff.  As he slowly made his way down the cliff face he came to a deep hole in the face of the rock. Realizing he couldn’t go around it he suddenly found himself paralyzed by fear. He hung there in silence for what seemed to be a very long time.  Finally an instructor shouted, “Parker, is anything wrong?”  In a high squeaky voice he replied, “I don’t want to talk about it.” At that moment the second instructor jumped in and said to Parker, “It’s time that you learned the Outward Bound motto.” He thought, “I’m about to die, and she’s going to give me a motto.” But then she shouted ten words that have had lasting impact on his life. She told him, “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.” It’s like the advice given in the children’s story, “Going on a bear hunt.” I read that story to Sophie when she was little multiple times: “You can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, you can’t go around It, so you have to go through it.” As I said last week: Knowing that we are under a blessing and not a curse, knowing that we are God’s beloved daughter or son, knowing that the Christ is with us always, we can step into the storm in faith.  

The hard thing about that is that stepping into the storm means getting out of the boat. It means letting go and leaving the place of security. That could mean a lot of different things depending where we are in our pilgrimage. It could mean deciding to stop being an enabler of negativity and life diminishing beliefs and attitudes of some group we are part of and from whom we derive support and friendship. Speaking truth in love could turn the group against us. That’s stepping into the storm. Maybe it means facing some hard truth about ourselves that we have been in denial about because it contradicts the image we have of ourselves. Maybe it means confronting an addiction. Or maybe it’s getting involved in some cause or engaging in some act of mercy that requires more time and resources and energy than we think we have to give. I think of the two women senators who stood against all kinds of pressure and threats to do what they in their hearts knew was in the best interest of the country and their states. They decided to step into the storm.

In the story Peter steps into the storm and begins to sink. We all do. In this context doubt means “to be divided.” At some point we are all divided, we all lose focus and energy and we start to question our motives and decisions. We all doubt and we all have “little faith.” That’s just part for the course. The point here is that Christ is out in the storm. That’s where Christ is. This is really a story about the presence of Christ with us in the storm. It’s a story more about the cosmic Christ than the historical Jesus. Some scholars think that this story was originally a resurrection story, which in the course of the oral tradition – the telling and retelling of the story – it got worked back into the narrative of Jesus’ ministry. Because it really is a story about the presence of the living Christ. So when the Christ comes to them on the water they exclaim, “It is a ghost.” They don’t recognize him, which of course, is a common feature in almost all the resurrection stories. This is a story about Christ’s living presence in the storm.  

Maybe what we first call a ghost is actually the Holy Ghost. I have no doubt that God, the Holy Spirit, the living Christ, (use whatever phrase you are most comfortable with) speaks to us in a rich variety of ways and forms and means, though they are not clearly obvious or overt or easily recognizable. But I also believe that once we learn to recognize the Christ within us, in our true self, our authentic self, we can learn to see, to discern the divine presence elsewhere, especially in human beings. We can discover that Christ’s presence in the laughter of a little child, in the wisdom of an elder, in the touch of a lover’s hand, in the beauty of a sunrise or sunset, even in the midst of the raging sea that threatens to capsize our small boat.

The challenge and invitation that comes to us today is not to hunker down in fear, not to flee, not to deny or conjure up “alternative facts” when the storm assails us. I believe that the challenge and invitation that comes from the living Christ is to step into it.  

As we now come to the table to share the bread and the cup, it’s good to be reminded that the celebration of Holy Communion is not only a celebration of the self-giving of Jesus unto death; it’s also a celebration of the presence of the living Christ who walks with us into the storms of life.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Facing Our Brokenness in a Broken World (Matthew 14:13-21; Isaiah 55:1-5)

Isaiah 55 reads as an invitation for anyone to share in the fruits of God’s new creation, the new world God is creating. The blessing is offered to anyone who will receive it. “Everyone who thirsts come to the waters” cries the prophet. God chose Israel to share that message. Not to be a people who thought of themselves as better than others, but a people called to offer life giving water to all the peoples of the world.

One of the New Testament readings listed for this Sunday, which we did not read, is Romans 9:1-5. In that text Paul speaks of his passion for the Jewish people, his own people, and he enumerates a number of things that set Israel apart – that constituted Israel a chosen people – the covenants, the Torah, the tradition of worship of the one God, and ultimately the Jewish Messiah. However, the privileges and advantages of being the covenant people of God were never intended for Israel exclusively. In the Isaiah text God’s steadfast love is not intended for just one nation or people group, it’s intended for all peoples. Israel was called to communicate blessing and chosenness to the rest of the world. All the world is God’s world. All people are God’s people. According to the prophet God made Israel to be a “witness to the peoples” of the earth of God’s “steadfast love.”

