Sunday, October 28, 2018

Family-Children Dedication Sunday: Becoming Who We Are

A little boy was riding home with his parents after church. His parents and new baby brother had just been involved in a parent child dedication. He was very sad on the way home and so finally his parents asked him what was wrong. He said, “The pastor said he wanted us brought up in a Christian home, but I want to stay with you guys.” What does it mean for children to be raised, nurtured, and taught in a Christian context?

The prophet Micah said: The Lord has told you, what is good and what the Lord requires of you, namely, to do justice (justice here is not punitive or retributive justice, it’s not getting what you deserve justice. It’s restorative justice, it’s standing with and speaking up for the most vulnerable and less fortunate), and it fits hand-in-glove with the next characteristic the prophet names – to love kindness, or to love mercy. The third is to walk humbly with your God. That is what God expects, says the prophet – restorative justice, kindness, and humility. Jesus of Nazareth, modeled and taught these very qualities.

The parents involved in dedicating their children and grandchildren today, as well as our entire church family, are making a commitment today to nurture our children in the way of Christ, our Lord, which means tending to them, caring for them, and teaching them in a sway that would cultivate in them the values of prophetic justice, mercy, and humility.    

We have several families coming forward today to dedicate their children. And I am inviting grandparents to participate as well. We grandparents, as well as our entire church family have the wonderful privilege of helping to nurture these qualities in our grandchildren and our youngest participants. So grandparents, when I call out the parents and children, you are also invited to join them in the front and participate in this dedication.  

As I name the family would you please come forward and we will form a line of families across the front. And grandparents, you are invited to come forward as well. .  . . . .

Parents and grandparents, your children and grandchildren are a gift from God and you are privileged to have the most important role in imparting to your children and grandchildren the values of restorative justice, mercy, and humility. You are charged with the vocation of modeling in your own lives and instructing them in the way of Jesus of Nazareth, who is our Lord and Christ, and who taught us to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Our Lord embodied compassion and grace. He confronted the prejudice and injustice of the world. He gave himself in humble service for the good of others, even unto death.  Do you pledge to use all the resources God has given you and the ministries of the church to model, teach, and impart to your children and grandchildren the way of Jesus. If so will you respond by saying, “We will in faithfulness to Christ.”

The church, too, has been given a high calling with regard to your children and grandchildren. Paul writes to the church at Rome:  Just as each of us has one body with many members . . . so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Romans 12:4-5). We are a family of faith belonging to one another. So church, these are your children and grandchildren too.  Will you as the body of Christ assume responsibility to model before these children and their families the righteousness, mercy, and humility of Christ, and help teach them and encourage them in the love and grace of Jesus, our Lord? If so, please respond by saying, “We will in faithfulness to Christ.”

Parents and Grandparents, may God grant you, and may God grant this congregation the grace and strength to keep this covenant.

Let us pray,
Gracious God,
We are thankful for all the children you have given us as a family of faith. We are especially grateful today for all these children and their families who have made this commitment to you and to the church. We pray that all of us might remember the pledge we make today to model and teach the way of Jesus and to love the world the way he loved the world. Give all of us the strength, wisdom, faith, hope, and most of all the love we need to be faithful to this covenant we enter into today. In the name of Christ I pray. Amen.

If you have ever tried to read the Bible all the way through, then you are aware of a whole section of scripture devoted to some strange laws that governed Israel’s dietary practices. Someone has conjectured what it would be like to have parenting laws the way the Israelites had purity and food laws. Maybe it would read something like this: Of the beasts of the field, and of the fishes of the sea and of all the food that are acceptable in my sight you may eat, but not in the living room. Of the hoofed animals, broiled or ground into burgers, you may eat, but not in the living room  . . . Of the juices and other beverages, yea, even of those in sippy-cups, you may drink, but not in the living room; neither may you carry such therein. Indeed, when you reach the place where the living room floor  begins, of any food or beverage there, you may not eat, neither may you drink, for it is an abomination unto me.”

Or how about laws pertaining to dessert:
“For we judge between the plate that is unclean and the plate that is clean, saying first, if the plate is clean, then you shall have desert. But of the unclean plate the laws are these:  If you have eaten most of your meat, and two bites of your peas with each bite consisting of not less than three peas each, or in total six peas, eaten where I can see, and you have also eaten enough of your potatoes to fill two forks, both forkfuls eaten where I can see, then you shall have dessert. But if you eat a lesser number of peas, and yet eat the potatoes, you shall not have dessert; and if you eat the peas, yet leave the potatoes uneaten, you shall not have dessert, no, not even a small portion thereof. And if you try to deceive by moving the potatoes or peas around with a fork, that it may appear you have eaten what you have not, you will fall into iniquity. And I will know, and you shall have no dessert.”

Well, when it comes to rules and laws Jesus simplified things. Matthew’s Gospel reads this way in Matt. 22:34-40: When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest? Jesus said to him, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” On these two commandments – to love God with your total being and love your neighbor as yourself – which is another version of the golden rule – Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you –  on these two commandments hang everything else. These two commandments constitute the fundamental essence of what God wants in our lives.

