Sunday, August 18, 2019

When Love Divides (Luke 12:49-56)

A few years age Reza Aslan, who was publicly known to be a prominent voice on Islam wrote a book about Jesus titled, "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.” The fact that he was known as a popular cultural voice on Islam helped the book sell. Also, in the aftermath of its publication he had a rather nasty but entertaining interview about the book on Fox, which helped it climb up several best sellers lists. Now, there is certainly nothing wrong at all with a Muslim or any non-Christian writing a good book about Jesus. The problem, however, is that this was not a good book. Most of the reviewers noted that Aslan was a good story-teller and writer, but not a very good historian and scholar. Some suggested he was much better at fiction than at history. His basic thesis was that Jesus was a failed revolutionary who was willing to use violence to overthrow the political and religious order to bring in God’s kingdom. He rejected outright, without any evidence to back his claim, that the many teachings by Jesus in the Gospels about nonviolence, peace-making, and love of enemies were not actual teachings of Jesus at all, but teachings placed on his lips by his followers. That argument has no proof, of course, and it’s hard to imagine any follower of Jesus, knowing what we know about followers of Jesus, coming up with the teaching on loving one’s enemies. At any rate, in his book Aslan focuses on a few texts like this one today. Matthew’s version is even a bit stronger than Luke’s. In Matthew Jesus says: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but the sword.”

On the surface this may seem like a real contradiction with the other teachings and actions of Jesus where Jesus instructs us to love and pray for our enemies and where he says, “Blessed are the peace-makers.” And then there is the procession he leads into Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week which is basically a peace march.  A peace march, if not in protest, at least in contrast to the imperial procession of Roman soldiers led by Pilate to secure the Roman fortress outside the city in preparation for the festivities of Passover. So what is Jesus saying in the text today? To read this as if it was Jesus’ intent to divide, to set folks against one another, is to misread this text. Jesus has not given up on peacemaking. Jesus is not calling for force or violence. What he is saying, in his commonly shocking and hyperbolic way, is that the way of love, which he calls his followers to pursue, can be divisive. As long as there are unloving, ungracious, unwelcoming, sexist and racist people, then the love of Christ will create divisions. And those divisions will even cut across family lines. 

The Gospel of Luke gives us the best example of this. In Luke 4 Jesus enters the synagogue in his home town and he reads from Isaiah 61. He defines his own work by the agenda of God’s servant in Isa. 61 as bringing good news to the poor, bringing release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, liberating the oppressed, and proclaiming God’s grace. The people in his hometown are happy to hear this. Luke says in 4:22, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” Some might wonder why Jesus didn’t just end it right there. That’s what most Baptist preachers would do. Nothing quite like a standing ovation. But Jesus knew what was in their hearts and he knew that they were thinking only of their own kind. Jesus knew that their love and loyalty was limited to their own group, their own people. They thought Jesus’ was speaking about his mission to Israel exclusively. They reasoned just the way many Christians today reason. They thought God was the God of Jews only, just the way so many Christians today think God is the God of Christians only. Jesus wanted to transform people, not please. Jesus couldn’t let it rest. Jesus could confirm their false view of God.

So, Jesus draws from the sacred scriptures they hold in common to challenge their exclusiveness and exceptionalism. He makes reference to two stories. He first calls attention to the story in 1 Kings 17. A famine had overtaken the land. There were many widows in Israel who were in need, no doubt, desperate need, but God sent Elijah, not to a Hebrew widow, but, of all things, to a Gentile widow and her son, who had no food. Elijah provides them with food enough to survive and he heals her son. And in telling this story, Jesus stresses the point that this was a Gentile. He says, “There were many widows in Israel,” in great need, but Elijah “was sent to none of them.” Jesus follows that story with another story found in 2 Kings 5, where Naaman, a Gentile ruler, is healed of his leprosy by Elisha the prophet. Again, in making his point Jesus emphasizes that there were many Jewish lepers who were not healed. Elisha was not sent to any of them. Rather, he was sent to a Gentile. After he told these two stories, drawn from their own scriptures, the scriptures all Jews held in common, Luke says, “all in the synagogue were filled with rage.” He went from being revered as a prophet of high honor to being hated as a messenger of the evil one speaking heresies. Luke says they drove him out of town, and wanted to hurl him over the cliff.

