Sunday, December 30, 2018

An Evolving Faith (A sermon from Luke 2:41-52)

As far as my memories go back I remember being in the church house on Sundays. It did not always go well for me on Sundays. I can vaguely remember one Sunday when my parents and my best friend’s parents let us sit together during Sunday worship by ourselves. We decided to take the foil wrapper of a piece of chewing gum and make a little paper football. We had a whole side pew to ourselves so Keith slid over to one side and I to the other. We made goal posts with our hands and thumbs and kicked field goals. One of my kicks deviated from its intended path and landed inside a curl of the lady sitting in the pew directly in front of us. She was hard of hearing so we didn’t worry too much, but Keith got tickled and I got tickled, enough that our parents took note. Well, that was the last time we got to sit together for a very long time. I also remember as a kid sitting in worship as the preacher seemed to drone on and on thinking, “What person in their right mind would want to do this every Sunday – how awful.” Well, God works in mysterious ways.

Over the years my faith has evolved and changed. But I have no doubt that what I learned and what I was taught and the faith practices I participated in, even when I didn’t want to and when my mind was in some other place, nevertheless have had an impact on my faith formation. Clearly there are elements of my childhood faith I no longer believe, but please understand, I am very grateful for being brought up in the church.  

Jesus is brought up in the church, that is, the synagogue. Jesus is raised in the Jewish faith and is required by his parents to participate in the rituals and practices of Judaism. Jesus is carried into the temple before he can even walk. His parents are observant Jews who strive to do all that they believe is expected of them. On the eighth day they bring the infant Jesus to the temple to be circumcised and then less than a month later they consecrate him to the Lord in the temple.

So Jesus is brought up in the Jewish tradition and is faithful to the Jewish tradition. When Luke sets forth Jesus’s agenda by telling how he read from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue at Nazareth, Luke begins that segment by saying that Jesus “when he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom.” Luke is telling us that Jesus was faithful to his religious tradition.   

In our text today we see Jesus as a boy who is becoming a man questioning and discussing religious matters with the teachers of the Torah. In those days the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem was made by extended families and friends who traveled together in a caravan, so his parents would not have thought much about not seeing Jesus on the day’s journey. But then, when Jesus doesn’t show up that evening they get worried, and soon realize Jesus is not in the caravan. They find their son three days later in the temple discussing and debating with the teachers of the Law. When Jesus is rebuked by his parents as he should have been, Jesus responds with his own rebuke, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Only Luke has this story, and scholars wonder where it came from. Was this part of the oral tradition handed down to Luke, or did Luke come up with this on his own. Who knows? Personally, I think Luke tells this story here to show that even before Jesus fully entered adult life, he was passionate about the teachings and traditions of his faith.

But that’s not all of it by any means. There is an edginess and radicalness to Jesus portrayed here, that is a foreshadowing of things to come. In this story Jesus shows no concern about his parent’s anxiety over his well-being. It’s not even on his radar. So when his parents rebuke him for being irresponsible (and he certainly was being irresponsible) and for creating this situation he dismisses them and says, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” with an emphasis on “must.” What would you say to a teenage son or daughter who says that to you, after you spent three days trying to find him or her? I know what I would say and what I would do and it wouldn’t be pleasant.

Let’s think for a moment what Luke may be trying to say by telling this story. Luke seems to be suggesting that Jesus’ passion for God and God’s will emerged out of his own personal experience of God. He calls God “my Father.” Well, God was looked upon as father by the Jews, but generally this was more of a formal kind of relationship grounded in a theology of covenant. The Jews looked to God as the God who had entered into covenant with them and so was the father of the Jewish people. Jesus, however, speaks of God on a more personal level. Jesus uses the Aramaic term “Abba” to speak of God and pray to God, which was an expression that little children used to speak to their fathers. It was a word that reflected the intimate, personal experience between a child and loving parents. Keep in mind, too, this was a patriarchal culture where the divine-human associations “Abba” implies could just as easily be applied to mother. The point here is that Jesus claimed a personal experience and relationship with the God who entered into covenant with Israel. It is Jesus’ experience of God as “Abba,” as loving father and mother that ignites his work and ministry. It is his personal experience of God that compels him to confront and challenge some of the narrowness and injustices he found in his religious faith and traditions. This is why he frequently provokes his fellow Jews, especially the religious leaders. Here, his provocation of his parents anticipates what is to come.

Right out of the box in Luke 4 Jesus confronts the elitism and exceptionalism and favoritism and nationalism that pervaded the Judaism of his day. We face a similar context today in our culture. I don’t think the nationalism and favoritism and prejudice are as pervasive in our culture today as it was in Jesus’ culture, or even in American culture prior to the civil rights movement, but these negatives forces are certainly present, especially in the halls of power. When Jesus is teaching in his hometown he makes a case from their own Scriptures (the Hebrew Bible) that God does not show favoritism and sometimes chooses non-believers, non-Jews to do God’s will. It’s a fascinating story. At the beginning the people are praising the gracious words coming out of his mouth. However, by the time he finishes Luke says the people are in a rage trying to hurl him off a cliff.
Again, we face similar opposition on this front today in Christianity that Jesus faced in Judaism. It’s not all that different. Most Christians think they are the only ones on God’s side and the only ones God saves. I know because I use to be one of those Christians. They think you have to be a Christian to know God or experience God’s grace. They think God’s healing, redeeming grace is exclusive to Christians. That’s what I was taught and what I believed for a number of years, and I suspect many of you did too. Sisters and brothers, we don’t need to covert the world to Christianity, we need to covert the world to the experience of and embodiment of the love of God. If this comes through Christianity, great. If it doesn’t, that’s okay too. Of course, this kind of conversion has to begin in us. Too many Christians are running around trying to convert others, who themselves need converted. Actually we all do, every day. There are many days I need a fresh conversion and commitment to a lifestyle of God’s love. So when you think about it, we face a situation today in Christianity that was not much different than what Jesus faced in the Judaism of his day and what Jesus confronted in his hometown synagogue.

I think any Christian who questions the things that Jesus questioned will face some degree of opposition. Hopefully, they won’t try to hurl us off a cliff like they did Jesus. I shared once before the opposition I felt when I preached at a Southern Baptist associational meeting. You might be thinking: Why did you do that for anyway? Well, I was asked. For many years our church has supported Jack and Wilma Simmons, who are Southern Baptists, in their work at West Point, Kentucky. Even though today we have no connections at all with the SBC we have continued to support their work in that poor community, which I think has been a good thing. We can certainly help people who may have some different beliefs than we do can’t we? Of course we can. One time after we had conducted a free fair in West Point Wilma asked me if I would preach at their annual meeting. I tossed this around in my head and concluded, wrongly, that if she really didn’t know how progressive I am and what I believe, then most likely no one else in her association did either. So I decided to go ahead and preach something safe, rather than try to explain to her why it might not be a good idea for me to speak at their Southern Baptist associational meeting. Well, apparently the pastors and leaders in that association did know something about me. What I felt in that church on that particular evening was unlike anything I have felt before. I have had people oppose me before and disagree with me and get angry with me, as I am sure I will again, but nothing like what I felt that evening. When I got up to speak the intensity of the opposition I felt in that building at that moment was almost palpable. It was like a fog in the air – unlike anything I had experienced before or have experienced sense. I really believe that anyone who tries to reform his or her faith will face something similar to that from time to time.

Whenever I talk to people who are ready to abandon their Christianity because of the hypocrisy they see in the church, or because of the teaching and doctrine they can no longer intellectually accept and believe, I try to convince them to not leave their faith, but rather, to dive deeper into it, which is what Jesus does within the Judaism of his day. Jesus never abandons Judaism. He goes deeper into it, beyond the misuses of it and the superficialities, and becomes passionate about reforming it. And as you would expect, he faces some stiff opposition. Jesus is pushed to the edge of Judaism by the religious establishment, but Jesus sticks with it, even though his critique and prophetic voice eventually gets him killed. It’s the Jewish leaders who conspire with the Roman authorities and persuade Pilate to execute him.

