Sunday, January 28, 2018

Kin-dom authority (A sermon from Mark 1:21-28)

This text is a religious text in a sacred book. Religious texts are metaphorical texts. All of them. That doesn’t mean there are no memories or historical echoes – there surely are. However, historical references or allusions are secondary to the main purpose of sacred texts. I don’t know (and the scholars don’t know either) exactly what pre-modern people in the days of an enchanted universe believed about demonic possession. Maybe it was then like it is now. Maybe there were a number of different views. Who knows? This text has relevance to us as a proclamation of the transforming power of God. I said last week that the kingdom of God – (which I like to call the kin-dom of God, because it’s really about relationships) – the kin-dom of God has to do with the dynamic power of love at work in our world to transform us individually and to transform the systems, organizations, and institutions of society.

In today’s Gospel reading we see the power of the kingdom, which is the power of love, at work in the life, teaching, and authority of Jesus to drive out “unclean” or “unholy spirits.” We all struggle with unclean spirits. I am not talking about little red devils with pitchforks and horns as we might see walking about on Halloween night. I am talking about life-demeaning, life-diminishing forces that we struggle with in our own lives and that sometimes pervade and control the religious, social, economic, and political systems and institutions of the world that we are part of. These life diminishing forces are demonic in the sense that they are anti-human forces – that is, they are forces that work against the good of humanity. Forces like greed, hate, jealousy, envy, prejudice, selfish ambition, and the like are powers personified by the “unclean spirit” in our story.  Sexism, racism, nationalism, materialism, elitism, narcissism, and the like are the demonic, anti-human forces that people of all ages struggle with. And if we are honest, I think all of us would have to admit that there are times when these life diminishing forces possess us. And there are other times when they oppress us. And sometimes they both oppress us and possess us at the same time. When we encounter hate in the other (and the other could be a person or an organization or system), and when we respond to hate with hate, when we react to slander with slander, when we reflect the contempt heaped on us by turning it back on the person or persons or group who treated us with contempt, then we are not only oppressed by the anti-human spirit, we are possessed by it as well.

In our story Jesus is in the synagogue on a holy day when he encounters an unholy, anti-human spirit. Unfortunately, we, too, can encounter these anti-human, unholy forces in Christian persons and institutions just as easily as anywhere else. That’s why authentic and sincere Christian teachers and prophets take a risk every time they tell us the truth.

Dr. Fred Craddock tells about the time he was teaching homiletics and New Testament at a small school in Oklahoma. The school was hanging on by its financial fingernails. The president of the school said to Fred, “I’m in touch with a man who is concerned about improving the quality of preaching in Oklahoma. He has a lot of money and I believe he’s going to give a sizable gift to our preaching program. Will you go with me to talk to him?”

Fred was delighted to go, so he and the president went to visit the man at his office. He was waiting for them and ready to hand over the gift. The man said, “Before we finish this I think we ought to pray.” Neither Fred nor the president prayed. The man prayed. He had the money and he had the prayer. With pen in hand, he was about to sign the check. His lawyer had everything prepared. This was a large donation. But before he signed, he looked up and said, “Now, this all goes for the preaching program?” They said, “Yes sir, that’s what it goes for.” He started to write, but paused again and said, “Now, you do understand, none of this goes for women or for blacks.”

There were a few moments of silence from the shock of that comment. Then, the president stood up. And Fred also stood up. The president said, “I’m sorry, we cannot accept your money under those conditions.” As they started to leave the man spoke up, “Well, there are plenty of schools that will.” And he was right, of course. That man had given over sixty million dollars to schools and churches pervaded by the anti-human spirits/powers of sexism and racism, but not a penny had he given to schools and churches pervaded by the authority of Jesus.

The authority of Jesus to liberate us individually and corporately from these anti-human powers is the authority to inspire, motivate, and empower us to love. The power of the Holy Spirit is the power of love. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he says, “The fruit of the Spirit is love” (5:22). And he says, “The only thing that counts, is faith working through love” (5:6). And once again, in the same letter, he says, “The whole law [the whole requirement of God for humanity] is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (5:14). In his letter to the Corinthians Paul says that of three great principles of the Christian religion, faith, hope, and love, “the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). In his letter to the Colossians, Paul (or possibly a disciple of Paul) says, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (3:14). In Ephesians he says, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us” (5:1-2).  This is from one who formerly, prior to his encounter with Christ, was driven by the anti-human forces of prejudice and hate under the guise of religious zeal and fervor. Being a Christian doesn’t mean diddly squat unless we love.

Love is the authority of Jesus to drive out these anti-human, life diminishing powers at work in our lives and in our society. Our Gospel text says that the people were astounded at Jesus’ teaching, because “he taught them as one having authority, not as the scribes.” Jesus didn’t need the endorsement of the religious establishment, because he had no interest in enforcing the authority of the religious leaders. He wasn’t driven by any need to please the people in power; he was driven by the power of love which gave him the courage to confront and challenge the people in power with grace and truth. That was his authority, the authority to heal and liberate through love. While the religious leaders were into wielding power to control others, Jesus was in to using the power of love to heal and liberate others.

