Sunday, October 29, 2017

Loving God (a sermon from Matthew 22:34-40)

These two commands on which hang all the law and the prophets are inseparably connected. In fact, to love one’s neighbor as one’s self is to love God, because God is in the neighbor. We are all God’s offspring. We all bear God’s image, no matter how imperfect or marred that image in us is, and we all are alive because God’s Spirit gives us life. Imagine how it grieves God when God suffers God’s children hating and devouring one another. The writer of 1 John puts it this way, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” So we cannot sever these two commands. They go hand-in-hand.

The power of love is the power of God. It is the power of the Holy Spirit. And there is no greater transforming power in the universe. I love that scene in the movie, The Hurricane, between Rubin and Lesra. The Hurricane is the story of professional boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who, at the height of his boxing career in the 1960’s was falsely accused of murder by a racist police force and sentenced to life in prison. While Carter is in prison, Lesra, a young black boy who has read Carter’s autobiography befriends him. As the friendship deepens, the boy introduces Carter to some of his adult friends who become convinced of Carter’s innocence and commit to helping him as his amateur lawyers and detectives.

After twenty years in prison Carter is granted a new trial. As they await the verdict, Carter and Lesra share a special moment. Carter says, “We’ve come a long way, huh, little brother?” Lesra nods and says, “Rubin, I just want you to know that if this doesn’t work, I’m bustin’ you outta here.” “You are?” says Carter. Lesra retorts, “Yeah, that’s right, I’m bustin’ you outta here.” After a moment of silence Carter suggests that they were not brought together by chance. He then says, “Hate put me in prison. Love’s gonna bust me out.” Lesra responds, “Just in case love doesn’t, I’m gonna bust you outta here.” Carter laughs. He reaches out to touch Lesra’s face and wipe away a tear. Clenching his hand he says, “You already have, Lesra.”

You see, even if the verdict doesn’t bring about justice, even if Carter has to continue to suffer the injustice of an unjust system, Carter has been set free – healed and liberated from his bitterness and resentment and need for revenge. Love is the power of God, the power of Spirit that liberates us from our grievance stories, from our hate and bitterness, and from all the destructive isms that entrap us, like sexism, racism, materialism, nationalism, exceptionalism, egotism, and the like.

According to the writer of 1 John wherever love is God is. To love others, to love our neighbor as ourselves is to be led by the Spirit of God even if we do not realize that we are being led, even if we are not aware or acknowledge that it is God who is at work in our lives.

But here in our Gospel text today the command to love God is a command and charge to intentionally and deliberately nurture a love for the ultimate source of life in the universe. The one we Christians know as “Abba” – as loving Father and Mother.

Now, to love God with all our heart and soul and mind is to love God totally, that is, with our total being – mentally, physically, emotionally, and volitionally. The command here is to love God with the totality of our being. So the question is: Do you believe in and trust in a God you can love? Many Christians and religious people don’t really love God. Richard Rohr likes to say that true religion is about falling in love with God. One could say that one who has a relationship with God born out of love is one who has truly been born again.

You know sisters and brothers, you can worship God without loving God. You can observe holy days and attend holy services, you can practice rituals and participate in litanies, you can say prayers and sing hymns without really loving God.

You can to a degree obey God without loving God. Obviously, if you don’t really love God you are not obeying the first and great commandment according to Jesus, but you can abide by and keep certain teachings, instructions, and commandments without really loving God.

It’s interesting how Jesus redefined holiness in the Gospels. The passage in Leviticus which we read earlier begins with the saying, “Be holy, because God is holy.” That saying does not appear in the Gospels. Jesus, in fact, changes it up. Instead of be holy because God is holy, Jesus says, “Be compassionate, because God is compassionate,” or “Be merciful because God is merciful,” or (in Matthew’s version) “Be complete, because God is complete.” The main reason Jesus fell into so much trouble with the Jewish leaders is because he confronted and challenged their holiness laws which they used primarily as a means of control and condemnation. Jesus challenged all systems of meritocracy and degrees of worthiness. Jesus embodied a holiness of love and compassion. We call the divine Spirit the Holy Spirit, and the primary fruit of the Spirit is love. There are many Christians and religious people today who worship God and to a degree obey God, but do not really love God.

You cannot make yourself love God. You cannot manufacture love for God. And the reason some religious people cannot love God is because they don’t have a God – they don’t believe in and trust in a God – who inspires and compels love.

Imagine a tight-knit community where people share their lives together. An outsider to this community listening in on their conversations would pick up rather quickly on their references and allusions to “Uncle George,” who seems to bind the community together. Uncle George appears to be lurking behind all their interactions. A beautiful sunset prompts one community member to exclaim, “Isn’t Uncle George awesome?” Good news and celebrative events inspire feelings of gratitude toward Uncle George. Even in tragedy, the community turns toward Uncle George for help.