This little glimpse into the life of Jesus as a young man captures some of the passion and edginess of Jesus that we see displayed over and over again in the Gospels, and in particular, the Gospel of Luke. Jesus tells one would-be follower who was busy making arrangements for his father’s funeral to abandon his plans and join him. He says to him, “let the dead bury the dead, you come and follow me.” That’s on the edge however you slice and dice it exegetically and theologically. Who would say that to a man or woman preparing for the funeral of a loved one?

In Luke 14:26 Jesus turns to the crowd and says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Now, clearly, we would all concede I think that Jesus is employing hyperbole as he often does. Jesus often inserts shocking elements into his teaching and stories to grab people’s attention, but still, this is pretty radical isn’t it? You have to hate your loved ones to be my disciple.

I don’t think we are all called to go about the Lord’s business the same way Jesus did. Those who do, often end up dead like Jesus. But on the other hand, God, I believe, expects all of us who claim to be followers of Jesus to speak up and stand up for what is true and right and just and good. And that will take some courage. We don’t have to be a Martin Luther King Jr, or a Romero or a Ghandi, but God expects us to do justice, practice mercy, and walk in humility. And if you do that, you are going to get into some trouble from time to time. It is inevitable. If your faith has never got you into trouble with anyone, then, in all likelihood, you are not taking it seriously enough, or maybe you are too much a product of group think. That was my problem. I took my faith seriously as a young man, but I didn’t know how to think for myself, and maybe also, I was too afraid to challenge the group.

Jesus didn’t come to his sense of calling and his understanding of God all at once. He grew into it, according to Luke. Luke says, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom and the favor of God was upon him.” Like Jesus we must question and grow and not be afraid to challenge the status quo or the teachings of our tradition when it becomes clear to us that our traditions and practices are doing more harm than good. And we do that best not by abandoning our religious faith, but by moving deeper into it.

Faith is not and will never be something that is static. As life is constantly evolving so must our faith be evolving. I hope for each of us this coming year that we will make some progress – that our faith will grow and be ever expanding. In his letter to the Galatians Paul says, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision or uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (5:6). The only thing that counts is faithfulness to the way of Jesus that is expressed through our love for others. Our beliefs, our traditions, our rituals, and our common practices of profession of faith, baptism, and Communion, count for nothing, unless they inspire us and lead us to be more loving persons. What we need today is an evolving faith that translates into an evolving love – a love that is more inclusive and expansive, a love that is more welcoming, accepting, forgiving, and affirming, a love that mirrors the love of Christ.  

Lord, help us to realize that a living faith is always growing and a dynamic faith is always evolving, and sometimes, may even have an edginess to it the way Jesus’ did, because if it is authentic faith then it will always empower us to be more loving persons, and love always stands for and speaks up for what is good and right. Help us to have the courage to question, and go deeper into our faith in ways that inspire us and empower us to be more inclusive and affirming, to be more caring and compassionate, and to be more passionate about what is just and right and good. In the name of Christ, I pray. Amen.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

A Vision of Love (a sermon from Luke 1:39-55)

Elizabeth says of Mary, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” The mention of “fulfillment” anticipates a new kind of world. It looks forward to the time when the kingdom of God pervades the world fully or completely, when the will of God is actually done on earth as it is in heaven. As some theologians like to point out the kingdom of God is now, but not yet. It’s here, and always has been here, but not fully, though in Jesus it has come to us in a definitive way. The kingdom of God, like our own souls, is in the process of becoming. And it takes a lot of faith and hope and courage to trust that it will come in fullness, especially after you watch the evening news. Because there is still so much fear and hate and prejudice and greed and evil and injustice in the world, and even in our own souls.

Mary, of course, has a major role to play. She carries the one in her womb who will show the world what the kingdom of God looks like lived out in human flesh. She gives birth to Jesus, cares for him as an infant and teaches him as a child. Think of the calling given to Mary and Joseph. They taught Jesus right from wrong, they grounded him in the best of the Jewish scriptures and traditions, and when he went astray as all children do they corrected him. A major factor in Jesus becoming the person he became was the guidance and loving nurture of Mary and Joseph. All of us know how important it is to receive love and good instruction in those early formative years don’t we? Mary and Joseph did that.  

The song of praise by Mary that follows the greeting by Elizabeth is a litany that scholars believe was recited, sung, or chanted in the early Jewish Christian communities. It seems to have been composed based on the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2. It proclaims a message that is an important theme in Luke’s Gospel, namely, the kingdom of God will turn the kingdoms of the world upside down. The first will be last and the last will be first. The kingdoms of the world take pride in power and position and wealth. Not so in God’s realm.

Mary begins by rejoicing in God her Savior and the Savior of all who “fear” God, that is, all who reverence God and reverence the values and ways of God, which are the values and ways of mercy and justice. Then, the song celebrates how the proud will be scattered, the powerful brought down from their thrones, and the rich sent away empty. But the hungry will be filled with good things, and the lowly will be lifted up. Why does God scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, and send the rich away empty? I suspect it’s because they, unlike Mary, see no need for a Savior. They have everything they need – so they think. They are in control – so they think. Some people think faith is the entry point, the starting point. It’s not. The entry point into participation in the kingdom of God is humility. Faith that is not born out of humility is not faith. We cannot be faithful to the values and ways of God’s love in the world if we are proud and arrogant and think of ourselves as better than others and like to lord it over others. There’s no place in God’s new world for that sort of thing.

We all need God as Savior, though God doesn’t do the work of salvation alone. Jesus called disciples and sends them out to do the very works of salvation he was doing. Jesus models what God wants for all of us. The way we love God is by loving others. The invitation to trust in God as Savior is an invitation to be participants in God’s salvation.

One of the themes we sometimes highlight during the Advent season is the need to patiently wait for Christ’s coming – into our lives in new and fresh ways, and for the time of fulfillment. But make no mistake sisters and brothers, we do not wait in idleness. While we wait, we are to be busy praying, serving, and loving the world with the love of Christ. We don’t just dream of a world made whole, we are called to participate in making the world whole. That’s how God works. From the time of the Big Bang or whatever set the whole creative, evolutionary process in motion, that’s how it has always been. We are not pawns waiting to be moved, we are movers, players, and participants in the unfolding story of God’s loving relationship with humanity and all creation.

At times this can be a lot to bear, but there is no escaping it. To trust God as Savior is to heed God’s call to be God’s agents in the healing and liberation of the world. I have to admit it was a lot easier when I believed that Jesus would come back one day and take care of everything in one colossal move. I believed, and many Christians still believe, that in giant swoop Christ is going to make everything better. Paul and many of the early Christians seem to have believed this in the early stages of the Jesus movement. In Paul’s earliest letters he seems to think this could happen just any day. In his first letter to the Thessalonians he even suggests that he will be alive when this happens. We are left with a similar impression in his correspondence with the church at Corinth. But by the time we get to the final letters of Paul, Ephesians and Colossians, if Paul did indeed write those letters, he seems to have changed his tune a bit and also seems to imply that the body of Christ in the world will be instrumental in this process of gathering up all things in Christ. As much as I may wish it wasn’t so, I’m pretty much convinced at this stage in my spiritual journey that if this world is going to ever be made right, then a lot of us are going to have to learn how to be better conduits of God’s ‘Spirit, through whom God’s love can flow out into the world.  

