Sunday, August 26, 2018

What we can learn from being offended (A sermon from John 6:56-69)

Most of us, I think, consider Jesus’ ministry with the common people to have been a great success, and it was the religious leaders that Jesus upset so much that they found a way to kill him. His works of healing attracted large crowds. Others were drawn to his teaching. But in our Gospel text today, John says that many of his disciples came to a point where they found Jesus’ teaching offensive. And John says, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” Many (not a few, not some, but many) of his disciples stopped being disciples. Many of his followers, stopped following. We are not told why they were offended, other than saying, “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it.” John doesn’t tell us why they found it difficult. Maybe they were offended because of what Jesus was asking them to do.

This passage in John 6 is a very difficult passage to wrap our minds around. Now, I know this is a sermon and not a class in New Testament Introduction, but I think it’s important you know a couple of things about the Gospel of John. Anyone who reads all the Gospels carefully should observe that the Jesus portrayed in John is different than the Jesus portrayed in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. According to the consensus of mainline biblical scholarship in John we are not reading the actual words or teachings of Jesus, but rather, what John and his church believed about Jesus. We are reading the teachings of John and his church about Jesus. The claims Jesus makes in John’s Gospel he does not make in the Synoptic Gospels. Jesus doesn’t speak the same way in John’s Gospel as he does in the Synoptic Gospels. All four Gospels in our Bible are primarily proclamations, not historical reports, and what is characteristic of all the Gospels in general, is even more characteristic of John’s Gospel in particular. John and his church project their Christianity, their Christian theology and spirituality into the words and teachings of Jesus. Biblical scholars emphasize (and this is important) that in doing that – projecting their interpretations and beliefs into the life and words of Jesus – John and his church were not being deceitful or untruthful in any way. That’s how they proclaimed what they had come to believe and experience. We shouldn’t read our standards of historicity back into these ancient Christian writings. They were proclaiming a life-changing message about what they believed, and this is how they communicated their message.
Biblical texts like our passage today are to be read metaphorically, not literally. That’s really true of the whole Bible, but it’s especially true of John’s Gospel. All  religious language is metaphorical language and symbolical language. When John has Jesus talk about eating his flesh and drinking his blood he is obviously speaking metaphorically and symbolically.

So what is John talking about here when he speaks about eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood. Some interpreters hear an echo of the Christian practice of the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion, but I seriously doubt that’s the emphasis here. What John is talking about, I think, is assimilating the life of Jesus. Eating and drinking the body and blood of Jesus is a metaphorical way and symbolical way of talking about Christian discipleship – about being sustained, nourished, and empowered by Jesus’ life and teachings. To eat and drink in the life of Jesus is to eat and drink in the love, grace, and truth of God that Jesus incarnated in flesh and blood, that he embodied – fleshed out – in his earthly life.

It’s interesting to note that John uses the word “flesh” in at least three different ways in the sixth chapter of John. Earlier in this chapter Jesus says, “This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” In that context “flesh” represents the total life of Jesus given for the world, a self-giving of his life in the cause of God and for the good of others that ends in death. He died a sacrificial death because he lived a sacrificial life. That’s one way John uses the word “flesh.” A second way John uses the word flesh is in the way I just described. When he talks about eating his flesh and drinking his blood he is talking about Christian discipleship – about being sustained and nourished by his life and words. Still another way, a third way John uses the word flesh is when he says (attributing this to Jesus of course) that the spirit gives life, but the flesh is useless. The first two ways John uses the word “flesh” are positive, but this use of the word is clearly negative. Here he uses the word much like Paul does when Paul writes about the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit. The Spirit promotes grace, truth, and love; while the flesh promotes just the opposite. In this negative sense, the flesh is an anti-life force that is present in our world and in our lives that opposes God’s love, grace, and truth. And we see this negative, anti-life force very much at work in our national culture and life setting today don’t we?

That’s my lesson in biblical interpretation for this Sunday. But since this is a sermon, let me now pose a more practical question. What is it that causes us to become offended and turn away? Dr. Fred Craddock was for a brief time dean at Phillips Seminary. While acting as dean a woman from the community came to see him. She asked him to come out to the parking lot. This made him a little nervous, but he went. She opened the back door of her automobile, and slumped in the back seat was her brother. He had been a senior at the University of Oklahoma, but had been in a bad car wreck and was in a coma for eight months. She had quit her job as a school teacher to take care of him. At this point almost all of their resources were exhausted. She opened the door and said, “I would like for you to heal him.” Can you imagine? What would you say? Fred said, “Well, I can pray for him. And I can pray with you. But I do not have the gift of healing.” She got behind the wheel and said to him, “Then what in the world do you do?” And she drove off. She took offense and left. Why did she take offense? Clearly she had some different assumptions and expectations than Dr. Craddock on what a minister should be doing. Just like many of you probably have different assumptions and expectations about what a minister should be doing?

I suspect that those who walked away from Jesus, walked away because their discipleship to Jesus was not working out the way they assumed and expected it would. I’m guessing Jesus was not fulfilling their expectations. John tells us that earlier in this chapter many of these followers wanted to make Jesus their king, but Jesus would not conform to their wishes. He refused to fulfill their expectations. Jesus didn’t come to be king. As he tells his disciples in Mark and Matthew, he came not to be served like a king, but to serve as the Servant of God, and to give his life in service for the healing and liberation of many. It’s easy to see why they are so offended and walk away.