At the beginning of each week the community assembles at the Community Center. There is animated conversation and fellowship as they discuss the past week’s events and upcoming plans. When a bell sounds, the conversation ceases. Everyone descends down a stairway into the basement where a giant man in dark clothes stands with his back turned toward them, facing an enormous furnace. When all are assembled he turns around. His look is stern and somber. His voice deep. He says, “Am I good?” They all respond in unison, “Yes, Uncle George, you are good.” He then asks, “Am I worthy of praise?” “Yes,” they all proclaim. “Do you love me more than anyone or anything else?” “We love you and you alone,” they reply.

His face is contorted and in a frightening voice he thunders, “You better love me or I’m going to put you in here!” Just then he opens the furnace door to a blaze of heat and darkness. Out of the darkness can be heard cries of anguish and misery. Then he closes the door as they sit in silence. After a time of reflection on what they just heard they leave and return to their life together in community. They talk about the wonders of Uncle George and they speak of his love for them as they live their lives the best they can. But while they mention Uncle George’s love, there is beneath all the talk and interaction an underlying fear and confusion—sometimes conscious, sometimes repressed—but always present. This inner fear limits their relationships, preventing them from talking about their doubts and questions, and keeping them from expressing to one another their inner anguish and uncertainties. It diminishes their lives in myriads of ways.

No matter how hard you try, sisters and brothers, you cannot love a God like Uncle George. You can worship him. You can fear him. You can, to a degree, obey him. But you can’t love him. And hence, you cannot actually obey the one central and great commandment to love God with the totality of your being. You might pretend so well you even convince yourself you love God, but you cannot really love a God like Uncle George.

We are told by Jesus to love our enemies, but if we believe that God tortures his enemies, how then can we possibly love our enemies? How then can we possibly love God? Richard Rohr puts it this way (I have included this quote in your worship bulletin), “Under the message that most of us have heard, we end up being more loving than God, and then not taking God very seriously. Even my less-than-saintly friends, the ordinary Joes on the block, would usually give a guy a break, overlook some mistakes, and even on their worst days would not imagine torturing people who do not like them, worship them, or believe in them. ‘God’ ends up looking rather petty, needy, narcissistic, and easily offended. God’s offended justice is clearly much stronger than God’s mercy, it seems. Why would anyone trust or love such a God, or want to be alone with Him or Her? Much less spend eternity with such a Being? I wouldn’t. We must come to recognize that this perspective conscious or unconscious, is at the basis of much agnosticism and atheism in the West today.” Rohr goes on to say that we need to be honest about what we call “good news,” because what some Christians call good news is really bad news for many sincere human beings. Rohr says, often these are people of real inner integrity and spiritual intelligence, who simply refuse to deny, repress, or pretend, who refuse to call “good news” what they clearly see as “bad news.” Jesus turns this all around. Jesus says, “If you who are evil, know how to give your children what is good, then how much more God.” God’s love is always greater than our love.

Dennis, Sheila, and Matthew Linn have written an excellent little book that aims to help people heal their hurtful images of God. Dennis Linn was at one time a priest. One day a woman named Hilda came to him because her son had tried to commit suicide for the fourth time. She told Dennis that he was involved in prostitution, drug dealing, and even murder. She ended the list by saying that her son wants nothing to do with God. She wanted to know what would happen to her son if he commits suicide without repenting and wanting nothing to do with God. At the time Dennis’ theology couldn’t offer Hilda much hope for her son, but he knew better than to say so. So he said, “What do you think?” She said, “I think that when you die, you appear before the judgment seat of God. If you have lived a good life, God will send you to heaven. If you have lived a bad life, God will send you to hell.” And then she concluded in despair, “Since my son has lived such a bad life, if he were to die without repenting, God would certainly send him to hell.”

Dennis then said to her, “Close your eyes. Imagine that you are setting next to the judgment seat of God. Imagine also that your son has died with all these serious sins and without repenting. He has just arrived at the judgment seat of God.” He then asked her to squeeze his when she could imagine that. After a minute or two she squeezed his hand. He asked her, “Hilda, how does your son feel?” She said, “My son feels so lonely and empty.” Dennis then asked her what she wanted to do. She said, “I want to throw my arms around my son.” She lifted her arms and began to cry as she imagined holding her son tightly. Finally, when she stopped crying Dennis asked her to look into God’s eyes and imagine what God wanted to do. She imagined God stepping down from his throne, and embracing her son just as Hilda did. And the three of them, Hilda, her son, and God, cried together and held one another.

Dennis says, “I was stunned. What Hilda taught me in those few minutes is the bottom line of healthy Christian spirituality . . . God loves us at least as much as Hilda loves her son . . . God loves us at least as much as the person who loves us the most.” 

God’s love is absolutely unconditional. The healing works of Jesus in the Gospels are signs of God’s kingdom, they are representative of the way God works in the world. Those who are healed or restored or made whole or “saved” by Jesus (it’s the same word in the Greek) are saved or healed unconditionally. Jesus never puts a single condition or prerequisite on any of his healings: no affiliation with the right group, no doctrines you must believe, no purity codes to keep, no attendance at the right synagogue or temple. Grace is given unconditionally. Sometimes faith is mentioned in the context of Jesus’ healings, but it’s never required.