If the prophetic vision of a transformed world is to ever become a reality, if God’s kingdom is to come on earth, then our kingdoms have to go. One way or another our kingdoms have to go. Our pride has to go, and we must allow the Spirit to grow roots of humility that sink deep into our hearts and lives. Our lust for position and power and prestige have to go, so the Spirit can nurture within us a love of neighbor and a passion for service. Our love of money and possessions have to go, and we must trust the Christ to ignite and foster a spirit of generosity in our lives and churches that is expressed in the way we use our material and immaterial resources to help others and serve God’s cause in the world.

In 1991 Dr. Wayne Ward, who taught theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary back when it was still a credible institution, shared a story in a sermon he preached at Walnut Street Baptist Church in Louisville. I was doing a Doctoral seminar there at the time and somehow got hold of a copy of the sermon. In the sermon he shared this story. In the summer after his high school graduation his high school track coach who was Superintendent of Education in Northeast Arkansas entered his summer class at Arkansas State College with an urgent plea. He said, “We have got an emergency situation. Hundreds of little children in Black River Bottom and in the hills of Crowley’s Ridge in the Lemons School District have no one to teach them. The pay is low. Will you help us?” There was a long silence. Finally, Wayne Ward spoke up, “Coach, I’ll go.” He passed the test that gave him an emergency teaching certificate and off he went to Hickoria School in Black River Bottom.

Wayne Ward fell in love with the mostly poor, ragged, and usually dirty kids that made up his class. They looked to him with yearning eyes to learn and they soaked up his teaching like a sponge. The little boy that touched him most was “Eggie Eggenspieler—the most deprived child in the class. He wore the same patched bib overalls and same tattered shirt everyday. Mr. Ward would set him by the “pot-bellied stove” to dry out as he began class. He was so skinny he was concerned about Eggie having enough to eat. One day Mr. Ward slipped into the cloakroom and opened his little molasses bucket lunch pail, which probably was an invasion of privacy. He found one soggy biscuit with mold on it, covered in a sticky bob of molasses. Says Dr. Ward, “Emily Post, in all her etiquette books, never had instructions on how to meet a challenge like that.”

Most days of that cold, rainy fall during recess Mr. Ward was out with the kids sloshing through mud and water trying to play kickball or “capture the flag.” At lunchtime they opened their paper sacks or molasses buckets, climbed up on the woodpile and gulped down their soggy biscuit sandwiches. One kid though, whose father ran the country store, had a beautiful lunchbox with a thermos bottle. Mr. Ward often observed the other children looking longingly as Buddy Baker poured out his steaming hot chocolate. Buddy’s closest friend was, as you might guess, Eggie. He stuck with Buddy like his shadow. As Christmas approached, Buddy began to have an occasional orange in his lunchbox. Eggie had never seen an orange before. Buddy, sitting on the woodpile, would solemnly peal his orange and hand the peelings to Eggie, who gulped them down like they were some kind of delicacy.

Mr. Ward would silently pray that Buddy would give Eggie one section of a real orange; but he never did. Mr. Ward felt a resolve forming in his heart and decided to see to it that Eggie and all his little brothers and sisters got some real oranges for Christmas or he would die trying. On Friday, before Christmas, as Mr. Ward was dismissing school he told Eggie that he needed to see him. Eggie turned pale, “What have I done?” he asked. “Nothing,” said Mr. Ward, “I’m going home with you.” Eggie objected, “You’ll get drown-ded Mr. Ward!”

And he was about right. Mr. Ward drove down an abandoned railroad “dump,” trying to keep out of the flooded bottomland. He parked his old “free-wheeling” Plymouth on a built-out siding which railroad handcars had used. When he opened the trunk and began to load Eggie and himself down with bulging sacks of oranges, apples and toys Eggie’s eyes started flashing like strobe lights. On the first step off the railroad dump they went bobbing for apples. When they got going again Eggie said, “Follow me, Mr. Ward, I know where the high places are” and so he did.

When they got to his little shack that Eggie called home, raised a few feet out of the water, ragged kids came running out to meet them. Inside was a distraught mother with more kids than she knew what to do with and there was no Daddy to be seen (he was in prison). Mr. Ward took an orange and broke off a section and insisted Eggie try it and he watched as his face lit up like the sun. Dr. Ward said in the sermon that even though he has told that story many times and every time he retells it he gets a lump in his throat because it was that experience when he learned the blessing and joy that comes with being generous.

But not only did Wayne Ward learn this, Eggie learned this too. Shortly after Christmas Mr. Ward was asked to referee the Junior High Basketball games, but he didn’t have a whistle. One morning he arrived at school and there was a little package waiting for him, in paper that had been requisitioned from the wastebasket. As he opened the package he could sense two big blue eyes looking intently at him waiting for his reaction. Inside was a beautifully carved willow whistle. Mr. Ward shouted, “Beautiful!” and gave the whistle a blow that rattled the windows. Eggie’s face lit up the room. You see, he too had learned the joy and blessing that comes with giving. Blessing begets blessing. That’s how we spread the love of God.

I don’t know if this vision of love will ever be fulfilled (fully realized) in the world. But what I do know is that it has to start with me. I have to be the change I hope for and pray for. The kingdom of love has to pervade my heart, my soul, my thoughts, attitudes, actions, and relationships before it can ever pervade the world. My responsibility is to keep this vision alive as best I can by welcoming the Spirit of Christ into my life every day, so that my pride will give way to humility, so that my lust for power and position will give way to service, and so that my greed will give way to generosity. I readily admit I have a long ways to go before this vision is ever fully realized in my life. But I plan to keep at it, because I am convinced that our calling as disciples of Christ and as human beings who bear God’s image is to keep living and spreading this vision of love as best we can.

O God, help us to fan into a flame in our own lives this vision of love that Jesus so beautifully embodied. Let it grow inside of us and let it be manifested and expressed in all our relationships and in all that we say and do. Help us to realize that whatever any of us might believe about the future, it is our responsibility right now to be the change we pray for and hope for. There is a kind of waiting that is useless and a kind that is useful – may we wait not idly, but prayerfully and actively doing all we can to spread the vision of your love. Amen.  

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Fruits of Joy (a sermon from Luke 3:7-18)

We are wired in such a way that we find our greatest joy when we become a blessing to others. We are created in God’s image. We are stamped with divine DNA. And because God indwells us, because we share in the divine life and divine nature, we will never find true happiness apart from consciously living out of our oneness with God. We are at our best, and we are most joyous and fulfilled, when we allow God’s Spirit to flow through us – when we allow God’s love to fill our lives and overflow into the lives of others. When we bless others, we bless ourselves, because we are doing what we have been created and called to do. Whatever happiness we may have as a result of self-serving actions is always fleeting and temporary. And once it runs its course it leaves us feeling empty, because it’s not real happiness. It doesn’t reflect who we really are. Repentance then, is a realigning of our actions and attitudes and desires with who we really are as God’s children and that brings joy.  

John and Jesus have parallel birth stories in Luke’s Gospel. And clearly, while more emphasis is given to Jesus, John has a significant role as the one who prepares the way for Jesus. Both John and Jesus were filled with the Spirit, and were blessings to others, though in different ways.

Some people think that John and Jesus were opposites. That John was all about judgment, whereas Jesus was all about grace. And to be honest, that was my view for a time, and you may even recall me teaching or preaching that. Well, I have come to see John differently. It is true that John emphasized judgment, whereas Jesus emphasized grace, but there is grace in John’s proclamation of judgment, and there is judgment in Jesus’ preaching and embodiment of grace.

