Monday, September 25, 2017

Obeying God and Hating It (the story of Jonah)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gracious God,

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

Sunday, September 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 11, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

An authentic Christian response to violence (A sermon from Matthew 16:21-26; Romans 12:9-21)

Paul gives a number of admonitions all under the heading, “Let love be genuine.” Everything that follows from that opening statement is a description of what genuine love looks like. In the second paragragh beginning in v.14 Paul focuses on how we should respond to violence, echoing the teaching of Jesus about loving our enemies. Jesus’ teaching on the subject can be found in Matthew 5 and its parallel version in Luke 6. Paul, of course, is not quoting either Matthew or Luke, because Matthew and Luke were not written until two or three decades after Paul wrote his letters. Other than maybe the book of James, Paul’s letters are the earliest New Testament documents we have, most likely written in the 50’s of the C.E. So Paul would not have had access to the written Gospels. However, he would have had access to the teachings of Jesus and the stories about Jesus that had been circulating in the oral tradition, that is, teachings and stories that were being told and retold and passed on by word of mouth. And obviously, as these teachings were passed on different versions of them would appear.

I want to begin by reading and commenting on part of Matthew’s version of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus says in Matt. 5:38ff: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” The gold star interpretation of Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence that has become the mainstay of mainline scholarship is Walter Wink’s interpretation in his award winning book, “Engaging the Powers.” Wink points out that Jesus is not instructing his disciples to be doormats and do nothing. He notes that the word translated “resist” means to resist violently, to revolt or rebel or engage in insurrection. In other words, Jesus is not forbidding resistance; Jesus is forbidding violent resistance. Jesus is telling them not to fight fire with fire, not to go blow for blow with the oppressor.

Jesus then offers some examples of how they might respond creatively to violence in their culture. I don’t have time to comment on all these, but this first example explains what Jesus is doing. He says, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Why the right cheek? In that right-handed world you would think the blow would be on the left cheek. Jesus is referencing here a back-handed slap. The kind of slap that someone in power might deliver to a subordinate – a day laborer or slave – not to actually injure, but to humiliate, to insult, to put the subordinate in his or her place. This is a blow that a master might deliver to a slave, a Roman to a Jew, or a man to a woman or even a child. Now, in that culture any attempt to actually fight back would be met with instant force. It would be to put one’s life in jeopardy. Jesus’ instruction is: Stand right back up and offer the other cheek to be slapped. Jesus is giving them an example of a creative way to protest which is not likely to get them killed. By offering the other cheek the one slapped is refusing to be humiliated. It’s a way of claiming one’s humanity. It’s a way of saying, “No matter what you do to me, you do not take from me my dignity and humanity.” This is true of the other two examples Jesus gives about stripping off one’s clothing and handing it over to the oppressor even as the oppressor goes about confiscating their property, and walking an extra mile when a soldier orders you to carry his bags one mile. These are all creative forms of protest.

Walter Wink puts it this way, “He [Jesus] is formulating a worldly spirituality in which the people at the bottom of society or under the thumb of imperial power learn to recover their humanity.” So, rather than running scarred, or attempting to fight back, rather than responding by flight or fight, Jesus offers a third way. This “third way” became the basis for the strategies developed by Gandhi and King. Jesus is encouraging his disciples to be creative. Jesus is not saying, “Don’t resist.” Jesus is saying, “Don’t resist violently. Don’t respond in kind. Be creative and find a way to claim your humanity.”

When Paul says, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink” he is telling his readers to treat the oppressors as human beings. He is saying, “Don’t sink to the moral level of the oppressors or give credibility to the oppressors by responding in kind to the oppressors. Don’t allow the hate of the oppressors to become hate for the oppressors, because then you are no different than the oppressors. Treat them as human beings and in doing so you preserve your own humanity.” We “bless” the oppressor and “pray” for the oppressor because the oppressor bears the image of God no matter how marred and distorted that image may be. Both Jesus and Paul teach that we must not get caught up in a spiral of hate and violence. By treating the enemy as a human being, with human decency, we are able to hold in check our own anger and keep it from devolving into bitterness and hate. When Paul says, “Do not repay evil for evil” he is saying, “Do not mirror evil.” Do not let the evil in the oppressor become evil in your heart and soul.