God’s love is unconditional. Of course, we have to open the door of our hearts to receive God’s love and allow God’s love to flow through us. That’s our part – to open our hearts and receive it. It’s love that changes us. And it helps if we have had a least one person in our lives – a parent maybe – who has loved us unconditionally. As I said last week, we get to know God through human relationships and experiences. So it’s a big plus if we at some point have experienced unconditional love from someone in our lives. But even if we haven’t, even if no one in our lives has loved us unconditionally, even if we have no human experience to compare it too, if we open our hearts, we can experience God’s unconditional love.

Our good God, try as we may some of us cannot love you because for whatever reason, maybe it’s what was embedded in us as children, maybe it was the kind of religious instruction we received, or just maybe we have been stuck so long in one place, that we cannot imagine a God who loves all his or her children unconditionally. Help us to see what a great lover you are. And may we then allow your love to enter our lives so that you can turn us into lovers like you. 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Knowing God (A sermon from Exodus 33:12-23)

The sacred storywriter tells us that Moses prays, “Show me your ways, so that I may know you.” This is, I believe, the universal longing of the human heart. One ancient interpreter of the faith said, “The heart of man is restless until it finds its rest in God.”  Of course, not everyone would identify this existential angst, this missing element in our lives as a longing for God. In fact, it’s usually disguised as something else. We might think that the something that is missing is something in our marriage or our vocational career or in our friendships. We might think of something physical or material or emotional – rather than spiritual. And I’m sure there are things missing in those areas of our lives, because none of us have it all together do we? So I am not suggesting that every need, every longing, every bit of angst we experience is spiritual. But all these other longings and needs are echoes of our greatest need of all, which is spiritual. It is the need to consciously connect with the Ultimate Source of our lives.

Today I would like to suggest three stages in knowing God. The first stage is knowing that I’m loved and chosen by God. I remember being taught John 3:16 as a kid in Sunday School and being told to substitute my name where the text says, “God so loved the world.” Instead of reading God so loved the world, I was told to read it as, “God so loved Chuck.” And it is true. God’s love is very personal and special.

And we all need this. We all need to know we are loved, that we are special. Children need to feel special as part of their healthy development emotionally and socially. One of the joys of being a grandparent is that we get to do this for our grandkids over and over again and then leave it to their parents to smooth out their rough edges and remind them that while they are special there are limits right? We grandparents get to focus almost exclusively on the special part don’t we? 

When Addie was around two years old she loved to hear stories about herself. I remember one day Melissa and I being at the swimming pool in Versailles with the girls and Melissa had to take Sophie to the bathroom, so Addie was left with me. She didn’t want to be left with me. She wanted Nan. Well, there’s only so much of Nan to go around. So sometimes just get stuck with Pap. Addie started to cry. Do you know how I got her to stop crying? I held her real close, which she at first resisted, and I started telling her how special she was. I told her the story of the day she was born and how excited we were when she came into the world. Then I told her about some of the experiences we have shared together in her brief time in the world. Soon she calmed down and had her arm around my neck as she listened to me tell her how much she is loved and how special she is over and over. We Grandparents get to do that.

We need to know God loves us as we are, that we are special to God. But if we get stuck here, as many do, then we could be left with a distorted image of God and an unhealthy kind of spirituality. A healthy relationship with God requires more than just knowing that we are loved and chosen. It requires an understanding that everyone else is loved and chosen by God too. This is the second stage of knowing God. One of the dangers of substituting our names in place of “world” in John 3:16 is that we forget that God does indeed love the world. You are special to God, but you are no more special than everyone else. The second stage of knowing God is knowing that God loves my Jewish friends, or Buddhist friends, or Muslim friends, and even my enemies, as much as God loves me. And they are capable of knowing God within their own traditions as intimately as we know God within ours. They are also just as likely to get stuck at first stage spirituality the way we get stuck.

I’m not sure the covenant people of God understood this at this time in their moral and spiritual development. Moses prays that God would accompany Israel in their journey to the promised land by making God’s presence known in some distinct way. Perhaps Moses is asking for some visible sign. “In this way,” says Moses to God, “we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.” I suppose it’s okay to believe that we are God’s favorites when we are children, but at some point we have to grow up. Because if we get stuck at the beginning stage, we could end up doing more harm than good.  

I have sometimes said and heard some of you say this too, when discussing some of the beliefs Christians have today; I have said, “I just hope their faith does them and others more good than harm.” Some beliefs when translated into practice are harmful. And this is one of them: Believing that God loves us more than God loves others. Believing that we have the truth while others don’t. Believing that we are special and chosen, while others have been passed over. 

Certainly a healthy love of self is needed in order to love others. So we need to feel chosen and loved. But there also comes a time when we need to realize that we are all in this together and that we are all loved and chosen by God. According to the Abrahamic tradition, God called out a people, entered into covenant with that people, so that through that people all people/nations of the earth would be blessed.