Paul said in one of his letters that the weapons of our spiritual and moral warfare are not the weapons of the world. We don’t rely on the power of violence, but of non-violence and non-violent resistance. We don’t exercise the power of retribution, rather we exercise the power of forgiveness. We don’t yield to the powers of alienation and separation, rather we trust in the powers of restoration and reconciliation. The world calls this weakness and foolishness, for it is the power of relinquishment and self-giving that led to Jesus’ crucifixion by the powers that be. And yet Paul says that the cross, which represents foolishness and weakness to the world, represents the wisdom and power of God for the salvation of the world. It is the power of love that gives us the authority and courage and honesty and will to face the anti-human powers that sometimes possess us and at other times oppress us.    

In our Gospel story the very presence of Jesus provokes an outcry. The very presence of Jesus, who is possessed by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of love and justice, exposes and disturbs and provokes the anti-human spirit that is present in the synagogue. The anti-human spirit says (again, this is not historical detail, this is parable and metaphor), “What have you, the Holy One of God, to do with us? Have you come to destroy us?” Indeed, he has. Jesus has come to liberate all from the powers that would destroy the loving and the good in human life. Jesus has come as both personal savior and as community liberator. (If I were only to talk about Jesus as personal Savior and not as liberator from systems of injustice, then I would only be preaching half a gospel. And half a gospel is not the gospel.) Why do you think Jesus does these works on the Sabbath intentionally provoking the religious establishment? Jesus has no interest in creating a new religion, even though historically that is what happened. His intention is to reform Judaism, freeing it from the hold of anti-human forces so that Judaism can be a force for good, a force for God’s dynamic movement of love in the world. The anti-human powers cry out in the presence of Jesus because they know they cannot survive in the presence of the holy power of love.

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 home and no darkness in which to hide. All that existed in the old priest’s soul was the light of love. 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 his devilish work and had to give it up.

The cure for possession is possession – possession of the authority of Jesus, possession of the the authority to love. Wouldn’t it be great if our hearts and minds and souls would be so full of light that there would no darkness where a demon could hide? Wouldn’t it be great if our lives were so full of love that there would be no room for greed, or prejudice, or envy, or jealousy, or arrogance, or selfish ambition, or any thoughts or feelings of exceptionalism or superiority over others? What if our souls were so full of love that we harbored no ill feelings toward anyone, only a sense of connection and belonging to everyone, knowing full well that we are all one people and one family?

We have the same authority as Jesus. Jesus is simply claiming and employing the human authority that is our birthright as the daughters and sons of God. The authority that Jesus uses to drive out the anti-human spirits/forces is the authority we all have as human beings. Don’t exalt Jesus so high that his life is unattainable. Listen to what Clarence Jordan says. Jordan laments, “Jesus has been so zealously worshiped, his deity so vehemently affirmed, his halo so brightly illumined, and his cross so beautifully polished that in the minds of many he no longer exists as a man. [Jordan is describing me before the crack opened and the light came in.] He has become an exquisite celestial being who momentarily and mistakenly lapsed into a painful involvement in the human scene, and then quite properly returned to his heavenly habitat. By thus glorifying him we more effectively rid ourselves of him than did those who tried to do so by crudely crucifying him” (Essential Writings, p. 33).

When Jesus sends out the twelve he gives them the authority to do what he is doing – to heal the sick and the broken, and to liberate those possessed by and oppressed from the anti-human powers within and without. In doing this Jesus is simply helping them claim and employ the authority that was already theirs.

Sisters and brothers, you have the authority to love like Jesus. For like Jesus you, too, are a holy one of God; you, too, are a daughter and son of God. In you the Holy Spirit dwells. As Paul said, “Your body is a temple of God.” We have the authority to heal the broken and the wounded, whether that be the sickness that is in our own soul or the sickness in a brother or sister, or even the sickness that affects communities and societies. We have the authority to liberate our own souls and the souls of others – individual persons or community systems – from anti-human spirits that would hold us and them in their grip. We have the authority, because the Christ lives in us, and always has, just as the Christ lives in every person, though most are totally unaware.

Sisters and brother, with regard to our own personal lives, with regard to the personal lives of others, and with regard to the political, social, cultural, and religious systems we are part of we have the authority to heal and liberate. We have the authority to exercise the power of love.   

Gracious God, help us see that Jesus is not the kind of personal Savior who does everything for us, but one who shows us how to use the authority you have given us to heal and liberate by calling us to love the way he loved. Forgive us, Lord, for the many ways we have abdicated our authority and failed to trust in your power to love, an authority and power that we already possess as your beloved children. So many of us, Lord, have went by the title “Christian” for so long that it doesn’t mean anything to us anymore or we have turned it into something other than what it originally meant. Help us to see that it’s all about love, that it’s all about mercy and justice, and give us whatever courage and strength and grace we need to speak and live with the authority of the Christ.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Living in the Kin-dom of God (A sermon from Mark 1:14-20)

In the summer of 1942, before the civil rights movement, Clarence Jordan, a Ph.D in New Testament, a Southern Baptist whom Southern Baptists came to hate, on 440 acres of worn out farm land in southwest Georgia launched what he called a “demonstration plot” for the kingdom of God. He named his experiment Koinonia Farm. The Greek word koinonia is the word used to depict the Christian community described in the fourth chapter of the book of Acts that shared their resources and held everything in common so that no one in the community did without. I suppose Jordan wouldn’t have had much opposition if it was an all white community. But this was in interracial community where whites and blacks lived and worked as equals, as family.  

