Sunday, September 30, 2018

Doing the Works of Christ (A sermon from Mark 9:38-50)

The dominant theme in today’s Gospel text is about doing the works of God. And when it comes to the works of God everyone takes a side. Jesus says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” There is no place for neutrality. We are either doing the works of God or we are working against the works of God. This saying of Jesus is uttered in a context where someone, who does not know Jesus and is not a disciple of Jesus, is nevertheless, casting out demons in the name of Jesus.

Now, the work of “casting out demons” has rich, symbolic meaning in the Gospel stories. This is the work of liberation. It is the work of delivering individuals and communities from the demonic – that is, from anything that is oppressive, demeaning, and life-diminishing. Deliverance from the demonic may involve deliverance from a personal addiction, or from personal greed or selfish ambition, or from some negative, harmful pattern of behavior. Or it may be deliverance from systemic, group idolatry or prejudice or oppression or injustice of some kind. It can be personal or communal or both. It can be individual liberation from personal sin, or it can be communal and corporate liberation from systemic sin. To be engaged in this work of liberation is good work. To be part of an individual’s liberation from personal addiction or sin, or to participate in a community’s or society’s liberation from injustice like racism or nationalism or sexism is good work. It is God’s work.

Now, in the first part of our Gospel text today here is a person engaging in this good work who does not know Jesus and is not a disciple of Jesus, though, he apparently is in some sense invoking the name of Jesus. The disciples try to stop this man from engaging in these good works. The disciples, however, are struggling with their own demon, namely, the demon of selfish ambition. They don’t know this man. They don’t know what he believes. So, they don’t like it that this man, apart from their control, is doing God’s work. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Jesus says that anyone who engages in works of liberation is for us. They are on our side, says Jesus. They are on the side of mercy and justice.

Three or four years ago I came across a story about Bernie Sanders and a Liberty University graduate that I shared with you. It’s a story worth sharing again. I’m sure you are aware that Bernie Sanders is not a Christian. He is Jewish, though, as far as I know, he does not claim to be a deeply religious person. Three or four years ago he was invited to address the students and faculty of Liberty University, the school founded by the late Jerry Farwell. I doubt if they will ever do that again, and I couldn’t believe it when they actually invited Bernie Sanders to their campus, but they did, and he went. He expounded a vision taught by Jesus in the golden rule: “In everything do to others as you would have them to do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12). He quoted that text and he quoted Amos: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (5:24). He said to the student body of Liberty University that it would be a hard case to make that we are a just society. He said it would be a hard case to prove that American society lives by the golden rule. To prove his point he called attention to “the massive injustice” of income and wealth inequality in America. He said there is no justice “when so few have so much and so many have so little.” He noted that our country has the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country on earth.

He said, “there is no justice when low income and working class mothers are forced to separate from their babies one or two weeks after birth and go back to work because they need the money that their jobs provide.” Again, he pointed out that we are the “only major country on earth that does not provide paid family and medical leave.” 

One evangelical Christian, a two-time graduate of Liberty University posted on the internet a sermon he preached based on Sanders speech. The sermon went viral. Hundreds of thousands of people read it. In the sermon he compared Bernie Sanders to John the Baptist confronting the hypocrisy and inauthenticity of the religious establishment of his day. I’m sure that went over well with the president  and board of Liberty University. Keep in mind this is not a progressive like me. This is an evangelical Christian who earned his Bachelor’s degree and Master’s degree from Liberty University. This evangelical Christian graduate of Liberty University said:

“As I heard Bernie Sanders crying out to the religious leaders at Liberty University, in his hoarse voice, with his wild hair, this Jew, and he proclaimed justice over us. He called us to account for being complicit with those who are wealthy and those who are powerful and for abandoning the poor, ‘the least of these’ who Jesus said he had come to bring good news to. . . .” He goes on and says, “And lightning hit my heart in that moment. And I realized that we are evangelical Christians, that we believe the Bible. . . . And yet somehow, we commit to the mental gymnastics necessary [in interpreting scripture] that allows us to abandon ‘the least of these,’ to abandon the poor, to abandon the immigrants, to abandon those who are in prison.”

This was written three or four years ago, but his words are even more relevant today aren’t they? Think of all the little ones that we have turned away, abandoned, and even criminalized at our borders. He went on to say that when he heard Sanders speak he heard Jesus saying in the Gospel of Matthew that when you care for the most vulnerable, when you care for the little ones, you care for Jesus, for Jesus said, “When you have done it for the ‘least of these’ [the little ones], you have done it for me.”

Let me ask you this: Who do you think best represents Jesus? Someone who claims Jesus as Savior and confesses Jesus as Lord, but does not practice the golden rule or express any concern or compassion for the most vulnerable, and is not engaged in works of mercy and justice? Or someone who does not claim to be a Christian at all, but cares about the poor and the oppressed, who sides with the most vulnerable among us, and who does works of mercy and justice? Who best represents the name of Jesus? Who best reflects the character and will of Jesus? Who is actually “for” Jesus?

Jesus says, “I truly tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.” Jesus is telling his own disciples that anyone who is not a disciple who sides with the hurting and the sick and the poor and the most vulnerable, anyone who acts in mercy towards them, who does something as simple as offer them a drink to quench their thirst, they will be rewarded. They are on God’s side. Jesus is telling his disciples that they are with us and for us, no matter who they are or what they believe.

In the next paragraph in our Gospel text Jesus issues a stern warning. He uses vivid imagery and hyperbole (exaggerated symbolism) to make his point regarding how much God cares for the little ones. The little ones are the most vulnerable among us, who are often used and abused and taken advantage of by others for personal gain. Jesus warns them that if anyone puts a stumbling block before one of these “little ones” it would be better for that person, who has caused such hurt and offense to one of the little ones, to have a millstone hung around his neck and be cast into the sea.

Well, if that doesn’t make an impression consider his next warning. Jesus says, “If your hand causes you to sin against one of these little ones, then it’s better to cut off your hand, for it is better to enter into life maimed, than to keep both your hands and go straight to hell. If your foot causes you to sin against one of these little ones . . . and if your eye causes you to sin against one of these little ones, then it’s better to cut off your foot or pluck out your eye, and enter life without them, than to be thrown into hell, where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” That’s about a stern a warning as you will find anywhere. Do you think God cares about the plight of the little ones? This is about how God expects us to treat God’s “little ones.” Most of us read this and instead of saying “Amen” we say, “O man” or “What the hell?”

