Sunday, February 25, 2018

Getting in the way of God (A sermon from Mark 8:27-37)

Sometimes, maybe more times than we ever realize, even with all our good intentions we get in the way of God. It’s interesting how quickly this can happen. At Caesarea Philippi, as they make their way to Jerusalem, Peter makes a revelatory confession, “You are the Messiah.” But no sooner than he makes this confession, it becomes clear that he doesn’t have the faintest idea what it means. After Jesus tells them he is going to be rejected and killed in Jerusalem, Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him. Jesus calls him “Satan” and says, “Get behind me. For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Keep in mind that Peter functions in the story as the spokesperson and representative for all the disciples. Peter says what the group is saying. So one minute the disciples make a revelatory declaration, then the next minute they are acting as Satan’s emissaries. And Jesus is still being visited by angels and wrestling with wild beasts just as he did in the desert.

A lot of us are just like these first disciples. We declare that Jesus is the Christ – but we really don’t know what that means. We think we do, just like the disciples. We were taught clearly and absolutely what that means by parents, Sunday School teachers, preachers, and other Christian leaders in our churches. Now, please don’t misunderstand me. These who taught us were not bad people. They had good intentions just like we do. They were teaching us what they were taught. They were passing down to us what was passed down to them.  

What did they pass on? They taught us about an exclusive Christ. I preached an exclusive Christ for the first part of my ministry. And in so doing, I controlled Christ, because I controlled who had access to Christ. If someone would have suggested that Christ is too large to be possessed by any one religious tradition exclusively. If someone would have insinuated that I had not gone deep enough into my scriptures and tradition, that maybe Christ is far more inclusive and universal than I knew. Well, if someone had suggested that, with all good intentions, I would have labeled such suggestions heresy and then proceeded to defend, rebuke, correct, and punish as much as I was able anyone who would suggest such a devilish thing. We have people who have left this congregation for that very reason.

When you think about it, it should be no surprise why any of us might want such as exclusive Christ – one confined and limited to our tradition, our religion, our group, our teaching, our denomination or church. We can control an exclusive Christ. We get to say who gets to know this Christ. We get to determine who’s in or out, who gets included and who gets excluded, who gets saved and who gets condemned. We convince ourselves we are defending the truth, but we are really defending our own interests. So you see, sisters and brothers, we are just like these first disciples.

The disciples wanted a Christ who would do their bidding, who would fulfill their wishes and cater to their interest – and they had no greater wish or interest than getting the powerful Romans off their backs. Israel was an enslaved people. The Romans did give the Hebrews some measure of freedom, but it was clear on every hand that the Palestinian Jews were subjects, not citizens, and were made to bend to the oppressive will of Rome.

Scholars tells us that there was some diversity of opinion regarding the kind of person the Messiah would be. But they were generally united on what the Messiah would do, namely, deliver Israel from her enemies. Some thought this deliverance would come by divine intervention; others thought it would come by violent revolution. Either way it would mean the violent overthrow of Rome. And they didn’t think twice about the Messiah using violence to achieve this end. After all, there is plenty of divinely condoned and sanctioned violence all through the Hebrew Bible. A Messiah who taught nonviolence, and preached forgiveness and peace would have been completely unconventional and countercultural – an unthinkable oddity. It was certainly not in their human interest to imagine such a Christ. For such a Christ would serve no useful purpose.

So the disciples wanted an exclusive Messiah who was not only confined to their nation and their people, they wanted a Messiah who would be courageous enough to employ  violence to save them from their political, economic, and national bondage to Rome. It seems to me that there’s not a few American Christians who want basically the same thing.

Everyone of us who has an exclusive Christ, to some degree control Christ, because we claim to know who knows the Christ and who doesn’t, and who gets to be part of our exclusive in-the-know group. For the first part of my ministry I preached an exclusive Christ. I thought I knew who was in and out of favor with God. During my first year in Waldorf, Maryland, as a pastor of a Southern Baptist church there, I was asked by a funeral director I had come to know to preach a funeral of a man who had no church connection. The man had lived a tragic, very self-centered life. He had practically no friends. He had alienated just about everyone. He had never been in church or professed any kind of religious faith. Only a handful of people were at the funeral. His sister was present. She had traveled some distance to arrange the funeral. She trusted the funeral director to invite the appropriate minister to conduct the funeral. That was a mistake. Now, I didn’t put the man in hell, okay. But I sure didn’t put him in heaven, and I danced all around. After the service, this woman came up to me and she said, “Could you not give my brother any hope of redemption?” That made me angry and defensive. I don’t remember what I said to her. I am glad I can’t remember. Today, when I reflect on that experience, it pains me. It grieves me that the Christ I preached was so exclusive and small. Because the Christ I know now is so much larger and greater, a Christ who does not give up on anyone, not just in this life, but in the next life too. The Christ I know now never withdraws the invitation to respond to God’s unconditional love and grace.

Belief in an exclusive Christ, a Christ we can control, and the policies and practices that have emerged from belief in an exclusive Christ have been the major fault of Western Christianity from the time Constantine declared Rome a Christian nation in an attempt to unify and solidify the Empire. The Western church has primarily preached an exclusive Christ. So when the church sent out missionaries, the missionaries were not taught to respect the traditions and beliefs of the people they were sent to, let alone learn from them. They were taught to convert them to their faith in an exclusive Christ. So we have a long sad history in missions of imposing our faith, our will, our ways on others. We should have repented of this long ago. But the sad fact is that this is how many denominations and Christian groups still do missions.

A couple of weeks ago I included in your worship bulletin a paragraph from John Philip Newell’s book, The Rebirthing of God. He was giving a talk in Ottawa, Ontario on some of the main themes of the prologue of John’s Gospel. He particularly focused on the theme of the Light of God enlightening every person coming into the world, which is mentioned in John 1:9. That text seems to teach that the true light of God that became particularly illuminating in the life of Jesus enlightens every person who comes into the world. Or perhaps we should say has the potential to enlighten every person, because the light is within every person. Not everyone is aware of that of course. And not everyone accesses the light. But the light is there.