In 1977 when I walked in to Dr. Coker’s New Testament Introduction class at Campbellsville College carrying my New Scofield Reference Bible, with not only an infallible text, but with infallible notes as well, Dr. Coker wasn’t impressed. He didn’t concede to all my certitudes and absolutes. He wanted me to toss out my Scofield Bible and think for myself, and it was just too difficult to do. I was offended and I walked away.

But then, as I have talked about before, at a crossroads in my life, a window opened in my mind and I began to realize that all my certitudes about what the Bible says were actually my assumptions and biases that I brought to the Bible. Here’s the way it works for all of us. We are either born or converted into our faith. We are either raised in a particular religious tradition or we are converted into that tradition. Either way, we get indoctrinated, socialized, and enculturated into our particular Christian tradition.

We are taught what the Bible says, we are told what the Bible teaches, even before we actually read the Bible ourselves. So, when we do start reading the Bible, we are already conditioned to read and interpret the Bible in a certain way. The Bible will say whatever you want it to say. The Bible will teach whatever you want it to teach. We all read and interpret the Bible from a particular point of view – that is our bias. It’s unavoidable. You will find what you want to find in the Bible. The real question sisters and brothers, is not what the Bible teaches. The real question, the most important question is: What do you want the Bible to teach? Because the Bible will teach what you want it to teach.

Now, the big challenge we face is that most of us are completely blind to our assumptions and our biases. Those who claim to have no biases are living in the thickest kind of darkness of all. We all read the Bible and interpret our faith according to our assumptions, biases, expectations, and desires. The key to spiritual growth is becoming aware of this. That’s the first step – awareness. The second step, is intentionality – being intentional about the assumptions, biases, expectations, and desires we have. You can read, make sense, interpret, and apply the Bible with a bias for exclusion or inclusion, for grace or punishment, for welcome or rejection, for exceptionalism or universalism, for judgement as correction or judgment as retribution, and on and on and on. You can find all of these opposites in the Bible. And what you see in the Bible, how you understand it, and how you appropriate it will depend on the agenda you bring to this process complete with all your assumptions, biases, expectations, and desires.

Why is it that we are so blind (I am preaching to myself as well as you) to our assumptions, biases, expectations, and desires that impact so much of what we think, what we believe, and what we do? Why are we so blind to the things that cause us to be so easily offended? Is it fear? Is it insecurity? Is it ego? As I reflect on my own journey I think it has been mostly about my ego and being overly invested in my image or my reputation or my sense of competence. So when I thought those things were being called into question, it was easy for me to feel offended. That’s my journey. It may be completely different for you or someone else. Who really knows why we do what we do.

Have you ever been looking for something and looked in a closet or drawer and couldn’t find it. Then later, you go back to that same closet or drawer and there it is. And you think, Why could I not see that before? How did I overlook this? How did I miss this? oWho knows? I say that all the time about any number of things, especially those things that relate to my faith journey. Why we become offended is not nearly as important as acknowledging that we are offended and then learning and growing from the offense. And as we grow, we become more aware of why we become offended. I regret that I was offended by Dr. Coker and walked away. I wish I had been aware of my biases and assumptions that led me to be so certain that I had the answers, that I had the truth – that I was right and he was wrong. But what would be far worse, sisters and brothers, is that after all these years, I would still be in the same place – being offended by those who question my beliefs. What would be far worse is after all this time I would still be unaware of my assumptions and biases.

Now, back to Dr. Fred Craddock and the woman who wanted him to heal her brother. Remember the story I shared earlier. She definitely had certain expectations based on a bias about what ministers should be doing. And when Fred could not meet those expectations, she was offended and left. Well, Fred was offended too. But he had a different response. The woman asked Fred when he could not fulfill her desires and meet her expectations, “Then what in the world do you do?” Obviously, Fred knew that his responsibility was not to heal her brother. Of course he knew that. But he let the question get inside his ego. He went back into his office and he couldn’t get the question out of his mind, “What in the world do you do?” He didn’t turn his offense toward the woman at all. He turned it inward and questioned his own motivations and expectations and calling as a minister.

When I became offended at Dr. Coker for challenging my beliefs, my assumptions, and my biases about the Bible, God, and all things holy, what if I had turned my attention inward and began to look more deeply into my own soul. Instead of viewing Dr. Coker as the problem, what if I had looked inward and asked, “Why do I believe what I believe?” “Why am I so frustrated and angry and offended that Dr. Coker has challenged my beliefs?” Had I turned my offense inward maybe it wouldn’t have taken me so long for me to become aware of the role my ego was playing in my certitudes. I saw Dr. Coker as the problem, when in reality, it was my ego that was the problem. I couldn’t see how defensive my ego was, and I couldn’t see how biased I was. And there are times that is still true. My ego still gets me in trouble. I’m not sure we ever completely overcome our blindness, but there are levels and degrees of blindness and enlightenment.

I’m not sure any of us really become so God-like and divested of ego that we don’t get offended. So the question is: What are we going to do about it? If I react in a negative way maybe I need to ask forgiveness. Or maybe I need to be forgiving. And what I certainly need to do when I am offended is to look carefully at my own biases and expectations and be more aware. And then, I need to be intentional about learning and growing from the experience.