The language here is obviously symbolic and hyperbolic. Jesus doesn’t expect anyone to cut off a body part and no one is going to enter into the future kingdom of God “maimed” or “lame.” Nor is the reference to “hell” or “unquenchable fire” any less symbolic. The whole point of the severity of this language is to highlight the value and priority God places on those who are vulnerable – the little ones – the poor, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the displaced, the demeaned, the suffering, the abused, and the misused. Jesus is pointing out how much God cares about all “the little ones” who like little children in Jesus’ day have no position, no power, no status, no rights, and no way of defending themselves against those who would take advantage of them. This passage, in graphic imagery, points out how much these “little ones” mean to God. It shows how valuable they are. But it is a warning after all, and the warning is severe. Exaggerated for sure, but still severe. It’s a warning of judgment to come.

Jesus says in the very next sentence, “Everyone will be salted with fire.” Everyone is going to walk through the fire of God’s judgment. I think some people misunderstand those of us who believe in God’s universal redemption of all humankind and all creation. The misunderstanding comes in that they think we who believe in universal redemption don’t believe in God’s judgment at all. That’s a complete misunderstanding. I believe in the universal redemption of all people, but I also believe in the universal judgment of all people. I have no allusions at all that I will somehow escape God’s judgment. Like Jesus says, I am going to be salted with the fire of God’s judgment.

In writing to the Roman Christians in chapter 2 of that letter Paul warns them that when they judge and exclude others, they are passing judgment on themselves, and then he warns, “Do you imagine you will escape the judgment of God?” (2:1-4) Later in the same letter he picks up this theme again and warns, “Why do you judge and despise your sister and brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (14:10).

In writing to the church at Corinth, some of whom were catering to the well-to-do and despising God’s little ones, Paul warns that the Lord will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart (1 Cor. 3:5). Paul goes on to compare God’s judgment to a refiner’s fire. We all build on the foundation laid by the love and good works of Christ says Paul. That’s the standard. Paul says, “The work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it” (the day, of course, is the day of judgment). Paul draws on the same firey imagery that Jesus employed. He says that our work “will be revealed by fire, the fire will test what sort of work each has done.” He says, “If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss.” But, he goes on to say, “the builder will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:13-15). The builder will be ultimately made whole and healed and transformed, but, says Paul, “as through fire.” The fire, of course, is not literal, but it is a symbol of God’s judgment. It may take a lot of “fire,” a lot of judgment, a lot of suffering, a lot of hardship to get there. What Paul seems to be saying is that God is going to change us, and in the process of changing us, it may take some or a lot of suffering in order to burn up, consume the corruption, the sin, and the injustice. And those of us who believe in universal redemption believe that God is going to see the process through. God is not to give up on any of us no matter what it takes.

And that is good news. This is why God’s judgment, which can be quite severe and painful, is ultimately something to be welcomed. Because God’s purpose in all of this is our ultimate transformation. God wants to burn up all the envy, jealousy, pride, arrogance, love of power, prejudice and all the stuff that hurts us and others, so that we will become mirrors of the loving, compassionate, authentic, and mercy-filled Christ. So that the Christ within us can flourish.

In Mark’s Gospel Jesus says it this way, “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?” The salt of God’s judgment is good. It may be severe at times and painful and result in some or much suffering, but it will not lose its saltiness. Then Jesus says, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” God’s judgment leads to self-judgment. And when we come to the place in our journey when we are able to judge our lives by the standard of the Christ whose priority is to care for and seek justice for all God’s little ones, then we will truly be at peace – with God, with each other, with God’s creation, and with ourselves.

Our good God, may we be open to whatever it is you want to teach us and however you want to grow us into the Christ image that we might share his love and compassion, especially for those who have had a difficult time of it in life. Give us the wisdom, honesty, and humility to judge ourselves that we might become the persons you have created us to be.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

A Different Kind of Wisdom (A sermon from Mark 9:30-37 and James 3:13-18)

On his journey to Jerusalem with his disciples Jesus makes three announcements of how he will be rejected, suffer, and be killed by the powers that be. And all three times the disciples do not hear what Jesus is quite plainly telling them. Last week’s Gospel text dealt with the first announcement. Today's text deals with the second announcement. And once again, as with the first announcement, the disciples are preoccupied with position and power and personal greatness. When Jesus speaks of his suffering and death, Mark says of the disciples, “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask.” The reason they didn’t understand is because they were not ready to hear. On the way to Capernaum in route to Jerusalem where Jesus would meet his fate, the disciples argued with one another regarding who was the greatest among them. They were preoccupied with thoughts of greatness.

So Jesus sits down, calls the twelve to gather round, and he says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” I suppose one could still read this with thoughts of greatness, and simply turn this around into a different kind of strategy for achieving greatness. This would be easy for us to do, because this is how we are conditioned to think in our culture. And we are no different than the twelve. It would be easy for us to misunderstand Jesus here and think Jesus is showing us how we can achieve personal greatness. We become great by becoming the servant of all. So we turn greatness into a prize – a reward for being the best servant. Certainly, it would be much better to serve others as the way to greatness, rather than exercising power over others, but it still misses the point. It misses the point because it does not change one’s fundamental attitude toward personal greatness. One might still take pride in being a better servant than others. What Jesus is saying is that the kingdom of God is not about personal greatest at all. It’s not about crossing the finish line ahead of everyone else to the applause of God. It’s not about winning. In this way the kingdom of God is very different than human systems of worthiness.

Author Robert Roberts tells about a fourth grade class that played “balloon stomp.” In “balloon stomp” a balloon is tied to every child’s leg, and the object of the game is to pop everyone else’s balloon while protecting your own. The last person with an intact balloon wins. It’s a game rooted in the philosophy of “survival of the fittest.” In this particular fourth grade class balloons were relentlessly targeted and destroyed. A few of the less aggressive children hung shyly on the sidelines and, of course, their balloons were among the first to go. The game was over in a matter of seconds. The winner, the one kid whose balloon was still intact was the most disliked kid in the room. 