Our calling as the chosen people of God is to spread the message of chosenness to everyone else, so they too will know they are loved by God. If the life and story of Jesus tells us anything, it tells us that we need to communicate this chosenness from a place of solidarity, from a place of unity and service to others as our equals, not from a place of superiority or dominance. Unfortunately, the missionary activity of the Western church too often has been conducted from a place of superiority, rather than solidarity and unity, and we have done a lot of harm in the world as a result.  

Samir Selmanovic, in his book It’s Really All About God, tells about an experience he had on the morning of September 11, 2002. One of the Christian family radio networks had lined him up for an interview. He was mentally prepared to tell about the many ways they had learned to love the city and its people in the aftermath of 9/11.   

While he was waiting to go on the air, he heard the two co-hosts boasting about Christianity, literally patronizing the world. He suddenly found himself disoriented by what he heard, and realized that he was not ready for the interview at all. He had to quickly rethink what he was going to say, because he knew what they were going to ask. And it came right on schedule: “Pastor, tell us, don’t you find people in New York more ready to receive the gospel after the tragedy? Aren’t they more receptive than ever to the message? Can we take this city for Jesus?”

Selmanovic paused and said, “No. New York is a great opportunity for us Christians to learn. Most of the people here feel that to see the world our way would be a step backward morally. They see Christians as people not dedicated to following Jesus on earth, but obsessed with their religion. They see us as people who are really not interested in the sufferings on earth like Jesus was but driven with the need to increase the number of those worshiping this Grand Jesus in heaven. They wonder why, of all people, we are the first to rush to solve the world’s problems with weapons instead of patience and humility. I learned,” he told his radio hosts, “that it is we who need to be converted after September 11 to the ways of Jesus.”

How do you think that went over? We Christians are the ones who need to be converted to the ways of Jesus. The radio personalities didn’t ask for clarification. They quickly changed the subject and cut the interview short, not even halfway through the time allotted. In reflecting on his experience Selmanovic says: “I realized that it is our Christian superiority complex that makes us an inferior force in making the world a better place.”

If we Christians are to be a positive force in the world, if we are to contribute to the common good and help bring about a just world, then a lot more of us will need to move beyond first level spirituality. We will need to move beyond Christian exceptionalism and elitism. We will need to move beyond dualistic – ‘us’ versus ‘them’ – thinking if we are going to be a source of renewal and hope. We must stop and repent of the many ways we relate to the world from a place of superiority. If we don’t change, if we Christians cannot break away from old ways of thinking and believing and doing, and be converted to the more compassionate and inclusive ways of Jesus, then we will continue to do more harm than good.  

So the first stage of knowing God is knowing that we are chosen and loved by God. The second stage is knowing that everyone else is chosen and loved by God too. The third stage is: We know God’s inclusive love through human relationships and experiences.

In this interchange between Moses and God, God speaks these strange words: “I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” This, of course, is symbolical language (all religious language is symbolical language). We should know, of course, not to take this in any literal sense. The writer is using human imagery to speak of the Divine. But what does it mean? Who can say for sure what it means?

I read it as a way of expressing how God speaks and works in the world. There are many things we will never know about God, because we are finite and God is infinite. We simply cannot know and see the “face” of God, the totality and essence of God. God is in some ways completely beyond us. But in other ways God is part of us. God is in us. We live because God lives in us. We Christians like to say that we live because Christ lives in us. It’s the same as saying God lives in us – we just employ the language of our tradition. As Paul said to the Athenian philosophers in Acts 17 according to Luke: “We are all God’s offspring” and “in God all of us live, move, and have our being/existence.” So here’s the paradox. God is hidden in the world and God is revealed in the world. Both are true.

The great perennial, universal truth that Judeo-Christian religion has brought to the stage of human history is the truth of incarnation. We know God because God makes God’s self known through human experiences and relationships, and in the world all around us. Richard Rohr says incarnation really began with the Big Bang, when time and space and matter all came into existence in our universe. At the time of the Big Bang God expresses God’s self in a way that in time (it takes a lot of time) will bring forth life and then in “the fullness of time” become particularized in human beings fully alive. Jesus, of course, is our model of a human being fully alive. Jesus is our definitive expression of what God is like. This is why we aspire to be like Jesus, because to be like Jesus is to be like God, who indwelt Jesus and who indwells you and me.

So this symbolical “backside” of God, I believe, speaks of our capacity as image bearers of God to see and know the invisible God through our human relationships and experiences in this visible, material, physical, tangible world. Matter has always been the hiding place for Spirit. God resides in the depths of things. God resides in the depths of our souls, which is why that when we find our true self, when we know our true self, we know God.

I love the expression in the text where God says: “I will make all my goodness pass before you.” If we have eyes to see, if we are tuned in, we can find and experience divine goodness all around us. We just have to open the eyes of our hearts and invite the light of that goodness to penetrate and then permeate our souls.