God, help each of us to look deeply into our souls to see why it is that we become so easily offended when our beliefs and our biases and our expectations are challenged. Help us see those areas in our life where we need to grow. Help us to be intentional about the biases and expectations we have – of ourselves and of others. Give us the will to change our biases and expectations so that they inspire us and empower us to become more gracious, more generous, more loving, more Christ-like persons.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Developing the habit of gratitude ( A sermon from Ephesians 5:15-20)

Maybe you heard about this monastery where all the brothers took a disciplined vow of total silence. They were not ever to speak a word; their silence was their call to listen only to God. There was, however, one exception. Once every five years, they were allowed to speak two words to the Abbot who was the head of the order. A new monk arrived at the monastery to begin his service. After five years, he went into the Abbot’s office to speak his two words. He said, “Food bad!” He then got up from his chair and left. Five years later, he returned to speak again.  This time, his words were, “Bed hard!” And after still another five years, he returned for a third time. On his third visit he said, “Want out!”  “I’m not surprised,” said the Abbot. “All you’ve done since you’ve been here is complain.”

When we complain and grumble our words feed a growing spirit of ingratitude in our hearts that is indicative of our failure to see and discern God at work for our good in whatever situation or circumstance we may find ourselves. I doubt if a spiritual life is even possible without some measure of gratitude.

In our text, Paul or someone writing in the Pauline tradition, connects gratitude, giving thanks, to the filling of the Spirit. But the filling of the Spirit is not something that just comes upon us after we ask or pray for it. The biblical writer draws a contrast with intoxication. One doesn’t become intoxicated after one drink. It’s after several drinks. Choices are made that lead to intoxication. Choices that, in some instances, become habitual and addictive. When one is intoxicated one is under the control of the alcohol. When one is filled with the Spirit one is under the control of the Spirit. One comes under the control of the Spirit, however, not simply by asking for it, though asking is important. But it is also important to make the right choices – choices that become habitual. Gratitude is a blessing, both to the one who is grateful and to those who experience it in others, but it is a blessing that requires our diligent attention and effort. We make choices and develop patterns of thinking and reacting and relating that either nurture a life of gratitude or a life of complaining and grumbling.

Diana Butler Bass says that her first job out of graduate school was teaching theology and church history at a small Christian college in Santa Barbara, California. The college community, she says, expected a certain kind of conformity in regard to doctrine and personal piety that discomforted her. For four years she struggled not only with conflicting expectations of who they wanted her to be and who she was, but also with a hostile tenure committee. After a lengthy process of evaluation the president called her in his office. He said, “I’m going to have to let you go.” When she asked why, he assured her that it wasn’t her teaching and he thought she was an excellent teacher, but he said, “You just don’t fit here.” He went on to say, “This wouldn’t be a good place for you. One day you will thank me for this.” “Thank him?,” she thought. She wanted to throttle him. In less than two months, she would be without a job and a paycheck, with few prospects for work in a weak academic job market.

A week or so later she was telling a friend about this exchange and she said, “Can you believe the nerve of him saying that I would thank him for letting me go?” She expected her friend to rush to her defense. Instead he said, “You know, he’s right.” He said, “Years ago I lost a job. It was painful, and I was angry. It didn’t seem like a favor. But eventually it was the event that made me understand I was an alcoholic. And that led me to get sober. Eventually, I understood that it was what I needed for my life to change. Not that it was easy.” She retorted, “But I’m not an alcoholic.” He said, “I get that, but we all need to look at ourselves more honestly. To figure out who we are and where we are really heading. To correct course. Sometimes that only happens in circumstances like this. One day, I bet you will thank him.” He told Diana that he wasn’t able to thank the one who fired him right away, but eventually he could thank him, later in life, after he learned gratitude.

Diana said to him, “You learned gratitude. Isn’t gratitude just a feeling? How do you learn that?” He asked her to name one thing she was grateful for. He told her to do that every day, and to write it down in a journal. Diana decided to follow her friend’s advice. She wrote down one blessing each day, no matter what, even though some days it wasn’t easy.

Diana says that as the months passed she noticed that the balance began to shift. Sometimes she wrote down two or three blessings. There were days of outright surprise and joy, appreciation for simple pleasures, for the kindness of others, for the richness of life. This was no magic bullet, of course, but over a three year period of developing this habitual practice of giving thanks her perspective shifted. She learned to look at life differently, in ways that formed her into a more forgiving and hopeful person. She says that she learned two really important things. One, she discovered that when she intentionally looked for things to be grateful for she found them. Two, she also discovered that gratitude expands as you practice it – that gratitude begets more gratitude. The lesson for us is to be intentional about practicing and expressing gratitude.

Gratitude takes practice. I think this is what the biblical writer is getting at when he talks about singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs from the heart. He is calling on us to develop some sort of practice or discipline that cultivates the grace of gratitude. It may be singing or composing music, or writing poetry, or keeping a journal, or simply doing something you love or enjoy, and expressing thanks for getting to do it.