In attendance that evening was a Canadian Mohawk elder. He had been invited to draw some parallels between his First Nations spirituality and the spirituality of the Celtic world that Dr. Newell was expounding on. At the end of Dr. Newell’s presentation this Mohawk elder stood with tears in his eyes. He said to Dr. Newell and the people present: “As I listened tonight . . . I have been wondering where I would be tonight. I have been wondering where my people would be tonight. And I have been wondering where we would be as a Western world tonight if the mission that come to us from Europe centuries ago had come expecting to find light in us.” What if? That’s a huge “what if” isn’t it?

Dr. Newell points out that we can’t go back and undo the tragic wrongs that have been done in the name of Christianity to the First Nations people of Canada, and to the Native Americans, and to the other indigenous peoples of the world. We cannot undo the acts of cruelty and violence and arrogance done in the name of Christ, but we can be part of a new beginning. And we can begin by letting go of an exclusive claim on the Christ and realize that the Christ is a greater and larger reality than our particular religious faith or tradition.

It has been in our human interest to limit and confine the Christ. To make the Christ much smaller than the Christ actually is. It has also been in our human interest to make Jesus larger than he actually is. That may sound like a contradiction, but it’s not. We make Christ too small, and Jesus too large.  

In the book of Acts Luke gives us the pattern of the earliest Messianic preaching. Acts 2 is the classic example. The message that is attributed to Peter in Acts 2 goes like this: The man, Jesus of Nazareth was called and appointed by God for a special work. He was empowered by the Spirit of God and went about doing wonderful deeds of mercy and healing. This man, appointed by God, we crucified. Not directly, but indirectly. The powers that be crucified Jesus. But the sins of the Jewish leaders and the Roman powers that made sure Jesus was executed on a cross, are the same sins that we have committed and continue to commit. So indirectly we killed Jesus. The sins of humanity killed Jesus. God didn’t kill Jesus. We killed the man, Jesus.

But we did not have the last word. God raised him up. The man, Jesus of Nazareth didn’t raise himself. God raised him up. We killed him. God raised him. And in raising him, God vindicated him. In raising him God vindicated the values he embodied, the message he proclaimed, the good works he did, and the life he lived that led to his death by the powers. Then, says, Peter in Acts 2, God made him, appointed him, declared him Lord and Christ. Then, the risen Christ endowed the disciples with his Spirit and the Spirit empowered them in their work of preaching and healing and doing works of mercy and justice. This is the pattern of the early Christian preaching, which is basically the same pattern of the Christ hymn that Paul references in his letter to the Philippians (2:5-11).

Now, as Paul and later Christians began to reflect on this they began to realize that the divine reality we call Christ is greater than the human reality of Jesus of Nazareth. Paul frequently spoke of our being in Christ and Christ being in us. He said we are the body of Christ. We are not, of course, the body of the historical person, Jesus of Nazareth. But we are the body of Christ. Jesus, the human being, the man from Nazareth could only have one body. But the Christ is able to take multiple forms. Paul said, “We are all members of Christ.” He said, “Christ in you is your hope of glory.”

You see, what we have done  by directly equating Jesus with the Christ is that on the one hand, we have made the Christ too small, and on the other hand, we have made the historical human person, Jesus of Nazareth so “high and lifted up” his life is unreachable.

As you know Clarence Jordan is one of my heroes. He founded Koinonia Farm in Americus Georgia, an interracial farm community, even before the civil rights movement. He said this (this quote is in your worship bulletin): “Jesus has been so zealously worshiped, his deity so vehemently affirmed, his halo so brightly illuminated, and his cross so beautifully polished that in the minds of many he no longer exists as a man. He has become an exquisite celestial being . . . By thus glorifying him we more effectively rid ourselves of him than did those who tried to do so by crudely crucifying him.”

When we elevate Jesus so high, we effectively rid ourselves of him, says Jordan. He’s too far above us mortals for us to ever be like him. Then, having rendered Jesus’ life unobtainable, we go the next step. We turn the gospel of the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed and embodied into a gospel of going to heaven when we die. We turn the good news of the will of God being done on earth as it is in heaven into a gospel about heaven. We supplant Jesus’ gospel of love your neighbor as yourself and do unto others what you would have them do unto you, with believe the right things and get your ticket stamped for glory. We effectively subvert the very practical gospel of mercy and justice, love and forgiveness, compassion and service into a juridical courtroom proceeding about penalties and punishment. And by doing this, you see, we rid ourselves of having to do the hard work of forgiving those who have offended us, loving our enemies, and setting a table so big that everyone is welcome.  

So we keep repeating the sin of the first disciples. We set our minds on human things and not on divine things. We play to human interests by fashioning an exclusive Christ who plays favorites, and a glorified Jesus so high and lifted up he is completely out of our reach.

For the first part of my ministry I had a Jesus who was unobtainable and a Christ that I had carefully stuffed in a box. I was like Paul before his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus. I had a lot of religious zeal, just like Paul, but it was mostly misguided and unhelpful. But then, somewhere on the journey, the light broke through. It wasn’t nearly as dramatic as Paul’s encounter. I am nowhere near as radical as Paul. Paul, speaking of his passion to reach his fellow Jews with the good news of Christ, said, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed . . . for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh” (9:3). I don’t wish myself accursed at all. But I do wish that more Christians would take the human Jesus seriously and let Christ actually be Lord of all.