Being a Baptist he was often invited to preach in little Baptist churches, that is, until they heard his message of equality for all people. Then he was rarely invited back. After one sermon where he bemoaned and denounced the country’s practice of segregation, a lady came up to him and said, “My granddaddy was an official in the Confederate army and would not believe a word that you said about race relations.” Jordan smiled sweetly and said, “Well, ma’am, your choice is very clear then. You can follow your granddaddy or you can follow Jesus.” We have the same choice today. We can follow the path of family or we can follow Jesus. We can follow the path of political party or we can follow Jesus. We can follow a religious system or we can follow Jesus.

For Christians it’s all about following Jesus. God can work through other mediators and prophets and teachers, but for us it’s all about following Jesus, or it should be. It’s about following the Jesus of the Gospels who welcomes all people to the table, reaches out to the marginalized and disenfranchised, lifts up the poor, liberates the oppressed, and confronts the injustices of the religious and political powers that be.

Jesus called followers. However, Jesus never preached himself. He did not exalt himself. He preached humility and said that in God’s kingdom the high and mighty would be brought low and the low and humble would be lifted up. Jesus seemed to anticipate a great reversal of the way things are now in the systems and institutions of society. In God’s kingdom the first are last and the last first according to Jesus.

Our text today gets at the very heart and core of the preaching, teaching, healing, reforming, liberating work and mission of Jesus. According to Mark Jesus proclaimed, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.” That is the good news of the kingdom of God. For Jesus to even use the term “kingdom of God” was dangerous and provocative. Palestine was under Roman domination. The Jews were subjects of Rome. Rome knew only one kingdom and only one king. There was no king but Caesar, who went by such titles as “Lord,” “Son of God,” and “God manifest.” All titles attributed to Rome’s king. But Jesus dared to proclaim a different kingdom which called for a different allegiance.

Now let’s talk about that kingdom. The Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) present the kingdom of God as a rather paradoxical, dynamic reality. Even the way it is introduced here is somewhat ambiguous. The kingdom, says Jesus, has come near or we could just as well translate, “is at hand.” What does that mean? Does that mean it’s already here? Or does that mean that it’s about to arrive? Or does it mean something like, “It’s here if you will receive it?” Most mainline interpreters would say, “All of the above.”

In some of the sayings of Jesus the kingdom of God is a present reality. It’s here and now. In other sayings the kingdom of God is a future prospect. In these passages it is a reality anticipated. Some passages speak of entering the kingdom now, other passages speak of enter the kingdom in the future. So . . . Is it now or is it later? Most interpreters would say: It’s both. Some would describe it as “already, but not yet” or “Now, but still future.” That’s part of the paradox.

The kingdom of God is a universal reality. It encompasses heaven and earth. Some Christians would like to make this just about heaven. Because if you do that, then you don’t have to take Jesus too seriously. Now, the fact is that in the Gospels Jesus applied the reality of the kingdom far more to earth than to heaven. The entire Sermon on the Mount is about living in the kingdom of God right now on earth. That whole body of teaching is how we love our neighbor as ourself and how we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. There is no mention at all in the Sermon on the Mount about what to believe, it’s all about how to live here and now. Jesus made this emphasis clear when he taught the disciples to pray what we pray every time we observe Holy Communion: Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is heaven. Heaven’s in good shape, life on earth is the problem. The coming of the kingdom is about God’s will being done here and now, on earth as it being done in heaven.

Jesus made it all about love because love is the power to transform persons, communities, and whole societies. Clarence Jordan called the kingdom of God the God movement, and the God movement was, is, and will forever be a movement toward love. If something is not loving then it is not of God. Jesus made this clear when he said that the heart and soul of true religion is to love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. On these two commands, says Jesus, hang all the law and the prophets. The whole duty of humankind can be summarized as a responsibility to be loving to God and all people.

So the kingdom of God is about the dynamic, transformative movement of love to transform individuals and whole societies. It’s not one or the other. It’s both – individuals and whole societies. The temptation of conservative Christians is to focus on the individual to the neglect of society. The temptation of liberal Christians is to focus on society to the neglect of the individual. Progressive Christians tend to emphasize both equally and that’s why I’m a progressive Christian. We cannot ignore either. For example, we cannot just focus on our own sins of greed, prejudice, pride, and selfish ambition, without confronting the greed, prejudice, pride, and selfish ambition that control and pervade political, social, economic, and religious systems. On the other hand, we cannot just confront the sexism, racism, nationalism, elitism, exceptionalism, egotism, patriarchalism, and exclusivism within the system without confronting how we ourselves are impacted by these destructive “isms” and how they influence our own personal complicity in these systems.   

On the one hand, the kingdom of God is about the dynamic, transformative movement of divine love within our personal lives to transform our character and conduct, to make us merciful and just, peace loving and forgiving, ever ready and willing to act in compassion toward the one in need and ever ready to speak for and stand with the vulnerable as we confront unjust systems.