Sometimes we have experiences that help us to nurture this habit. That help shift our perspective. Not long after I came here as pastor I attended a Kentucky Council of Churches event in Owensboro, Kentucky hosted by Third Baptist Church. The main meeting, the center of attention was focused on our worship service Saturday night. A guest speaker we all looked forward to hearing was on the program. It was a day of heavy thunderstorms, all afternoon into the evening the tornado siren had been going off. In fact, it had sounded so many times that people were simply ignoring it. I was in Wendy’s eating dinner and the siren went off. I guess that was about the fourth time. Nobody budged. So I didn’t either. Later that evening at Third Baptist we were well into the program when the siren went off again. We continued with our program for about five minutes, the siren continuing to sound. Then the pastor of the church who had went out when the siren started, came in and said that we needed to move downstairs. I remember walking next to a lady on the way out of the sanctuary who said, “I think we should stay right here.” I guess about five minutes later, after we had all moved downstairs to wait, suddenly the building shook, the lights went out, and dust filled the air. The dust was so thick we had to get out of the building. Outside, some cars had been moved around, a couple were upside down. That ended our meeting. The next day I went by the church on my way out of town. I knew the pastor. He showed me the sanctuary, where we had been just before the tornado touched down. It was a direct hit on the sanctuary. Ruble everywhere. Overtop where I had been seated there was a massive hole in the sealing, and debris was piled up fifteen feet high. There had been a huge pillar in the back of the sanctuary where I had been seated. That pillar was completely gone. Had we remained in the sanctuary five more minutes I would not be here today, and I suspect most of us in that sanctuary would not be here today. All of us in that sanctuary had a brush with death. As I drove home the next day that experience had a profound effect on my shift in perspective – in the way I viewed life. I was grateful to be alive.

Brother David Steindl-Rast says, “Everything is gratuitous, everything is gift. The degree to which we are awake to this truth is the measure of our gratefulness.” Sometimes an experience, a sudden brush with death, a new lease on life after a long battle with a life threatening illness like cancer, can open our eyes and jar us awake to the gratuity of life. Developing the habit of gratitude calls us to see life more generously, graciously, and forgivingly. It involves being mindful of the value of life and being able to assess experiences and relationships in the proper perspective.

Robert Fulghum wrote about the time, just out of college, when he worked at a resort in northern California. The job was a combination of night desk clerk in the lodge and helping out with the horse-wrangling at the stables. The owner was Italian-Swiss with European notions about conditions of employment. Fulghum regarded the owner as a fascist who wanted peasant employees, and the owner considered Fulghum a good example of how democracy could be carried too far.

One week the employees had been served the same thing for lunch every single day. Two wieners, a mound of sauerkraut, and stale rolls. And the cost of the meals was deducted from their check. Well, Fulghum was outraged. One night he unloaded on the night auditor, Sigmund Wollman. Fulghum went on and on about how he was tired of it.  Fulghum says to Sigmund Wollman: “I am sick and tired of this crap and insulted and nobody is going to make me eat wieners and sauerkraut for a whole week and make me pay for it, and who does he think he is anyhow, and how can life be sustained on wieners and sauerkraut, and this is un-American, and I don’t like wieners and sauerkraut enough to eat it one day for God’s sake, and the whole hotel stinks anyhow, and the horses are all nags and the guests are all idiots and I’m packing my bags and heading for Montana where they never even heard of wieners and sauerkraut and wouldn’t feed that stuff to pigs.”

Fulghum raved on for twenty minutes or so. As Fulghum pitched his fit, Sigmund Wollman sat quietly on his stool,  watching him with sorrowful eyes. Wollman had good reason to be sorrowful. He was a three year survivor of Auschwitz. A German Jew. He liked his night job, liked being alone, gave him space and quiet. In the death camp he dreamed of such a time.

He let Fulghum wind down and then he said: “Fulghum, you think you know everything, but you don’t know the difference between an inconvenience and a problem. If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire—then you got a problem. Everything else is inconvenience. Life is inconvenient. Life is lumpy. Learn to separate the inconveniences from the real problems. You will live longer. And will not annoy people like me so much.” And then in a gesture that combined dismissal and blessing he waved Fulghum off to bed. “Good night,” Fulghum. Fulghum says that Wollman simultaneously kicked his butt and opened a window in his mind. And you know sisters and brothers, that’s really the key to developing the habit of gratitude, or for that matter, any kind of spiritual growth – opening a window in the mind. A window that let’s new light in, new grace, new perspective, new understanding in.

This is all part of living wisely. The biblical writer says, “Be careful how you live, not as unwise people do, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.” There is plenty of injustice, corruption, and evil in the world. But that’s no excuse for not being grateful. If we, God’s sons and daughters, are to become what we already are, if we are to live into our identity and calling as God’s children, then we must do whatever it takes to nurture a spirit of gratitude in our lives.

Maya Angelou put it this way: “If you must look back, do so forgivingly. If you must look forward, do so prayerfully. However the wisest thing you can do is be present in the present . . . gratefully.    

There is a wonderful story about a monk who was away from the monastery in a desolate place where a hungry tiger took notice of him walking along the path. The monk spotted the tiger in the distance and could tell he was in danger so he began to run. He found himself at the edge of a cliff with the tiger not far behind. He could see a rope dangling from the side that someone had used to shimmy down the side, so he leaped over the edge and latched hold of the rope just as the tiger’s ferocious claws whipped past his face. As he started to make his way down, he soon discovered that the rope only went about half way and at the bottom lay a quarry with large, jagged rocks. As he hung there suspended between the tiger above and the sharp rocks below he observed two mice about ten feet above him nibbling at the rope. Just then as he turned to his side he spotted directly in front of him the largest, most beautiful strawberry he had ever seen. He plucked it, turned it around slowly in his hand admiring it, he lifted it gently to his nose taking in the aroma, then he lifted it bit into it, savoring its sweet taste. He remarked to himself, “Undoubtedly this is the best strawberry I have ever tasted.” And he gave thanks to God for that special blessing.