Gracious God, it’s hard for us to see how human Jesus was and how inclusive Christ it – and yet, it’s quite possible the salvation of the world rides on more Christians coming to this new revelation. Help us, in this place, among friends and loved ones, to embody the unconditional love of the Christ and commit ourselves daily to actually doing and living what Jesus taught. In the name of the Christ I pray. Amen.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

It’s all about the journey (A sermon from Mark 1:9-15)

If I was asked to summarize my understanding of the Christian faith in one or two brief statements I would say this. One, being a Christian is about a journey into the discovery and embodiment of the love of God. All authentic religion is about tapping into the Divine Love and Compassion that is at the heart of everything. But what makes Christianity different than other religious traditions is the second thing I would say, namely: The Christian way into the experience and expression of the love of God is by following Jesus. This is fundamental to the Christian confession Jesus is Lord. Christians mean different things when they say Jesus is Lord (conservatives would not mean exactly the same thing as liberals or progressives like myself). However, the common denominator should be all-out commitment to follow Jesus – to model his life and live out his teachings. Unfortunately, there are a lot of Christians today, both conservative and liberal, who are not committed to actually doing that.

In the book of Acts, believers are commonly called “disciples” and people “who belong to the way.” In the book of Acts “the way” does not mean the way to heaven, it means the way of life Jesus lived – the values he embodied, the grace and truth he incarnated, the love he expressed. Even in John’s Gospel, which is the most metaphorical and symbolical of the four Gospels, when Jesus is identified as “the way” it’s not about the way to heaven, it’s about the way into a loving relationship with God and others. It is an eternal relationship, but this relationship is about the ever present “now.” Eternity is now.

Being a Christian then, is all about a journey into the experience and expression of the love of God, which we learn how to do by following Jesus.

Today’s Gospel text gives us some key insights into how we do this. In John PhiIip Newell’s book titled, The Rebirthing of God, he shares some great stories. He tells about getting to know a Roman Catholic priest in Portsmouth, England when he was serving the Anglican Diocese there. Father David, the priest, was passionate about peacemaking and the work of justice. For many years he had given himself to the poorest and powerless of Portsmouth. He was a renowned and popular figure throughout the city. In fact, he was so well liked in the community that despite his unorthodox ways the bishop was reluctant to rein him in. Father David was gay and lived openly with his partner who was a Zen Buddhist.

Father David invited Dr. Newell and his wife, Ali to lead a series on spirituality in the church. Father David suggested that he and Ali come one Sunday morning to get to know the community before beginning the series. The Sunday they attended was the World Day of Prayer for Peace. Father David gave a passionate sermon on nonviolence. Then they moved into the celebration of communion.

Although little children had been running around during the sermon, free to come and go from their families, they were now pulled back into the pews by their parents to sit attentively for Communion. Dr. Newell and his wife hadn’t really noticed this soon enough, and their little one, age three, was still clattering along the wooden bench next to them with his hard-heeled shoes on. Suddenly, a woman on the far side of the church shouted out, “Would someone keep that child quiet!” Father David did not realize that the admonition was aimed at the Newell family, but anyway he brought a halt to the liturgy of communion and spoke to the woman who complained, “Claudia, if that is how you feel leave.” Claudia replied, “But Father, I couldn’t hear the words of the liturgy.”

Turning a little red with frustration, Father David said, “We have been building a community here that is inclusive of every person and every age. So Claudia, if that is how you feel, leave.” At this point the congregation was highly attentive. This was real drama in the midst of the formal liturgy, but, Newell says that the congregation didn’t look worried. Maybe this was common.  

Claudia spoke a third time and this time Father David now bright red in the face, slammed his hands down on the altar and headed straight for Claudia. Father David’s Buddhist partner, seeing fire in his eyes, sprang up from his seat to stop Father David from proceeding down the aisle. Dr. Newell discovered later, that Claudia had been, from the very beginning, one of Father David’s staunchest supporters. When Father David reached Claudia, with real puzzlement in his voice he said, “Claudia, what are you saying?”

Claudia left the sanctuary in tears, followed be a few members of the congregation who went out to console her. Then Father David returned to the altar. This is what he said, “I cannot proceed until I ask forgiveness. I do not apologize for defending the place of children, but I do apologize for my violence of heart. I was wrong. I ask God’s forgiveness and I will seek Claudia’s forgiveness.” He then proceeded with the celebration of Communion. And before the end of the liturgy Claudia was back in her seat to receive the bread and wine from the hands of Father David. Apparently, the family fight was over.

After telling the story in his book, this is what Dr. Newell says, “There are angels of light and angels of darkness in us all. One moment we may be preaching nonviolence as the only true energy for real transformation in our world. The next moment we may be consumed by violence of heart.” It’s true isn’t it?

Today’s Gospel text says that just after the Divine Voice affirmed Jesus’ sonship, the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness [the desert], where he spent forty days. The reference to forty days is clearly an allusion to Israel’s forty years spent in the desert on their journey to the land of promise. Mark says he was tempted by Satan, and “he was with the wild beasts and the angels ministered to him.” In Newell’s words we all encounter angels of light and angels of darkness within us. In Mark’s version the angels of darkness are “wild beasts” and the angels of light are simply “angels.”

In the story of Cain and Abel, when Cain turns against Abel the storywriter says, “sin is lurking at the door; it’s desire is for you, but you must master it.” Able’s anger and jealousy brings him to the brink of violence, which he succumbs to. It’s depicted as a wild beast waiting at the door, and unless he masters it, it will consume and destroy him.

These wild beasts, these negative powers and forces – whether it’s anger, or prejudice, or lust for power and position, or greed, or whatever it is, these anti-human, life-diminishing powers will consume us if we allow them. But we are not alone in the struggle. There are angels along the path to help us.