Being chosen doesn’t mean that God likes one person or group or nation more than God likes anyone else. In fact, the ones God often singles out for a particular service are generally quite flawed so that it is clear the calling is by grace. No one is more worthy than anyone else. Whoever God chooses for special tasks God chooses in order to communicate God’s love to everyone else. What at first feels like God being exclusive is actually God choosing a person or people to communicate God’s inclusive love and grace to all. The fact that so many Christians are locked in to claims of exclusivity (that God has blessed them but not others) simply demonstrates that we have a lot of growing up to do (that we are still very selfish and our selfishness is blinding). 

I believe the passage today in Matthew 14 of Jesus feeding the multitude offers us a way forward. It gives us a pattern that can lead us out of our immaturity. It shows us how our chosenness and brokenness go together and that when we learn how to live in the balance of that tension we find our place and calling.

The story is a familiar one. I read stories like this in the Gospels as well as the one that follows about Jesus walking on the sea and calming the sea not as historical reports of actual events, but as parables. A different kind of parable than the parables Jesus told, but parables nonetheless. Some scholars call them metaphorical narratives, which is really just another way of emphasizing their parabolic and symbolic meaning. That is to say that the stories are true in what they teach.

A great crowd of people follow Jesus out into a deserted place. He is trying to get away with the twelve for a time of rest and retreat, but he is pursued by hungry people – hungry for meaning and hope. How will Jesus feed this great multitude? Can he give them the hope and meaning they crave? Jesus takes a few fish and loaves of bread – he blesses them and breaks them and then gives them to a hungry people. What I want you to see today is the great spiritual significance of this pattern that shows up again when Jesus hosts the last supper.

First, he takes and blesses. As I have already pointed out this is not an exclusive blessing; it’s a blessing bestowed on all. It is true of all human beings whether they belong to our religious tradition or not. This is our original blessing. I love the way the late Henry Nouwen talks about this. He writes:

“We have to dare to reclaim the truth that we God’s chosen ones, even when our world does not choose us. As long as we allow our parents, siblings, teachers, friends, and lovers to determine whether we are chosen or not, we are caught in the net of a suffocating world that accepts or rejects us according to its own agenda of effectiveness and control.” Nouwen says that claiming this blessing, claiming our identity as God’s beloved daughters and sons is a life long task because we often have to battle low self-esteem, self-doubt, and self-rejection. And when we fall into this darkness – of self-doubt and rejection – we can be easily used and manipulated by people who want to use us for their own selfish ends.

Nouwen says that what we need to remember is this: “Long before any human being saw us, we are seen by God’s loving eyes. Long before anyone heard us cry or laugh, we are heard by our God who is all ears for us. Long before any person spoke to us in this world, we are spoken to by the voice of eternal love. Our preciousness, uniqueness, and individuality are not given to us by those who meet us in clock time – our brief chronological existence – but by the One who has chosen us with an everlasting love, a love that existed from all eternity and will last through all eternity.”

That is our original blessing – it precedes and is far more important than our original sin. In fact, our sin isn’t original at all. It simply part of what we have to live with and deal with in learning to claim our original blessing. Now if we trust and claim our original blessing as image bearers of God, as God’s beloved children in whom God’s Spirit abides, then there is no reason for us to try to conceal, deny, repress, or escape our brokenness.

And that brings us to the second part of the pattern: Jesus takes and blesses, then he breaks. We are all broken in some way. But that is not the first thing about us nor is it the most significant thing about us. The most important thing is that we are blessed. And when we claim our blessing, when we trust our chosenness, we find the courage and inner strength to face our brokenness. When we deal with our brokenness in the context of our original blessing then we are able to step toward our pain, our failures, our brokenness, rather than run from it. It’s by embracing our brokenness and living through our brokenness that we move toward healing and transformation.

Nouwen calls this living under the blessing rather than the curse. When we lose a family member or friend in death, when we fail in a relationship, when we go through a separation and divorce, when we lose a job or a dream dies, when we live through some act of violence that jars us and scars us, when some tragedy strikes – if we live this under the curse, then it’s easy to become bitter and resentful. It is likely we will become angry and depressed. But when we put all of this under God’s blessing, when we realize that none of this is a reflection of what God thinks of us, because God loves us with an eternal love, then the trial and tragedy we undergo can somehow be incorporated into our journey toward the realization of our full humanity. It can all be incorporated into the process of becoming image bearers of God.

There is a scene in Leonard Bernstein’s musical work simply titled Mass that illustrates this. Toward the end of the work, the priest, adorned richly in splendid liturgical vestments, is lifted up by his people. He towers high above the adoring crowd, carrying in his hands a glass chalice. Then suddenly, the human pyramid carrying him in his glory collapses (as all human aspirations of glory do), and the priest comes tumbling down. His vestments are ripped off. His glass chalice breaks and shatters into many pieces. As the priest walks through the debris of his former glory – barefoot, wearing only blue jeans and a T-shirt – children’s voices are heard singing, “Laude, laude, laude” – “Praise, praise, praise.” Suddenly the priest notices the broken chalice. He looks at it for a long time and then, haltingly, he says, “I never realized that broken glass could shine so brightly.”