How many of us would be able to enjoy and be grateful for the strawberry? Maybe that’s what being filled with the Sprit looks like. The wisest thing we can do is live joyfully and gratefully in the here and now.  

Good God, help us to forget and forgive the past. And not to worry and be anxious over what’s ahead. Help us to open a window in our mind and heart, so the Spirit can shape our perspective. Give us grace to see the grace in life, to see all life as a gift, and to be grateful in this present moment. In the name of Christ I pray. Amen.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Being Imitators of God (A sermon from Eph. 4:25-5:2)

Ten years ago we said as a congregation that our vision is one of experiencing and expressing God’s unconditional love. We could have easily come to that sense of vision by reading this letter to the Ephesians, that is actually, a letter to the church at large. In his prayer for the church the writer prays that they will understand and experience the immensity and magnitude of Christ’s love. In the passage we looked at last week the writer called upon his readers to bear with one another in love, to speak the truth in love, and to work together and build up the whole body in love. Everything is to be done in love. Now, in today’s passage we are called upon to be imitators of God by living in love. All the instructions and exhortations the writer gives to the readers in this text are expressions of what it means and what it looks like to live in love and thus, be imitators of God.

First, we imitate God and live in love by putting away falsehood and deceit, so that we can honestly and sincerely speak truth to our neighbor. The neighbor of course, could be anyone, even the one who wishes or even works for our harm. This is part of what it means to love our neighbor. We speak truth to our neighbor. Now, we sometimes do strange things with scripture to avoid this. In an article I read recently the reporter was interviewing people in a Southern Baptist Church and one woman said that to love your neighbor means your American neighbor. She also said that welcoming the stranger meant welcoming the legal immigrant stranger. That’s convenient isn’t it? I suppose we all selectively read scripture to one degree or another to justify our beliefs and practices, which is why I often say we need to be intentional regarding one’s biases. It’s foolish to pretend we don’t have them. I think the important question is what kind of biases are we going to have? Are they constructive or destructive? When Jesus told the story that we call the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus made it quite clear that our neighbor could be one of a different nationality and religion. Jesus made it clear that our neighbor even includes our “so called” enemy – the one who wants to do us harm. We imitate God by loving our neighbor and by speaking truth to our neighbor without deceit and deception.

Second, we imitate God and live in love by refusing to allow our anger at injustice to control us. The writer says, “Be angry, but do not sin.” Anger is not forbidden. In fact, anger is even expected. If there are things that do not anger us as followers of Jesus, then perhaps we are not actually following Jesus. How does a follower of Jesus not get angry over our government’s treatment of families seeking asylum? How does a follower of Jesus not get angry when we learn that over 500 children have not been reunited with their parents, and that it is very possible, that many of them may never be reunited? How does a follower of Jesus not get angry over the racism that pervades our country today and is being legitimized by our top government leaders? How does a follower of Jesus not get angry when the most vulnerable among us are beaten down and oppressed?

Jesus got angry. In Mark 3 we are told that Jesus entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and there was a man who had a withered hand. The religious authorities were carefully watching Jesus to see if he would heal the man. They didn’t care about the man. They cared only about their own power and authority and making Jesus conform to their rules. Just like our government leaders who care nothing about the families they criminalize who come simply seeking asylum. Mark says that Jesus “looked at them with anger” and that he was “grieved at their hardness of heart.” Anger can be righteous or it can be unrighteous. Much of that is determined by what it is that ignites the anger within us. The hypocrisy of the religious gatekeepers who cared about the rules more than they cared about helping and healing others, greatly angered Jesus.

One of the very best treatments I have ever read about God’s anger was written by the Hebrew scholar and mystic, Abraham Heschel, in his classic work on the prophets. He points out that God’s anger as expressed by the prophets is never an explosive, emotional outburst, but something that is purposeful and ultimately intended for good. It most often reflects God’s actions toward his people when his people mistreat the most vulnerable and take advantage of the widows, the orphans, and the aliens or non-Jews living in the land, who were the most vulnerable ones in Hebrew society. God’s anger, says Heschel, goes hand-in-hand with God’s mercy. It is intended to be corrective and redemptive, and thus temporary. Anger is not God’s settled disposition. Mercy and God’s steadfast love constitute God’s settled disposition.

This is why the writer says, “Be angry, but do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” We fail to imitate God if we allow anger to fester and grow. Anger must never become a settled disposition. Last week, I posted via social media something I said in my sermon. Namely, how we are obligated to speak the truth in love. I said that as followers of Christ we must speak out when we see injustice. But even as we speak out against injustice, we must not demonize those who support demonic policies and practices. One of my facebook friends commented on how difficult that is to do. She said, “When children are involved, I sort of lose my mind.” She was referencing, of course, the children who have been separated from their parents, and may never be reunited with their parents. Here is what I said to her: It is hard, but for our own sanity, and less we poison with our anger the people around us, we have to be able to let it go.” I said to her, “The more you care, and the more compassionate you are, the harder that will be for you to do. But you have to be able to find some joy, and some good, and some gratitude, and not let the injustice you are angry over steal your life.” God doesn’t hang on to anger. As the Psalmist says, “God’s anger is but for a moment, while God’s steadfast love is for a lifetime.” If we are to be imitators of God and walk in love we can’t hold on to our anger either. We cannot be perpetually angry.