But then, says Roberts, a second class was brought into the room to play, only this time it was a class of mentally challenged children. They too were each given a balloon. They were given the same instructions as the other group, and the same signal to begin the game. Well, the instructions were given too quickly to be understood completely. So, in all the confusion, the one idea that stuck was that the balloons were supposed to be popped. But instead of fighting each other off, these kids got the idea that they were supposed to help each other pop their balloons. So they formed a kind of balloon co-op. One little girl knelt down and held her balloon carefully in place while a little boy stomped it flat. Then he knelt down and held his balloon still for her to stomp. On and on it went, all the children helping one another, and when the last balloon was popped, everybody cheered. No one lost. No one was put out of the game. They all crossed the finish line together. They were all winners. That sisters and brothers is a picture of the kingdom of God.

After Jesus instructs them to forget about personal greatness and tries to focus their attention on serving all people, he gives them a live image of just what it means to serve all people. Jesus doesn’t just tell them just to be servants. He doesn’t give them a choice regarding who they will serve. He instructs them to be servants of all. And to make his point he takes a little child in his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” That’s true because God, Jesus, and the little child – or the ones the little child represents – are one. They are inseparably connected and united. To welcome one is to welcome all. To welcome the little child is to welcome Jesus and to welcome God.

We can easily miss the meaning and significance of this, because of the differences in the way many of us regard little children, and the way the world of Jesus and Mark regarded little children. Scholars have pointed out that in the Greco-Roman world of that day and time children had no legal rights and were generally held in low esteem. I’m sure parents loved their children as parents loved their children today, but children occupied an inferior place in society unlike today. There were no laws that protected them. They were the property of their parents. So when Jesus instructs the disciples to welcome the little children the symbolism is very clear. He is telling them to welcome and receive the lowest and the least, the weakest and most vulnerable among them.

Now, when I say “lowest and least” I am referencing the wisdom and outlook of the world, not God. Our world, our culture, the society in which we live devises a kind of pecking order. But in God’s world, God’s realm there is no stratification of society. There is no one who is “lowest and least” in God’s kingdom. All are God’s children. All are loved with an eternal love. But in our society, we have folks who are vulnerable. We have folks whom society disregards and marginalizes and oppresses. And these are the very ones Jesus takes in his arms and on whom he pronounces special blessing. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” says Jesus. Luke’s version simply says, “Blessed are the poor.” Blessed are those who are economically poor.” And “Blessed are those who are beaten down in spirit.” The very ones our society would denounce and reject, God blesses and welcomes with loving arms.

In one of the beginning scenes in the movie Forrest Gump Forest is mistreated when he gets on the school bus. Forest is wearing braces on his legs and he is different, and none of the kids want to give him a seat. As he starts toward a seat the kid next to the empty one says, “Seat’s taken.” Then he starts toward another, and the kid there says, “Taken.” Still another says, “Can’t sit here.” But then a little cute blond girl speaks up, “You can sit here if you want.” Reflecting later on this experience Forrest says, “You know, it’s funny what a young man recollects; I don’t remember when I was born. I don’t recall what I got for my first Christmas, and I don’t remember when I went on my first outdoor picnic. But I do remember when I heard the sweetest voice in the whole wide world.” Forrest says, “I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life. She was like an angel.”

As the story unfolds, however, the little girl whose name is Jenny always seems to be searching for something, but never finding—always turning away and leaving the one who loves her unconditionally. But in that scene on the bus, where she defies the pecking order of her contemporaries and welcomes Forest as a friend, she acts as God’s angel, God’s messenger. She is Jesus embracing the little child.

Jesus modeled and taught the wisdom of God, which is very different than the wisdom of the world. Jesus embodied and incarnated the wisdom of God. In the little epistle of James, the writer contrasts the wisdom of the world with the wisdom of God. James says that the wisdom of the world is marked by envy and selfish ambition. When the disciples were caught arguing about personal greatness they were reflecting the wisdom of the world. In the system of worldly wisdom some are regarded as worthy, others are deemed as unworthy. It sows disorder and injustice of all kinds. But the wisdom that comes from God, says James, is gentle and full of mercy, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. It’s sows peace and reaps a harvest of righteousness, where all that is done is good, right, just, and loving.

L. Gregory Jones was dean of Duke University Divinity School when he shared an  amazing story about Maggie in the Christian Century. Maggie’s story begins with the civil war in Burundi, when the Hutu militia came to her Tutsi community and massacred most of her extended family and many of her friends. She escaped with her seven adopted Hutu and Tutsi children, finding refuge with Hutus in the compound of the Catholic Bishop. Then a group of Tutsis came to the compound to kill the Hutus there. Because she was a Tutsi, she was spared, but as punishment for her adoption of Hutu children they stripped her, tied her up, and forced her to watch the massacre of 72 people. Eventually, she found her seven adopted children hiding in the church sacristy.

I can’t even bring myself to imagine going through such an ordeal. And I can’t  imagine how I would cope with such a horrorific experience. Maggie coped by becoming an agent of change. She decided that she would rebuild her village as a place of peace. Even though she had never married, she adopted 25 more children, paying a significant price to the militia for their freedom. She built huts for the children, developed a health clinic and a school, set up microfinance initiatives and instituted business training in hairdressing, auto mechanics and other vocations. She taught sustainable agriculture. She also built a swimming pool and a film theater. The swimming pool was constructed on the site of tunnels that had served as a mass grave for casualties in the war. She says that she wants those waters to cleanse the children’s imagination of the violence and immerse them in an alternative, joy-filled imagination. The film theater, she says, reminds the children that life is meant to be enjoyed, not merely endured, and that they are not simply victims of wars, but human beings with dignity. Maggie even found funding for “Hollywood-style” theater seats.

On one occasion, rebel soldiers held the theater hostage. They demanded payment, or they would destroy the theater. Maggie didn’t have the money to pay them, so she invited them to watch some movies instead. The rebels decided to watch the movies, instead of destroying the theater.

The town has a hospital and a nursing school—and a morgue. The morgue is important to Maggie because she believes that one teaches people how to live, in part, by taking care of those who have died. Maggie draws upon the power and grace of God to foster reconciliation and create new hope and bring life out of death. This little village is called Maison Shalom (meaning House of Peace) and over 30,000 children have benefited from it. Some of the first children there have went on to become teachers in the schools and community leaders. The huts are set up so the older children can become the caregivers for younger children. Maggie tells people that Love made her an inventor.

Dr. Jones’ learned of Maggie’s story from colleagues who had visited the House of Peace. Those who told him about Maggie, also told him about Maggie’s driver, who first came to the House of Peace to kill Maggie. But Maggie somehow managed to talk him out of it, and convinced him that if he killed her, he would never be happy living in the bush and being defined by hatred and violence. So instead, she invited him to come and live in her community – to be her driver, and to help care for the children. And so he did.