On the other hand, the kingdom of God is about the dynamic, transformative movement of divine love within society to make all the systems, institutions, and communities of the world merciful and just, peaceful and forgiving, where all people are treated with equity and fairness, and all have enough not just to survive, but to thrive. This is the Beloved Community Dr. King dreamed of. This is the vision of the Hebrew prophets who long for a day when peace and righteousness cover the earth as the waters the face of the deep. A time when the law of love is written on the hearts and minds of all God’s children. A time when there is no need for weapons – where, in the words of Isaiah “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” When that happens that will be the day the kingdom of God is finally and completely realized on earth. And that seems such a long way off doesn’t it? As I have lamented many times: In the process of our moral evolution as a species, we seem to be stuck in adolescence. The fact that we keep sinning and blame it on original sin is a cop out.

Now the text seems to be saying that right now is the time to enter the kingdom. The time is fulfilled, the time is now to be part of this transformative movement of divine love. And the way the text suggests we do that is by repenting and believing the good news in the context of following Jesus.

Now, I think most of us understand that repenting involves a change of mind and direction, a change in commitments and allegiances, a turning from one way to another way. I think most of us get what it means to repent; but we don’t get what it means to believe. Beleving in the NT tradition is not simply believing doctrines about God. Many Christians want to make about believing doctrines, because then it would be easy. Then we get to be in control and get to say who’s in or out. For some that’s all their Christian faith is about. Believing in the NT tradition is primarily about trusting in and being faithful to God, and the way we do that as Christians is by following Jesus, because for us, Jesus is the face of God. God looks and loves like Jesus. So the more we look like, act like, and love like Jesus, the more we reflect God’s likeness.

We learn from Jesus how to trust in a God of love and compassion. We learn from Jesus how to face our personal sins and failures, and how to confront the systemic injustices of the powers that be. We learn from Jesus how to let go of our little selves, so we can love with a more inclusive love. We learn from Jesus how to turn away from greed and pride and pettiness, so we can live with more honesty, humility, and integrity.  We learn from Jesus how to repent of partisan loyalties, so we can be the body of Christ in the world standing up for and with the disenfranchised and marginalized. In our context today that would be the undocumented persons, especially the Dreamers. It would be our LGBTQ and transgender sisters and brothers, people of color unjustly sentenced in our criminal justice system, or whoever else may be maligned and mistreated by the powers that be. And you know, sisters and brothers, there is almost as much need today for Christians to actually follow Jesus, as there was when Dr. King preached the kingdom of God.  

Clarence Jordan, whom I mentioned earlier, like Dr. King is a powerful embodiment of what it means to live in the kingdom of God. From its inception the interracial community Jordan founded faced opposition and persecution. But the year the U.S Supreme court voted its landmark decision to desegregate schools is when they had to face the reality that their very lives were in serious danger. State Rights councils that were simply fronts for racist strategizing against desegregation sprouted up across the south in reaction to that Supreme Court decision. One in Sumter County was formed with the express purpose of driving out Koinonea. Their express purpose was to shut down that community. Threats grew into life-threatening violence. They faced a massive boycott on all their products and a refusal to sell to them the fertilizer, seeds, and gas they needed to survive. Their roadside market was bombed several times. In January of 1957 after night riders sprayed bullets into the farms gas pumps and then toward the family homes, with some bullets just missing members of the community, the community met for ten days to pray and decide whether to stay or try to relocate. They decided to face their fears and stay, accepting the reality that they may be killed.

A number of kingdom people came to visit them and support them. Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement spent 36 hours on a bus from New York to spend Holy Week and the week preceding it at Koinonia. She took a turn on night watch and was shot at for the first time in her life. When a member of Koinonia heard the gunfire and ran out to see if everything was okay, she found Dorothy trembling and offered her coat. Dorothy said to her, “That ain’t cold, baby, that’s scared.”

Clarence talks about having to face his own fears and his rage. Not the fear he had for his own life mind you, but rather the fear he had for the community members, the parents and children that lived there together as family. He feared for their lives and he had to face those fears. Clarence understood that conversion to the kingdom of God meant radical change in one’s whole way of thinking and living. He knew it involved a radical shift in allegiances and loyalties from the ways of the world to what he called “the principles of the God movement.” And he knew this was not a once-for-all repentance and conversion. He knew that everyday he had to realign his life with those principles and recommit his life to the way of Jesus, and we don’t like to hear this, but the way of Jesus is the way of the cross. Jesus said if we are going to follow him we have to take up our cross too. The members of Koinonea knew that they could be lynched just like Jesus.

Clarence refused to allow fear and anger to consume him. And so through it all he kept his clever wit and hopeful vibrancy. In response to the boycott they started a mail order business. Clarence called on friends around the country to finance, promote, and buy their pecans and pecan products. Their slogan was, “Help us get the nuts out of Georgia.” Clarence learned to turn everything over to God, even the very lives and well-being of the community. And that’s what repenting and believing involves sisters an brothers. That’s what it means to follow Jesus.

Now, let’s just be honest okay. You and I will not take the kingdom of God that seriously. We are not going to follow Jesus that far. And I am not here today to make you or myself feel guilty. (I am preaching to myself as much as anyone.) But you know, sisters and brothers, there comes a time when we awaken to the truth and then we have to ask ourselves: Am I going to live out the principles and loyalties of the kingdom of God? Am I going to speak or am I going to remain silent? Am I going to confront injustice – in my own heart and in the system? Am I going to live in fear or am I going to live by faith? Or am I just going to play around and try to convince myself that God doesn’t really expect that of me?   