Third, the writer says we imitate God and walk in love by engaging in constructive work and labor, so that we will have something to share with the needy. We work and labor in order to live – to support ourselves and our families. That’s a given isn’t it? But that is not what the writer says is it? Where does the writer place the emphasis? On what we get out of work? No. It’s on what we can give isn’t it? We work and labor, so we will have something to share with the needy. That’s a different perspective on work isn’t it? Because the emphasis is not what we can get. It’s on what we can give?

Fourth, the writer says we imitate God and live in love when we guard our speech, so that our words uplift and build up others and communicate grace. All of these instructions go together or build on each other. If we are carrying around bitterness and resentment, if we have not sufficiently diffused our anger and let it go, there is a good possibility our speech, our words, will tear down rather than build up. All of us, I suspect, have been guilty (I know I have) of using words to tear down, rather than build up. And sometimes our words, which we intend to build up, actually tear down, because we are not aware in the moment of our own frustration. Again, I speak from personal experience. In fact, I was guilty of this just this past week.

I love the story of the little girl who came skipping out of children’s church one morning. Her mother asked her what she had learned. She said that her teacher had talked about the verse where Jesus told his disciples to let their light shine before others in such a way that others would see their good works and glorify God. She said the teacher had taught them what when they let the light of Jesus’ love shine in their hearts and their lives, then their lives would a blessing to others and to God. Well, the very next Sunday this same little girl got in an argument with another little girl in the class. In fact, things got so out of hand, the teacher had to get her mom out of worship to come and settle her down. When her mom got to her she said, “Honey, what happened? What happened to letting the light of Jesus’ love  shine in your heart and be a blessing to others?” In tears, and totally frustrated the little girl said to her mother, “Mama, I guess I just blew myself out.” We all know about blowing ourselves out don’t we? All these instructions on walking in love are connected. If we are unable to let go of our anger, if we allow it to take root and grow, it’s not very likely our words will be gracious and constructive in building others up.

Fifth, we imitate God and walk in love when we strip ourselves of all negative attitudes and behaviors that are malicious and slanderous and hurtful to others, and put on attitudes and behaviors that reflect kindness, compassion and forgiveness. We put aside our grudges, as we forgive one another the way God in Christ has forgiven us.

Philip Gulley says that when he was a kid he lived about a mile from the dump. But there was a kid named Bobby who lived right next to the dump with his little brother and grandmother. For some reason, says Gulley, Bobby got picked on a lot and was always mad. He would come over to Gulley’s house in late summer and early fall, when football was starting, and they played football. Somebody would tackle Bobby and he would come up swinging, ready to fight.

One Saturday they were playing football and Bobby got mad at Philip’s brother, Doug, and hit Doug. But Doug didn’t do anything. All the kids were yelling at Doug to hit him back, but Doug wouldn’t do it. He refused to hit Bobby back. So, the rest of them kicked Bobby out of the game and made him go home. Afterwards, Philip asked Doug why he hadn’t gone after Bobby, because he knew Doug wasn’t scarred of Bobby. He knew Doug could handle Bobby. Doug told him how he’d learned that week that Bobby lived with his grandma because his parents had been killed and he figured Bobby had been hit enough in life. Philip was 11 years old, but that memory stayed with him, because it was the first time in his life that he became distinctly conscious of grace.

Philip had experienced a lot of kindness in life, from his family, from teachers, from his friends, and he knew what that looked like and felt like. But this was different. His brother had every reason to settle the score; his brother would have been justified in hitting Bobby back, making Bobby pay the price for being a jerk, but he didn’t. He withheld and retrained his anger. He opted for mercy.

Bobby moved away the next year and Philip lost touch with him. But years later, Philip was at an event where a woman introduced herself and said that she had a nephew that used to live in the town where Philip grew up. When Philip inquired, he discovered it was Bobby. She said Bobby was married, had three daughters, and was very happy. Maybe Bobby encountered enough grace, enough forgiveness, enough love in his life to change him, and maybe some of it came through people like Doug Gulley, who opted to forgive rather than fight. We imitate God and live in love when we, like Doug Gulley, are tenderhearted, kind, understanding, and quick to forgive.

Lastly, we imitate God and live in love when we live sacrificially like Christ. Jesus didn’t die a sacrificial death in order to satisfy some need in God. God didn’t require Jesus to die so God could forgive sins. Jesus lived for God’s will and God’s cause in the world, and he gave his life sacrificially to that end. Jesus spoke truth to power in love. Jesus confronted the religious and social injustices within Judaism. Jesus did what was loving rather than what was lawful time and time again. And it got him killed. He lived sacrificially, so he died sacrificially – as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. The way he died became a symbol for how he lived. It’s all one piece. We are called to the same kind of sacrificial love and service. Jesus died a sacrificial death because he lived a sacrificial life. We are called to do the same.