God’s goodness saturates the air we breathe. God’s goodness is not an add-on for believing or doing the right things. It’s not just given to the saved or to some chosen group. It’s not just doled out on churched or religious people, or a prize for measuring up. It’s not earned or dispensed as a reward. God’s goodness is what sustains all life and it is inherent in all life. It is not just now-and-then, filling the gaps. God’s goodness is the very fullness of God that fills all reality.

If we really want to know God and experience God’s goodness, then we will need to rid ourselves of our biases, especially the bias of thinking we alone, our group, our religion has the truth and others don’t. We will need to let go of the Christian exceptionalism and elitism most all of us were taught. And we can say “Yes” to God’s goodness by saying “yes” to our own capacity to love and share that goodness as image bearers of the divine.

Gracious God, may we recognize that the angst we often identify in a variety of ways reflects a deeper longing that many of us are not even aware of – to know you and your goodness. Help us to know, O God that we are loved and chosen – not exclusively, but inclusively. That your love reaches everyone. May we grasp just how wide and broad and deep it is. Let our hearts be open to your goodness. May we learn to see and experience your goodness in a variety of ways – in our relationships and experiences every day. Show us your ways so that we may embody your ways and so that others may find you in us. Amen. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Not just for funerals (A sermon from Psalm 23)

There is no way to prove this, but I suspect that no scripture has been read as often as Psalm 23. I can’t prove this either, but if there was a way of accessing all my comments and messages that I have delivered at funeral and celebration of life services over the years, I would wager that I read Psalm 23 at some point in the liturgy, either in the service itself or at the graveside in every one of those services. But let’s not relegate this text to funeral services. It is a passage for pilgrims of all types at all stages of our journey, not just in the final one. It’s a witness to the presence of God through all of life.

The passage begins with a statement that many have aspired to, but few, if any, have actually attained.  Really, I think this whole Psalm sets forth spiritual realities in their ideal form, that we never experience fully, but experience in varying degrees.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Have you ever came to the place in your spiritual life where you want for nothing? I haven’t. And I would question whether any of you have either, if you are honest. Most of us have any number of wants. Sometimes our wants control us and may even consume us. I doubt very seriously that any of us have entered a place of spiritual rest where we are completely and totally content. In fact, I wonder if it is even humanly possible.

The Psalmist describes this state of spiritual contentment and rest in a beautiful, rich pastoral scene of dwelling in green pastures and beside still waters. Spiritual rest is such an important aspect of the spiritual life that we are introduced to the idea in the first creation story as being essential to the Divine life. Following a series of creative acts, the story says, “God rested.” Jesus modeled a life of spiritual rest for his disciples by periodically withdrawing from the crowds and entereing into prayer and solitude. If Jesus needed a balance between active engagement and spiritual rest certainly we do too. In Matthew’s Gospel the living Christ invites us into his rest. He says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

Entering into spiritual rest is important, but it is not an end in and of itself. If you have kids or grandkids you might have seen the movie “Cars.” These cars have personalities and can talk. Imagine one of these cars pulling in to fueling station and as the gas is dispensed the car says, “O this feels so good, I think I will just sit here and feel good all day.” Cars get filled with fuel so they can hit the road running and get to where they need to go. Jesus, our spiritual mentor, modeled in the Gospels a life of spiritual retreat and solitude that fueled his tank and empowered his mission and ministry.

I think those who tend to be movers and shakers, folks heavily invested in taking on injustice, speaking truth to power, and working to redeem unjust systems can sometimes undervalue and neglect this important dimension of our lives. This is why you see some people who invest heavily in taking on injustice sometimes just give up or walk away, becoming angry, bitter, and disillusioned. When we fail to invest in a spiritual life we might just discover that we don’t have what it takes to persevere against great odds. And justice work is very slow work against great odds. You can do this for years and not see hardly any change. And so it takes a deeper life, a deeper connection to wells of spirit to keep the joy and gratitude in our hearts that can sustain us through the slow grind. But make no mistake about it, spiritual rest and restoration ultimately sends us out into the unjust world to bear the fruits of the kingdom, to work and serve and minister to see the kingdom of God come on earth as it is in heaven.

This balance is reflected in the psalm. Just the Shepherd of our souls leads us to quiet waters and green pastures he leads us into paths of righteousness. I do not like the translation in the NRSV and some other translations that says “right paths.” The reason I dislike it is because it leaves to much up for grabs. Right paths can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. But what the psalmist actually says is “paths of righteousness.” This is captured in the alternative reading listed at the bottom of the translation.

In the biblical tradition of both testaments “righteousness” and “justice” are two closely related ideas. Righteousness includes social and restorative justice, but is the broader concept and therefore used more often. Frequently the two words are used interchangeably in our tradition and righteousness would be better translated justice in certain passages. Hebrew and OT scholar Walter Brueggemann says that a righteous person is one who seeks to fulfill his covenant obligation to love God and love neighbor as one’s self. This is a person given to the healing and betterment of community life. He says, and I quote, “The righteous person is characteristically one who invests in the community, showing special attentiveness to the poor and the needy.”