Gracious God, inspire us, empower us, compel us to be kingdom people – to dream of a just world and do what we can to see it realized. Help us to love in deed and action. Help us to love inclusively and unconditionally. And maybe one day we will be able to follow Jesus all the way to the cross. In his name I pray. Amen. 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Come and See (A sermon from John 1:43-51)

Our story opens with Jesus extending an invitation, “Follow me.” Isn’t it interesting that Jesus never says worship me, he says follow me. Learn from me. Do what I do. Love the way I love. Philip decides to follow Jesus.  

I heard about a minister who was called upon to officiate a funeral of a war veteran. Before the funeral service, a few of the deceased’s military friends asked the minister if he would lead them up to the casket, where they could have a solemn moment of remembrance, and then lead them out through the side door. This the minister proceeded to do, but there was a kind of awkward moment when instead of leading them out through the side door, he let them straight into a broom closet, from which they had to make a hasty retreat. I suppose that the lesson that can be drawn from that story is that if you are going to follow someone, make sure the one you are following knows where he or she is going.

Apparently Philip was convinced that Jesus knew where he was going. We are not given any details, so we do not know what conversations or experiences Philip may have had with Jesus prior to his commitment to be one of his disciples, but whatever experiences he had it was enough to convince him to pick up and go with Jesus on his mission. Philip wanted his friend Nathaniel to become a disciple to. He says to Nathaniel, “We have found the one spoken about in the law and the prophets.” Philip is convinced that Jesus embodies the best of the mercy and justice the law and prophets talk about. Philip believes Jesus is the real deal – that Jesus embodies the best of what we are all called to be.

Nathaniel is not so sure. Nathaniel is skeptical and incredulous. Nathaniel seems to be stuck in his second-hand faith. Second-hand in the sense that this is what he had been indoctrinated and socialized in to. He couldn’t imagine how Jesus of Nazareth could be a true teacher or prophet of God.

If you remember from the Gospel reading a couple of weeks ago that Jesus grew up poor with little economic comforts and securities. There was a popular thread of Jewish teaching (just as there is today in the church) that wealth was an indication of the blessing of God and poverty a sign of the curse or judgment of God. In addition, Jesus was from the little insignificant town of Nazareth. Nathaniel was so prejudiced against Nazareth he said to Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathaniel’s narrow beliefs and biases prevent him from seeing the truth that is right in front of him. I wonder how often we get stuck because of our confining and limiting prejudices and beliefs.

In Samir Selmanovic’s book It’s Really All About God he shares how his parents tried everything within their power to turn him away from Christianity soon after he became a Christian. His parents were not religious, though their background was Muslim. They recruited one of Europe’s best psychiatrists in their effort to dissuade him. They asked relatives to talk to their son. They even went to his former girlfriends to persuade him to abandon his new Christian faith. They responded to their son converting to Christianity just the way some Christians I know would respond to one of their children converting to Islam.

On one occasion they invited Imam Muhammad to their house to talk with him, a man respected in the Muslim community of their city. His parents, who were non-religious, figured Islam was the lesser of two evils. Samir says that Muhammad “was the most environmentally progressive and socially conscious person” he had ever met. He was a vegan who walked to his house from the other side of the city, avoiding transportation on principle in order to protect the environment. He was a small gray-haired man with a large smile emanating peace and playfulness.

Samir was expecting some sort of talk on the evils of Christianity and the superiority of Islam and the Quran, but instead, after some initial small talk, Imam Muhammad simply let time pass in silence. He didn’t try to persuade him of anything. When he could tell that Samir was ready, Muhammad stood quietly, walked over to Samir, sat down, lightly touched his shoulder, and said calmly, “I am glad you are a believer.” And nothing more.

After sitting in peace for a little longer they stood up, and Muhammad opened his arms to invite an embrace. Samir opened his. Samir had been converted into an exclusive version of Christianity, so even though his take on the experience was different than his parents, he wasn’t sure what to make of it either. In reflecting on that experience Samir says, “He smelled like wooden furniture and soap—old but fresh. Hugging him, I thanked God for giving me this break in life.” Samir’s parents nicknamed him “Crazy Muhammad” and word of his foolishness spread in their family.

I think of what Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians, that the wisdom of the cross is foolishness to the world. The wisdom of self-giving service, the wisdom of humility and vulnerability and non-violence is utter foolishness to the world and to those in power. Think about those in the halls of power in Washington today. The wisdom of humility and vulnerability and non-violence is utter foolishness to those folks.

Reflecting on that experience years later Samir says, “The grace and truth I had first met at the cross were embodied in this man, who was willing to be taken for a fool in order to make me whole.” Even though Muhammad was of a different faith, Samir experienced the love and compassion of the Christ in Muhammad’s presence and actions.

There are some Christians . . . well, not just some, probably many Christians today who would call me “crazy” for just telling you that story. In fact, some Christians would be angry with me for telling that story, because they cannot possibly imagine how God could speak through a Muslim. Like Nathaniel their beliefs and biases prevent them from “seeing.” Of course, Islam like Christianity is often dominated by exclusive versions of faith as well. Just as there are many Christians who cannot imagine God acting through a Muslim, so there are many Muslims who cannot imagine God acting through Christians. Unfortunately, pettiness, narrowness, and prejudice transcend any particular religious faith. But the good news is that love and mercy and a passion for justice does to.