It seems to me that how one understands John and Jesus’ preaching of judgment, and in fact, all the judgment texts in the scriptures, depends on one’s understanding of the character of God. If one sees God primarily as a Judge and a lawgiver, who cares more about order and control and and law-keeping than God does about the brokenness of God’s children, then it is quite natural to think of judgment as retribution. If God’s judgment is punitive, it is because God is punitive. That’s how a lot of Christians think of God. However, if God is primarily a  caring Father or Mother, as Jesus suggested when he used the Aramaic word “Abba,” to pray to and refer to God, then we do not have to afraid of God’s judgment. Because whatever judgment may involve, whatever pain or suffering go’s along with it, it is ultimately designed for our correction and redemption. If God’s love is truly unconditional, then none of us have to be afraid of being cast aside as worthless to be excluded forever from God’s presence.

Actually, if the Christian mystics are right, there cannot be any separation from God. If God dwells in all of us, if it is true as Paul said to the Athenians in Acts 17 that in God we live, move, and have our being, then we could never actually be separated from God. We might feel separated from God, but we could never actually be separated from God, for to be separated from God would mean “none existence.” Our spirits are infused with the life of the Divine Spirit. We are one. If God is unconditional love, then God’s judgment is for the purpose of transformation, not condemnation. If judgment is about satisfying the law and about retribution, then God is not unconditional love. It really all comes back to the character of God.

John talks about the Messiah, the one who fulfills God’s salvation, separating the wheat and the chaff. I’m sure you have observed that any person or Christian group who interprets the wheat and the chaff in this text to be persons or groups of persons, inevitably place themselves among the wheat that will be gathered into the granary. I did this in the first part of my Christian pilgrimage. No one wants to think of themselves as chaff. Who can blame them? But I’m convinced that we misread this if we make the wheat and the chaff persons or groups of persons. I think the wheat and the chaff represent the good works and unjust works we do, and the good intentions or evil intentions that fill our hearts. The fire of God’s judgment is intended to burn up all our unjust works and evil intentions, so that we will be able to love God with are whole being and love others as we love ourselves.

I challenge you to do a study of the judgment texts in the Bible, especially in the New Testament. Every single judgment text in the Bible is about what we actually do and how we actually live that flows out of the good intentions or evil intentions of our hearts. Every single text. I don’t know where we ever got the idea that simply trusting in Jesus protects us from God’s judgment, because I don’t’ know of one judgment text in the Bible that actually teaches that. Even in the Gospel of John where the writer puts so much emphasis on believing in Jesus (and I think many Christians misinterpret what John means when he talks about believing in Jesus), but even so the one text in that Gospel that speaks of a final judgment says this: “The hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice (the voice here is the voice of the Christ) and will come out – those who have done good, to the resurrection of life and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.” The judgment texts in the Bible are always about what we do and how we live and what fills our hearts, not about what we believe.

So when John speaks of judgment and calls the people out to the desert to repent and be baptized, he tells them to bring forth fruits worthy of repentance. The crowds ask John, “What then should we do?” John doesn’t says, “Well, first you have to believe this or that.” He says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” One might respond, “You mean even that undocumented person, that migrant, that person of a different religion from a different country? “Yes, indeed,” John would say, “Anyone means anyone.”

Then some tax collectors asked, “Teacher, what should we do?” I can imagine the religiously devout taking exception with John here: “How can you permit these Jewish traitors who collaborated with the enemy to be baptised? How can you let in to the kingdom of God these greedy Jews who sold their souls to the Romans? John baptizes them and says, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed to you.”

Then, lo and behold even the enemy shows up. Roman soldiers come out to be baptized. I can imagine real resistance here from both the common people and the religious leaders, because all the Jews had felt the wrath and mistreatment of the Roman soldiers. But when they ask, “What should we do? John says, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” And he plunges them into the waters of baptism too. I hope you can see here that John’s fiery preaching of judgment is filled with grace.

I don’t know how I ever missed it. John’s preaching of judgment is filled with grace, and completely based on what we do. Some Christians identify themselves on the basis of what they believe. Some even adhere to fundamentals that they claim one has to believe to be a Christian. They have a checklist: Mary was a virgin. Jesus was God. The Bible is inerrant. And so forth. But in John’s call to repentance there is not a single word about what one must or should believe. Every single thing John mentions as a fruit of repentance relates to what we do.  It’s about love of neighbor and the golden rule. It’s about how we care for one another, and treat one another with respect and understanding. John says, Be generous. Be fair. Be merciful. Treat people right. When you go through these waters of baptism, says John, you pledge to be a different person, you are making a commitment to love your neighbor, rather than take advantage of your neighbor.

John has one thing in mind out there preaching repentance and baptizing all sorts of unlikable people in the desert. John is getting them all ready to be immersed in the Spirit of Christ, which is nothing less than the Spirit of love. He’s out there baptizing in water, but the Christ will baptize in the Holy Spirit. He’s teaching them how to love others, so when the full embodiment of love comes along after him, they will be ready to be immersed in that love and shower that love on others.

You see, sisters and brothers, the unquenchable fire of the Spirit is the Spirit of love that burns up all the chaff, all the greed, all the hate, all the jealousy, all the pride, all the egotism in our lives. We all need God’s judgment. We all need God’s fire to consume the selfishness and evil in our hearts, so that we can love one another the way God loves each one of us. Wouldn’t it be great if we were so immersed in God’s Spirit that no one would have to tell us to love others? We wouldn’t even need a commandment to tell us to love others, because loving others would be the most natural thing in the world
Once there was an old priest who presided over a great cathedral in a once–prosperous city. The kindly priest spent his days praying in the vestry and caring for the poor. As a result of his tireless work, this holy place was known as a place of safety and sanctuary, and a constant stream of people seeking shelter were drawn to it. The priest welcomed all and gave to all completely without prejudice or restraint. His pure heart and gift of hospitality were widely known. No one could steal from him, for he considered no possession his own. One evening in mid–winter, while the priest was praying before the cross, there was a knock on the cathedral door. The priest stood, went to the entrance, and to his great surprise, found there a terrifying demon with unyielding eyes. “Old man,” the demon hissed, “I have traveled many miles to seek your shelter. Will you welcome me in?” Without hesitation, the priest bid the devil welcome and invited him into the shelter of the sanctuary. Once across the threshold, the devil spat venom onto the tiled floor and attacked the holy altar, all the while uttering blasphemies and curses. During this rant, the priest knelt on the floor and continued in his devotions until it was time for him to retire for the evening. 

“Old man,” cried the demon, “where are you going?” “I am returning home to rest, for it has been a long day,” replied the kindly priest. “May I come with you,” asked the demon, “for I too am tired and in need of a place to eat and sleep?” “Why yes, of course,” replied the priest, “come, and I will prepare a meal.”

On returning to his house, the priest prepared a meal while the devil smashed the artifacts that adorned the house. He ate the meal provided by the priest and then asked, “Old man, you welcomed me into your church and then into your house. I have one more request. Will you welcome me into your soul?” “Why of course,” said the priest. “What I have is yours and what I am is yours.”

So the devil entered his soul, but there was nothing in the old man for the devil to cling to, no material of which to make a nest and no darkness in which to hide. All that existed in the old priest’s soul was light. And so the devil turned from the priest in disgust and left, never to return. In fact, the devil, not long after his encounter with the priest, retired from his devilish work altogether, for there was something in the old man that so affected the devil that he lost his edge for it and had to give it up.

If only we could be like this priest, and be so immersed in the Holy Spirit, so full of the light of divine love and grace that there would be no place for darkness to reside or evil to hide. There would be no room for greed, for prejudice, for pride, for favoritism, for jealousy, for envy, for contempt, or any evil intention or desire.

Whatever the fire of God’s judgment might be, that’s where it is headed sisters and brothers. That is the goal. A baptism with the Spirit so full and complete, a baptism of love so pervasive, there’s just no room for anything that would put down another or hurt another or take advantage of another. The fire of love would burn too hot and too bright.  