So the righteous person is a person who on the one hand, gives to the poor, cares for the vulnerable, and does acts of mercy and kindness. On the other hand, the righteous person stands with the poor and vulnerable, and advocates for them, challenging systems that oppress them.

Last week I was walking by the television in route somewhere and overheard an NFL player being interviewed about kneeling during the National Athem. I caught it after it had started so I can’t tell you the athlete’s name. But this is what he said, “This isn’t about disrespect for anything, our flag, our country, our military; I have the highest respect for all of that.” He then went on to mention all the loved ones, all the people in his family who served or are currently serving in the military. He said, “I have the highest respect for all of them and what they are doing. This is about systemic oppression against people of color. That’s what we are protesting. And that has to change.” And he’s right. It has to change, if we are going to make any progress toward a just society that has to change. It is a simple fact (not an alternative fact, but a real fact) that people of color often receive much harder sentences at the hands of the criminal justice system than white people who commit the very same offense. It is a simple fact that racial profiling does go on in some policing communities and that people of color are far more likely to be victims of police brutality than white persons. And that has to change. The reason the good Shepherd leads us into spiritual rest is so we will have the wisdom and courage and moral strength to help bring about such change.

Next, the Psalmist suggests the possibility of having a banquet in hell. Even when we walk through the darkest valley God is with us on the journey and invites us to celebrate life even in the midst of death. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” The enemies we face might be powerful economic, religious, political, and social systems that would chain us down and crush us. Or the enemy may be cancer or some physically and emotionally ravaging and debilitating disease that diminishes life. The enemies we face could be of our own making or they could be the natural consequence of the acts of nature or others like hurricanes or earthquakes or terrorist attacks or random shootings like the horrific one in Las Vegas. Or the enemies could be our own inner fears and insecurities, feelings of loneliness or isolation or depression, or feelings of bitterness and resentment.

The Psalmist is suggesting that the Good Shepherd of our souls is able to help us confront and overcome these enemies and can lead us into a celebration of goodness right in the midst of all the badness.   God’s mercy and goodness follow us and pursue us into all the hells of our lives – whether these hells are of our own making or the work of other persons, systems, or circumstances.

On this day as we observe Holy Communion we are reminded that our Lord, our spiritual guide and mentor, descended into hell – not literally of course, but it was a real hell nonetheless, when he was executed on a Roman cross. Even his closest disciples, in whom he had invested the most, deserted him. Jesus knew they would. He knew they were not strong enough or courageous enough to take up their cross too and walk with him through his darkest valley. And yet when he shares a final meal with them, he promises them forgiveness.

It is unfortunate I think that we have done so much theologizing about Jesus’ statement of forgiveness in the final meal. We take that promise of forgiveness and we make it fit whatever atonement theory we cling to. And I think in doing so we miss what it was probably all about. I suspect Jesus, knowing his disciples will abandon and desert him, is promising them forgiveness. At some point in the aftermath of his death and their failure he knows they will remember his words of forgiveness. I wish people could believe that. That no matter where we go or what we have done or whatever hell we live through, God’s goodness and unfailing love, God’s mercy and forgiveness pursue us there.

As we share this sacred meal together today maybe one meaning we can attribute to this Holy Communion is this: We are in this together. We are on a journey, a pilgrimage together. No matter what hell any of you go through, the rest of us will be there to walk with you through it. No matter what enemies we face that seek to diminish our lives, the rest will be there to face them with us.

O God, as we eat this bread and drink this cup help us to realize that our discipleship to Jesus means walking with one another through the hells of life. It means helping one another celebrate life in the midst of death. Amen

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Fruits of the Kingdom ( A sermon from Isa. 5:1-7 and Matt. 21:33-46)

This parable is found in all three Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Matthew, as usual, adds to it some details that give it a particular flavor unique to Matthew. In its original setting in Jesus’ ministry, it is likely Jesus tells a shorter form of this parable in anticipation of his death. He has already been rejected by the religious leaders who are now plotting a way to get rid of him. In the narrative Jesus tells this parable after he stages a protest in the Temple overturning the tables of the money changers. That prophetic act of Jesus sealed his fate. Now it’s just a matter of time.

The parable is based on Isaiah’s song of the vineyard in Isaiah 5. This passage in Isaiah 5 is called by the prophet a love song. In that love song the owner and caretaker of the land diligently prepares and plants a vineyard with tender-loving care. But instead of producing good fruit, it yields sour grapes. And so the caretaker decides to let it be. The result is that the vineyard gets trampled down and destroyed.