These angels come in many forms. Angels in the biblical tradition are messengers and servants of God. These angels may come to us in the form of an AA group or some other small group, or a faith community like our ours, or a good friend who is honest enough to tell us the truth even though we may not want to hear the truth, and who loves us enough to stay with us regardless of how we respond. Sometimes an angel may come in the form of a particular spiritual practice like contemplative prayer, or the practice of solitude. And sometimes it can be as specific as a story that moves us, a chapter in a book, a passage of scripture, or a conversation with a friend or loved one, or some particular teaching that we hear, maybe for the first time, even though it’s been taught many times. How often we hear, we don’t really hear?

Now, central and critical to our growth and progress toward knowing, experiencing, and living out God’s love is this: Our readiness to change and our capacity to trust.  Mark’s Gospel calls this “believing” and “repenting.” According to Mark, when Jesus announced the good news of God’s kingdom, he said, “The time has been fulfilled, now is the time to act, the kingdom of God is right here, you can embrace it and live it, you can live out the love and mercy and justice and peace of God, if you will repent and believe, that is, if you will change your mind, turn around, get on the right path, and trust in who you are and trust in God’s grace to enable you to become who you are.”

So many of the wild beasts we encounter along the journey have to do with the ego, the little self, what some writers call, our false self – they call it the false self because it’s not who we are. The ego can take us down two wayward paths. Some of us struggle with an inflated ego. We have a tendency to think more highly of ourselves than we should. Others of us struggle with a deflated ego. We have a tendency to think less of ourselves than we should. The one leads to arrogance and defensiveness; the other leads to a diminished sense of self. Both are life-defeating. Some of us need to realize that as a son or daughter of God we are not all that, we are no better than anyone else, we all belong, we are one family and all of us count, not just some of us. Others of us need to realize that we are all that, we are children of God, we are one with God and everyone else, and we have a special calling and gifts to share with others. That’s part of the paradox of the life of faith. We are not all that and we are all that. We are nothing, and we are everything.

Repenting and trusting are not one-and-done actions. Repenting and trusting are daily necessities as we journey into the wonder and mystery of divine love. This is why, in Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus tells the disciples to deny the little self and take up their cross and follow him, Luke adds the word “daily.” Luke wanted it to be clear to his readers that this process of repenting – this denying of the little self, and this dying to the negative forces in our lives – is something that should happen daily. It must occur over and over and over again.

This involves intentionally. This means on a daily basis we have to be deliberate about nurturing a spirit of honesty and humility. This involves staying awake and alert to what is going on in our hearts on a daily basis. We are all going to mess us. We will let down our guards. The fragile ego has devised all sorts of ways to keep us denying and defending our little selves. The ego has many defense mechanisms in place that blind us to the truth about God and ourselves. .  

We are all going to fall and stumble on this journey. Maybe you have heard the phrase, “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.” Parker Palmer says that whoever came up with that phrase must have had a great fantasy life. It’s never just onward and upward. The journey we are on is up and down, this way, that way, and back around. There is no such thing as a human life completely free of all fears, anxieties, insecurities, and doubts. Even Jesus on the cross, according to Mark and Matthew’s version, questioned God’s presence. There is no such thing as a human life free of all negative and life-diminishing forces.

The key for making progress on this journey toward loving God and loving neighbor is being aware enough to make quick course corrections like Father David made in the story I told earlier. Father David gave in to his violence of heart. But he was quick to see his sin. And he was quick to acknowledge it, to confess it, and to turn from it.  

Today is the first Sunday of Lent. As a church, with people of God around the world, we begin the journey that will lead us eventually to Good Friday and then Easter Sunday. Perhaps the place to begin is where Jesus begins in the text today. The Divine Voice announces and declares his sonship; “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

I hope you will hear that voce today. I hope you hear it right now. You are a son of God. You are a daughter of God. It’s your birthright. And nothing can alter that realty. As Philip Yancey likes to say there is nothing you can do to make God love you more. And there is nothing you can do to make God love you less. You can trust that. If you will just listen to the Divine Voice that arises out of your true self, you will know it’s true. That’s a good place to begin. And that’s a good place to keep coming back to every day. Unfortunately, western Christianity really messed us when they put the emphasis on our badness (some teachers in the church called it total depravity). The creation stories emphasize our original goodness. Sin comes later. But sin doesn’t eradicate the image of God which is impressed upon our souls. We just have to trust this and live it.  

When we gain the confidence that we are loved, that we are God’s daughters and sons, and nothing is going to change that, we are better prepared to tangle with the wild beasts, and we are more apt to receive grace and help from the angels God sends our way.

So let’s be intentional this first Sunday of Lent. Let’s lay aside the many ways we defend, excuse, deny, ignore, and repress our little self. Let’s be quick to confess our sins and acknowledge our failures. Let’s do all we can to stay on the path that leads us to a greater knowledge and experience of God’s love.

Gracious God, help us to be aware of the wild beasts that are lying in wait at the door of our minds and hearts. Give us the wisdom and the will to seek out and receive the help you send our way. And may we always keep coming back no matter happens in our live to the truth of who we really are – your beloved daughters and sons. Amen.  

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Light Within (a sermon from Mark 9:2-9)

Jesus was affirmed as Son of God at his baptism by John, and now he is affirmed once again on the mount that we call the mount of Transfiguration. Actually, it’s not hard to understand why Jesus might need this second affirmation by God. In the passage just prior to the Transfiguration Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to undergo suffering and death. He warns them that they he will be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and then he will rise, that is, he will be vindicated by God. Jesus didn’t need any special revelation to see this coming. He spoke truth to power. He challenged the domination system by preaching the kingdom of God. He continuously violated the holiness code of the gatekeepers and opposed their systems of worthiness. He knew what that would mean, and he tried to prepare his disciples for the same fate. He tells them that they must be willing to lose their lives to gain their lives, and he challenges them to take up their cross and follow him, even if it means rejection, suffering, and death. That is the political and religious climate of Jesus’ world.  