When we embrace our brokenness, when we live through our brokenness in the light of God’s blessing, then our brokenness can reflect the mystery and beauty of God’s grace and presence. As we face our brokenness and bring our brokenness into the light of God’s blessing, we find meaning and the capacity to care for and extend love and grace to others. Here is the third stage of the pattern: Jesus blessed, he broke, and he gave. Giving is the final stage of the pattern.

Our Gospel story highlights the power of the Spirit that drove Jesus, that motivated and compelled him to do what he did – to challenge the powers that be, to confront injustice, to break down walls and barriers, to welcome the excluded and condemned, to heal the sick, liberated the demonized, and feed the hungry. The text says that when Jesus saw the great crowd of hurting, hungry people he had compassion for them. Jesus was living under the blessing of being the Beloved. He had heard the voice of the Father say, “You are my beloved son, on whom my favor rests.” He was living under that voice of blessing, which is the same voice of blessing that we need to hear and live under too.  

Jesus, no doubt, was weary. He was tired. He needed some solitude. He was trying to get away from the crowds. He is just one human being. As Luke says in Acts 2, “a man appointed by God” to do some great works, but a man nonetheless. I’m sure we would have been upset with the crowds hounding us for favors. But because Jesus lived through the human condition under the blessing of God he was able to draw from the compassion of the Spirit who empowered him.

It’s interesting to contrast Jesus’ response and the response of the disciples – which would no doubt be our response. When the disciples face the tragedy of the human condition, when they face the brokenness of the people, all they can see is what can’t be done. “Send them away” they tell Jesus. Maybe they can find some food, some help, some healing, some hope on their own. We have nothing to give them. And maybe they were right. Maybe they didn’t have anything to give them. Maybe they had not yet learned to face their own brokenness in the light of God’s blessing. But Jesus living under the blessing of God, living in the power of Spirit, the power of divine compassion says, “Bring them to me.”

We are not sit back and bask in God’s blessing, but rather, we are called to spread God’s blessing out of compassion and gratitude. We who are blessed and broken are called to give. And there are all kinds of ways we can do that. I would say: Just start where you are with the people you rub up against every day. Many of them are hungry for a more meaningful life. Some of them feel lost and alone. Some are struggling with feelings of worthlessness and self-doubt and low self-esteem. Some try to cover their faults and brokenness and appear better than they really are. Some are blind to the kind of humility and grace that could heal their souls and give them some real joy and peace. We pray to Jesus and Jesus looks at us and says, “You give them something to eat.”

We are called to give of ourselves in mercy and also in justice. No one was left out. There was plenty to go around. They had more than enough. The problem we face in our world when it comes to matters of justice, of everyone having enough not just to survive but thrive is not a resource problem. We have enough resources – at least at the moment. Our problem is a distribution problem. We are called to give indiscriminately, but if we follow our Lord, then we have a special obligation to give to, stand with, and advocate for the oppressed and impoverished and most vulnerable among us.

We might think of ourselves as a little piece of fish or piece of bread. What can we give? What do we have to offer? We tend to focus on what we can do, the talents we have to give, our special abilities, and so forth, and we often think we have little to offer. We tend to forget is that the greatest gift we can give is not so much about what we can do, but rather, it’s more about who we are. So the main question is not, “What can we do for each other?” But rather, “Who can we be for each other.” Am I willing to share the gift of who I am with others?

If we bring our lives under the blessing of God, if we claim our true identity as God’s beloved daughters and sons, we can face and embrace our brokenness, and our very brokenness becomes a means through which the blessing of God is extended to others.

It’s an interesting detail in the story. When they gathered up what was left they gathered up twelve baskets full. But the twelves baskets were not filled with whole loaves of bread or whole pieces of fish. Oh no. It was filled with broken pieces. God feeds the multitude, heals the sick, and liberates the oppressed with broken pieces. The Christ is able to multiply many times over what little we are and have, if we will just bring it all under the blessing of God and be willing to open our broken lives to others. Our brokenness confronted and embraced with the blessing of God will become a source of healing and help and hope to others.

Our good God, we sometimes look at ourselves and just see our sin, our failure, our weaknesses, our shortcomings and we tend to feel sorry for ourselves, or feel useless and of little value. Help us to look past all of that and see what we are by virtue of your original blessing, and help us to realize that nothing can sever us from that blessing, from the love you have for each one of us. May that love, your love, your welcome and acceptance, your compassion empower us to face our brokenness and give ourselves to one another and to our world – acting mercifully and justly whenever and wherever we can. Amen.