You see, as long as Jesus focused on the poor, the blind, the captive, and the oppressed in Israel, among their own people, they praised the words he spoke. But when Jesus made it clear that God’s love and grace was not limited to their kind of people, that God’s love is inclusive of all people, and not exclusive to them, they were infuriated.

It should be conceded that it is understandable why Jesus’ hometown crowd would be upset with him. They had good reason to dislike Gentiles. Their country had a long history of being overrun by Gentile powers. And at this very point in history, they were basically enslaved to Rome. They were given some measure of freedom, but the Romans could do to them whatever they wanted and at times did. Rome taxed them heavily and confiscated their land. This is why Jewish tax collectors who collaborated and colluded with Rome were so despised by their countrymen. They were deemed traitors. They had good reason not to like Gentiles.

But Jesus couldn’t let them go on thinking they were God’s favorites and everyone else was going to hell. Jesus was a truth-teller and he had to tell them the truth about God’s inclusive love, and it just about got him killed before he even got started in the work God called him to do.

My job would be easy if I didn’t have to tell you the truth about God’s inclusive love. You would all just love me. Everyone would want to come and worship together. Of course, I know whenever I speak I am speaking my truth – it is truth as I understand it. I could be wrong, and I am sure I am wrong about many things. But all I can do is tell you the truth as I see it. So I have to preach about God’s inclusive love. If I can’t tell you what I truly believe, then I should quit and go sell insurance. There was a time I thought seriously about that – not necessarily selling insurance, but quitting. And if I had any other marketable skill at the time I may have. I struggled with it.

I remember reading that passage in John 6 where Jesus delivered a discourse, and even before he finished his sermon, most of his congregation had left for good. John says that when many of Jesus’ disciples heard his teaching they said, “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?” Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you?” but he didn’t stop. He kept going. And a little bit later John says, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” Then after most of his disciples left, Jesus turned to the little group who had been with him from the beginning, and he said to them, “What about you? Do you want to leave too?” I remember reading that at the time and thinking to myself, “Yes, Lord, I want to leave. Why don’t you show me the door?” Then, I read a little further where the disciples respond, “Lord, to whom are we going to go? Where are we going to go? You have the words of life. We are convinced that you speak words of truth. We can’t leave.” I decided I couldn’t leave either. I would just have to tell the truth as I understand it. I would just have to speak the words that I am convinced bring life. So, in the end, I decided that I would just be honest about my spiritual and faith journey and speak what I know in my heart, and let the chips fall where they may. That’s what I did and that’s where we are.

Sometimes what we think is peace is not peace at all. Or what we think is unity, is not true unity, not the kind of peace and unity that honors all of God’s children and recognizes the worth and value of all God’s daughters and sons. I have shared several times the story that Fred Craddock tells about going home to west Tennessee to visit, where an old high school friend named Buck owned a restaurant. Fred went in there for some pie and coffee and Buck said, “Do you see the curtain?” This was in the day of segregation. Buck told Fred, “The curtain has to come down.” Fred said, “Good, take it down.” But then Buck confessed the struggle he was having. He said to Fred, “If I take the curtain down, I lose a lot of customers, maybe even my business.” But then he said, “If I leave that curtain up, I lose my soul.” God’s inclusive love divides people and even divides our own souls, that is, until we decide to love. Once we decide that we are going to own and claim and live God’s inclusive then the division in our own souls is resolved. And even in the midst of outer division and external chaos, the peace of God fills our hearts. No one today who spews hate and fear and tells God’s children fleeing poverty and crime and drugs to go back where they came from has God’s peace. They may think they do, but they don’t. They may have the world’s peace, but they don’t have God’s peace.