Oh God, may we invite and welcome your Spirit into our hearts, to expose our evil intentions and selfish attitudes and negative patterns so that they may be consumed by the fire of your judgment, and we might be free to truly care for and love one another as the Spirit of Christ fills us. Let us be immersed in the Spirit of Christ, O Lord, so that your immense love can expand our hearts and open our minds and incline our wills to do what is good and right and just and merciful. Let us not reap the fruits of our sinful ways, but let us reap the fruits of the loving kindness, forgiveness, and service we shower upon all those around us. For then we will know the lasting and enduring joy for which we were created. In the name and Spirit of Christ I pray.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

What does the reign of Christ look like? (John 18:33-37)

On the church calendar, and I don’t mean our church calendar that appears in your Connections, I mean the ecumenical church calendar that follows the Christian year as reflected in the Revised Common Lectionary, today is called Reign of Christ Sunday. The question I want to address today is asked in the title: What does the reign of Christ look like? What is it about? What are the primary characteristics of the reign of Christ? These are very important considerations.

In our text today Pilate questions Jesus about his kingship. And in response Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from this world.” What does that mean? I’m sure we all realize that words have multiple meanings. A trunk could be a box-like container, or it could be the back part of your car that holds your luggage, or it could be attached to a tree. What the word means is determined by the context in which it is used. Biblical words are no different. Consider the word “world.” When Jesus says my kingdom is not of this world, what does he mean by world?

In this Gospel the writer uses that word in both a positive way and in a negative. This Gospel affirms that God loves the world. The world is God’s “good” creation. In the first account of creation in Genesis 1 after each creative act God declares that what was created is good – “and God saw that it was good.” And after God creates the human couple in God’s image, the story ends by saying, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” Original goodness takes precedence over original sin. God loves the world. God dwells in the world. God dwells in each of us. Each of us possesses divine DNA. John’s Gospel emphasizes over and over the truth of the indwelling God – a God who incarnates God’s self in flesh and blood. Jesus is for us the definitive incarnation, but God dwells in each of us just like Jesus, and we are called to be like Jesus, incarnating the grace and truth of God. The world is good, and loved, and indwelt by God and therefore sacred, but it is not flawless. There is, of course, injustice and evil in the world and in our lives. So it’s vitally important to live within the healthy tension this creates. Some overemphasize our sin, and cannot see our goodness. While others see the goodness, but not the sin. It’s important to see both and acknowledge both.

When John proclaims that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, he is not saying that Jesus’ kingdom is heavenly rather than earthly. The kingdom of God is both heavenly and earthly. When we pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” we are praying that the way the kingdom of God operates in heaven, in that transcendent realm, will operate the same way on earth, in this temporal realm. God’s kingdom encompasses both heaven and earth – it’s not confined to heaven.

Also, when John says that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world he is not saying that Jesus’ kingdom is spiritual in contrast to the kingdoms of the world that are political. Because the kingdom of God is both spiritual and political. When the early followers of Jesus confessed Jesus as Lord they were making both a spiritual and a political statement. They were saying Jesus is the final authority in all matters – things spiritual and political. When they said Jesus is Lord, they were saying Caesar is not. Lord was a title attributed to Caesar. They were saying that their first allegiance was a commitment to do the will of Christ, rather than the will of Rome. They would be obedient to Rome when they could, but if being obedient to Rome meant being disobedient to the will of Christ, then they refused to be obedient to Rome, and were willing to live with the consequences. For followers of Jesus it’s always about what is moral, not what is legal.

What John means when he says that the kingdom of Christ is not of this world is that God’s kingdom does not partake of the values, morals, principles, and practices of the world that are contrary to the values, morals, principles, and practices of Christ. It doesn’t mean that there is no good in the world; there are people who do the will of God and don’t even realize it. But it does mean that Christ’s kingdom does not share in the injustice and evil that is also present in the world.

The late Walter Wink calls the world, when used in this negative sense, the domination system. The domination system is an unjust system. The writer of 1 John says in 2:15-16, “Do not love the world or the things in the world.” He is not telling his readers to not love the creation or even the evil people in the world, after all Jesus commanded us to even love our enemies. Rather, he is telling us to not love the unjust, domination system, because the unjust, domination system is dominated by “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and pride in riches.” He is saying that covetousness and greed, as well as the selfish ambition and egocentric pride are the values at the cord of the domination system.

This all becomes clearer when Jesus clarifies what he means. He says, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews” (that is, the Jewish leaders, who want to kill him). What John is saying is that Christ’s kingdom does not partake of the violence and hate and prejudice of the world. The kingdom of Christ does take control of others by force, but rather serves and gives to others out of love.

Do you remember what Jesus says to his disciples in the Synoptic Gospels when he caught them arguing about who is the greatest. Jesus tells them that’s how the rulers and kings of the earth operate. They lord it over others. That is, they seek to control others by force and manipulation. But the kingdom of God operates on different values and principles and under a different kind of power. The power of Spirit is the power of the kingdom of God, and the power of Spirit is the power of compassion and love. This is why Jesus says, “You are not to control others, but to serve others. For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life for the healing and liberation of many.”

Pilate asks Jesus, “So you are a king?” Jesus says (and this is actually what John’s church is saying), “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to bear witness to the truth.” Then Jesus says, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” What John means in this Gospel when he talks about truth is the truth that Jesus embodied. It is incarnational truth. There are some Christians who would like to narrowly interpret truth to mean what they believe. We are not talking about doctrine here. We are talking about the truth of God that Jesus incarnated. It’s the truth of God’s grace and mercy and passion to heal the broken, uplift the downtrodden, welcome the stranger, and liberate the oppressed. That’s the truth of God that Jesus lived and taught. Pilate is confused about such truth. So he asks, “What is truth?” The domination systems of the world are blind to this truth.

The truth is that the kingdom of God is generally unlike the kingdoms of the world. Because the kingdom of God is really the kin-dom of God. It’s about loving others that flows out of our common life and connection to each other. I love to tell the story that News reporter and commentator Peter Arnett tells about the time he was in Israel, in a small town on the West Bank, when an explosion went off. The screams of the wounded seemed to be coming from all directions. A man emerged from this chaos, running up to him holding a severely wounded little girl in his arms. He pleaded with Arnett to help him get her to a hospital. He cried, “Please Mister, help me. The Israeli troops have sealed off the area. No one can get in or out. But you are press. You can get through. Please, help me,” he begged.

So Arnett put them in his car, managed to get through the sealed area, and rushed the girl to a hospital in Jerusalem. The whole time he was hurtling down the road to the city, the man with the little girl in his arms was pleading for him to hurry, “Can you go faster. I’m losing her. I’m losing her,” he screamed. When they finally got to the hospital, the girl was rushed to the operating room. Then the two men retreated to the waiting area, where they sat on a bench in silence, too exhausted to talk. After a short while, the doctor emerged from the operating room with the news that the girl had died.

The man collapsed in tears. Arnett went over and put his arm around him to comfort him. He said, “I don’t know what to say. I can’t imagine what you must be going through. I’ve never lost a child.” The moment he said, “I’ve never lost a child,” the man looked at Arnett in a startled manner. He said, “Oh Mister, that Palestinian girl was not my daughter. I’m an Israeli settler. She was not my child. But, you know, there comes a time when each of us must realize that every child, regardless of that child’s background, is a daughter or son. There must come a time when we realize that we are all family.” (Campolo, 121-22) That man just bore witness to the core truth of the kin-dom of God. We are all connected. We are one family. We all belong.

In our text Pilate represents the unjust, and often violent domination system of the world. Jesus represents the just and peace-seeking kin-dom of God. The two kingdoms are often at odds. Throughout history there has been a clash between them. This conflict is being played out right now on the Mexican border as a pilgrimage of migrants come seeking asylum.