In John 13:34-35 Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” We might ask, How is this a new commandment? It’s new in one important aspect. Jesus becomes for us the living embodiment of what love feels like and looks like. “Love others the way I have loved you,” says Jesus. Love the way I love. How did Jesus love? He loved unconditionally and inclusively. He welcomed all to the table. He even loved his enemies who wanted to kill him. The one thing that really stands out about the way Jesus loved is that he gave special attention and consideration in his love for the most vulnerable in society. He stood with and cared for the very ones that society had marginalized and rejected and excluded and judged unworthy. Today, that could be someone of a different religious faith or nationality. It could be an LGBTQ sister or brother. It could be an undocumented person. It could be someone with very different values than ourselves. Many Christians like to conveniently forget that the Good Samaritan, who Jesus made the hero in the story, was of a different religious faith and nationality than Jesus and his fellow Jews. The most important thing parents and grandparents can teach their children is to love all people, especially those that others don’t love. Jesus says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Now, in order to love others as we love yourselves, we have to love ourselves. Some of us may love ourselves too much, and not love others hardly at all. And others of us do not love ourselves, and so we are incapable of loving others. In order to express love, we have to experience love. Authentic religion in general, and authentic Christianity in particular, helps us to know God’s love through personal experience, rather than creating worthiness systems. You don’t have to believe the right things to be worthy and to be loved. You don’t have to be born into the right family to be worthy and be loved. You don’t have to be a citizen of the right country to be worthy and be loved. You don’t have to obey certain rules and laws to be worthy and be loved.

That’s not unconditional love. That’s not grace. And that’s not God. God is the God of everyone, whether they know it or not. When Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan, Jesus heard the voice of God say, “You are my beloved Son, on you my grace rests.” The voice that called Jesus beloved, that called Jesus God’s Son is the same voice that calls to each one of us and says, “You are my beloved daughter, you are my beloved son, on you my grace rests.” Authentic religion always helps us to hear that voice. You see, sisters and brothers, it’s not about believing the right doctrines or performing the right religious practices. It’s about hearing the Divine voice speak to us saying, “You are my beloved child.” When the church is really being the church, the church will help us hear that voice. When the church is really being the church, the church will help us become who we already are.

Sophie, our granddaughter, went through a stage when she was three or four, when I said, “Sophie, you’re silly,” she would say, “I’m not silly. I’m Sophie Jordan Griffith.” She knew who she was, and it had nothing to do with silly. When it comes to our true self and our identity in God, do we know who we are? Do we know that we are a child of God, called by God to reflect the image of God, called by Christ to love the way Christ loves us?

We are all loved by God and chosen by God to mirror God’s likeness in the world. We are all chosen by God to love the way Jesus loved – inclusively, unconditionally, empathetically, compassionately, and courageously. The difference between people is this: Some of us know who we are, we claim our connection to God – our union with God – and are committed to do what we can do to become who we are. Others of us have never experienced God’s love hence, we do not know who we are.

Some of us may have known once, but have forgotten. It’s easy to do. There are so many voices in our society clamoring for our attention. Sometimes when we listen to these voices that reflect our culture, we become consumed with how we appear to others and what they think of us, or what we have and don’t have, or how much status and standing we have in our community. Stuff that God doesn’t care diddly about. And we forget who we are and who we are called to be. We forget that we are called to love, and that our greatest joy in life can only be found in loving others the way God loves us.

According to a Greek legend Helen of Troy was kidnapped and whisked across the seas to a distant city where she suffered from amnesia. In time she escaped from her captors and became a prostitute on the streets in order to survive. Back in her homeland, her friends refused to give up on her. One admiring adventurer who never lost faith set out on a journey to find her and bring her back. One day as he was wandering through the streets of a strange city he came across a woman who looked strangely familiar. He inquired as to her name, and she responded with some other name. Then he asked if he could see her hands. He knew the lines of Helen’s hands. When he looked at her hands, he realized he had found her. He exclaimed joyfully, “You are Helen! You are Helen of Troy!” “Helen” she replied in a puzzling tone. But when she spoke her name, her true name, the fog began to clear and a sense of recognition registered on her face. She discovered her lost self. Immediately she said good bye to her old life to become the queen she was called to be. Are we becoming the daughters and sons of God we are called to be and already are.  

Like in the story, maybe if you speak your true name, maybe if you say, “I’m a child of God; I’m God’s beloved daughter; I am God’s beloved son,” maybe the fog will clear and you will remember who you really are. Even if no human being ever told you that you are a beloved child of God, God told you, you just have to remember. And God is telling you right now. You just have to listen. The late Henry Nouwen says this so well. In his book, Life of the Beloved he puts it this way: “Long before any human being saw us, we are seen by God’s loving eyes. Long before anyone heard us cry or laugh, we are heard by our God who is all ears for us. Long before any person spoke to us in the world, we are spoken to by the voice of eternal love. Our preciousness, uniqueness, and individuality are not given to us by those who meet us in clock-time – our brief chronological existence – but by the One who has chosen us with an everlasting love, a love that existed from all eternity and will last through all eternity.”

The Apostle Paul used the imagery of shedding old clothes and putting on new clothes. He instructed the members of his churches to put off their old self, their  little, ego self, the self that we think we are when we let society and the voices of our culture tell us who we are. He instructed them to put off the false self and put on the new self, the true self, the self we are in God, in Christ. The self we are when we are filled with and led by God’s Spirit. Paul instructed them to put off negative attitudes and actions like anger, bitterness, resentment, malice, and anything that would cause them to treat any of God’s children less than who they are. And he tells them to put on the virtues and actions of Christ.