So, how do we imitate God and live in love. One, we put away falsehood and deception, and we speak truth to our neighbor. Two, we refuse to allow anger to linger and fester. Three, we engage in constructive work, so we will have something to share with the needy. Four, we guard our speech, so that our words are seasoned with grace and serve to inspire and build up others. Five, we put away attitudes and actions that are slanderous and hurtful to others, and instead nurture tenderheartedness and kindness, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven us. And six, we follow Christ’s example of sacrificial service and ministry regardless of the cost. As we ready ourselves to share in the bread and cup in remembrance of the one who so beautifully imitated God and lived in love, let us ask ourselves: Am I willing to set aside my false self, take up my cross, and follow Christ on the path of sacrificial love and service. / Gracious God, open our hearts and incline our wills to do your good will and live in the love of Christ.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Called to Love (A sermon from Ephesians 4:1-16)

Paul, or someone within the Pauline tradition, begins this part of the letter begging his readers to live up to their calling. If Paul didn’t write this, whoever did is someone who reflects Paul’s passion. He once again emphasizes that our calling from God is about unity. It is about living as one people. He calls upon his readers to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Let me remind you, in case you have forgotten or wasn’t hear the Sunday I emphasized this, the unity this writer is talking about is not just the unity of the local church. Nor is it just about the unity of the universal church. It is a unity that includes everything and everyone on earth and in heaven. The writer laid this out in his opening words, namely, that God’s purpose, that has now been definitively revealed through Christ, is that all things on earth and in heaven will be gathered up, unified, brought together, made one in Christ. To say that all things are brought together in Christ is to say that all things are brought together in love, because Christ is love. The living Christ stands for and represents love incarnate. Christ is the Christian term for the divine love that pulsates though out the universe.

I love the story that I have shared a few times before that author and pastor Philip Gulley has shared about a time when he was much younger and called to pastor a small urban congregation in Indianapolis. The congregation was extremely caring and compassionate, taking on the demeanor of their two most active members, Lyman and Harriet Combs. When Gulley came to know the couple they were retired and had devoted their remaining years to caring for others. Lyman volunteered amost every day at a homeless shelter, and Harriet made it her practice to be available to anyone in need. She babysat, transported the elderly to their appointments, tended the sick, visited the lonely, and did so with such joy and good humor that being in her presence was an uplifting and inspiring experience.

What bothered Gulley, though, as a young minister was the church’s seeming indifference to numerical growth. He wanted to build the institution. One day when Gulley was particularly frustrated he asked Harriet why that was so. She said, “I guess it was never our goal to have a large church.” Well, that was not what he was wanting to hear as a young, ambitious minister. So he asked Harriet, “Then why are we here?” Smiling, she said, “To love.” Gulley says that while he was busy trying to attract the right kind of people – families with children, the influential, the gifted, financial donors, people who could grow the institution – Harriet was busy caring for those in need, never judging, never trying to gauge their worth, just accepting and loving them.

I will tell you, as pastor of this church, I care about the institution. And some of that, I will admit, is ego and self-preservation – because after all, my vocation and livelihood is tied to the institution. I will certainly not pretend that is not important to me. I want our church as an institution to thrive. There are better reasons, though, for the institution to thrive. I hope you give generously to the institution. Because the more you give, the more ministry and service in the community we can do. We want to be able to send our young people to camp. We want to be able to support our ministries here and support missions abroad. We want to be able to keep up our facilities in good condition, not just for our own benefit, but also for community service and use. We should all want the institution to thrive.  And if you know people who have given up on church because of what most churches believe and practice these days, then tell them about our church, because we are certainly not like most churches are we. They might find a home here.

But as much as I want the institution to thrive, and hopefully you want this as much as I do, we can’t lose focus about what our primary task is – and that is, to love. There is a lot about the church as an institution that we cannot completely control. But we all can love. In his prayer in chapter 3 of this letter the writer prays: I pray that you may have the power to comprehend (that is, understand), with all the saints, what is the breath and length and height and depth, and to know (that is, to experience) the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” Then, says the writer, you will “be filled with all the fullness of God.” Because God is love. When we are filled with love, we are filled with God. Our vision statement as a church is a simple one: To experience and express God’s unconditional love. The unity, the common good, the oneness that the living Christ wants for all creation will only be brought about through love.

I would like to hightlight three ways that our writer says is critical to this process of living out our calling to love and to bring everyone together in Christ. First, we must bear with one another in love. And the way we do that, says our biblical writer, is by relating to one another with humility and gentleness and patience. Some people need time, and we can’t force them to grow when they are not ready to grow. It’s taken me a long time to learn this, but I think I understand now.

Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek, once wrote about a time when he came upon a cocoon nestled in an olive tree. The infant butterfly was just starting to break through when Kazantzakis decided to shorten the natural process. He moved up real close and breathed on it. The warmth of his breath caused the butterfly to prematurely emerge from the cacoon, and when it did its wings were not adequately formed. So, unable to fly, it struggled and died. The young Kazantzakis learned a lesson that day. He had impatiently intervened and interrupted a process that he did not fully understand, and as a result of his intervention, he prevented life from fully forming, and did great harm to a living thing. I wish I had learned that lesson at the age when he learned that lesson.

Sometimes sisters and brothers we just have to back off, be patient, and wait. Sometimes we have to give people space to develop. Our part is to let them know we love them and care about them, but they have to work through their stuff. We can’t force them to become what they are not ready to become.