Maggie, just like Jesus, is an incarnation of the wisdom of God. It’s wisdom that is pure and peaceable, full of mercy and good fruits. It turns the common, conventional wisdom of the world upside down. Alan Culpepper calls the teaching and actions of Jesus reflected in Mark 9 “revolutionary.” We could say the same thing about the life and work of Maggie, who created a community pervaded by love and service to all. I wonder to what degree this could be said about us? I can’t answer for you, but I know I spend too many days trying to cross the finish line first, and not enough days being the servant of all. I too often live by the wisdom of the world, rather than the wisdom of God.

O God, help us to resist and defy the wisdom of the world, and to be filled with your wisdom which is pure, gentle, full of mercy and all manner of good works. Help us to change – to let go of any need or desire for personal greatness, and find joy and peace and hope in being a servant of all

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Finding our true selves (Mark 8:27-38)

The beauty and power of sacred texts is that sacred texts can speak to us on different levels and have multiple meanings. I’m sure you have experienced this if you read the Bible devotionally. You may read a text today and find that a particular way of seeing (understanding, interpreting, appropriating) that text helps you in a particular way. Three years from now, you may read that text again, and discover something very different in the text that is a source of help to you at that point in your journey.

On one level this is a text that demonstrates how easy it is for us to misunderstand God’s will because we are so influenced by “group think.” This is true of all of us in varying degrees, of course. We can be blinded to what is good and true by popular cultural, political, and religious influences. Just before this passage (a couple of paragraphs back) in the story Jesus warns the disciples, telling them to “Watch out – beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” But the disciples don’t get what Jesus is saying. Jesus rebukes them saying, “Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?” Then, in the very next passage Jesus restores sight to a blind man in stages. At first the man just sees images when Jesus touches him. Then, when Jesus touches him again, he is able to see more clearly. That story is really a parable of how we come to see. It’s a process. The passage today is a story of the disciples thinking they see, but not really seeing at all. And it’s an example of how we can use the same words, employ the same language, but mean radically different things.

Peter acts as the mouthpiece for the group. He’s not offering an independent assessment. He is voicing the belief and perspective of the group. When Jesus asks them, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter speaks on all their behalf when he says, “You are the Messiah.” But then when Jesus tells them that as the Messiah he will be rejected and suffer and be killed by those in power, Peter, again acting on behalf of the group, rebukes Jesus. That’s not in their plan. Jesus, in turn, rebukes them, saying “Get behind me, Satan.” Jesus viewed the rebuke by the disciples as a temptation to  step off the path that is clearly God’s will for him to follow. Do you see what’s going on here? Jesus’ understanding of his role as Messiah was very different from what the disciples believed and what they perceived to be the work of the MessiahThroughout the course of my Christian journey, I have always claimed Jesus as Savior, but what I mean now when I confess Jesus as my Savior is very different than what I meant years ago when I was beginning my ministry. I use the same language, but I mean different things.

Many of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries, like his disciples, thought of their Messiah in narrow, tribalistic, and nationalistic ways. Somewhat similar to the way a number of Christians do today. They believed the Messiah would deliver his people, the Jewish people, from the Gentile powers that held them captive, and he would effect this deliverance in a forceful, even violent manner. Some thought he would do this through conventional means. Others thought he would do it through a supernatural intervention of power. There were early Christians who carried over this same belief into their Christianity. In the book of Revelation, which is a book filled with apocalyptic symbols and images, which some of you are reading with Dr. Bailey on Wednesday mornings, Jesus returns as a general riding a white horse leading forth the armies of heaven. The writer says that “from his mouth goes out a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God.” There is so much carnage that the vultures and birds of prey have a feast. An angel says to the birds, “Come, gather for the great supper of God, to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of the mighty, the flesh of horses and their riders – flesh of all, both free and slave, both small and great.”

How different is the portrait of Jesus in the Gospels from that portrait in Revelation 19? The Supper that Jesus shares with others in the Gospels is the opposite of the Supper in Rev. 19, except in one way – there is no distinction of persons. But in the Gospels all persons are recipients of grace and acceptance, not fury and condemnation. Jesus doesn’t wield a sword against his enemies. Rather, he models and teaches his disciples to love their enemies, to pray for them and do them no harm. He doesn’t ride into Jerusalem on a white horse to do battle with the Romans. Rather, he rides a young donkey staging a peace march in protest of all the violence and death with which the powers that be ravage the world. Jesus, in the Gospels, clearly does not come to rule the world with a rod of iron and a heavy hand, but to serve the world as God’s servant.

Three times in the Gospel of Mark  (this is true in Luke and Matthew as well) Jesus announces that he will be rejected, suffer, and be killed by those in power. And all three times his disciples do not hear him, demonstrating that we hear what we want to hear. After the second announcement the disciples get into an argument about who is going to be the greatest, who will wield the most authority in God’s kingdom. After the third announcement, two of the disciples ask Jesus if they can have seats of power as his top two power brokers seated at his right and left when he takes the throne. Jesus tells them that the nations of the world appoint rulers who lord it over them, and then he says, “But not so among you.” Jesus tells them that they are to be servants of all people, just like himself, the Son of Man, the human one, who was sent by God not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life up for the redemption and liberation of all.” How could they be so blind and deaf? Jesus wonders that too. Time and again he says, “How is that you have no faith? How do you not see or hear?” How could they not get it? Well, how is it that so many of us still don’t get it. I can’t make any kind of judgment or assessment about Christians in other countries, but here in America, it seems to me that the majority of Christians are drawn more to the image of Jesus in Revelation 19 than they are to the Jesus of the Gospels who is the servant of all. It seems to me that most American Christians want very little to do with a Messiah who is a humble, courageous peace-maker. They want a Messiah who will rattle some cages, break some bones, and spew out fury and wrath. They don’t want forgiveness and reconciliation. They want vengeance and retribution. They don’t want a Messiah who welcomes all to the table in mercy and grace. They want a Messiah who excludes forever those who are different than they are. We are just the like the disciples in the Gospels. We still don’t get it.