In his letter to the Ephesians Paul says, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us.” In his letter to the Colossians he says, “Cloth yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just at the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, cloth yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Love is the glue that holds everything together. Actually love is the holy spirit that binds us together. By putting on these new virtues, these new patterns of thinking and living, we discover and become who we are.

There is no greater calling in life. There is no greater meaning and purpose in life. There is no greater ultimate joy in life than to experience God’s love for ourselves and to help others experience that love. Parents and grandparents, the greatest thing you can do for your children and your grandchildren is to experience God’s love for yourselves, and help your children and grandchildren discover it as well. Church, the best thing we can do to live our calling as the body of Christ in the world is to help each other experience and express God’s love. For when we do that we will be helping each other become who we already are.

Gracious God, thank you for this special time we could share with these beautiful families today. May they all come to know in increasing measure just how wide and deep your love is for them. May they feel great gratitude for having these precious children put under their care. May they have great joy in helping to nurture in them the love of Christ, in whose name I pray. Amen.  

Sunday, October 21, 2018

The God up there and down here (A sermon from Job 38:1-7 and Heb. 5:1-10)

Job’s patience gives way to defiance, which in turn leads to the objections and complaints of Job’s three friends. In his defiance Job questions and even curses God. Job’s friends come to God’s defense and urge Job to repent of his sin. They, like Job in the beginning, are entrenched in a theology of reward and retribution. They believe all this is all happening to Job because he has sinned. That’s how they understand life to work. They assume Job’s misfortune is due to God’s punishment. While this dialogue and argument back and forth between Job and his friends is going on, God is silent. Then, after all is said, God shows up. God speaks. The writers says, “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind.” Do you find that interesting? Out of a whirlwind, out of a tornado God speaks.

Maybe one aspect of God speaking out of a whirlwind is to say that God speaks however God chooses to speak – to anyone and in any way God wants. No one can pin God in or figure God out or claim to know all there is to know about God, because God is full of surprises. There is no way to limit God to our tradition or our religious faith or our creeds and confessions. God is too big and wild.

Perhaps the symbolism of the whirlwind also suggests that God speaks to us amidst destruction and loss. We all know very well the damage powerful storms can do and the suffering they can cause don’t we. God, of course, does not cause these storms. God is not responsible for them. But God can speak to us out of them. God can speak out of the chaos and confusion and destruction of our lives.

When God speaks to Job, God does not respond to a single question Job has agonized over. Instead of answers God responds with more questions. Questions that contrast the greatness and mystery of God with the weakness and limitations of human beings.

Nature poets have a keen sense about the vastness of creation and our place in it. The award winning poet Mary Oliver writes, “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on . . . meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again.” It’s a poetic way of saying it’s not all about us. We are part of something that is much larger than our individual lives, our families, our communities, and our nation. We have these dazzling images from the Hubble Telescope which show multiple galaxies, each galaxy made up of billions of stars. Can you imagine how vast that is?

William Sloan Coffin in his book, Letters to a Young Doubter, tells about the time he first began to realize this. When he was an undergraduate, three friends coming back late from New York crashed their car and were killed. The driver apparently fell asleep at the wheel. Coffin was angry when he attended the funeral service. It infuriated him when the priest began to intone from the back of the chapel the words from Job: “The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Coffin said he sounded nauseatingly pious. Looking around, he could see him coming down the aisle his nose in the prayer book. He thought about putting out his feet and tripping him up. Coffin says, “God doesn’t go around the world with his hands on steering wheels, his fist around knives, his finger on triggers.” God doesn’t take away life. Just as Coffin was about to stick out his leg, a small voice as it were, asked him (He heard God speak out of his own heart), “What part of the phrase, Coffin, are you objecting to?” Coffin thought it was the second part: “the Lord has taken away.” But then it suddenly dawned on him that it was the first part: “the Lord gave.” It finally dawned on him that this was not his world and all of us here are only guests.

Why does it sometimes take a whirlwind? Why does it sometimes take a storm that tosses us all over the place and disrupts our life for us to realize that God’s story is so much bigger than our story, and that we have no unique claim on God? I personally had to weather some storms in my life to come to the place where I finally realized that God was much greater than what I thought. It took some confusion and disruption for me to realize that I could not limit how or to whom God speaks. Why is it hard for us to admit that God doesn’t have favorites? That we are all loved by God.

When I was younger I felt like I had all the answers. I was convinced that I was on God’s side because I had the truth about God. I was in the right church with the right doctrine. My group, my church, my denomination possessed the exclusive knowledge of salvation. I was so self-righteous and didn’t even know it. I was blind to my religious ego and claims of religious superiority. And yet God met me where I was in all my self-righteousness and religious arrogance. God never tossed me aside or gave up on me. God kept speaking even though I wasn’t listening, even though my ego kept me from hearing.

I read a piece of religious news this past week about Jerry Falwell, Jr. that I let get to me. It so frustrated and angered me, that inwardly I was ranting and raving at what I had just read. This is why I have to take periodical Sabbaths from the news cycle. In my frustration, I felt the Spirit speak to me. I thought I heard the Spirit say, “Why are you so angry? You were just like the man you are raging at? You were just as blinded by your religious ego. And yet I loved you and met you right where you were. I did not allow your spiritual arrogance and blindness to turn me away.”