Listen to how a young woman describes her experience of moving to a new community and finding a new church home. She says: “Everybody was super-accomodating, bending over backward to lend a hand. They were the most welcoming, organized bunch of people I have ever met. They started helping us unload the trailer and the truck, they had everything inside and unpacked in less that two hours. They had already stocked the refrigerator and the pantry with all kinds of dry goods and supplies . . . The sense of community was really impressive. When someone needed something, everybody was always there at a minutes notice.” Guess what church she is talking about? She is describing Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. The church that says horrible things about our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. She is talking about the church we have come to know as the church that is filled with hate. Is that God’s peace and love? Even the members at Westboro Baptist Church love their own.  

In our world today God’s inclusive love divides as much as it unifies. There is much irony in that isn’t there? It exposes spiritual disease as much as it heals and restores. Jesus knew that the truth of God’s inclusive love would cut deep, exposing prejudices, and judging all claims to be God’s chosen over others. Jesus knew that it would even divide families. But that didn’t stop Jesus. He knew God’s will for the world. He knew what God wanted to do. He knew the kind of peace and unity God wanted to bring about – the kind that treated all people as God’s chosen people. And if we have a mind centered on God and a heart in tune with God and a will to obey God, then we would see just what Jesus sees and we would trust the inclusive love of God that Jesus embodied and taught us about. Jesus is our living example of the inclusive love of God. We are called to love inclusively like Jesus. Now, if that is too difficult. If it is too hard to accept. If we are too loyal to our political party or ideology or our particular social or religious group, or too bound to family prejudices to love inclusively, then so be it. Maybe we should consider Jesus’ question to the disciples, “Do you want to quit too?” He asked.

In the text Jesus says, “You hypocrites.” Now, I really question whether Jesus went around calling people hypocrites. My guess is that Jesus’ followers added that to the tradition that was passed on to them. But then again, maybe he did. He points out that we know how to discern the signs in other areas of our lives, like the weather. Their society was an agricultural society. Their very lives depended on their ability to understand the signs of the weather and how it impacted them.

We read all sorts of signs very well. We know how to fix up our houses when they show signs of deterioration. We know how to get help for our bodies when we show signs of sickness. We know how to build bigger barns and store all the stuff we accumulate when we have more than we need. But unfortunately, not as many of us know how to be rich toward God and give ourselves to the unfailing treasures of compassion and grace. Unfortunately, we are not very good at reading the signs of love that is limited and exclusive and centered on our own – our own religion or group. The question for us today is this: Are we willing to love inclusively the way God loves inclusively, even when it brings division?

God, help us to love others the way you love others. If we love others the way you love others, that means loving all people. That may mean loving people that some of our friends and family don’t love at all. Loving them may create division in the groups and families we are part of. It would be easy not to love the way you love. But you have called us to be like Jesus. You have called us to reflect and mirror your image. You have called us to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Help us to be faithful to embody and practice your inclusive love. Because if our family and friends don’t see it in us, where will they see it. Amen.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Greed is Not Good (Luke 12:13-21; Col. 3:1-11)

In the 1987 movie Wall Street, Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko says to the stock holders of Teldar Paper, “The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.” Is greed a good thing? If you eliminated greed from our economy we would have to restructure our economic system. There is a reason the Christian tradition has made greed one of the seven deadly sins. In our text today Jesus says, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.”

It’s important to set this teaching by Jesus on greed in the context of Luke’s Gospel. In the previous stories leading up to this passage about the rich fool, story after story, passage after passage highlights the blindness of Jesus’ contemporaries, particularly the religious leadership. In the passage right after Jesus’ teaching on prayer that I talked about last week, the Jewish religious leaders accuse Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Satan. In other words, to put this in the language of today, they are accusing him of doing works of liberation for diabolical and evil purposes. Jesus refutes such foolishness and contends he is doing the healing, liberating work of the kingdom of God, setting people free and making them whole.

Jesus goes on to mention the sign of Jonah. The Ninevites repented when Jonah told them the truth, but Jesus’ contemporaries refuse to hear the truth. So Jesus says, “The people of Nineveh will rise up in judgement of this generation.”

Jesus tells them that the eye is to the body what the heart is to the soul, and their heart is dark and blind to the light of God. Now, the Jewish leaders claimed to know God and speak for God, but they were in reality morally and spiritually blind to the love of God and the ways of God. They didn’t really know God at all, even though they thought they did and claimed they did. They didn’t know good from evil, or truth from deception, or justice from injustice. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Such is the state of the leadership of many countries in our world today, including our own. Jesus tells them that the light they profess is actually darkness.