Our president has told them to go back where they came from. We don’t want them, he said. He has tried to caricature them as a gang of hardened criminals in order to justify his hate-filled rhetoric and actions, when in reality they are mostly poor families fleeing violence, oppression, and poverty. He has deployed troops to the border costing millions of dollars, and would love to use brute force to turn them away. He has told our military to shoot anyone who throws rocks. Now, fortunately, most of our military leaders are good and decent people who have some compassion, and would never shoot poor migrants seek asylum. But they have been deployed. They are on the border carrying weapons of war. Take a good look, sisters and brother, for that is the domination system of the world. We are not to love that system, according to John. We are not to conform to that system, says Paul (Rom. 12:1-2).

But the kin-dom of God is there as well. I read a letter this past week signed by 570 faith leaders, representing 145 faith-based organizations across religious traditions. The letter was only a couple of pages, but when I sent it to the printer it just kept printing and printing. It was printing all the leaders and organizations that had signed the letter. The key points the letter makes are these: 1) We call on Congress to reverse course and see that the U.S. complies with its own laws and international obligations to welcome those seeking protection. 2) The U.S. must stop facilitating displacement and should partner in remedying the root causes of forced migration. 3) It is a human right to seek asylum. 4) We oppose using the plight of migrants, children, and families as leverage to enact dangerous policies. 5) Asylum seekers, families, and children should never be separated or locked up. 6) Congress has opportunity to reverse course by limiting funding for detention, deportation, and border militarization. There is a paragraph devoted to each of these points in the letter. The Baptist Alliance, who we affiliate with, signed the letter.

These faith groups and others are mobilizing as well. Coalitions and alliances are being formed to support the migrants to deliver everything from basic necessities, such as food, water, clothing, and basic medical care to legal, spiritual, and psychological support. Our own Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is working to funnel supplies and money raised in the U.S. to supportive ministries already in Mexico. Such is the work of the kin-dom of God

The kin-dom of God counters exclusion with inclusion. The kin-dom of God counters prejudice and alienation with acceptance and affirmation. Instead of adding to their burdens, tearing people and families apart, oppressing them even more, the kin-dom of God offers healing and hope. God’s kin-dom welcomes the stranger; it doesn’t lock them up or send them away. The reign of Christ is simply a reign of love. If we are not committed to a reign of love, then we are not committed to the kin-dom of God.

Our good God, may our ears and eyes be open to hear the words of truth and see the life of truth lived out before us in the life of Jesus, our Lord. So that we may advance your agenda. So that we may take your side, which is always the side of the oppressed and the vulnerable. So that we may be instruments to help fulfill your dream for the world and be active participants in the work of you kin-dom on earth. Show us how to love others the way you love them, and to realize that we all belong to one another and to you.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

We can’t live without it (A sermon from Mark 13:1-8)

Ann Lamott tells about the time she and her two year old son were staying in a condominium at Lake Tahoe. Because the area around Reno is such a hotbed for gambling the rooms come equipped with curtains that block out every speck of light so one can sleep during the day. One afternoon she put her son to bed in his playpen in one of those rooms where it was pitch black. He awoke, crawled out of his playpen and was at the door knocking. Somehow he managed to push the little button on the doorknob and locked it from the inside. He was calling out to her, “Mommy, Mommy” but she couldn’t open the door. She called out to him, “Jiggle the door knob, darling.” It soon became apparent to the little boy that he could not open the door and panic set in. He began sobbing. So his mother also in a panic ran around like crazy doing everything she could think of trying to get the door open, calling the rental agency where she left a message, calling the manager where she left another message, and running to check on her son. And there, in this pitch dark room was her terrified little child. Finally, she did the only thing she could do, which was to slide her fingers underneath the door, where there was a little bit of space. She kept telling him over and over, to bend down and find her fingers. And somehow he did. So they stayed like that for a long time, connected on the floor, her little boy feeling her presence, feeling her warmth, feeling her love. The sense of her presence calmed his fears and gave him hope that the nightmare would end. He could feel his mother with him.

But what happens when you can’t feel another calming presence? How do you find hope that the darkness will end? Reading between the lines in Mark’s Gospel, I get the sense that Mark’s church, the people to whom this Gospel was written, were not feeling Christ’s presence and were struggling to keep hope alive. Why do I say that?

According to mainline biblical scholarship this Gospel was most likely written in the late 60’s or early 70’s just before, during, or after the Roman siege of Jerusalem. It was, most likely, the first Gospel to be written. Matthew and Luke followed some two decades later. Mark gives us one saying of Jesus from the cross. Jesus only says one thing from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Jesus, echoing the words of the Psalmist, expresses his sense of the absence of God during the dark, lonely, painful, and torturous hours of his execution on a cross. Now, I have made the point numerous times, and will once again, that God was not absent. God was with Jesus on the cross. But Jesus had no sense or feeling or awareness of God’s presence. God’s presence felt like absence. I have little doubt that this was what Mark’s church was feeling. Jesus’ cry of forsakenness on the cross expresses the cries of Mark’s church during a time of great suffering and trial. Mark’s church was caught in the middle of the Roman war against the Jews.

The way Mark’s Gospel ends substantiates this. If you have a NRSV of the Bible and turn to the end of the Gospel of Mark, you will notice at the end of 16:8 there is a footnote. And the footnote reads: Some of the most ancient authorities (some of the most reliable manuscripts we have) bring the book to a close at the end of verse 8. The original version of this Gospel, which we do not have by the way (we have no original version of any NT book, what we have our copies) ends with verse 8. Later, in the copying and transmission of the text, as this Gospel was hand copied by scribes to be preserved and passed on, a longer ending was added to the story. Why was a longer ending added? Because of the way the original version ends. The Gospel ends on a note of fear. It’s easy to imagine how a scribe copying the text might think that the original ending had been lost, and so he adds an ending giving it a conclusion more in keeping with the other Gospels.

In Mark’s Gospel we have no resurrection appearance stories at all. The only story we have is the story of the empty tome, where the women are assured that God raised Jesus up and then given the promise that they will see Jesus again. So, he doesn’t appear, but they are given the promise of his appearance. Why is that? Because unlike the folks in Matthew’s church and Luke’s church, who experienced the living presence of the Christ, Mark’s church felt Christ’s absence. In Mark’s Gospel the angel, God’s messenger, who is simply described as a young man dressed in a white robe, says to the women who had come to anoint Jesus’ body, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised . . . Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” Then Mark says, which is how the Gospel actually ends, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That’s how the Gospel ends and that describes the state of Mark’s church living through the horrors and suffering of war. They had not experienced the living presence of Christ. Like Jesus on the cross, they felt forsaken. But they had this promise. The promise that Christ would appear to them again. And even though they were hurting and suffering and full of fear, the hope that Christ would come again, that they would experience the presence of Christ in the future, sustained and strengthened them and gave them the grace to endure.

What is it that compels us to endure? What is it that that would compel people to embark on a treacherous journey traveling to another country by foot facing the danger of robbers and criminals preying on them and whatever other terror or hardship they might encounter on the way? What would compel them to embark on this long pilgrimage, knowing that the president of the country where they are headed could care less what happens to them, and is doing everything in his power to turn them away and keep them from seeking asylum here? What would give people facing all those challenges and barriers incentive to make this journey? One thing. Hope. Maybe you would not see it on their faces, but it is in their hearts. Hope that things can be better. These are folks desperate to find a better life. Life was so bad where they were, that just the least bit of hope that their lives could be better inspired them to join this migrant caravan in hope against hope that their families might have a better life. And you and I would do the very same thing wouldn’t we? If we lived in desperate lose/lose conditions, and there was the least bit of hope that our families could live in safety free of gang violence, that our children could get an education, that we could live where we would have opportunity to better ourselves, we would cling to and pursue that little bit of hope wouldn’t we? Of course, we would. Hope keeps us going. Hope keeps us pressing forward on the journey.  