But his disciples are not ready to do that. They seem to constantly misunderstand his intentions. Peter functions as the spokesperson for the group, and when Jesus warns them about his rejection and death, Peter takes Jesus aside and the text says, “began to rebuke him.” Jesus, in turn, rebukes Peter calling him Satan, which is a hard word. So Jesus has to contend, not only with the animosity of the religious leaders who want him dead; he has to endure the continued blindness and dullness of his disciples who just don’t get it. So, in this context, with the religious powers plotting against him and his own disciples clueless, Jesus hears the divine voice affirming his identity and his calling.

Jesus was a sage (a teacher of wisdom). He was a prophet and a reformer. And he was also a mystic. What is a mystic? A mystic is someone who is known for her/his  intuitive sense and direct experience of God. Jesus seemed to suggest that we can all be mystics, but few of us are. So we have to help each other develop this intuitive sense of the divine and claim who we are.

Like Jesus, we are all sons and daughters of God. And like Jesus, we all have a calling to serve and live in such a way that we become who we are. And if we have not learned how to experience this sense of who we are intuitively or in our direct experience of God, then we need to help each other. Parents can help their children. Grandparents can help their grandchildren. Friends can help one another. We need to affirm over and over again that we are all God’s beloved children. 

We don’t have to earn this. We don’t have to recite some secret initiation rite like the sinner’s prayer. We don’t have to believe any “fundamentals” of the faith. We don’t have to obey four spiritual laws. We don’t have to walk down the church isle and take the preacher by the hand. I am not suggesting that these things do not have a place, but none of these things are the things that make us children of God. And it doesn’t matter what other people say or do or believe, we are all children of God by virtue of being alive.

That’s grace sisters and brothers. You can’t do anything to earn it. If you had to believe certain things or do certain things in order to become a child of God, then you could claim some special privilege and advantage that sets you above others who don’t believe what you believe or practice their faith the way you practice yours. God doesn’t play favorites. God may indeed have some special tasks for us to do, but we are God’s children by pure grace.

Now, if we are going to live in and experience this grace then we need to trust in and be faithful to this relationship with God rooted in grace. But our trust in and faithfulness to this relationship does not earn us the right to be a child of God. We are already the children of God. By faith we claim who we already are. And by our faithfulness to the ways of God we become who we already are.

In the creation story that appears first in our sacred text God creates the human couple in God’s likeness. We bear God’s image. That’s who we are. Now, we mar that image through our sins – our egoism, greed, prejudice, arrogance, hate, violence, our lust for power and prestige and possessions mar that image. But that image is stamped eternally on our souls.

In the second creation story God forms the human creature from the dust of the earth, which is the dust of the universe. Then God breathes into the human creature the breath or spirit of life (breath and Spirit is the same word in the Hebrew), and the human creature becomes a living being infused with the life of God. We are alive right now because God, the Holy Spirit, the Christ, the Abba of Jesus, the Ultimate Reality and divine energy of the Universe flows through our body and soul. 

Paul said to the Corinthians, “Your body is the temple of God.” And that is true of everyone. In God we live, and move, and have our being. God is infinitely more than who we are, but God is also intimately a part of who we are. God is the transcendent Other, but God is also at one with the human family. And all other creatures, all lesser life forms are sustained by the same Divine life force.

What we need to do is trust this and live this, so we can consciously and intentionally participate in the flow of Divine love and goodness in the world. You are a child of God. You have a unique calling as one of God’s dear children. You have gifts to share. You belong – to God and everyone else. We don’t create our union with God or with the creation. Our oneness with God and everything else is a given. We just have to realize it and go out and live it. And Jesus shows us how.

The symbolism of the transfiguration shows us what is possible for all of us. Don’t elevate Jesus so high that his life is unreachable. In living out his calling as son of God, Jesus was transfigured by the love of God. But this was not a glory that came down upon him, it was a glory that radiated from within him. That same light and glory resides in us. It is the light and glory of divine love.

Listen to what Paul says in a beautiful passage in Second Corinthians, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

Look in a mirror. What do you see? Do you see the glory of God? You should. The Spirit resides in you. The glory of the divine, the Lord, the Christ abides in you. It is the glory of love. It is the light of grace and truth. It is the illumination of mercy and justice. The more you allow this divine light and glory to shine through your life, the more you grow, the more you become, the more you are transfigured, the more you are transformed form one degree of glory to another.

In the context where Jesus tells the disciples about his death, where he anticipates his own loss of life, he says that we have to lose our lives in order to gain our lives. That paradox is not only true when it comes to that final letting go, it is true right now. There are things we have to lose in order to live – that is, live more fully and and honestly and authentically. There are things we have to lose in order to live more lovingly and generously and graciously. The more fully human (the more gracious and loving and good) we become the more divine we become, the more like God we become. The more lovingly human we become, the more the divine life shines through our humanity.

Richard Rohr says: “Christians are usually sincere and well-intentioned people until you get to any real issues of ego, control, power, money, pleasure, and security. Then they tend to be pretty much like everybody else. We often gave them a bogus version of the Gospel, some fast-food religion, without any deep transformation of the self; and the result has been the spiritual disaster of ‘Christian’ countries that tend to be consumer-oriented, proud, warlike, racist, class conscious, and addictive as everybody else – and often more so, I am afraid.”

Those are things we have to lose, we have to let go of, for it’s only by letting go, it’s only by losing, relinquishing, surrendering these things that we allow the space for the divine love and grace and mercy to well up from within. The spark is already there, but it needs to be fanned into a flame. It needs some air to breathe and some space to grow so that we, too, like Jesus might radiate the light of God’s love and mercy.