Next, Jesus thunders and rails against their hypocrisy. When the Jewish leaders chastise Jesus for eating without observing their laws of ritual cleansing he says, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.” They were full of greed, not just for possessions and wealth, but for power and position. They were greedy for control. The fact that Jesus did not acknowledge their legalistic interpretations of the scriptures or submit to their authority and control, infuriated them.

This is the setting that leads up to Jesus’ warning about greed and the parable of the rich fool. Jesus had been very direct, but clearly that was not working. So he tells them a parable. Someone in the crowd beckons Jesus to settle a dispute between him and his brother over the family inheritance. Jesus refuses to get entangled in a family dispute, but he uses the occasion to warn them about greed. Now, Jesus has already warned them that greed merits judgment, that greed is not good. Now, he takes a different approach. Jesus insists that to live a life of greed is just a foolish way to live.

In those days one’s wealth was measured in terms of lands and harvests. A rich man’s land produced abundantly. Now, under the old theology of blessing and cursing this would have been understood to mean that he was blessed. Not from the perspective of Jesus. The rich man said to himself, “I have no place to store all that I have. What should I do? I know what I will do. I will build larger barns to store all my grain and my goods. Then I will sit back and relax. I will eat, drink, and be merry.” If Jesus were telling this story to me and my kind of crowd he might say, “A bass fisherman said to himself, I have no place to store all my rods and reels and lures. What shall I do? I know what I will do. I will build a storage building so I can store all my fishing stuff. Then I will say to myself. Self, relax for a while. Then, go fish till you drop.”

Now, little does the rich man know, says Jesus, that tonight he will meet God. And God will say. “Where’s all the stuff that you lived for? Where is it? To whom does it now belong?” God says, “What a fool. How foolish it is to store up all this stuff for yourself, and not be rich toward God.” Sort of reminds me of an inscription to be found in a museum in Deadwood, South Dakota, where they had the gold rush 100 years ago. The inscription, scratched out by a beleaguered prospector, says, "I lost my gun. I lost my horse. I am out of food. The Indians are after me, but I've got all the gold I can carry.” And God says, “What a fool.” It just might be that every time a place another order to Tackle Warehouse God is probably saying, “What a fool.” I know my wife I saying that, but God is probably saying it too. I joke about it, because there is no use in pretending that we don’t all struggle with this. We all do. I’m sure I struggle with this is as much as you do.

And while we all struggle with this, there are some people who are just bigger fools than the rest of us. I will tell you about one. His name is Mike Long. He was known as America’s big bass guru. He has been featured on the cover of over 40 fishing magazines. He’s fished alongside Hank Parker and Shaw Grigsby on their popular TV shows. He has racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in tournament winnings and big bass prizes, including the 50 or 60 thousand dollar boat that he owns. Fishing companies lined up to get him to endorse their products. He dominated the local tournament trail in San Diego County, California, known as the big bass capital of the world. The fishing industry, particularly the craze surrounding swimbaits, wouldn’t be the same today if it weren’t for Mike Long.

Well, guess what? Mike Long is a fraud. Now, I know some of you think that I have been posting the same fish over and over again on facebook. Even my son said the other day, “How did you get all those pictures of the same fish?” Now even if that were true, I would not be the fraud that Mike Long is. Mike Long was exposed by a man named Kellen Ellis who was once his friend. Kellen engaged in an extensive investigation of Mike Long over several years and just recently published the results in a 12,000 word plus investigative report (which is an amazing piece of investigative journalism) and a 20 minute video that supplies indisputable proof of Mike Long snagging, which is illegal, not catching big largemouth bass while they were on the nest. Mike Long made numerous false unverified claims with false photographs to claim several lake records in the San Diego area. The fish he snagged illegally he would hide on his boat in oxygen filled livewell bags which he turned in during the tournament weigh in as fish he legitimately caught that day. These were fish previously snagged and then hidden on his boat. That’s how he won so many tournaments. Mike Long snagged, cheated, lied, bribed and bullied his way to become the big bass king of the world. All of that has been exposed and Mike Long’s name is now held in contempt by bass fishermen all across the country. His greed, not just for the money, but for the acclaim and prestige of being the big bass master of the world, the best of the best, led him to a very dark place, where there was nothing he would not do for a taste of the praise and glory of being the King of the big bass world. Sounds like some of our elected officials doesn’t it?