This is what our Gospel text in Mark 13 is about today. It’s the hope that even when our world is falling apart all around us, the Christ will someday put it all back together. It’s the hope that a day of healing and redemption lies before us somewhere. The part of the text we read at the beginning of Mark 13 sort of opens up to include all of Mark’s readers at any time in the future. In the course of the development of human life there are numerous challenges – there are conflicts and wars and natural disasters and famines that can make life hardly bearable. What can possibly get us through? It’s the hope that Christ will come again into our lives, that at some point we will sense and feel and be aware of the presence of the love of Christ once again.

Barbara Brown Taylor puts it this way, “When Jesus died, his disciples believed the world had ended. When Jerusalem fell and Nero swooped down on the young church like a mad vulture, they believed the world had ended. In a manner of speaking, the world can end any day of the week with a declaration of war, or the death of a child, or a grim diagnosis, and watching for Christ’s coming again in power and great glory can become the only light in such time, when sun and moon and stars have been snuffed out.” When our world collapses, when the stars fall from the sky and the earth shakes and the moon turns to blood, what is our still point? What is our ground of being? What holds us together and sustains us and gives us the inner strength and courage and hope to go on, to “endure to the end?” For followers of Christ it is the hope that we will feel and experience and know in our hearts the love of Christ once again. So we wait and trust and pray and hang on, because we have this promise that Christ is going ahead of us and will appear to us in our personal Galilee’s. We have the hope that Christ will not abandon us. We have a future.

For some of Mark’s church, and perhaps for some of us, we may not experience the appearance of Christ, the coming again of Christ into our lives in power and glory until we leave this place, this world, where we are pilgrims. A little story that I like to tell at funerals is about a woman who was diagnosed with a terminal illness and had been given just a few weeks to live. As she was getting things in order, she called her pastor and asked him to come to her house to discuss her funeral. She told him the songs she wanted sung and the scriptures she wanted read. And as the pastor rose to leave, she said, “There’s one more thing.” She requested that she be buried with a fork in her right hand.” Then she explained, “In all my years of attending church socials and potluck dinners, when the dishes of the main course were being cleared, someone would inevitably lean over and say, ‘Keep your fork.’ It was my favorite part of the meal because I knew something better was coming—like velvety chocolate cake or deep dish apply pie. So when people see me in that casket with a fork in my hand and they ask, “What’s with the fork?” you tell them, “The best is yet to come!”

We believe that don’t we? Even when all hell breaks loose and it seems like the whole heavens are being torn asunder we have hope that the best is yet to come. We believe in a future beyond the present. We believe that love will have the final word. We believe that all injustices will be made right. That all things sick and broken will be healed and made whole.

A few years ago I watched a film simply titled “Ride.” It’s an independent film that Helen Hunt both produced and starred in. It tells the story of an overprotective New York mother who follows her son to Los Angeles when he drops out of college to surf. He goes to visit his father and decides to stay. She can’t stand it and jumps on a plane. She gets fired from her job as a prominent New York book editor and decides to stay in Los Angeles. She develops a relationship with a surfing instructor who teaches her how to surf and eventually she opens up to him and shares the story of having a son die when he was young (which was of course a major factor in her trying to manage her other son’s life). He tells her that when he was young and lived with his mom she went through some tragic stuff also. So she asks him, “What did you want from your mother?” His response is a great line that I hope you will remember. He says, “I wanted her to enjoy life anyway.” In spite of all the bad stuff that happened to her he wanted her to find a way to embrace life, to say “yes” to life.

Sisters and brothers, that’s what hope can do for us. No matter how bad it gets, hope gives us the energy to get up again and face the trials and struggles of today. It inspires us to keep trusting, keep praying, and to keep loving and caring because love will ultimately win. The Christ, the God of all creation, the father and mother of every person who has ever lived, will have the final word. Evil will be vanquished, the common good will prevail, and the law of love will be written on our minds and our hearts.      

Our good God, many of us have never had to face the kind of desperation that those who are part of this traveling caravan have had to face in life, and we hope we will never have to, but if we do, may we find the hope that gives us the strength and courage and will to not give up. And when our world starts to crumble and we face real suffering and trials, give us the grace to not lose hope, and help us to say yes to life regardless. In the name of Christ I pray. Amen.  

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Love Thy Neighbor (A sermon from Mark 12:28-34)

The question of the scribe is not unusual at all. It is the kind of question typical of the kind of things that the teachers of the law discussed and debated in those days. They had come to a consensus that there were 613 commands in the Torah (the law), so naturally they would try to find some way to summarize them or get to the essence and core of the law. Here the scribe is inquiring as to which of the commands is the chief command, the most important command that takes priority over all the others. It’s a legitimate question.

In response Jesus first references the opening words of the Shema, known as such by the first word of the Hebrew text of Deut. 6:4. It is a call to complete devotion to Yahweh – to love God completely with one’s total being. That Jesus appeals to this commandment would have been a surprise to no one. It was recited by faithful Jews daily. Now, what would have been a surprise is what Jesus says next. Jesus refers to a second command found in Lev. 19:18 – to love your neighbor as yourself – which he says is of equal importance. Jesus insists that this second command in on the same level and bears the same authority as the first. While all three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) include this scene, and though each description differs in its details, the one thing they all emphasize is that Jesus places these two commands on an equal footing and regards them of equal importance. In Mark’s version Jesus says, “There is no other commandment greater than these” (12:31b). Luke connects both commands without a break (10:27). And in Matthew Jesus says, “All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments” (22:40). So according to Jesus, these two commandments are inseparable and constitute the heart and soul of what God expects.

The writer of 1 John makes this same connection and elaborates on it. He argues that we express our love for God by our love of neighbor. He says that if we do not love others, then we do not really love God or know God, because God is love. Love is who God is. When we love others, he says, it is God living in us. If I do not love others, then I do not love God, regardless of what I think or profess or believe.

In Mark’s version of this story the scribe who asks the question functions differently than he does in Matthew and Luke. In Matthew and Luke the lawyer asks the question to put Jesus to the test. He functions as an antagonist. But in Mark’s version he is not an enemy of Jesus at all, but a genuine seeker. In Mark’s version the scribe actually affirms Jesus’s response. The scribe says, “You are right, Teacher” and then he repeats the two commands that Jesus linked together, but then adds a fresh insight. He says, “this [loving God and loving neighbor as yourself] is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” A whole burnt offering, by the way, is where a sacrifice was completely consumed by fire. None of the sacrifice was given to the priests; it was completely given to the Lord.

Now, the insight that the scribe makes is nothing really new. It’s a theme reflected in a number of Old Testament passages. Hosea 6:6 reads: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” There is a powerful exposition of this theme in the first chapter of Isaiah, where the prophet denounces the people’s superficial worship. He says, “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? . . . I have had enough of burnt offerings and rams.” Then he calls them to repentance. He says, “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” The truly vulnerable ones in that society were primarily widows, orphans, and aliens (immigrants). The prophet says that true religion is about loving others, especially those who are taken advantage of by powerful people. The prophet says, “Rescue them from their oppressors. Defend them against those who would treat them harshly. Plead their case, speak for them and stand with them. This is true worship.”  