Whenever I start inwardly screaming at people, “Why can’t you see?” I have to remember that God didn’t give up on me when I couldn’t see. And I am still blind in ways that I don’t even know. God loved me then and God loves me now, even though I couldn’t see then, and sometimes can’t see now what God wants to show me.

I was taught that sin separates us from God. That’s not true. Our sin may make us feel like we are separated from God, but God doesn’t go anywhere. It is true that our sin  grieves the Spirit of God within us. Our sin limits and restricts the flow of God’s love through us. The less we can see and the more we are driven by our ego, the more restricted and limited is our experience and expression of God’s love. However, God doesn’t stop loving us. We are connected to God even though we may not be aware of or personally experience that connection.

I remember a popular Christian song years ago that kept repeating the stanza, “God lives in a big, big house.” It is true. God does live in a big house – at least as big as our universe, and may even include multiple universes. The God who occupies such a big house can be referenced by many names. God is amazingly adaptable and can meet us wherever we are. God is as big as the universe, and God is as small as the human soul. Even though God is the great, infinite, transcendent One, God is not the distant one. God is the intimate One. The spirituality of Jesus and his early followers make that clear. The God who is the mysterious source of all that is, is also that mysterious source who sustains our very existence. In writing to the Colossians, Paul or a disciple of Paul says that God called him to make known the mystery that for ages had been hidden, namely, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” The cosmic Christ who speaks out of the whirlwind, dwells within each community and each person, and can speak directly to the human heart. As the old hymn puts it, “You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart.”

Our text last week from the book of Hebrews began with, “The Word of God is living and active.” The writer was not talking about words on a page. He was talking about the Christ, before whom, he says, we are all exposed and naked, and to whom we will all give an account. In our text today, the writer identifies the Christ as the high priest chosen by God to make God known to us. The writer says that Christ is able to “deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness.” He says that Jesus, our high priest, “In the days of his flesh, offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death.” He was human in every way we are. He drank from that cup of suffering, as we all must drink. The writer says, “He learned obedience through what he suffered.” His suffering taught him how to be faithful, how to stay the course, how to endure. He was made complete, made whole, through his sufferings, and because of what he learned and endured he has become for us, his followers, “the source of eternal salvation.” That is, he is the means by which we, too, learn to be faithful through our suffering, and through that journey find liberation, healing, and wholeness.  

The great miracle and mystery is that the God who is the source of all that is, and who speaks out of the whirlwind, is the God who dwells in human flesh. God is both the transcendent Other who is up there and everywhere, and God is the Divine Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, who is down here in you and in me. God speaks to humanity through humanity. God reveals God’s will for humanity through humanity. I should clarify here.  God reveals God’s will for humanity through humanity that is filled and empowered by the Spirit of Christ. Humanity at our best is a revelation of what God is like. Humanity at our worst is an expression of what God is not like.

I love to tell the story about the Jewish fugitive who, fleeing for his life In Nazi Germany, came to a small town. He sought out the house of the Christian pastor, hoping to find refuge. He knocked on the door and when the pastor opened it, he told his story and asked if he could stay a few days until it was safe to travel again. The pastor invited him to step inside and wait. The pastor knew that if this young man was caught hiding there the whole town would be held accountable and suffer greatly. So immediately he withdrew to his prayer room and closed the door. He asked God for guidance and then opened his Bible. He happened to come upon the verse in John’s Gospel that says, “It is better for one man to die, than for the whole people to parish.” He just knew he had his answer. So he sent the man away. Later that night an angel appeared and asked, “Where is the fugitive?” The pastor said, “I sent him away as the Holy Book instructed me.” The angel said, “Did you not know that he was the Christ? If you would have looked into his eyes, instead of first running to the Book, you would have known.”

Why would he have known? Because God is revealed in human beings. We were created to reflect the image of God. Naturally, we Christians look to Jesus as our representative model. This is why we call him Lord. For those of us who are followers of Jesus, Jesus functions as the definitive human disclosure of God. Jesus is the pioneer of our salvation. Jesus leads the way. But whenever a human being is filled with the Spirit of Christ, that human being is a revelation of God. This is why we are called by Paul the body of Christ. We who embody the values and love of Christ continue to incarnate the Christ in the world. Incarnation in an ongoing process. We who manifest the fruit of the Spirit continue to reveal and make known God in the world. The best of our humanity is Christ living in us and through us, which is nothing less than a disclosure and revelation of what God is like.