Robert Fulghum tells about an institute dedicated to peace and is particularly committed to rapprochement between Germans and Cretans. It sits on a rocky bay on the island of Crete next to a Greek Orthodox Monastery. It overlooks an airstrip where Nazi paratroopers invaded Crete and were attacked by peasants wielding kitchen knives. The retribution from the Germans was terrible. Populations of whole villages were lined up and shot. High above the institute is a cemetery with a single cross marking the mass grave of Cretans killed by the Germans. But then across the bay on yet another hill is the regimented burial ground of the Nazi paratroopers. The memorials were intentionally placed there so that all might see and never forget. At the war’s end, hate was the only weapon the Cretans had, and it was a weapon many vowed never to give up.

This institute for peace located there is directed by Dr. Alexander Papaderos. At war’s end he came to believe that the Germans and the Cretans had much to give one another—much to learn from one another. He believed that if they could forgive each other and construct a creative relationship, then any people could. Fulghum attended a seminar there with Dr. Papaderos. At the conclusion, Papaderos explained how he discovered his life’s meaning and calling.

During the war as a child, very poor, his family lived in a remote village. One day he found some broken pieces from a mirror that had come from a German motorcycle. He kept the largest piece he found. By scratching it on a stone he made it round and kept it in his pocket. He had a little game he played where he used the mirror to reflect light into places the sun never reached – deep holes and crevices.

As Papederos told this story he pulled the little piece of mirror out of his billfold. As he grew he began to realize that the mirror was a metaphor for his life. He says, “I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of this world—into the black places in the hearts of people—and change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise.”

He says, “I am not the light or the source of light. But light . . . is there, and it will shine only in many dark places if I reflect it.” Jesus said to his disciples, “You are the light of the world.” John’s Gospel claims that Jesus is the light of the world. Both are true. Jesus did it better than any of us will ever do, but we, too, are light just like Jesus. We are children of God and children of humanity, just like Jesus. The source of all light is God, the Holy Spirit, the Christ, the Abba of Jesus. I am not the source. You are not the source. God, the Spirit, the Christ is the source of all the good and the love and compassion and concern for justice that is built into our humanity. Our part is to let that light shine through our attitudes and actions, our words and deeds.

So, the question is: How can we best do that? What do we need to do? What do you and I need to change? What do we need to lose, to let go of, to relinquish? What practices do we need to engage in? What attitudes do we need to adopt? What habits do we need to develop? In order for our lives to better radiate the light of God’s love, truth, and grace.

Our gracious God, may we all come to realize that while we are not better than anyone else, we are not less either – we are your beloved daughters and sons. May the light that shone so brightly in Jesus, the light that indwells every person, be free to shine through our lives that we might reflect your love and goodness and passion for justice into all the dark places where the light needs to shine. Amen.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Jesus Called Followers Not Worshipers.

(This article was first published in the Frankfort State Journal, Feb. 2, 2018)
In the Gospel texts that tell the story of Jesus one thing is undeniable. Jesus called disciples. Do you ever wonder why Jesus said, “Follow me,” but never said, “Worship me”?

He said to some fishermen, “Follow me and I will teach you how to fish for people.” For whatever reason he invited them to walk away from their vocation of trying to lure fish into a net, and pursue a calling that would involve luring people into a greater purpose and cause that Jesus called the kingdom of God.

I like to call it the kin-dom of God, because it’s all about loving relationships. Jesus said, “Follow me and I will teach you how to love God with the totality of your being and love your neighbor as yourself” (see Matt. 22-34-40). This is grounded in the reality that we are all connected and constitute one family. (See Acts 17:22-31 where Paul tells the Athenian philosophers that we are “all God’s offspring” and that “in God we live, move, and have our existence.”)

Jesus says, “Follow me and I will teach you how to heal people’s brokenness and liberate them from the life-demeaning, life-diminishing forces that oppress and hold them in fear and bondage. As you heal and liberate others, you will also be healed and liberated from your own false attachments, addictions, and sins.” (Almost all the healing and exorcism stories in the Gospels teach this.)

When we follow Jesus we discover the honesty and humility to face our own sins (greed, pride, prejudice, selfish ambition, etc.), and the courage to confront the destructive “isms” at loose in our world (sexism, racism, nationalism, materialism, elitism, etc.) and the policies and systems of injustice that we are all complicit in. (Consider in the Gospels how often Jesus exposed and confronted the injustices of the system, provoking the powers that be.)

Jesus says, “Follow me and I will teach you how to see so you can help others as well as yourself step out of the darkness of pride, prejudice, and hate into the light of humility, belonging, and love for all people” (see especially John 9).

Jesus says, “Follow me and I will teach you how to break down the walls that divide us and treat everyone with dignity, respect, mercy, and grace.” Jesus was constantly in trouble with the religious leaders because he was so inclusive, welcoming all people to the table of fellowship.

Consider the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. The story is told in response to a fellow Jew who asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” In the story a Samaritan, who is of a different religion and race, shows mercy to a Jew, in contrast to two Jewish religious leaders who walk past the victimized man without stopping to help.

If Jesus were to tell this story to us today, the good neighbor would not be a Samaritan, but a Muslim. Let this sink in. Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists (pick any non-Christian religious group) who love others as themselves are doing the will of God, while Christians who exclude, hate, and build walls of division are not. 

Jesus says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matt. 7:12). What if we formulated and implemented an immigration policy based on love of neighbor and the golden rule. It most certainly would be vastly different from the merciless, unjust policies and practices flowing out of our current administration.

Unlike those today who preach a gospel of getting (getting heaven, getting rich, getting all one’s desires fulfilled, etc.), Jesus modeled a life and preached a gospel of giving (Matt. 20:20-28). Luke describes an early community of Jesus followers this way: “Now the whole group of those who believed [that is, were committed to the way of Jesus] were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. . . . There was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:32, 34-35).

What if our legislators put together a tax code based on that practice? Or even one that gave some consideration to the principles and practices of mercy and restorative justice? What we got is a tax overhaul that expands further the huge disparity between the really well-to-do and those not-so-well-off. The most vulnerable among us are left to scramble for the crumbs that trickle down from the rich man’s table (see Luke 16:19-31).