Sisters and brothers, it takes great moral strength and courage to follow Jesus’ third way. When Jackie Robinson became the first black player in major league baseball, Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers pressed him to not fight back, to not respond to the abuse that he would have to put up with. Robinson said, “Mr. Ricky, are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back.” Rickey replied, “I’m looking for a ballplayer with enough guts not to fight back.” Gandhi taught that one could not go from flight to Jesus’ third way. He did not want people joining his movement who did not have the courage to fight back. He said if one didn’t have the courage to fight for their independence, then one didn’t have the courage to engage in nonviolent resistance.

For the most part Christians have ignored Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence. In fact, most Christians have embraced violence as a legitimate way of overcoming violence. Of course, it never works. It just escalates the violence and lowers us to the level of those who initiated the violence. Ethicist Richard Hayes gives the example of the time an Ozzy Osbourne concert was cancelled after protests and threats against the performer’s life. The people who issued the threats said that Osbourne represented “anti-Christian values.” See the irony. The ones who threatened violence were ever bit as much anti-Christian as Osbourne.

Father George Zabelka was chaplain for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bomb squadrons. He was the chaplain who administered mass to the Catholic bomber pilot who dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki in 1945. Later he came to repent of his complicity in the bombing of civilians. Writing much later in Sojourners he said, “To fail to speak to the utter moral corruption of the mass destruction of civilians was to fail as a Christian and a priest as I see it . . . I was there, and I’ll tell you that the operational moral atmosphere in the church in relation to mass bombing of enemy civilians was totally indifferent, silent, and corrupt at best — at worst it was religiously supportive of the activities by blessing those who did them.”

He is describing how the vast majority of Christians in America respond toward the mass destruction of civilians – “indifferent, silent, and corrupt” are the words he uses. And that has been for the most part the prevailing attitude in the church since Constantine. This wasn’t the case in the first three centuries. But when Christianity became endorsed by the Empire, the church conveniently started ignoring the teachings of Jesus. Now, there have always been pockets of resistance to violence, communities that bear prophetic witness to both the church and society with regard to Jesus’ nonviolent life and teachings, but for the most part, the church at large has acquiesced to violence. That has been our sad history.

The Catholic priest writing in Sojourners talked about walking through the ruins of Nagasaki after the war and feeling sick. He wrote, “When I look at it today I pray God forgives us for how we have distorted Christ’s teaching and destroyed his world by the distortion of that teaching. I was the Catholic chaplain who was there when this grotesque process that began with Constantine reached its lowest point — so far.”

Most all of us here I suspect were indoctrinated and socialized into a form of Christianity that completely ignored Jesus’ teachings about non-violence. Religion professor Charles Marsh at the University of Virginia wrote a book back in 2007 titled, “Wayward Christian Soldiers.” In one of the chapters he evaluated (spent several days reading) some of the sermons by leading Christian evangelical ministers like Charles Stanley, James Kennedy, Franklin Graham  and others leading up to the war with Iraq in 2003. He noted that Jesus made only an occasional appearance in these sermons and his teaching on non-violence was completely ignored. He said there was no struggle to make sense of Jesus’ teachings about love of enemies. There was no apprehension on the part of these ministers. Nothing about the violence that would be inflicted on civilians. No words of caution, no sense of anguish about the harm war would inflict on so many people. Just supreme self-confidence that killing the enemy was God’s will. If you remember that war, there is no way under heaven it could ever be called a just war. This was not war as a last resort. This was a war for pride and glory primarily. And secondarily, it was one to advance national interests. Stories about Saddam Hussein trying to make nuclear weapons were conjured up to justify it. Marsh says that when Christ was referenced in these sermons it wasn’t the Jesus whose portrait we have in the Gospels. It was an American Christ who championed American policies and interests.

You know, sisters and brothers, many Christians talk about God and country as if they both demanded the same devotion. They don’t and never will. It’s never God and country. It’s always just God. It’s always just the peaceable kingdom of God. It’s always just God’s household. It’s never God and anything. Nothing is on a par with God. In a recent OT reading from Isaiah (56:7), the prophet says that God’s house, referencing God’s temple, is to be a house of prayer for all peoples. I suspect this was one of several reasons Jesus protested the temple religion of his day. God’s house is not just for people of a particular race, or a particular faith, or a particular heritage, or of a particular place or position. No! It’s for all people. Why do we still not get it?