So let me ask you? Is your life a disclosure (a revelation and reflection) of what God is like? Can others get a sense of what God is like by getting to know you, by being around you, by becoming friends with you? That’s are calling sisters and brothers. You are a son of God or daughter of God just like Jesus. Jesus is your Lord, but Jesus is also your brother. The Divine Spirit dwells in you just like the Spirit dwelt in Jesus of Nazareth. Just as Jesus learned and grew through his suffering, we learn and grow through our suffering. We are called to be revelations of the divine because Christ lives in us. As C.S. Lewis put it, we are called to be “little Christs.” Never think you are a nobody. You are a member of the body of Christ. You are a stone in God’s living temple. You are an heir of God’s eternal world. You are capable of being and called by God to be an incarnation of the living Christ. We are called to be, both individually and as a church, little mirrors, little fleshly embodiments of the living Christ

Our good God, I don’t know why it takes some of us so long to see that you love all of us, wherever we are and no matter how blind we are to the ways you work in the world and in our lives. Help us to remove the blinders from our eyes. And help us individually and as a church community to better reflect what you are like – that we might express your inclusive love and grace, your passion for justice and compassion for those who are downtrodden, and your patience and willingness to meet us wherever we are. Help us to be the body of Christ. Amen.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Embracing the tragic sense of life (A sermon from Job 23:1-9, 16-17, and Hebrews 4:12-16)

Until we face some something that challenges our beliefs and assumptions, we tend to accept and believe what we have been taught, what was handed down to us in the process of being socialized into society by family, friends, peers, teachers, and the people we admire and are drawn to in our culture. Job believed what most everyone else believed in his culture, namely, that God was responsible for the good and bad that happened to people on earth. So after the first series of catastrophes where he loses family and fortune he says, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” When Job is afflicted with painful soars all over his body and when his wife questions his loyalty to a God who would do this to him, he says, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” He is still locked in to this view of God.

When Job’s friends first hear of his troubles the text says “they met together to go and console and comfort him. . . They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” If only his friends had continued that course. If only they would have absorbed some of Job’s frustration and anxiety without trying to correct him or set him straight. But when Job opens his mouth they open theirs. It’s not long before Job changes his tune. The narrator says, “After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. Job said: ‘Let the day perish in which I was born, and the night that said, ‘A man-child is conceived! Let that day be darkness.” The day of his birth is not all Job curses. He curses God. He accuses God of being unjust. He questions God’s integrity. At this point in in the story we make a shift from the patience of Job to the defiance of Job.

When Job changes his tune, his friends feel compelled to speak. Each of Job’s friends speak in three rounds and Job replies to them in turn. But basically their message is the same. They defend their view of God. They defend a theology of reward and retribution. They are unable to simply be with Job in his suffering and confusion. They are sure Job has sinned and that his suffering is God’s just treatment for his wrongdoing. Their theology usurps their feelings of compassion for their friend. They cannot idly set back and just absorb Job’s defiance. They feel compelled to defend their beliefs about God, which trumps any compassion they might have felt for their friend. They are certain they are right. Sound familiar? One way to read the book of Job is a protest against all theological certitudes. Job is a wisdom book that challenges the conventional wisdom of the day.

In a particular experiment a wall-eyed pike is put into an aquarium. He is fed for a number of days with little minnows. Then, in the middle of the experiment, a glass partition is placed down the middle of the aquarium so that the pike is now confined to one side. Then the researchers drop minnows on the other side. So when the poor fish goes for the minnows he hits himself against the glass. He circles and hits it again. He tries a third time, but he is now hitting the glass a little less hard. After a few more times, he’s just sort of nosing up against the glass. Now he is conditioned to know that he is not going to get those minnows. Pretty soon, he just swims around in circles and ignores the minnows on the other side. At this point, those doing the experiment take out the glass. The minnows swim right up against the gills of the pike and the pike doesn’t even try to eat them. The experiment ends with the poor old pike starving himself to death.

That could well be a parable about the way we persist in clinging to our beliefs and assumptions even when they are killing us and others. Consider how often we continue to cling to our assumptions and beliefs even when they diminish our lives, even when they are hurtful and harmful to ourselves and others.

Why do we do that? Why do we dig in and defend our views and values when they are unhealthy, when they are life diminishing? I have no definitive answers to give, but I have some thoughts. Some of it, I think, has to do with our need to fit in and our fear of exclusion, our fear of being rejected or ridiculed or marginalized.

Not too long ago our Sunday School class looked at that wonderful story in John 9 which I have preached about several times over the course of my ministry, where Jesus heals a man born blind. The Pharisees are upset because Jesus healed him on the Sabbath. So, the Pharisees first of all question the man Jesus healed, then they question his neighbor, and next they question his parents, But his parents refuse to answer their questions. They say to the Jewish leaders, “Ask him, he is of age. He can speak for himself.” Then the narrator says, “His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.” To be put out of the synagogue meant marginalization, it meant exclusion or excommunication from the community. They feared that. And we fear it too, right? We want to be liked. We want to fit in with our group – whether the group is our family, our friends, our church, our social network, or whoever. It’s not easy to swim against the current. That’s one reason we become entrenched in beliefs and values that are not helpful, and sometimes harmful

I think another reason we tend to dig in and defend our views and values even when they are not doing us or anyone else any good is because of our ego. We want to be right. We want to be in control. When our ego is in charge our faith, our Christianity becomes just another tool we use to justify the status quo. We use our faith to make us feel good about our biases and prejudices. Think of all the Christians today who actually use their religious faith to justify racism, sexism, exceptionalism, and materialism. They use their faith to justify their prejudices against certain kinds of people. The Apostle Paul, before his encounter with Christ, is a good example of someone who did just that. Paul hated Christians, before he became one, before he had an encounter with the Christ. He inflicted suffering on them, and used his faith to justify his hate. Many American Christians are doing the very same thing today toward the undocumented in our country, and our LGBTQ sisters and brothers.  