In C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe one of the children, Edmund, who magically enters the land of Narnia finds himself face to face with the White Witch. She has turned Narnia into a perpetual winter—though never Christmas. Her plan is to get Edmund to talk, to get information about the other children. In order to do that she gives him some Turkish Delight. Lewis writes: “At last the Turkish Delight was all finished and Edmund was looking very hard at the empty box and wishing that she would ask him whether he would like some more. Probably the Queen knew quite well what he was thinking; for she knew, though Edmund did not, that this was enchanted Turkish Delight and that anyone who had once tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves.” That’s what greed will do – it is self-destructive.

It’s hard for us to see how destructive it is, because our economy and culture and lifestyle is saturated with it. Greed is easy to rationalize and justify, because we don’t call it greed. We might call it the American dream. We are doing this with racism today. There are a number of people who are saying racist things and supporting racist practices, but they don’t think it is racism. They are blind to their racism just the way many of us are blind to our greed, myself included. Greed is one of the reasons some people don’t want immigrants coming into our country. They will take what is ours, they say. And that really gets to the heart of what greed is. The man Jesus calls a fool, our society would call prudent and industrious.

Dr. Alan Culpepper makes the observation in his comments on this text that the rich man’s vision of the future, “eat, drink, and be merry” - leisure, recreation, freedom from the demands of work – sounds uncomfortably like the vision most of us have for our retirement years. Our entire economic system (as is true for most of the world) is driven by the desire for more. You may remember a few years back the AT&T commercial where the little girl says, “You just want more, you just want more.” The commentator says, “It’s not that complicated: Bigger is better.”

The reason Jesus calls him a fool is because he is preoccupied with himself and his goods. In the parable the fool talks to himself. He says to himself, “Self, what should I do for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he says, I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.” It’s “I” and “my.” He congratulates himself. He builds for himself. He lives for himself. We get no indication of any sense of responsibility toward others.

By contrast, consider Jesus’ teaching in the model prayer. It’s not about “my” or “mine”; it’s about “us” and “ours.” It’s about God and others. “Hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us. Deliver us from the time of trial.” It’s about God and community, not God and country. God’s community transcends country. God’s kin-dom transcends nationality, ethnicity, gender, class and everything else. In God’s kin-dom God is all in all. Everyone belongs.

In Colossians 3:5-11, Paul gives us his vision of where God’s living creation is headed. We are destined, according to Paul, to a place of ultimate renewal. In the time of fulfillment Paul envisions a world reconciled, at peace, where love of neighbor prevails. Paul says, “In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all in all.” In that renewal, says Paul, there will be no religious, racial, and social inequity or inequality. We will all be one. We will all belong. We will all be united. Christ will be all in all. What a glorious vision.

Will we ever reach a time of fulfillment? When we look at how divided we are now as families, as religious and social communities, as a country and as a world, it seems like a fairy tale wish doesn’t it? But, sisters and brothers, if we are truly followers of Jesus, and not just church goers or Christians in name only, then the dream of Christ being all in all will guide our steps and order our lives. Love of neighbor will be our first priority. And that, sisters and brothers, is what it means to be rich toward God. (The quote by Richard Rohr in your worship bulletin describes beautifully what it means to be rich toward God.)

Paul tells us to put away everything that would destroy that unity. Anything that would demean or degrade another one of God’s children must be stripped from our lives like we would strip off old, dirty clothes. Paul tells us to set our minds on things above, not on things of the earth. The way we do that is by loving others as we love ourselves. Jesus and Paul make it crystal clear to anyone not blinded by their greed and ego, that we love God by loving others. We are rich toward God when we live unselfishly and generously, sharing with others, caring for others, helping others. God’s love is eternal. When we love, it is the Christ loving in us and through us. To be rich toward God is to be rich in love and the relationships born out of love.