Here is a question. Don’t answer to me. Answer to yourself. Be honest. Are you drawn more to the image of Jesus as a warrior and vengeful Messiah or the suffering servant Messiah? How you honestly answer that question should tell you much about where you are in your own spiritual and moral development. It’s not difficult to understand why so many want a Revelation 19 Messiah is it? If we follow the Suffering Servant Jesus of the Gospels, then we will have to be the servant of all people too, even those we don’t like. And we may even have to suffer for the cause. This Gospel, Mark’s Gospel was written in a time of great trial and suffering. The consensus of mainline scholarship places the date of this Gospel either just before, during, or after the Roman war against the Jews and the destruction of Jerusalem. The Romans would have made no distinction between Jewish followers of Jesus and Jews who were not. And any Roman who confessed Jesus as Lord would have been considered disloyal to Rome, where Caesar is Lord. All of Mark’s original readers faced suffering and death as a real possibility, or perhaps in many cases, a real probability.

We American Christians don’t know diddly about persecution. None of us are persecuted. In fact, in many American communities, like Frankfort, we are the majority of the population. There are churches of every kind on every corner. The sad thing is that there are some Christians who think they are being persecuted. The reason they think they are being persecuted is because more recent court rulings have prevented them from imposing their religious beliefs and practices on the rest of society. Listen sisters and brothers, being prohibited from imposing one’s faith and morals on others is not suffering for Jesus. It is, however, a safeguard for our democracy, but I won’t go there.

After Jesus speaks of his suffering and death, he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.” He goes on to talk about losing one’s life in order to find one’s life. Originally, as I have pointed out, this was about persecution, suffering, and counting the cost. And as I also said the beauty and power of sacred texts is that they speak to us on different levels, in different contexts, in different ways. Wherever we find ourselves today, if we are to follow Jesus there is a “self” that we all must let go of and a “cross” we all must bear.

The “self” that we must deny or relinquish is the false self, and the “cross” we must take up is the path that will free us from the false self. Some of the great spiritual writers of our time have spoken and written rather extensively about the false self. Let me offer you a layman’s explanation. The false self is the self that we have been told we are by others, and that many of us actually believe we are. The others include parents, peers, teachers, all the people who have had some influence in our lives. This includes cultural images and stereotypes. First and foremost, the false self is the self operating out of the ego. It’s the self that craves recognition and acclamation. It’s the self that craves status and the applause of others. It’s the self that seeks glory and honor, power and position, prominence and place. It’s the self that gets easily offended and wants retribution rather than forgiveness. It’s the self that wants to always be right and be in control. It’s the self that is addicted to negative thinking and is easily swayed by “group think.” It’s the self that is attached to the opinions of others and is “up” or “down” depending on what other people say. It’s the self that compares itself to others and always needs to win. It’s the shallow self, the superficial self, the ego self, the little self. If we are going to follow Jesus, this “little, false self” has to go.

Sue Monk Kid tells about the time she slipped into her young daughter’s room at night to make sure she was covered, because she had a habit of kicking her covers off. She found her blanket at the foot of the bed. As she drew the blanket up around her, she noticed that her daughter was clutching a half-eaten lollipop – one that her grandmother had given her. It was one of those gigantic all day suckers that had turned into a two day affair. Now it had made a sticky purple splotch on her pillowcase and a few strands of hair were stuck to it. She managed to pry it out of her daughter’s hand and then tossed it in the trash. The next morning her daughter confronted her in a blaze of indignation. She screamed, “But it was mine, and I wasn’t ready to throw it away.”

All the stuff of our false selves is our stuff. It’s mine and it’s yours. We have picked up this stuff, we have picked up these thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, values, habits, patterns, attachments, and addictions from many people and places and made them ours. But that’s not who we really are. Buried beneath and behind all the stuff, all these layers of the false self is the true self. The true self is the divine self, the Christ self, the self I am in God. That’s who we really are. The task we have as followers of Jesus is to shed all the layers of the false self that hides and conceals the true self, the Christ self. Richard Rohr likes to say that we grow more through subtraction than addition.

There was once a country boy who had a great talent for carving beautiful dogs out of wood. Every day he sat on his porch whittling, working away, letting the shavings fall all around him. One day a visitor, greatly impressed at his work, asked him the secret of his art. He said, “I just take a block of wood and whittle off the parts that don’t look like a dog.”

Listen carefully sisters and brothers. We don’t acquire the true self. We find the true self by losing the false self. We whittle away, strip away the layers of our false self so that the true self we already are can emerge. We don’t acquire God’s Spirit. We don’t earn God’s Spirit. God’s Spirit is not a reward for being good or believing the right things. God’s Spirit is already in us and with us, essential to our very existence. Our task, our part is to relinquish, to uncover, expose, and let go of these layers of the false self, so the Spirit of Christ can love and work through us. So that our true self in Christ can flourish. Following Jesus is a journey of discovery and recovery. It’s a stripping away of all the layers pervaded by the ego, so the love, generosity, humility, honesty, authenticity, courage, grace and goodness of the true self, the Christ self can abound and thrive.

I believe the Christ is saying to us today, “If you want to be my disciple, if you want to be my follower, then you must become aware of, be willing to struggle with, and let go of the false self, so that you can become what you are, so that the Christ self can emerge.” Now the question is: Am I willing to be honest about my ego? Am I willing to open my spiritual eyes and see all the stuff that prevents the Christ self from emerging fully in me and being expressed through me? Am I willing to do the hard work, and enter into the struggle to be free of all that the false self feeds on and craves? Am I willing to stay the course and keep whittling away until the Christ that is in me shines through?

Our good God, give us eyes to see and ears to hear. Give us the courage and will to honestly acknowledge all the ways our false selves keep our true selves from shining through. May your love by our strength and guiding light. Amen.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Making Course Corrections (a sermon from Mark 7:24-30)

Well, let’s go ahead and admit it. This is a hard passage to hear. It’s a hard passage to hear because Jesus treats this non-Jewish woman so harshly. Mark says she was of Syrophoenician origin. Matthew calls her a Canaanite. But what both agree on is that she is a Gentile, a non-Jew. The hard thing about this story is that in Jesus’ initial response to this Gentile woman, he treats her with a harshness and a disdain that is so unlike the Jesus we read about in so many of the other Gospel stories. In story after story Jesus extends welcome and hospitality to all people, tax collectors and prostitutes, poor and wealthy, unreligious and religious, Samaritans and Gentiles.

In an attempt to lessen the impact of Jesus’ words it has been pointed out by some that “dogs” were pets and members of the family as they are today. And while that’s true, it’s fairly obvious Jesus does not use the word here in a positive sense. And the fact is, most often when this word in used in ancient Jewish texts it is used in a derogatory way. For example, in Matt. 7:6 Jesus says, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, do not throw your pearls before swine.”