Now, the one thing that can break the hold of hate-filled, controlling beliefs and values, other than a direct encounter with Christ, is personal and communal suffering. And maybe that’s why suffering is necessary, because only suffering can loosen the stranglehold of our ego. Job’s suffering led to his defiance with regard to his previously held views of God. His defiance is part of his growth. Without the suffering he would have continued just as he was. Many times it’s the same for us. Unless there is something that interrupts life as usual we continue just as we are. We don’t change.

I used to think not so very long ago, possibly the last time I preached on this subject, that some suffering has no redemptive value. I was thinking about the horrific suffering inflicted by war, of the genocides of history, of the terrible evil that human beings can do to one another. And perhaps it is true in individual cases. We tend to think individually, and if we think only of individuals and their suffering then it may well be true that some suffering has no redemptive value. But if we can back up and take a wide view and a long view beyond our individual lives and our personal stories we could perhaps see that as a species we are not where we were a millennium ago. As a nation e might not survive. The great experiment in American democracy is very tentative and may not last. But if we look beyond our nation and beyond our personal stories, and take the long and wide view, we will see that as a species, as human beings, we have made some progress. Suffering is what moves us forward as a species and teaches us how to replace hate with love. And it is also true individually, though much suffering is unfair and unjust.

Richard Rohr states it this way: “Allowing God to be our Lord is not something we can do as easily as believing this, doing that, attending this, or avoiding that. It is always a process of a lifetime, a movement toward union that will always fill like a loss of self-importance and autonomy. The private ego will resist and rationalize in every way that it can. My experience is that, apart from suffering, failure, humiliation, and pain, none of us will naturally let go of our self-sufficiency. We will think that our story is just about us. It isn’t.” He nails it. Our significance and true meaning comes from who we are in God and who we are as part of a larger whole – what Jesus called the kingdom of God, and what Paul called the body of Christ. It does not come from our single, individual successes or failures, sufferings and joys. Suffering teaches us that we are part of something much larger than ourselves, and our purpose and real significance comes in working with and in connection to the whole for the common good, for the liberty and justice of all, which, today, in our country our political leaders and a great many Americans have completely lost sight of.

In our text last week from the book of Hebrews Jesus is presented as our brother who as the pioneer of our salvation was made whole, made complete through suffering. Suffering is the process through which we too, like our Lord, are brought to maturity and wholeness.  

People in great power who think they are “something” will suffer and be reduced to ashes like the rest of us, because no one escapes death. And many of those who were affected by their decisions and their use or abuse of power will be glad they are gone. Suffering has a way of shattering our illusions that we are more special than others. It has a way of bursting our righteous bubbles and presumptions that we are the ones who are saved or chosen because we have believed the right things, or been splashed with holy water, or call God by the right name, or accepted Jesus into our hearts. Suffering puts us in our place, so that God can work some humility and honesty and compassion in our lives.

When we get to the end of Job, God doesn’t answer a single question Job asks. God shows up, and that seems to be enough. We all will suffer in life. But when we look around in our world, when we lift up our heads long enough and high enough to see beyond our own concerns and personal interests, it is quite obvious that there are huge differences in the intensity and degree of human suffering on our planet. Life is unfair. One might blame God for that injustice, but just maybe it was the only way God could bring about life in the world. So much of our lives is simply about the luck of the draw. Certainly we bring some suffering on ourselves, but much in life is beyond our control. This is what Job struggled with. Life itself is unpredictable and God cannot do anything about it. 

But here’s the truth of it. God is part of all of it. God is part of all the suffering and the blessing of human life. This is the fundamental reality and lesson we learn from Jesus’s sufferings. Jesus is our symbol of the suffering, crucified God. God shares in the suffering of the creation. The writer of Hebrews says that Jesus was tested or tried by suffering as we are, yet without sin. I don’t think that means that Jesus was faultless or perfect, for if he was, he would not be human. In fact, the author of Hebrews has already said (if you remember from the passage we read last week) that Jesus was made perfect, that is, he was made whole or complete through his sufferings. What the writer means when he says that Jesus was without sin is that Jesus did nothing to deserve his suffering. He was unjustly executed as an insurrectionist. Much of our suffering is unjust suffering. Job didn’t deserve what happened to him. Jesus didn’t either. So Jesus, who in our Christian symbolism becomes the cosmic Christ, the Divine Spirit who is for all and in all, shares completely the human condition.

What all of this means is that God is not watching us from a distance. God is intimately a part of all our experiences. God is part of the travail of creation. God is the vulnerable God who walks with the creation along its evolutionary path. When Paul says that creation groans in labor pains as creation moves closer to the day of liberation and redemption, it is God who is groaning too. It is the Divine Spirit, the cosmic Christ incarnated in the world who groans with creation and with all of us as he bears with us the weakness and sin and suffering of our humanity and the creation. Even though we may curse our suffering, even though we pray like Jesus that the cup pass from us, can we, also, like Jesus resolve to walk through it? So that, like Jesus, we might be made whole and complete through our suffering.

O God, help us to keep our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer of our salvation, our high priest who walks with us through the pain and suffering of life. And now, as we share in this sacred meal, may we remember how Jesus suffered, and may we know in our hearts that the living Christ even now shares our suffering and pain. 