Paul says get rid of greed and self-indulgence, put to death all attitudes and actions that hurt others – anger, malice, slander, abusive language. Stop lying and deceiving. Strip off all the things associated with your old self, your egotistical self, your little, false self, and clothe yourself with the Christ self, the true, larger self. Paul goes on to say in that passage, “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Above all, says Paul, love your neighbor as yourself. This is how we become rich toward God, and that is the only kind of wealth that will last.

O God, we all struggle with greed, with wanting more for ourselves, sometimes at the expense of others having less. Forgive us, Lord. Teach us how to be generous and how to share with others. Teach us how to love our neighbors as ourselves. Because many of us don’t know how to do that. Help us to discover a better way so we won’t die as fools. So that we will be rich toward God. Amen.


Monday, July 29, 2019

The God we pray to (Luke 11:1-11)

Dr. Diana Butler Bass is a church historian and a keen analyst of present day Christianity and culture. She has written a number of books, several of which I have found quite helpful. She recently wrote a piece that appeared on the CNN opinion page, part in response to recent events and part as an analysis of where Christianity is today in our country. The piece was titled, “The of God of Love had a really bad week.” She began the piece by noting the crowd chant, “Send them back,” at a recent political rally. She discusses how the deep divisions that are tearing our country apart right now are being felt and played out in churches all across the country. She talks about this in the context of her own family and shares that she has not spoken to her brother since the incident at Charlottesville where a white nationalist ran his car through the crowd killing one and injuring 19 others. After that incident she and her brother had argued about white nationalism and racism, and haven’t talked sense. She explains that the two of them had grown up in the same Methodist church and Sunday School where they used to sing, “Jesus loves the little children, all the little children of the world. Red, brown, yellow, black and white. They are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” Diana says that they had the same parents, same teaching, same church. They learned the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you.” They learned the Great Commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” She says, “The God we worshiped was not a scary, threatening God, but the God of love and God’s peaceable kingdom.” But then she says (and how many of us have seen this play out in our own families, friendships, and church), “My brother, as an adult, traded that God for a tougher, stricter God who exercises judgment against all who refuse to bend the knee, a kind of Emperor-God, enthroned in glory . . . a masculine Sovereign, and a winner-God for people feeling displaced in a pluralistic world.” Diana Bass, who studies religious trends, says this militaristic God became more real to many Americans and more prevalent in America after 9/11.

She says, “Meanwhile, the God of love was not having a particularly good run. In the political age bookended by Ronald Reagan’s culture wars and a devastating terrorist attack, the God of Love began to look like a loser, one fit for liberation theologians, do-gooders, and feminists. The churches that still preached a God of Love declined; those seminaries closed.” That does seem to me to be an accurate portrayal. We have lost members because I preach a God of love and inclusion, and have had visitors who won’t came back for that very reason. They don’t want a God who just welcomes anyone. Many Christians (I would say most) want a God who just welcomes Christians. Some, perhaps many, want a God who just welcomes heterosexual people. And a good number of Christians want a God who threatens people with hell.

She goes on to say, “My brother and I read the same Bible and wound up praying to different gods. His God thunders about lawless mobs and unbelievers. Mine is the mysterious Word, present before the beginning of creation, calling all people to compassion, and who welcomes little ones.” “Same Bible,” she says, “but different gods.” How many of you have family members or friends, and you grew up the same way, but you now pray to different gods?

Now sisters and brothers, today’s text is on prayer and the point I want to get across is that our vision of God impacts how we pray and what we expect in prayer. One of Jesus’s disciples comes to him and says, “Teach us how to pray?” In response Jesus gives them a model prayer, a pattern for praying that we simply call the Lord’s prayer. Todays’ text includes Luke’s version of that prayer, which is shorter than Matthew’s version. Then, in the two illustrations that follow, Jesus focuses his aim on the nature of the God we are praying to. Why is this important? Because how we see God, how we envision God, how we think about God – our operative image of God – will greatly impact how we pray and what we pray for.