The song of the vineyard is an allegory. The vineyard represents God’s covenant people, called out to communicate to the world the grace and goodness of their God. The prophet explains why God allows judgment to fall. He says, “God expected justice, but saw bloodshed.” That’s the reason for judgment. God expected that the people he called to be divine image bearers to the world would reflect God’s passion for the downtrodden, the outcasts, the poor, and the aliens in the land. God expected the fruit of righteousness and mercy. But instead, God’s vineyard, God’s covenant people bore the sour fruit of violence and bloodshed. Instead of peace, they pursued war. Instead of justice, they took advantage of the vulnerable.

In the parable in Matthew 21 the same type of allegory is developed. The “tenants” represent the leaders of the covenant people. The landowner is God. The vineyard, here though, is God’s kingdom, unlike in Isaiah where the vineyard represents the covenant people of God. The servants who are rejected, mistreated, and killed represent the prophets. The son, of course, is Jesus. The other tenants symbolize the new community of Christ made of both Jews and Gentiles committed to Christ’s teachings. This story in Matthew 21 highlights two themes that are fairly prominent throughout the biblical tradition and are as important to us today as they were in Matthew’s community then. The two themes are grace and judgment.

While judgment falls on the violent tenants of the land, it only falls as the last resort, after all attempts at reconciliation have been exhausted. Twice the landowner sends his servants to collect the harvest, and in both instances the tenants respond violently, even killing some of them. Then he sends his son, saying to himself, “They will respect my son.” The landowner takes a great risk in sending his son. And pays for it. Because the greedy and violent tenants see this as an opportunity to take possession of the land. They say, “This is the heir, let’s kill him and grab his inheritance for ourselves.” So then the question is asked, “What do you think the landowner will do to those tenants?”

The question of course is rhetorical. In Mark’s version Jesus answers his own question and says in a rather straightforward manner, “He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.” Matthew’s version Jesus says, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” In typical Matthean fashion there is an added harshness to to Matthew’s version of the story, but of special note is the emphasis on producing fruit.

Matthew adds a postscript to the parable that Luke and Mark do not have. In Matthew’s version Jesus says, “The kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” Only Matthew has this phrase, “the fruits of the kingdom.” Throughout Matthew’s Gospel there is a frequent emphasis on fruits, on doing the will of God. Judgment falls because they failed to produce fruits, they failed to do the will of God, they failed to pursue justice, to dispense mercy, and walk humbly with God. When Isaiah calls the people of his time to seek justice, he says, “rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (1:17). These are the fruits of the kingdom. The kingdom of God is about a just world; it’s about a just society; it about the will of God being done on earth as it is in heaven.  It’s about liberating the oppressed, opening the eyes of the blind, freeing those captive to the demonic systems and powers of the world, and bringing good news to the poor.

Consider for a moment Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. The conclusion to Jesus’ teaching on the mount puts all the emphasis on bearing fruit. Isn’t it interesting that in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 there is not a single teaching about what to believe. Every single teaching is about what to do and how to live. In conclusion Jesus says, “Every tree (doesn’t matter if you are a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, or an atheist) that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.” I think we should be honest and acknowledge that most of us were not taught this. I grew up in a typical conservative SBC church and I was taught that one would be judged on the basis of whether or not one believes in Jesus as Savior, but that is not what the Gospels teach. In every single judgment text in Matthew, Mark, and Luke participants in God’s kingdom are not identified by what they believe, but by what they do. This emphasis is even found in John’s Gospel.

The Gospels teach that just as God’s grace is for all, God’s judgment is for all too. Most Christians don’t want to think about that. They think that just because they are Christians they escape God’s judgment. But according to the Gospels God is no respecter of persons.  When we, as God’s people called to be the body of Christ in the world fail to bear these fruits of the kingdom, we too, just like the covenant people of God under the old covenant come under the judgment of God. All the judgment texts in the Synoptics have to do with fruits, rather than faith.

Does that scare you? It shouldn’t. And here’s why. The judge is full of grace. The judge is an unconditional lover. The judge is Abba the loving Father Jesus prayed to and spoke about. I do not presume to even guess what God’s judgment might look like or what form it might take. But what I’m convinced of, sisters and brothers. is that whatever God’s judgment involves, however painful it might be, or whatever suffering it might cause, it’s all for the purpose of restoration and redemption. God’s judgment is not punitive or retributive. God’s anger is but for a moment, say the prophets. God’s grace and mercy are forever. We all will pass through the “fire.” The fire of divine judgment is not intended to consume us, but rather to purge and purify us, to refine us and teach us how to be like our Abba, our heavenly Father and Mother. Do you know what God wants from us? God wants us to share God’s heart, to treat one another in love and grace, forgiving one another, defending the helpless and liberating the oppressed. God wants us to engage in works of mercy and justice. And I believe God will do whatever God can do to get us to that level of maturity, just the way we attempt do with our own children. God’s judgment is about the discipline and correction that is needed to rid us of our prejudice and hate, and turn us into little Christs.

I have no idea what God’s judgment in the future state of our souls will look like. But I’m convinced that whatever form it takes it will be for our good, because God is good. God is not going to torture anyone. I’m not saying that divine judgment will not be painful; it might be very painful, but it will be ultimately for our good. I can imagine lives being terminated if no redemption is possible, but I can’t imagine the God of Jesus torturing anyone. We are the ones who want vengeance, not God. We may have to live through some hells in order to get to heaven, but the hells are of our own making.