Nathanial may be biased and narrow, but his mind and heart are not closed. So when Philip says to him regarding Jesus of Nazareth, “Come and see,” Nathanial is willing “to come and see,” he is willing to consider the possibility that he needs to “see” some things that he presently cannot see. By heeding the call to come and see Nathaniel is at least willing to concede the possibility that he could be wrong, that he could be blind to some things. And when he meets Jesus his second-hand faith gives way to first-hand personal experience. I said a few weeks back in a sermon, God doesn’t need a huge opening. God just needs a little crack in our shell to get in, just a little bit of openness and humility and honesty and readiness. When I met Jesus again as if for first time years ago, after I had been in ministry over a decade, I discovered what Nathaniel discovered – just how wrong I had been. And a whole new world opened up to me and I was gripped with a new vision.

Tomorrow we will honor a man who gave his life in pursuit of truth and peace and justice and helping others to see with a new vision. The very fact that we will do that speaks of how wrong we once were, and the progress our nation has made in overcoming our bigotry, prejudice, inequality, and injustice. King said that the arc of moral history bends toward restorative justice, but it bends ever so slowly. And there are those who try to bend it back, so that progress is often three steps forward and two steps back. King was killed by those who wanted to bend back the arc of moral justice. We have made some progress, but we have a long way to go.

Tomorrow when we honor Martin Luther King, Jr. we do so with a broken immigration system, where our government is mercilessly deporting people who have lived here for years and contributed to our society, separating family members in the process. Violent criminals and those who traffic in drugs of course need to be deported. But Homeland Security is not making any distinctions these days. We have a long way to go

We will honor the accomplishments of Dr. King tomorrow in a country where still many families do not have the medical coverage they need, and where more children go to bed hungry than in any other industrialized country in the world. We have a long way to go.

Tomorrow we will honor a man who died for equality and justice, though we just passed a huge tax bill that is anything but just. The way I understand it is that folks like you and me are going to get a little bit of a tax break. Wealthy people and big corporations are going to get a huge tax break. But the poor folks, and those struggling to survive on minimum wage jobs are going to get the crumbs that trickle down from the rich man’s table. Yes, when we honor Dr. King tomorrow we can celebrate the progress we have made. But we can also mourn the face that we still have a long way to go. And that, of course, is true of us individually as well.  

Any progress that we make personally will be dependent upon our willingness to come and see. If I am to overcome my negative habits and patterns, my biases and prejudices, my greed and pride, my selfish ambition and self-centeredness, I must have enough humility and honesty and openness to look into my heart and see what is really there, without trying to rationalize, excuse, deny, and cover over my sin.  

If we as a people are to make progress toward a more just society then we must be willing to put aside partisanship in both religion and politics and work for the common good. We must be willing to see how we are all complicit in injustice and be willing to give more than we take. We must be willing to see that all human systems are tainted with evil and how we must constantly weed and purge and change. We must see that all people, regardless of religion, or nationality, or legal status, or sexual orientation, are treated fairly and justly, because all are children of God.

A whole new world opened up to Nathaniel because he was willing to come and see. Jesus tells him he will see heaven open and the angels or messengers of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. What does that mean? For those of us who like Philip and Nathaniel have made a commitment to follow Jesus, Jesus, of course, becomes the definitive expression of the glory of God that fills heaven and earth. But this is not limited to Jesus. This wouldn’t be much of a vision if all it did was show us something that we could never emulate. When Jesus says follow me Jesus says if you do what I do, if you live the way I live, if you love the way I love, then you, too, will become a place where heaven and earth meet, you, too, will become a place where the divine glory, the glory of love and compassion and mercy and justice come to dwell. The great paradox of this vision is this: the more fully human we become the more like God we become, and the more like God we become the more human we become. Our task is to embody the very best of our humanity, for when we embody the best of our humanity, then we incarnate the grace and truth of God, we reflect the very glory of God. J

Jesus has given us a vision of a just world. He called it the kingdom of God. He envisioned a time when the first would be last and the last first, when the high and mighty would be brought low, and the low and humble would be lifted up. Dr. King envisioned a day when all God’s children of every race and nationality would be seated around the table and there would be enough for everyone. Dr. King said, “We must never feel that God will, through some breath-taking miracle or a wave of the hand, cast evil out of the world. As long as we believe this we will pray unanswered prayers and ask God to do things that God will never do.” God is not going to do for us what God expects us to do. God expects us to be the body of Christ. So much of it, sisters and brothers, hinges on our willingness and readiness to come and see. We need the courage to let go of our prejudices, our pettiness, our exclusive beliefs and attitudes, our greed, and selfish ambition, so that we might envision a new creation and work to bring it to pass.