It’s easy to say prayers and sing songs to a Jesus “high and lifted up.” It’s much more difficult to love like Jesus in the daily grind of life. No doubt about it. It’s much easier to worship Jesus than to follow Jesus. Is there any doubt what the Christ wants of us?  

The gospel of salvation according to? (A sermon from Mark 1:29-39)

Whenever I am in a conversation with another another Christian over some issue, and when the person I am conversing with claims that his or her position is the biblical view, I like to respond by asking, “Which one?” The fact is, there are generally several different biblical views or perspectives on any given theme. One of the things we have become aware of with the discovery of such documents as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary and some other ancient Christian writings is that early Christianity was even more diverse than scholars originally thought. Early Christianity was quite diverse.

This is particularly true with regard to the Christian view of salvation. Generally, there is no one biblical view about anything. There are biblical views and emphases. And yet throughout Christian history we have seemingly been obsessed with trying to synthesize and systematize the teachings of scripture. What typically happens is that the one person or group of persons doing the systematizing favors a particular understanding, then proceeds to organize the rest of scripture around that particular understanding.  

Of course, we all do this to some degree. We are socialized and indoctrinated into a particular version of Christianity. We may be born into it. Or we may be converted into it later in life. But whatever the timing and the process we are taught a particular understanding, and then of course, our tendency is to read all of scripture in light of that particular understanding. It was quite an awakening for me to see how narrowly and rigidly I once interpreted scripture and the way I made everything fit the particular view I held at that particular time.

In the New Testament there are different ways of understanding and appropriating the good news of salvation. When it comes to understanding salvation, the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke tend to share a common view, though there are clearly individual differences. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke salvation is about living in the kingdom of God. The healings and exorcisms of Jesus in these three Gospels are ways the Gospel writers symbolize and actualize the good news. The individual stories of healings and exorcisms function almost like parables of salvation. The passage today is an example of that. Jesus heals the sick and sets free those possessed by unclean spirits, and he does this as he proclaims the gospel of the kingdom of God.

The power of the kingdom of God according to the Gospel of Mark is the power to heal our brokenness and save us from the anti-human powers that would oppress us and possess us, so that we are free to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. If we are pervaded by greed, by prejudice, by jealousy, by anger, by unforgiveness, if we are deluded and controlled by sexism, racism, elistism, egotism, materialism, classism, or any other destructive “ism” we are not free to serve and love others. The power of God to save in Mark’s Gospel is the power to free from these sins and anything that would hold us down, from all negative patterns of thinking and behaving, so we can engage and participate in God’s work to create a good and just world.

The power to save is the power to free us from our negative self-images and negative judgments of others, so that we can be healthy and whole, so that we can be loving, kind, compassionate, honest, humble, caring, empathetic, generous, and gracious, and can participate in God’s dream for a world of peace and equality. The power to save is not just to transform us individually, though certainly God cares deeply about our individual transformation. But ultimately God’s plan is to transform our world through our families, communities, organizations, and the institutions we are part of. The power to save is personal, but it is also communal aimed at our common good and the good of the planet.

In our Gospel text there is a sense of urgency in spreading the message and participating in the healing and liberating works of the kingdom of God. When Jesus withdraws in solitude to pray, his disciples go get him and say, “Everyone is searching for you.” But Jesus can’t stay in one place too long because he feels compelled to get the message out. He says, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also, for that is what I came out to do.” That’s his mission according to Mark. So he goes about from one place to the next preaching, healing, and liberating folks from the life diminishing powers that possess and oppress people and communities, so that people and communities are able to truly love and care for one another. That’s what salvation looks like in Mark’s Gospel.

Now, the next big question is: How does one experience it. In the Synoptic Gospels it’s by following Jesus. By following Jesus we learn to let go of and turn from negative and destructive ways of thinking and living, so we can love God and love neighbor. By following Jesus we learn to trust in and be faithful to the way of grace and truth, mercy and justice, compassion and love. The biblical words used for this are repentance and faith. Turning from all these life-diminishing ways, trusting in and being faithful to the way of Jesus is what repentance and faith are about. We learn to do this by following Jesus, by being an apprentice or disciple of Jesus. That's how we experience salvation. 

Now, the other big question is this: Is following Jesus the only way one can experience the healing and liberating love and grace of God? Another way to ask that question is: How big and inclusive is your God? If you were taught what I was taught for many years and haven’t changed then you will most likely say: No, there is no other way. Now, that's not what I believe today, but that is what I was taught and believed during the early part of my ministry. 

Back in the summer of 2006, Newsweek magazine featured a cover story about Billy Graham. Probably no figure in conservative Christianity has been more loved and revered than Graham. He has spoken to millions around the world, counseled U.S. presidents, and strongly represented the evangelical view of Christian faith. As a young Southern Baptist preacher I took my cue from Graham and with every point of my sermon I would billow out in typical Graham style, “the Bible says.” In this rather remarkable interview with Newsweek, the elder Graham was much more humble and less confident in what the Bible says. He admitted in the interview that he no longer thinks one needs to take every verse in the Bible literally (that’s a big admission for a biblical inerrantist). When he was asked whether heaven would be closed to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and other non-Christians he refused to be decisive. He said, “Those are decisions only the Lord will make. It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won’t.” Then he said, “I believe the love of God is absolute.” He told his interviewer that he was spending more time on the love of God in his final years and that he believed God loves everybody regardless of what label they have. If I remember, he took some heat from the evangelical community for saying that. Billy Graham came very close to letting go of his exclusive view of salvation that he preached all his life.