It’s important to keep in mind that this is not Jesus’ first encounter with non-Jews, according to Mark. In chapter 5 Jesus enters Gentile territory and is confronted by a Gentile, a non-Jew, whom Mark says is possessed by an “unclean spirit.” He lives among the tombs and is clearly deeply disturbed and mentally ill. Jesus sets him free and tells him to spread the good news of his liberation among his people. Certainly Jesus has no racial bias against Gentiles. So what’s going on here? Why does Jesus seem so unkind and ungracious in his initial response to this non-Jewish woman who seeks help for her daughter?

One factor to consider is why Jesus is in this predominantly Gentile region in the first place. In the storyline this is right after a long period of ministry and Jesus’ encounter with the Jewish leaders. The fairly clear implication in the text is that Jesus needed to get away – to be in solitude, to be alone with God. Mark says “he went away” to the region of Tyre. Went away from what? He went away from where his primary ministry and mission was centered. He went away from the work and the crowd and his adversaries. Mark says, “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” Apparently that included the twelve as well, his most trusted associates. I suspect Jesus was exhausted. I suspect he desperately needed quiet and rest and silence. Jesus knows that it just takes one healing and he will be deluged with the sick and hurting, and he is not ready for that.

Another thing to consider is that Jesus’ primary mission was to Israel, his own people. That is not to say that Jesus didn’t care for those outside of Israel. But he knew that it was Israel’s mission to take the good news to the non-Jewish world. His people, however, were in no spiritual shape to do that work. He knew that it was God’s intent that the world be blessed through the seed of Abraham, but the seed of Abraham was not in a healthy or good spiritual place where they could fulfil that mission. Jesus was first and foremost a Jewish reformer and prophet to his own people. And what is implicit in Mark, is made explicit in Matthew. In Matthew’s version Jesus says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” His first and primary calling was to ready Israel, to prepare his people to accept and own their calling to live out the kingdom of God on earth and share that good news with the rest of the world.

A third factor, which I was unaware of until I dug a little deeper this past week is this. The region of Tyre where Jesus retreated to was known for its socio-economic injustice. The wealthy Gentiles, the Greeks and Romans in the coastal cities depended on produce brought from Upper Galilee. The Jews in upper Galilee that provided that produce were often exploited and taken advantage of. (We know how this works in our time don’t we? Consider the sweat shops in other parts of the world that make the products we buy where the workers are working for a dollar a day in terrible conditions.) Well, the Jews had no way to protest such injustice. These Jews were basically the slaves of Rome. They were not Roman citizens. Jesus would have been aware of this injustice and that may have been weighing heavily upon him as he visits this region.

I think we can learn a couple of very important lessons in this story from both the woman and Jesus. This is the only story I can think of in the Gospels where another person outwits Jesus. In some stories in the Gospels Jesus outwits his opponents with clever responses. Some adversary of Jesus comes with a question to trap Jesus into saying something that can be used against him, and Jesus always ends up baffling and outwitting his opponent and winning the day. This woman is not, of course, Jesus’ opponent, but she is intrusive and she is part of a society that has oppressed Jesus’ own people. She comes begging for his help and breaks into his life abruptly, putting this demand on him when he so greatly needs rest and renewal. Jesus responds in an uncharacteristic manner by saying, “Let the children be fed first [obviously referring to his own people], for it is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” The “dogs” of course being a reference not to this woman in particular, but her people in general who were exploiting his people and treating his people like “dogs.

This woman does not take personal offense at Jesus’ words. This woman has one thing, and one thing only on her mind – getting help for her sick, mentally tormented daughter. That’s her determined purpose. And she is not to be deterred. “Sir,” she says, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She is desperate, and she is clever. She gets the best of Jesus. And Jesus says, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”

I am reminded of a story about Alexander Solzhenitsyn when he was in the Gulag, the Russian forced labor camp. All they did was shovel. He was exhausted from shoveling. One day, he just quit. Life wasn’t worth it anymore. He tossed aside his shovel and sat down on a rock with his head between his knees. He had seen others who quit and witnessed a guard taking the shovel and beating to death the one who cast it aside. He felt someone come over next to him and braced himself for the pain. He was ready to die. But it was a fellow prisoner. An old man. He took a stick and drew in the sand in front of Solzhenitsyn’s face the sign of the cross. Solzhenitsyn found strength in the cross. He understood, so he got up and shoveled.

Sometimes sisters and brothers, it just doesn’t pay to get angry or offended or give up. It may be your life on the line or your family or the life of someone you deeply care about. What is needed at that moment is to get up and shovel – to press on. Maybe it’s your own life hanging in the balance. Maybe you are the one who needs help, and unless you admit your need for help and seek that help, in an AA group or from some other person or community, you will keep hurting yourself and others.  

That’s something I learn from this woman in our story –determination and persistence. The importance of not giving up. But I also learn something from Jesus. Jesus is perhaps feeling the weight and burden of his people and is mentally, physically, and spiritual drained. This Greek woman intrudes into his space and Jesus reacts in a negative way. But when she meets his rejection with wit and wisdom, Jesus is quick to acknowledge her and reward her. He immediately recognizes her faith and courage, and he rewards her, knowing full well he will not get a break from the crowds. Jesus changes course. “The demon has left your daughter,” he says to the woman. Whatever physical or mental demon plagued her daughter, Jesus sets her free, and Jesus is now prepared to pay the price for granting that freedom.

When I look at the story this way, I don’t see in this story so much a flawed Jesus, as I see a spiritually mature Jesus. Jesus is human, and humanity comes with flaws. He is not perfect. But Jesus is called and knows he’s called to be God’s human agent for mercy and justice in the world. Jesus is filled with the Spirit of God. So even at his worst moment, when he is mentally, physically, and spiritually exhausted, he is quick to recognize his fault and make the correction.

Being spiritually mature does not mean we stop sinning. It doesn’t mean we never struggle anymore with a negative attitude. It doesn’t mean we completely overcome our addiction or addictions and that we never fall back and regress. It doesn’t mean we never again become attached to something that pulls us down or that we never again lose our temper or are quick to react. Being spiritually mature doesn’t mean that we will never say anything hurtful or negative again. We will never be perfect. You may want to disagree with me here, and that’s certainly okay, but I personally don’t believe we will ever be perfect, ever – even in the world to come. The word that is often translated perfect in the Greek New Testament, does not mean faultless or sinless. It means complete or mature. The word actually conveys a sense of fullness, not flawlessness. I don’t think we will ever be perfect, but what I do believe is that the more spiritually full, or complete, or mature we become, the quicker we are to admit our failures and faults, and make the necessary change and course correction.