I was writing about this via social media and a minister friend responded by saying, “I believe in hell because I have lived in hell before.” He went on to define hell as separation from love, as well as self and others. That’s a good example of taking the Bible seriously, but not literally. It has been my passion in ministry help people do this: If we just understand and accept that all scriptural language is symbolical, figurative, metaphorical, and hyperbolic language, I have no doubt some of us would have a much healthier image of God. That has been one of my passions in ministry is helping people nurture a healthier image of God.

Joe Phelps is the pastor of a very progressive Baptist church in Louisville. He shares an experience that I think speaks to the kind of fruits God expects from us. Three or four years ago Joe was ticketed for failing to follow directions at the scene of an accident. He contended his innocence and was compelled to have his day in court. He didn’t think he needed a lawyer. He had his photos and he could defend himself so he thought. Phelps wrote about this in an article at what is now Baptist News Global. I want to read what he wrote:

“A Wednesday evening court date conflicted with my schedule, but I arrived for court with evidence of innocence and anxious to plead my case. What a disappointment to learn after an hour that the purpose of this particular appearance was to schedule another court date. A month later I arrived as instructed before 9 a.m. and entered the uncomfortable silence of a room full of those awaiting trial. This might take a while, I thought. During the next hour it dawned on me that I was in a scene like the children’s game “Which one of these is not like the other ones?” I was the only “person of no color” in the room, which prompted the question: Why would only persons of color, and one white guy, be required to show up for court?

“We averted our eyes from each other throughout the next hour as we listened to names called and cases dispatched. Yet our numbers weren’t shrinking. In fact, as we entered Hour Three, not one person in the courtroom had heard their name called. More surprising: None of my fellow court waiters appeared to notice or feel frustrated but me, though surely some of them were missing work, too. Or paying for sitters. Or missing class.

“As the only person of no color, I felt safe wandering into the prosecutor’s office to inquire why so many invisible people appeared to be cutting in line. I was tutored that cases in which attorneys appeared on behalf of the accused have the privilege of jumping to the head of the docket (thus nullifying the definition of the word docket), while the rest of us wait. “Then, why didn’t you just schedule us to arrive at 11:00?” I asked. I was told to sit down.

“An hour later my case was called. Showtime! Wait – the officer who issued the citation was not present, so the case would be rescheduled. I’d seen enough ‘Law and Order’ to ask for a mistrial or a writ of habeas corpus or a stay of execution or something legal sounding to avoid a repeat. No luck.

“So a third time I joined the community of the wooden benches, even taking on this community’s blank stare. And the reason for this ordeal became clear to me: I needed to see how our judicial system, like many institutional protocols we take for granted, favors those with resources and connections, to the detriment of those without resources, or in my case those too stubborn to use them.

“The result: Those least able to afford to take off from work, pay for parking, hire a sitter or miss school, are forced to show up on time, only to wait and watch while those with means go first. . . .

“I’d glimpsed the ways in which our systems betray our national ideal of “liberty and justice for all” through laws and procedures that are inherently racist. They may not appear so on the surface and may have been written originally with naive or even noble intent, but the result is the same: Certain persons, particularly black males, are disregarded, disrespected and disproportionately imprisoned with longer sentences than their white counterparts, even though the ratios of crimes committed by races are equal...”

Joe concludes by referencing an event that took place in his city that year: “In March, four young men in our city were arrested for ‘sitting while black.’ Police were searching near a crime scene for four suspects, and these four were found on their front porch. Despite evidence of their innocence they were booked and jailed. It took considerable time, energy and money but this week the court exonerated them. But not before one missed his high school prom and graduation and all had their reputations impugned and their lives traumatized. Perhaps no one intended racism, but like pollution, it’s the invisible poisons that are the most insidious.”

We must eliminate these invisible poisons says Pastor Phelps. Why? Because that’s what disciples of Jesus do. These are the fruits God expects us to produce.  And sisters and brothers, it’s what we do that counts. And if what we believe does not translate into what do, if what we believe does not translate into the fruits of the kingdom, then maybe we need to ask ourselves what exactly we believe. Or at least if it’s doing us any good. The work of the kingdom of God will take us into the criminal justice system, the economic system, the educational system, the political system, into our work place and our family dynamics, into our relationships and friendships, and into every area of our lives. This is what discipleship to Jesus involves. This is what the kingdom of God is about. And this will be the basis of our judgment.

But you know, there is no need to be afraid, sisters and brothers. Because whatever form the judgment of God takes, whatever it may involve, if it does its job, it will always leads us back to the loving Abba of Jesus and God’s infinite mercy and grace.

Our good God, help us to understand that your anger at injustice always arises out of a heart of love. Teach us how to love the way you love and to care about the things you care about. Amen.