And as for the very first disciples of Jesus they had trouble getting it too. The Gospels portray them as unenlightened and confused about what Jesus was about. It wasn’t until after he died and God raised him from the dead that they begin to come around. In our Gospel reading today Jesus tells the disciples that he is going to suffer and die. He knows that the powers that be will not allow him to live. Jesus has challenged their version of truth and their misuse of religious teaching and authority on numerous occasions. And once he overturns the tables in the Temple as he plans to do he knows his demise is certain, he knows that will seal his death. He tries to prepare the disciples. But they don’t want to hear it. Peter tries to correct Jesus. Peter, who functions as spokesman for all the disciples tries to set Jesus straight. They don’t want a Messiah who suffers violence. They want a Messiah who enacts violence. That want a Messiah who will lead the charge against the Romans and break the backs of the oppressor. And Jesus is so upset with Peter (and all of them) Jesus calls him “Satan.” Then Jesus goes on to say, “If that is how you try to save your lives, then you will lose your lives.” “But,” says Jesus, “if you take up your cross and follow me, if you give your life as a living sacrifice to God’s peaceable kingdom of justice and mercy, if you pursue the way of love and peace, then you will save your lives – no matter what the worldly powers do to you.” They just didn’t get it, the same way so many of us still don’t get it.   

I will close with this. Both the Gospels and Paul are clear: Disciples of Jesus are committed to nonviolence. (Now, that is not to say we don’t struggle with this. And that is not to say that we wouldn’t or shouldn’t use violence as a last resort, and I think God understands that. But Jesus calls for commitment to nonviolence.) Both Jesus and Paul say, “Do not mirror hate. Do not seek vengeance. Do not return evil for evil. Bless your oppressors even as you refuse to cooperate with injustice. Strive to live peaceably, even with those who want to hurt and harm you. Bless them and pray for them even as you insist on your own dignity and liberation.” Both Jesus and Paul teach this. But it’s interesting how they ground this teaching on different rationales.

Paul hopes that by refusing to return evil for evil the one doing the evil will be changed. Paul also makes an appeal to God’s judgment. It is God’s work to judge, says Paul, and God will judge righteously. It is our work to bless so that we might heap burning coals on their heads and overcome evil with good. This reference to burning coals is probably a reference to the shame of remorse that leads to repentance. Paul suggests the possibility of piercing the conscience of the oppressor and winning them over.

Jesus, on the other hand, makes no reference in his teaching about winning over the enemy. Cleary that would be a good thing, right, to win over the enemy, to turn the enemy into a friend? But according to Jesus in Matthew’s version that’s not why we bless and pray and participate in nonviolent resistance. The reason we do it, says Jesus, is because that’s who we are and that’s who God is. God loves all God’s children, even those who do evil and commit grave injustices. (Now, there are other teachings in the Gospels where Jesus makes reference to God’s judgment. God will judge justly says Jesus, but Jesus also teaches that God never withdraws God’s love and grace. Whatever God’s judgment will involve, God never locks the door. Whatever judgment might look like its purpose is to change us, not condemn us. Its purpose is to redeem us, not destroy us.) God sends sunshine and rain on the evil and the good, says Jesus. Because that is who God is. Why do we bless and pray, and courageously meet our oppressor without returning the hate or evil? Because we bear the image of God. Because that’s who we are as daughters and sons of God. So I will end with this question and it may be the most important question you will face: Is that who you are? Is that who I am?

And that’s the question we face as a nation today right? What kind of people are we? Who are we going to be? Sisters and brothers, we love inclusively. We stand with the dreamers and we advocate for the most vulnerable among us. (And let me add this: the question of what is legal is totally irrelevant to followers of Jesus. The question for us is: What is moral? What is right? What is compassionate? Who are we? Are we going to be followers of Jesus or are we going to play politics. Who are we going to be?

O God, it’s very clear or should be, that we can be Christian and yet not be very Christian at all. We can be Christian, and not be much like Jesus at all. We have been so conditioned by our culture, by our society, by our peers, by our nation’s leaders, even by our church leaders – that it is very easy for us to simply ignore these teachings of Jesus and Paul on nonviolence. And to obey them takes more fearlessness and more courage and more inner strength than we think we have. It’s just so easy to get sucked in to the spiral of violence, to return the hate heaped on us, to repay injustice in kind. Help us, O God, to live out Jesus’ third way. Help us to be intentional through your Spirit to embody the way of Jesus. Forgive us when we fail, for we do indeed fail. And give us the courage and desire to pick ourselves up, to take up our cross, and to stay on the narrow path that leads to life and peace.