The late Fred Craddock tells about running into a person who was a member of one of the churches in the Midwest that he got to know when he taught and ministered there. A grumpy sort, says Craddock, who was very controlling. Dr. Craddock gave Bible studies and preached in his church a number of times. Fred says that this man would act like he didn’t know much, that he was in the background, but he really knew everything and had his hand in everything and wanted to control everything as much as he could. He wanted to set the agenda.

Fred noticed that his friend looked different; he had a gleam in his eye, that he had never seen before. So he asked him how he was doing and his friend said, “Better than I’ve ever been.” Fred asked about the church and he said, “We’re in better shape spiritually and in every way than we’ve been in my memory.” Fred had never heard this man talk this way about his church. So Fred asked about their minister and he said, “We have a woman.” He never did give her name, but said, “We have a woman.” Then he said, “I voted against her, and all my family voted against her, but we got outnumbered.” Then he paused and said, “I was wrong. I was wrong in my estimation of women.” And then he looked at Fred and said, “Brother Fred, if I was wrong about her, I was probably wrong about a lot of other stuff too.”

There are different ways we can describe what happened in this man’s life. We could say that he finally heard the gospel. We could say that he had a born again kind of experience. And we could say that he finally grew up. There can be very little spiritual growth and moral development in our lives, until we are willing to see our faults, admit our mistakes, own our sins, confess when we are wrong, ask forgiveness and grant forgiveness, and make the necessary course corrections in our life. Jesus did it. We can too.

O God, may we be filled with the Spirit of Jesus. Not a spirit of perfection. But a spirit willing to accept and learn from correction. Help us to see more clearly, so we can adjust course more readily. And give us strength and endurance, so that we may stay the course that leads to life. Amen.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Getting to the Heart of the Matter (A sermon from Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23)

It is clear, I think, that this Gospel text is a denouncement by Jesus of the way many Jewish religious leaders in his day used their religious faith in harmful, life-diminishing ways. That much is obvious.

However, this is a text, in my judgment, that has been too often misread and misapplied. Some Christians use this text to draw, in my opinion, an inappropriate distinction between scripture and tradition. They generally lock on to verse 8 where Jesus is purported as saying, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” They argue that human tradition is bad, while the commandment of God, which they tend to identify as scripture as a whole is good. So they make this rigid distinction between tradition and scripture

The problem with that explanation is that the mention of “human tradition” in verse 8 is not a reference to all tradition. It’s a reference to the particular way these Jewish leaders were interpreting and applying that tradition. Scripture itself is part of that tradition. The Bible doesn’t stand apart from, separate from Christian tradition. It is part of that tradition. An important part, for sure, but a part nonetheless. Big difference.

In biblical usage, the word “tradition” simply means “that which is handed on.” In first Corinthians 15 Paul says that the death and resurrection of Christ is part of the tradition that was handed on to him, which he passed on to the Corinthians. Paul tells the church at Thessalonica to hold fast to the Christian traditions which he taught them. Our Bible is part of the Christian tradition. It is not separate from it.

The contrast in this text in Mark 7 is not between scripture and tradition. Scripture is a part of the tradition. The contrast here is between a healthy, liberating use of the tradition and an unhealthy, harmful use of the tradition. Our traditions are intended to be a means by which we do the will of God, but unfortunately they can devolve into a means by which we subvert the will of God. That’s what was going in this passage. The Jewish leaders were using their tradition in a negative way to actually subvert the will of God.

Sometimes we practice our Christian traditions in ways that are not necessarily harmful or helpful. They are just mechanical and don’t really impact us or influence on a deeper level. There was once a Chinese holy man who was very poor and lived in a remote part of China.  As poor as he was, he understood that worship involves some sacrifice on our part. Food was his scarcest commodity, so every day before his quiet time of prayer and meditation he put a dish of butter up on the windowsill as an offering to God. One day his cat came in and ate the butter. To remedy this, he began to tie the cat to the bedpost each day before his time of worship. In time this man was so revered for his piety that others joined him as disciples and worshiped as he worshipped. Generations later, long after the holy man was dead, his followers placed an offering of butter on the windowsill during their time of worship. And furthermore, each one had a cat and tied the cat to the bedpost during their time of worship. It was all part of the tradition. We can become so glued to the tradition, that the tradition loses its meaning and impact. It’s not really hurtful or harmful, but it’s not all that helpful or beneficial either. However, the mere mechanical observance of a second-hand Christian tradition may actually insulate us and prevent us from having any authentic personal experience of God ourselves. Christian tradition was never intended to be static, but dynamic, and always evolving.

Sometimes the way we use our Christian tradition can be destructive or even deadly. Charles Kimbell, was at one time and maybe still is, a professor of religion at Wake Forrest University.  He wrote a book several years ago entitled, When Religion Becomes Evil. In his opening paragraph he says, “Religion is arguably the most powerful and pervasive force on earth. Throughout history religious ideas and commitments have inspired individuals and communities of faith to transcend narrow self-interest in pursuit of higher values and truths.  The record of history shows that noble acts of love, self-sacrifice, and service to others are frequently rooted in deeply held religious worldviews.” That’s true isn’t it? We have seen many examples of this in history. The civil rights movement led by Dr. King was born out of a transformative Christian faith that drew upon our rich Christian tradition of restorative (social) justice and activism.

But Kimbell goes on to say, “At the same time, history clearly shows that religion has often been linked directly to the worst examples of human behavior. It is somewhat trite, but nevertheless true to say that more wars have been waged, more people killed, and these days more evil perpetrated in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history." And that is equally true isn’t it? Our religious traditions can be the best thing in the world or the worst thing in the world.

In our text today the Jewish leaders are upset with Jesus and his disciples because they observe that Jesus’ disciples were not keeping the “tradition of the elders.” In particular, they mention the traditions pertaining to eating food from the market and the washing of hands. In their view, the failure of Jesus and his followers to observe these traditions defiled them. It made them unholy or sinful. In response to their judgment, Jesus offers a judgment of his own. He draws upon a passage in the book of Isaiah which talks about the hearts of God’s worshipers being far removed from God and about worshiping God in vain. He applies that to his critics here.