Jesus begins the model prayer with, “Our Father.” You probably are aware that Jesus spoke in Aramaic, which is a kind of colloquial form of the more formal Hebrew. Our New Testament was written in Greek, so the writers of our Gospels have translated and interpreted the sayings of Jesus and the stories about Jesus that were passed on to them. However, interestingly, the Aramaic word used for “Father” (Abba) has been preserved in the Gospel of Mark and in two letters from the Apostle Paul. In other words, the word, in those texts, was transliterated into Greek, rather than translated. It was written in Greek as it sounds in Aramaic in order to preserve the Aramaic word. The fact that Mark’s Gospel and Paul preserved the actual Aramaic word that Jesus would have used, tells us just how significant that word was to his early followers. The dominant view among the Hebrews focused on the transcendence or otherness of God. God was so revered that they even refused to speak the name of God. (This, by the way, is probably why Matthew talks about the kingdom of heaven, rather than the kingdom of God. It’s the same reality. Out of reverence for the name of God, Matthew substitutes the word “heaven.”) There is truth in this, God is to be reverenced, God is above all and beyond all, but taken too far God is viewed as out there, separate from creation and humanity. Jesus understood God to be near. God is not just out there. God is right here. The kingdom of God is within you (or among you) he told some Jewish leaders. The Aramaic term Jesus used was a term most frequently used to describe a warm, personal love a parent has for his or her child. This is the God of inclusion, rather than exclusion. This is the God who welcomes and loves all God’s little children of the world, rather than a stern, angry God who has favorites and operates on the basis of a system of worthiness.

Now, I think the way many Christians interpret Jesus’ teaching on prayer in the first illustration he uses in Luke 11 is not only a misreading of the text, but a misunderstanding and misjudgment of the very nature and character of God. A friend shows up unexpectedly tired and hungry. Hospitality was expected in that culture. They put a premium on showing hospitality to a guest. For the host to not be able to provide food would have brought shame on him and his family. But the host has no food to give. So, in desperation, he goes to a neighbor to ask for food, or beg for food if necessary. The neighbor does not want to help. The door is looked and the family is in bed. Go away, he says. But the host is persistent. Jesus says, “Even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend (friendship only goes so far, right), at least because of his persistence (or a better translation would be “shamelessness,” his shameless persistence) he will get up and give him whatever he needs.” Is God the kind of God you have to wear down, like a parent who gets so tired of telling his kids no, he finally gives in and gets them what they want? Do you have to keep bothering God until God finally says yes? You would agree with me wouldn’t you that that is not good parenting?

This first illustration is an illustration of what God is NOT like. The illustration that follows is intended to contrast with the first. God is not like the friend who begrudgingly supplies one’s need, only after you wear him down. Rather, says Jesus: “Ask and it will be given to you. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened.” Is it really that simple? Why is that? Because God is a loving God. Jesus goes on: “If your child asks for a piece of fish, do you give him a snake instead? If she asks for an egg to eat, do you give her a scorpion? Of course not. Now, if you who are evil (Jesus loves to use exaggeration) know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more (this is the point – how much more) will the heavenly Father (the good and gracious and generous Abba) give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.” 

Asking is a crucial component of the praying life. However, it is not about asking for just anything, or for that matter, just anything good. Some think that prayer has to do with saying the right words, or using the right formula, or having enough faith. They turn prayer into a kind of mechanism, sort of like putting your coins in the pop machine and pushing the button. They think asking starts a process that if everything functions the way it is suppose to, then our request, like a can of pop, will be delivered into our hands.