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Reflecting the Divine (A sermon from Psalm 8 and Hebrews 2:5-12)

One of my favorite Fred Craddock stories which most of you have probably heard before, but a few of you haven’t is the story Fred tells about the time he and his wife were vacationing in their favorite place in the Great Smokey Mountains. They ate dinner in a rather new restaurant called the Black Bear Inn, which featured a beautiful view of the mountains. Early into their meal an elderly man approached their table and welcomed them.  He talked to them for a while and it came out that Fred was a minister with the Christian Church of the Disciples of Christ. When the elderly man heard that he was a Disciples of Christ minister he pulled up a chair and said, “I owe a great deal to the Christian church.” Then he told Fred and his wife this story:

He said, “I grew up in these mountains. My mother was not married and the whole community knew it. In those days it was a reproach, and the reproach that fell on my mother, fell also on me. When I went into town with her, I could see people staring at me, making guesses as to who was my father. At school the children said ugly things to me, and so I stayed to myself during recess and I ate my lunch alone. In my early teens I began to attend a little church back in the mountains called Laurel Springs Christian Church. They had a minister who was both attractive and frightening. He had a chiseled face, a heavy beard, and a deep voice. I went to hear him preach. I don’t know exactly why, but it did something for me. However, I was afraid that I was not welcome since I was, as they put it, a bastard. So I would arrive just in time for the sermon, and when it was over I would get out of there quick because I was afraid someone would say, “What’s a boy like you doing in church?”

“One Sunday some people queued up the aisle before I could get out. Before I could make my way through the group, I felt a hand on my shoulder, a heavy hand. I could see out the corner of my eye his beard and his chin, and knew it was the minister. I trembled in fear. He turned his face around so he could see mine and he seemed to stare at me for a while. I knew what he was doing. I knew that he was going to make a guess as to who my father was. A moment later he said, ‘Well, boy, you’re a child of . . .’ and he paused. And I knew what was coming. I knew I would have my feelings hurt. I knew I would not go back again. But he said, ‘Boy, you’re a child of God. I see a striking resemblance.’ Then he swatted me on the backside and said, ‘Now, you go claim your inheritance.’ The elderly gentleman concluded by saying, “I left the building a different person. In fact, that was really the beginning of my life.” Fred asked the man his name. He said, “Ben Hooper.” It took a few moments, but then Fred remembered his own father talking about how the people of Tennessee twice elected as governor, a man with a hard beginning, by the name of Ben Hooper.

The minister said to the boy, “You are a child of God, go claim your inheritance.” That’s who you are sisters and brothers, right now. It’s not because you believed all the right things or did the right things or joined the right church. You may have thought that was what made you a child of God, but it didn’t. You were already a child of God before you believed or did any of those things. And this is not just true of you. It’s true of your children and grandchildren. Your parents, your sisters and brothers, your friends, your co-workers, and yes, even your enemies. Even those who believe totally different than you do or live totally different. They are children of God too.

Of course, being a child of God doesn’t mean that there is nothing else to do. Obviously, being a child of God does not automatically mean that we are living the way we have been created and called by God to live. Nevertheless, we are who we are, we are all children of God by pure grace. Life is a gift. Our physical birth is a birth into God’s family. Of course, that doesn’t negate the need for spiritual birth. Being a child of God by physical birth, doesn’t negate the need for spiritual awakening and enlightenment and renewal. There is truly a sense in which we all need to be born again, and again, and again. However, being a child of God is not a reward for believing in Jesus or joining a church or doing all the right things. It’s who we are, and that’s true whether we believe it or not.

Many of us have mistakenly, I believe, labeled the story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden as the fall of humanity. That story is actually a story about what is true regarding humanity from the beginning. It’s a story about deception, selfish ambition, avoiding responsibility and passing the blame. It’s a story about spiritual blindness and willfully choosing the wrong path. And all of that is part of all our stories as well. It’s a part of being human. However, we forget that the story of our sin is not the first story to be told.

The Psalmist says when he looks at the vastness of the heavens, he says to God, What are human beings that you would be mindful of them and care for them? The psalmist responds by recalling the creation story in Genesis 1. Human beings have been created just a little lower than God, crowned with glory and honor, and  given dominion over the earth. The dominion given to humankind over creation is the dominion of supervision for the good of creation, not the dominion of exploitation for the sole benefit of humankind. Our purpose is to mirror God, to reflect the divine likeness, and to direct and manage the world in ways that reflect God’s goodness and grace.

You see, sisters and brothers, we are not first and foremost sinners. We are sinners. We are spiritually blind and unwise and we do hurtful things. But the most important thing about is that we are born children of God, possessing God’s Spirit.  Our lives are intimately connected to God whether we know it or not. Our true self is the Christ self, that I talked about not too long ago, that gets buried underneath layers of the false self. The true self, the divine self, the Christ self is the first, most glorious thing about us, even though many people are not even aware of their true nature, identity, and calling. We are one with God, even though most people don’t realize it.  