So assuming that Jesus is right in his assessment of the Jewish leaders, here we might ask: So why is the worship of these Jewish leaders vain? Why is their worship empty and futile? Why does their worship express how far or distant their hearts are from God? It is this: These religious leaders were using their religious tradition in ways that were opposite of what God intended. They were using their tradition – their scriptures, their interpretations, their laws and customs to regulate access to God. They set themselves up as gatekeepers and they used their tradition to monitor and control access to God. They made themselves judges of what was holy and unholy, acceptable and unacceptable, righteous and sinful, pure and defiled. And you know as well as I do that this same use of religious tradition abounds today in any number of Christian contexts.

I love the story that the late Fred Craddock tells about the time he and his wife attended a victory party after a University of Georgia football game. They didn’t know anyone there except the couple with whom they were in attendance. It was held in a beautiful home in a suburb of Atlanta – restored Victorian, high ceilings, adorned with expensive furnishings. A lot of people were there, says Fred, maybe thirty-five or so, mostly in their thirties, forties, and early fifties. They were all decked out in clothing that said, “How about them Dawgs?”

There was an attractive woman present – a little too bejeweled and overdressed according to Fred. And just as Fred and his wife were getting to know folks and getting into the spirit of the party, this woman suddenly rang out with, “I think we should all sing the Doxology.” And before they could even vote says Fred, she started in. She and a handful of her friends sang with gusto the doxology at a Georgia football victory party. Fred says some stood around and counted their shoelaces. Some tried to find a place to set their drinks down. Fred said it was very awkward time.

When they finished singing the woman said, “You can talk all you want about the running of Herschel Walker, but it was Jesus that gave us the victory.” Someone spoke up, “You really believe that?” She said, “Of course I do. Jesus said, ‘Whatever you ask, ask for in my name, and I’ll give it to you.’ So I said, ‘Jesus, I want to win more than anything in the world,’ and we won. I’m not ashamed to say that it’s because of Jesus. I’m not ashamed of the gospel.” And for an exclamation point she added, “I’m not ashamed to just say it anywhere, because Jesus told us to shout it from the housetops.” You to have admit, that’s an innovative use of Christian tradition don’t you think?

Fred along with some of the others retreated to the kitchen and tried to refocus on the game. They started to relive and talk about the game. When the hostess came into the kitchen carrying a plate of little sandwiches, things got quiet for few moments. Then one of the men said to Fred, “Do you think that woman was drunk?” Fred said, “Well, I don’t know. We just moved to Georgia last year. I was glad Georgia won, but I’m not feverish about it.” The hostess overheard this conversation and broke in and said, “If she doesn’t shut her blankety mouth, she’s going to ruin my party.” Fred said that it wasn’t like him to speak up, but he asked the hostess, “Are you a Christian?” She said, “Yes, but I don’t believe in just shouting it everywhere.” I get that, don’t you? I have to admit I get a bit irritated when I see a Quarterback giving God the glory after he throws a touchdown pass. I wonder if he is going to be giving God the glory on their next possession when he gets sacked for a fifteen yard loss and can barely lift himself up after a big old defensive lineman had just squished him on the turf?

We tend to be amused at such abuse and misuse of the Christian tradition, but we do the same thing. We just do it in more sophisticated and subtle ways. We use our tradition to support and defend our biases. We use our tradition to manage God and others. We use our tradition to determine who is saved or unsaved, who is in or out, who is excluded or included. We use our tradition to determine who is blessed and who is cursed. We use our tradition in ways that make us judges over God and over others. We have all done it, but hopefully we don’t do it now as much as we used to.

How we use our tradition really comes down to what is in our hearts. What is in our hearts is what matters. It’s what determines whether our faith, our tradition is a transforming reality in our lives, or a means we use to defend our biases, cater to our ego, and control God and others.

Obviously, because of the slant of our text, Jesus emphasizes the injustice and evil that finds its source in our hearts. . . . But the same can be said of that which is good, just, kind, gracious, and loving. Good works begin with a good heart. In the little parable of the trees Jesus tells, the tree represents the heart. A good tree produces good fruit; a bad tree produces bad fruit.

I love the story a mother tells about her three year old daughter who had this dialogue going on with her pediatrician. As the doctor is examining her ears he asks, "Will I find Big Bird in here?" The little girl says, "No." Then before examining her throat the doctor asks, "Will I find Cookie Monster in here?" Again, she says, "No." Finally, listening to her heart he asks, "Will I find Barney in here?" The little girl looks him directly in the eye and says, "No. Jesus is in my heart, Barney is on my underwear." I love the way my wife talks to our grandkids about Jesus. Whenever they do something kind or gracious or thoughtful, or when they are patient and generous and take care of one another, she tells them they are filled with Jesus. “You are filled with Jesus,” today, she says. I really like that explanation and what it teaches them about Jesus. I just wish they would be filled with Jesus a little more often.

What fills our hearts? That’s what really matters because that’s the heart of the matter. What’s in our hearts determines how we read and apply scripture and how we make use of our Christian tradition. Are we ego driven or love driven? Are we using our faith tradition to grow in love of God and love of neighbor? Or are we using it to manage God and control others? To make us look good or feel special while we treat with disdain and contempt those who believe differently, look differently, and act differently than we do? Are we using our faith tradition to value, welcome, and affirm others? Or are we using it to exclude, marginalize, and reject others? Do we use our faith tradition to claim a chosenness that others don’t have, that we reserve for ourselves and our group that breeds pride and entitlement? Or do we see in our faith tradition an unconditionally loving God who has chosen all of us, the only difference being that there are some who know it and have claimed it, while others are still unaware of how loved and chosen they are? All of this, sisters and brothers – how we imagine God, how we treat others, how much we care about what is right and good and just and loving – all of this is ultimately determined by what is in our hearts. So may our hearts be more and more filled with the love of Jesus.

Gracious God, help us to see that being Christian, living within the Christian tradition, is no automatic guarantee that we are going to be like Christ. Help us to see that we can be just like the religious leaders in our text today, and use our tradition in hurtful, selfish, controlling, and demeaning ways. Show us what is in our hearts and give us the desire, the will, and the determination, to open our hearts to your Spirit so that your love, the love of Christ, might fill us and overflow into all that we say and do, and all that we are and are becoming.