Now, this brings me to the second way we live out our calling to love, which is going to seem like a contradiction to what I just said. Everything depends on context. Situations are different. There are times when we wait too long, or times when we wait, when we should be speaking and acting and doing. There is a time to wait and be patient, and a time to act. There is a time to be silent, and a time to speak. There is a time to speak the truth in love.

When it comes to the big social and restorative justice issues of our time, now is not the time to wait. We live in a democracy, at least for now, and it is our responsibility to speak up. How can a follower of Jesus not be angry and outspoken about the way our government is treating refugees? I read the other day that some children may never be reunited with their parents. We are complicit in that injustice, because these are our elected representatives who are letting this happen. People who have come here fleeing violence and danger, looking for a safe place to live, we are treating as criminals. If we love God, and care about what is right and good and just, if we care about the well-being of our country, and if  have just a little of the compassion of Jesus, how can we not speak up and speak out, and not confront this injustice.

Now here’s the catch. Speaking the truth in love, I believe, means taking on the demonic policy and practice, without demonizing the people who support it. And that, sisters and brothers, is a delicate undertaking. Everyone who is committed to speaking truth in love struggles with this. Just as humility is important in bearing with others patiently and in longsuffering, so humility is just as important when we speak the truth in love. In love we confront the  unjust and demonic policies, without demonizing and treating unjustly those who enforce and support those demonic policies. This is where prayer is so important, because prayer helps us to  attend to our own inner life and keep our ego in check.

So, we live out our calling to love, to bring all things together in Christ, by bearing with one another in humility, gentleness, and patience. And by speaking the truth in love. The third way our biblical text emphasizes, is by using our gifts and abilities to work for the common good. When it comes to specific beliefs about God or anything else, we will never have unity. That’s not the unity we should be striving for. The unity in Christ that we should be striving for is a unity in love, where we work together for the common good, whether that common good is for our families, our church, our community, our country, or our world.

Serving one another and our larger society for the common good has the potential to bring us together like nothing else. The newscaster Charles Kuralt, tells a beautiful story in his book A Life on the Road. It was the spring that Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed and several American cites erupted in flames. In June, Robert Kennedy was murdered. Kuralt had known them both. He was feeling depressed about the future of the country, as some of us are today. Then, in July, in Reno, Nevada, he ran across a woman named Pat Shannon Baker. Pat was a young white woman, the mother of three children. The night Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, she sat up late thinking she had to do something. But what could she do? She remembered a vacant lot she passed every day in the city. It would make a nice park, she thought. She went to see her councilman, who talked about their strained budget and the difficulty of passing a bond issue. So Pat Baker went to see people in the African-American community around the lot, and she went to see garden supply companies and cement companies and the heads of construction and contracting companies. Pretty soon, her idea was their idea too.

At seven-thirty on a Friday morning, a time when many Reno residents had not yet stirred from their houses, a crowd began gathering on that vacant lot. By eight-thirty, 2,000 tons of topsoil was being spread by front-end loaders operated by heavy-equipment operators not used to working for free. Kuralt stood and watched them. He could hardly believe his eyes. He watched a school custodian, a roofer, a garage mechanic and an unemployed teenager digging a ditch together. A junior high school boy assigned to saw two-by-fours to serve as cement forms sawed all day in the hot sun as if his life depended on it. A little girl carried water to the workers. Some Coastguardsmen, Marines and Seabees came by and helped. By noon, cement was laid for a double tennis court. A basketball court had been made by the time the sun went down. Dozens of people worked through the night.

On Saturday morning, a crowd of several hundred people showed up for work, black and white, young and old. An eighty-four year old man who came to watch spent the entire afternoon helping to plant trees. By Saturday night, the lawn had been sown, and on Sunday morning a sprinkler system was turned on. By Sunday afternoon, the park was finished, complete with walks and benches and trees and playing courts and grass. They named it the Pat Baker Park and asked her if she would like to say something. She said, “This was a great, big, black and white thing.” Kuralt went back twenty years later. He said the grass was neatly trimmed and the trees had grown tall and leafy. People were sitting on the park benches in the shade of the trees. Kids were playing on the basketball court. He thought back to the weekend the park was built. He remembered an elderly African-American, leaning on his shovel, looking around at what they had done and said that this was the best thing that ever happened since he had come to Reno. Not just the park itself. That was good, but he was talking about the building of it. The coming together for the common good.

I guess there is one belief we have to share if we ever hope to come together in unity. We have to believe in love – the kind of love that we see incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, who for us is the Christ. Perhaps this is how we should understand the biblical writer when he mentions one faith and one baptism. We must share a living trust in the transforming power of love and be immersed in such love. We have to believe that loving one another and building up one another is what we are called to do. And if we believe that, then we will want to patiently and gently and humbly bear with one another. If we believe we are called to love all people, then we will refuse to be silent in the midst of injustice. We will speak the truth and not be deterred by deceptive and deceitful religious and partisan arguments. And we will do something. We will use our gifts and time and abilities and energies to work for the common good in our families, our church, our community, our country, and our world.

O God, I pray, like our biblical writer, that we may all come to understand just how big – how wide and deep – is your love for all of us. And more than understand, I pray that we might experience this love first hand so that it takes root deep in our hearts and souls. So that we might be committed to your plan for the world. So that we might do what we can do – in bearing with one another, in speaking your truth, and in working together to see our families and our church and our community and our world come together as one people. Inspire us and empower us to be instruments of your peace and channels of your love. Amen.