It seems to me that the first step in actually “claiming our inheritance” as the country preacher said, the first step in reflecting the divine nature, in mirroring the image of God is trusting who we are. And in order to do that, in order to trust in our divine identity and nature, we have to be aware. So enlightenment and spiritual awareness, go hand-in-hand with trust and commitment. I love the way Marcus Borg talks about this in his book, The Heart of Christianity. He points out that in the process of human development one of the first things that happens is self-consciousness or self-awareness. And it happens early. At some point, infants in the process of becoming toddlers become aware that the world is separate from themselves. As infants, we have no awareness. As infants the world is just an extension of ourselves. But at some point we start to develop the awareness that we are separate from the world.

Borg tells a story he heard about a three-year-old girl. She was the firstborn and only child in the family, but now her mother was expecting another child, and the little girl was excited about having a new brother or sister. Within a few hours of bringing the new baby home, the little girl made a rather strange request. She wanted to be alone with her new baby brother in his room. This made the parents a bit uneasy, but they had a good intercom system, so they gave her permission. They listened carefully as they heard their daughter’s footsteps moving across the baby’s room. They could imagine her tiptoeing looking in the baby’s crib. Then they heard her say to her three-day-old baby brother, “Tell me about God – I’ve almost forgotten.” I don’t know if that story happened or not, but I believe it is true and speaks truth. In the process of growing up, in becoming a separate self, we forget that we are inseparably connected to God, that it is the Divine nature who infuses us with life.

In the unfolding of our lives we internalize all kinds of “messages” from our world– from our parents, our peers, our teachers, the media, many people and influences contribute. Borg describes it this way: “By the time we are in early adolescence, perhaps earlier, our sense of who we are is increasingly the product of our culture. We feel okay or not okay about ourselves to the extent that we measure up to the messages we have internalized. In our culture, these messages center around the three A’s of appearance, achievement, and affluence.” Think for a minute about the questions that were uppermost in our minds growing up: Am I attractive enough? Do I look good enough? Am I smart enough? Am I talented enough? Am I cool enough? And of course, we let our culture define for us what it means to be cool, right?” In the very process of growing up, in the very process of being socialized into our world, we acquire a false self, this allusion of who we are. In biblical terms this is what it means to live outside of the garden of Eden, outside of paradise. This is what means to live in captivity and in exile. This is what it means to live in the “far country.” This is what it means in the words of the Apostle Paul to live “in the flesh” and to live “under sin.”

So, the first step in “claiming our inheritance” and “reflecting the Divine nature” is becoming aware that we are not actually who we think we are. We are not “unworthy sinners who deserve hell.” However, we are not “all that” either, because we are not unlike everyone else. We all share a common life. We are all children of God – loved, cherished, called to be divine image bearers, assigned to govern this world in peace and justice and grace as God’s representatives, chosen to take care of one another and the creation. That’s who are. So the first step then in reflecting the divine nature is to claim who we really are, to trust that we really are one with God, and then to commit our lives to living out that calling.   

This takes us on a journey both inward and outward. It takes some honesty and humility. It requires some real effort and intentionality. Soul work is challenging, difficult work. Our fall into exile is very deep. Our life outside the garden is complicated. The layers of the false self we have accumulated over the years keep us blind, pre-occupied, worry-filled, fearful, prideful, competitive, grasping, frustrated, insensitive to others, prejudiced, and on and on. We have to face this about ourselves and struggle with it. And recognizing who we are gives the courage and motivation and power to do that.

The first followers of Jesus were simply called followers of the way. They understood that the spiritual life is a journey and a process. And they found in Jesus, as the writer of Hebrews says, the pioneer of our salvation. They discovered that the way of Jesus – the way he lived and taught his followers to live – leads us out of our spiritual exile and bondage. We learn from Jesus how to die to our false selves, so that we can live out the reality and fullness of our true selves as reflections of the Divine image.

This is one of the points that the author of Hebrews makes in Hebrews 2. The author references Psalm 8. But in place of humankind in general, the writer highlights Jesus, as the representative human being. Instead of saying that human beings were made a little lower than God as the Psalmist does, the writer reinterprets the psalm in light of his own experience of Christ and his community’s experience of Christ. He says that Jesus was made a little lower than angels, and he tasted death on behalf of all of us. He didn’t die as our substitute, because we are all, like Jesus, going to die. Jesus didn’t die so we don’t have to die. We are going to die too. We are going to suffer. There is no escaping death. Jesus died, however, as one of us. And God vindicated his death, by raising him up and crowning him with glory and honor. God vindicated him as the “pioneer of our salvation.” So for followers of the way Jesus is the definitive revelation of the way of God.

As “the pioneer of our salvation” he shows us what our salvation looks like, and  what the salvation of the world looks like, because it’s never just about us. The biblical writer describes this process as “bringing God’s children to glory.” That’s the process of salvation, and Jesus is the “pioneer of our salvation,” because he is the one who leads us through this process of becoming who we are, and in becoming who we are we come to reflect the divine image in the way we live.  As we trust in his life and teachings and follow him he becomes our model and guide. This is what it means to call Jesus Lord, sisters and brothers. It means we take his life and teachings seriously as our best example of what it means to be human and live out God’s image in the world. Jesus leads us on a journey and engages us in a process that enables us to become who we are. Jesus shows us how to claim and trust our true identity, and to actually live daily as God’s beloved children.

Gracious God, help us to understand that we are your children by grace, and that we did nothing to earn or merit this. May we realize that we are loved just as we are. And may our experience of your love compel us to become who we are by following the example of Jesus who is the pioneer of our salvation.