Our good God, as we come now to share in the bread and cup, we remember the one who is central to our faith, we remember and give thanks for how he lived and how he died. We give thanks for his death, because he died laying down his life in service, in the cause of mercy and justice, for the healing and liberation of all people, and especially those who were considered nobodies and who were ignored and rejected and despised by those in power. As we remember his death, may we be empowered to live the way he lived, to love the way he loved, to not be afraid to confront injustice, and to be a living sacrifice willing to give ourselves in service for the good of all people. Amen.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Walking in darkness may not be a bad thing (A sermon from Gen. 1:1-5)

In the opening chapters of Genesis there are two creation stories arising out of different times and contexts in Israel’s history. The story from which I am reading today extends from 1:1 to 2:4a. Most likely this story emerged around the sixth century BCE and was originally addressed to a community of exiles. Just as the Gospel of John begins with a poem about the Word made flesh, Genesis begins with a poem about creation. This is not history or science; it’s what some scholars call “metaphorical narrative.” It’s parable and poetry. I am not going to read the whole story. Our OT reading for this Sunday, which is my sermon text, is from the opening part of this story. I am reading 1:1-5.

In a Gary Larson cartoon a wagon train is under siege by Indians. A couple of fiery arrows hit the wagons, and they burst into flames. One cowboy turns to another and says, “Hey! They’re lighting their arrows! Can they do that?” Sometimes when life shoots fiery arrows at us and the wagons in which we keep our comforts and certitudes go up in flames, we might feel the same way. Can Life do this? O yea, life can and does.

Any number of events and experiences can send us into a time of confusion and disarray where we see most of what we value or what gives us security and stability go up in flames. Many times these events are completely beyond our control and totally random. Other times we may have contributed to them or even be the principle cause behind them. But whatever the reason or source, we are not prepared to face them and they blind side us. A loved one dies of a sudden accident or illness, a marriage or long standing relationship ends rather abruptly, a career ends or a dream is crushed. We might speak of such times as being engulfed in darkness. We tend to use the image of darkness to speak of some dreaded period in our lives. And in our biblical tradition darkness is often employed as an image of evil or injustice.

However, it’s important to know that our sacred texts do not employ darkness in this negative way exclusively. For example, in 1 Kings 8:12 we read: “The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness.” And in Psalm 18:11: “God made darkness his covering around him.” Clearly, in those two passages darkness does not represent evil or injustice. Nor does it represent that here in the opening verses of this creation poem.

Darkness is part of the formlessness and emptiness over which God moves and upon which acts to shape the creation. Darkness is part of the shaping process. Darkness is incorporated as part of the natural rhythm God sets in motion which later in the story God calls “good.” The darkness is integral to what unfolds; it finds its place. It’s part of the rhythm of day and night: “God called the light day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning. . .”

Spiritual writer and novelist Sue Monk Kid talks about the time her son Bob, who was three years old, went through a period where he was scared of the dark. They put a nightlight in his room, but still, sometimes he would wake up and cry out. One night she went in and held him close. At the time she was pregnant with her daughter. Her son touched her abdomen and asked, “Mama, is it dark inside there where my little brother is?” (He was convinced his sister was a boy.)

“Yes,” said his mother, “it is dark in there.” He said, “He doesn’t have a nightlight does he?” “No,” his mother responded, “not even a nightlight.” He kept patting her abdomen and his mother kept patting him. Finally he asked, “Do you think my brother is scared all by himself in there?” She said, “I don’t think so, because he’s not really alone. He’s inside of me.” That gave her an inspiration. She then said to her son, “It’s the same way with you. When it’s dark and you think you are all by yourself, you really aren’t. I carry you inside me too. Right here in my heart.” He sat there very quiet and went back to sleep. That was the last time he called out afraid in the dark of the night.

When we go through periods of darkness we can feel very alone and that can make us quite fearful and anxious and insecure. What we need to remember is that we are being carried in God’s womb, God has us in God’s heart, even when we don’t feel it or sense it or are able to consciously experience it. And maybe the image of being carried in the womb is even closer to what’s real than the image of being carried in one’s heart, because in a very real sense, in a sense that we are only vaguely aware of and conscious of in our peak moments, we are in God and God is in us. In those peak moments we realize what Jesus realized in his experience of God at his baptism – that we are God’s beloved sons and daughters. And no matter how far we stray from living out that reality, God’s love holds us and beckons us to return as the prodigal returns to the Father in Luke 15.

The Quaker educator and activist Parker Palmer in his book, Let Your Life Speak tells about his descent into clinical depression. He describes it as the ultimate state of disconnection, between people, between mind and heart, and between one’s self image and public mask. Parker says that after many days and hours of listening, his therapist offered him an image that eventually helped him to reclaim his life. He said to Parker, “You seem to look upon depression as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you. Do you think you could see it instead as the hand of a friend, pressing you down to ground on which it is safe to stand?” That’s a fresh perspective isn’t it?

Too many of us want quick fixes and easy solutions, but these do not last. The quick fix is no fix at all. Maybe you heard about the guy who went to the therapist and said, “Doctor, you have got to help me. I haven’t slept in days. I wake up in the middle of the night and I see monsters crawling out from under my bed and they walk around the room scarring the stew out of me.” After months of therapy and getting nowhere the therapist was ready to recommend he go to someone else. Then one afternoon he comes bouncing into her office with the announcement “I’m cured. Been sleeping like a baby.” She didn’t know what to say. He went on, “My brother came to visit and cured me.” She asked in amazement, “Is your brother a therapist?” “No.” he said, “he’s a carpenter. He sawed the legs off my bed.” I suspect that the ground that brother landed on is not going to be solid for very long. That’s the kind of solution superficial religion, pop religion and pop psychology offer, and it doesn’t last.