A few years ago I wrote a piece for the Unfundamentalist Christian Blog at Patheos. When I submitted the article I titled it, “Rick Warren’s Conundrum.” The editor changed the title to “Eliminating Evangelical Double-speak about Salvation.” (That will make sense to you in a minute.)

Rick Warren is the pastor of a very large mega-church in California which he founded, and he is the author of The Purpose Driven Life which has sold in the millions (and is one of the best-selling religious books of all time outside the Bible). In a book by Rabbi David Wolpe titled, Why Faith Matters, Rev. Warren wrote the foreword. In fact, this was proudly advertised on the book’s front cover as a selling point: “Foreword by Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life.” This is what Warren said about the book and Rabbi Wolpe: 

“This beautiful book is a gift to all of us. So much of what is published today about faith just rehashes warmed-over clich├ęs and feels out of touch with reality. In contrast, every page of this special volume has the smell of authenticity on it. . . . The closer I get to David Wolpe, the more I am impressed by this man of faith. As an author, religious teacher, professor, cancer victim, and television commentator, his unique contribution of experiences has given him a credible platform from which he presents the case that faith in God truly matters at this critical time in our world. Regardless of where you are in your own personal faith journey, I’m certain that his profound insights in this book will stimulate your thinking and even touch your soul about the reality of God in fresh and surprising ways.”

So that’s what Christian conservative, evangelical mega-church pastor Rick Warren said in the Foreword. Keep in mind that Rick Warren built his huge church on the foundational principle that only through faith in Jesus can one be saved. He built his church on an exclusive view of salvation. And it should be obvious to anyone that Rabbi Wolpe’s “faith in God” is not the same as “faith in Jesus,” which Warren believes is essential for salvation.

In 2012 Warren was interviewed by ABC’s Jake Tapper and was asked if he believed that Jesus is the only way to heaven. Warren responded, “I do believe that. I believe that because Jesus said it. . . . I’m betting my life that Jesus wasn’t a liar.” (Warren is referring to John 14:6 where the Jesus of John’s Gospel says that no one comes to the Father except through him.) Next, Tapper pointed out that Warren had a number of friends of other religious traditions and that he was involved in interfaith dialogue with these friends (like Rabbi Wolpe, who is certainly Warren’s friend). So he asked Warren, “Why would a benevolent God tell those friends of yours who are not evangelical Christians, I’m sorry you don’t get to go to heaven?” That’s a great question isn’t it? Warren danced all around the question. He clearly didn’t want to answer. This is how he finally sidestepped it. He said, “I don't think any of us deserve to go to heaven. . . I think the only way any of us get into heaven is God's grace. . . People say, well, I'm better than so-and-so. You probably are. In fact, I have no doubt many non-believers are better than me in certain moral issues. . . . I'm not getting to heaven on my goodness. I'm getting to heaven on what I believe Jesus said is grace. And the fact is it's available to everybody.” Now, that sounds good, but clearly, Warren didn’t answer the question. He dodged the question. So everyone gets in by grace, that’s good, but, here’s the question: Does that mean everyone has to believe in Jesus in order to receive grace (in which case, grace really wouldn’t be grace if you put that kind of stipulation on it)? Warren didn’t say.

Tapper was gracious and let it ride. He didn’t press him. He knew Warren didn’t want to answer the question and he didn’t make him answer. He let it go. I would love to hear Warren actually attempt to answer the question about his friends not going to heaven in a public forum where his non-Christian friends are present. Think about what Rick Warren said about Rabbi Wolpe’s book in the piece I just read. And yet according to Warren’s exclusive view of salvation which he founded and grew his mega-church on, Rabbi Wolpe is going to hell because he doesn’t believe in Jesus in any Christian sense. That is Rick Warren’s conundrum. My editor called it double-speak. I still like my title better. How can Warren say what he says about Rabbi Wolpe and not believe that Rabbi Wolpe is going to heaven? It all comes back to Warren’s very narrow, exclusive view of salvation.

It’s hard for people like Warren to admit they have been wrong. It’s hard for them to let go of their exclusive views even though they themselves have become more generous and gracious than the God of their exclusive views. I’m sure Rick Warren knows if he were to admit he had been wrong and if he adopted a more inclusive view of salvation it would most likely tear his church apart. That’s his dilemma. In my opinion he has spiritually and morally outgrown his theology but he’s trapped in it. Rob Bell, who is the author of the best seller, Love Wins, did the same thing. But Rob Bell refused to be trapped and refused to stop growing. When Rob Bell left his exclusive view of salvation he also left his church, a mega-church that, like Warren, he had founded.

I like Rick Warren. I am praying for Rick Warren. Warren is one of the few evangelical leaders today who at least doesn’t believe the world is flat and hasn’t fallen off the edge of it. There is a sincerity and authenticity to him. So I am praying that his eyes will be opened and he will find the courage to embrace an inclusive gospel, so at the very least the God he preaches is as gracious and loving as he is.

What if more of us believed in and trusted in a bigger, more inclusive God. What if more of us understood salvation in terms of healing and wholeness and liberation from the life diminishing forces that possess us and oppress us, so that we are free to truly love God and love others? What if more Christians, and not just Christians but religious adherents of other religious traditions who are exclusivists in their faith (Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, name a religion) – what if more exclusionists the world over would give up their exclusivism and become more inclusive in their understanding of God and God’s relationship to human beings? What a difference it could make toward vastly expanding respect and compassion for all people and advancing the common good. What a difference it could make in moving us toward equality and fairness and justice and world peace. Just maybe sisters and brothers, the salvation of the world depends on it.

Our good God I thank you for the salvation that we, in this church, have come to experience through our discipleship to Jesus. I thank you for the salvation that others have experienced in other ways through other means. I thank you that you are big enough and gracious enough to meet any of us where ever we are. Give us the passion and will to grow in your grace and truth. I pray that we as followers of Jesus might know and live daily the mind and love of Christ, in whose name I pray.