This is what God wants of us, brothers and sisters. It doesn’t matter how strongly we believe our doctrine, or how emotionally uplifting our worship, or intellectually stimulating our Bible studies—if any of that doesn’t translate into a loving, compassionate lifestyle that inspires and empowers us to identify with and care for the downtrodden ones of the world then it’s all religious baloney. It doesn’t matter how many prayers I pray, songs I sing, sermons I preach or hear, creeds I recite, or worship services I lead or attend, if I can’t love my neighbor as myself, (If I can’t love my sister or brother in the human family) then my faith is useless and meaningless.

After the scribe responds to Jesus in such an affirmative way, Jesus says, “You have answered wisely. You are not far from the kingdom of God.” The kingdom of God is where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Why does Jesus say, “You are not far from the kingdom of God?” Because it’s not enough to just profess love. We have to do love. We have to practice love. Love is something we do, not profess. Authentic faith in Jesus always involves faithfulness to the way of Jesus, which of course, is the way of love. James expounded on this when he said that faith without works is dead. Faith without works of mercy and justice is dead. It’s not faith at all. It has no value apart from works and expressions of love. One commentator defined love of neighbor as unconditional regard for a person or persons that shape our behaviors toward them in such a way that we help them to become what God wants them to be.

In Luke’s version the lawyer is not a seeker, but an antagonist who is trying to trap Jesus. In response to Jesus’ insistence on loving one’s neighbor the lawyer in Luke asks, “Who is my neighbor?” and Luke tells us he was trying to justify himself. So Jesus tells him a story, where the perceived enemy of the Jews, a Samaritan, is the good neighbor who loves his perceived enemy, a Jew. Jesus makes the very one this Jew probably hated the hero in the story. Today, in our context, the hero could well be an undocumented person. One of the great ironies in Christianity today is that some of us use our Christianity to avoid loving our neighbor, thus our very faith (Christianity) becomes an obstacle to loving God. We do what Israel did described in Isaiah one and think our worship or what we believe will get us by. One of the ways we justify our failure to love our neighbor is by limiting and restricting who our neighbor is. One woman in a Southern Baptist Church in Alabama was interviewed by a writer of the Washington Post in July of this year. She said that love your neighbor means your American neighbor. She also said that the biblical instruction to “welcome the stranger” means the “the legal immigrant stranger.” Now, most of us are not that blatantly nationalistic in our reading of the Bible. Most of us are more subtle about it, but we know how to twist the text so that it means something different than what it says. We even read the Bible in ways that make us feel good about hating our neighbor. Just listen to what some popular Christian leaders are saying about undocumented persons and other minorities and groups they are inclined to scapegoat. We project our fears and angst onto these groups and justify our hate by limiting who our neighbor is and then we even convince ourselves that God doesn’t like them either.

Now lest you think I am positioning myself as someone so much better than the fear–mongering and hate-mongering Christians today, I have a pastoral confession to make. I struggle a lot with Jesus’ teaching to love my neighbor as myself. I have to admit to you that I have neighbors that I don’t like – I mean I really, really don’t like. I wish they would go away, and wouldn’t care much if they just dropped . . . well, out of the picture. Right now we have a number of Christian leaders and political leaders in our country, beginning at the very top, who are enabling a culture of hate and fear and prejudice that makes me sick – not just emotionally and spiritually sick, sometimes I even feel it physically. So how, in heaven’s name, do I love these people? How do I love people when I hate what they are doing, and dislike them so much?

Let me begin by telling you a story. It’s not my story. It’s from a book written by Canadian novelist, Margaret Atwood, titled Year of the Flood and is part of a trilogy. I heard the story from Dr. Stephanie Paulsell, a theologian who spoke at a conference I attended a few years ago. The context is a violent, ecologically degraded world in the future. Some people known as God’s Gardeners, a deeply religious and spiritual people, live in hidden rooftop gardens. They resist the powerful corporations that are destroying the earth, and they resist by cherishing and caring for what is left of creation. They believe a great disaster is coming, which they call the waterless flood. They are right about the flood. A virus nearly wipes out the earth’s human population. There are survivors, some of whom are dehumanized and mercilessly violent. The story is told by Toby, a woman who had been rescued from a brutal employer by the Gardeners. Toby tries to keep the sacred practices of the Gardeners alive, even though she is not sure she believes.

At the end of the year of the Flood, Toby captures a pair of violent criminals who had kidnapped and brutalized a young woman named Amanda, who had lived with the Gardeners as a teenager. She was funny and brave and a vital part of the community, then she was snatched away from them on the eve of the Gardener feast by these predators. After years of abuse, she is now broken and nearly dead, when she is rescued by Toby and another Gardener named Ren. The men who held her captive were bashed in the head and tied to a tree. Amanda and Ren hope that Toby will kill them. But what Toby does instead, is build a fire and make a pot of soup with which to celebrate the Feast of St. Julian and All Souls, a day to honor life in all its forms. Amanda who was terrorized and brutalized by these two men asks, “We are not going to share our food with them are we? These men who have been torturing me, we are not going to feed them are we?” Toby says, “We have to. It’s the feast of St. Julian and All Souls. It’s out of my hands. These are the demands of the day.” “What about tomorrow?” asks Amanda. Toby says that she doesn’t know about tomorrow, but today we are observing the feast. So she passes two cups of soup among everyone gathered, the brutalized and the brutalizers alike.

Dr. Paulsell who told this story makes the point that this opens a space for Toby, Ren, and Amanda to practice mercy, and to find out if they can stand it. Paulsell says, “Their experiment allows them to find out what it feels like to let those men live another day. Maybe, on the next day, when they do have to make a choice, they’ll let them live again. Or maybe not. You’ll have to read the trilogy to find out.” I never did read the trilogy so I can’t tell you how it turned out. I guess you will have to read it and tell me. I love what Toby says with regard to the feast. “I have to let them live. It’s out of my hands. These are the demands of the day.”

Hear me sisters and brothers. We have to love our neighbor. It’s out of our hands. These are the demands of the day. This is what our Lord demands. We don’t have a choice, that is, if we want to be followers of Christ. For many Christians today I don’t think the word “Christian” means being a follower of Jesus. It might mean believing the right things about Jesus, but it doesn’t mean do what Jesus says. If we are going to be followers of Jesus (and there are so called “Christians” today who are not) we have to do what Jesus says.

But how? How do we love like Jesus? I don’t know, but we have to find a way. I have started praying daily for the people I dislike so much daily. My prayer goes something like: Lord, I don’t know how to love these people I don’t like, so you will have to help me. I don’t know how to love them the way you do, so you are going to have to change me. I pray that you will touch their lives and my life in a way that would help us all to see that everyone is your child and needs to be loved.” I have to do this, because Jesus said to. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” In Luke’s Gospel Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” If Jesus is my Lord, I don’t have a choice and you don’t either. Maybe by doing that I will create enough space for God’s love to change me.  

You know sisters and brothers, it’s hard to take, but all those not-so-good people that we dislike so much are God’s children too. And as difficult as it is for us to accept, God actually loves them just as much as God loves you or me. I think if more people understood what it really means to be a Christian, that to be a Christian you have to take Jesus seriously, they wouldn’t be Christians, which probably would not be such a bad thing. (You might read John 6 sometime where Jesus found a way to get rid of most of his followers).

By actually trying to do what Jesus says to do, we open up space for the Spirit of Love to spring to life and grow. In First Corinthians 13, that beautiful poetic piece on love, Paul says “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.” The part about “believes all things” used to really puzzle me. Now I think I know what it means. Love believes that any person, no matter how violent, evil, deceitful, unfeeling, narcissistic, and egotistical can change. Love really believes that all people can ultimately be redeemed – that any person can change. Love believes all things. Love believes that. And at some point, if I can learn how to love like Jesus, I will believe that too. And maybe you will also. Or maybe not. The story is still unfolding.

Our good God, help us to be good like you and to love our neighbor as ourselves – especially those we dislike and hate what they do. Amen.