I love the symbolism in the Jesus story as Jesus is led by the Spirit into the desert to face the temptations of Satan. In Mark the temptation story is condensed to two verses. Writing metaphorically, Mark says the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan where he wrestled with wild beasts and angels ministered to him (1:12-13). Jesus, I suspect, is facing his own inner demons. He has to confront his own demons before he can liberate others from theirs. Annie Dillard in one of her books talks about riding the monsters all the way down. When we do that we usually descend through levels of darkness. We may try every way in the world to avoid that descent into the darkness, but maybe that’s the only way we can find solid ground on which to stand.

Jesus’ own journey into the darkness of the desert where he faced his own monsters ended with his baptism by John. There were wild beasts to struggle with out there in the desert, but there was also a prophet of God forming community and calling people to repentance and renewal. As Jesus humbly submitted to a baptism by John, there he saw the heavens open, the Spirit of peace descend upon him, and he heard the voice of God, which was also the voice of his deepest and truest self, say, “You are my beloved Son, on whom my favor, my grace rests. With you I am well-pleased.”

And you know brothers and sisters, maybe we, too, have to be led out into the desert to face Satan. Maybe we too have to wrestle with wild beasts and ride the monsters all the way down before we can land on solid ground and hear the voice of Divine love and acceptance tell us how dear and near to God’s heart we actually are. Here is the paradox. Are you listening? There are some things we can only see in the darkness.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark shares what she learned from reading the memoirs of Jacques Lesseyran, a blind French resistance fighter, who  became totally blind at age 7 due to an accidental fall. After the accident, Lusseyran’s doctors suggested sending him to a residential school for the blind in Paris. His parents refused, wanting their son to stay in the local public school, where he could learn to function in a seeing world. His mother learned Braille with him. He learned to use a Braille typewriter. The best thing his parents did for him was never pity him. They never described him as “unfortunate.” His father, who deeply understood the spiritual life, told him, “Always tell us when you discover something.”

And discover he did. He wrote in his journal: “I had completely lost the sight of my eyes; I could not see the light of the world anymore. Yet the light was still there. It’s source was not obliterated. I felt it gushing forth every moment and brimming over; I felt how it wanted to spread over the world. I had only to receive it. It was unavoidably there. It was all there, and I found again its movements and shades, that is, its colors, which I had loved so passionately a few weeks before. This was something entirely new, you understand, all the more since it contradicted everything that those who have eyes believe. The source of light is not in the outer world. We believe that it is only because of a common delusion. The light dwells where life also dwells: within ourselves.”

With practice he learned to attend to things around him so carefully that he confounded his friends by describing things he could not see. He learned to distinguish the different kind of trees listening to the sounds they make. He could tell how tall or wide a wall was by the pressure it exerted on his body. Though he could not literally see, he learned to see by developing his capacity to hear, to smell, to feel, to taste. Lesseyran pointed out how those of us do see, often do not actually see what is there, because we have developed the habit of simply scanning the surface of things, and so we see only outer appearances. (That is most definitely true of things spiritual and religious as well isn’t it?) By giving such careful attention to things, Lesseyran learned to see what was really there, things that we who physically see miss. He said that if we would ever learn to be attentive every moment of our lives, we would discover the world anew.  

My good friend, John Opsata, part of the little clergy group I meet with regularly, had a good media post which offered some really thoughtful reflection as we enter the NFL post-season. John is a Vikings fan. And at one time, a passionate Vikings fan. He confessed this in his post, “I grew up with the Vikings; living and dying with every play; never missing a televised game. If you would have drawn my blood, it would have been purple. The Purple People Eaters were my heroes and Bud Grant my idea of the perfect man. I don’t blame them for losing. I know they played hard and wanted to win. I blame myself for allowing my self-worth to be diminished by the losses.” We all can relate to John because we have all done what John did, and some of us are still doing it. And yet when you really think about it, what our team accomplishes and how they perform in the great big scheme of things is really superficial isn’t it?

Now, here is where the darkness comes in. It usually takes some experience with darkness to teach us that some things are simply not worth all the energy and passion we invest in them. There are some things that in the grand scheme of life are superficial. Now, why it would take a period of darkness to bring to light what is superficial and tp show us what is really worth living and dying for I cannot explain. I just know that’s how life works. The path to spiritual growth and maturity leads us through this rhythm of darkness and light. I know that there are things in my life I would have never learned if not for the periods of darkness. It really is true. There are some things, some areas of illumination and enlightenment, some truths that we would have never discovered, and some changes we would have never made, if not for the darkness. And, you probably don’t want to hear this, and I wish I didn’t have to say it because I don’t particularly want to hear it either, but hear goes. There are still truths we need to learn, and there are still changes in our lives we need to make, and we probably will not learn or change unless we walk through some darkness.

Gracious Lord, if given a choice, we are always going to avoid the darkness. We would like all of life to be light and joy and pleasure and happiness. But that’s not how life works and if it did work that way we would never grow, we would not be stretched to become anything more than what we are now. So, even if we can’t welcome the darkness, even if we can’t be grateful for it, help us, Lord, to accept it and not despise it, because we cannot grow without it. So help us to be attentive and aware, to be mindful and awake, to be teachable and moldable, so that when we walk through these periods of darkness, we come out better persons, not bitter persons. Help us to see what can only be seen in the darkness. Amen.