Now sisters and brothers, asking, seeking, and knocking on heaven’s door has to be understood in the context of a loving relationship with God which leads us beyond our little agenda to embrace a larger good. In the movie Bruce Almighty Bruce Nolan, played by Jim Carry, is a news reporter going through a midlife crisis. He complains to his girlfriend that God does a poor job running the universe and contends that that he could do a lot better. Well, he meets God, played by, who else, Morgan Freeman. God gives Bruce the opportunity to run things for a while, and of course, Bruce wrecks havoc with the world and his relationship with his girlfriend, Grace. Bruce however, in time finally grows up . . .  Bruce asks God, “What do you want me to do?” / God says, “I want you to pray, son.” / Bruce squints his eyes and makes an attempt, “Um . . . Lord, feed the hungry and . . . bring peace to . . .um . . .all mankind. How’s that?” / God says, “Great . . . if you want to be Miss America. Now come on. What do you really care about? / Bruce thinks about his girlfriend. He says, “Grace.” God says, “Grace. You want her back?” / Bruce pauses and then reflects just how far he has come along. He says, “No. I want her to be happy no matter what that means. I want her to find someone who will treat her with all the love she deserved from me. I want her to meet someone who will see her always as I do now . . . through your eyes.” God smiles, “Now that’s a prayer.” Indeed, that is a prayer. Prayer takes us beyond our own interests to embrace larger interests related to God’s kin-dom of earth.

If you interpret this passage in Luke on prayer to mean that God is going to give us good things when we ask, then you are misreading/misintpreting it, because it doesn’t say that at all. What it says is that just as (there is an analogy/a comparison here) a loving human father or mother delights in giving what is good for their children, God delights in giving us what is good for us, namely,the Holy Spirit. Jesus doesn’t say that God will give us any good thing. What he says is God will give us the Holy Spirit when we ask. The phrase “Holy Spirit” is just another way of talking about God’s (Abba’s) loving involvement and engagement in our lives. The Holy Spirit is not an entity separate from God. The Holy Spirit is God – God at work in our lives. When Paul uses the phrase “Spirit of Christ” that is just another way of talking about God emphasizing that Jesus is our window through which we see and understand God’s character and what God is doing and wants to do in the world. The Holy Spirit is God actively working in our lives. To ask for the Holy Spirit is to ask for awareness, discernment, and openness to God’s work. To ask for the Holy Spirit is to intentionally participate in the work of God/Christ in the world.

In one sense we already have the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is what gives us life and breath. Both of the creation stories in Genesis teach this. In the first creation story the human couple reflect the very image of God. They are God’s offspring. A part of God lives in them. In the second creation story the human creature doesn’t come alive until God breathes into the human creature God’s own Spirit, God’s own breath of life. The Holy Spirit is in us, with us, around us – all the time. When I am talking to God, I am not talking to God way up there somewhere. I am talking to God in here, in my deepest self, my true self, where God dwells. To ask for the Holy Spirit is to ask to be a channel through whom the Spirit flows. To ask for the Spirit is to intentionally be part of the inflow and outflow of divine blessing in the world.   

When I first started praying years ago with any persistence I imagined God as out there, somewhere else, relating to us from a distance. I imagined a God who from time to time would intervene into our world to control events, circumstances, and people. Surely I was wrong. Isn’t it obvious that God controls very little? Just look around. Surely God believes in freedom much more than God believes in control. Clearly, God deeply respects and regards human freedom, and the freedom built into creation itself, even when we use that freedom or Mother Nature uses that freedom in abusive and horrendous ways.

Now, I still believe in intercessory prayer and engage in intercessory prayer everyday. I believe there is great mystery to prayer. I believe that our prayers connect to positive forces and powers all around us to help in our healing and to help us tap into God’s wisdom, and guidance. But I also realize that the way God works in our world and in our lives is much more subtle and indirect than I or most of you like. When you think about it, just about everything God wants to do in the world God does through you and me, or it doesn’t get done. Paul understood this when he talks about the church, the covenant people of God, being the body of Christ in the world. How does God, the living Christ, make God’s self known and bring about peace and justice in the world? The only way I know God can do this is through you and me, through people who are willing to be instruments of peace and conduits through whom God’s love and grace and restorative justice can flow. This is what the Christian teaching of incarnation is about. God becomes incarnate through us as we are led by the Spirit of Christ. Paul says in Galatians, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” These are humanly embodied qualities. They express themselves in our demeanor, our conversations, our actions, and our relationships. The Divine Spirit works in this material world through material means – primarily, the material of flesh and blood – you and me. It’s the only way God gets things done in the world.

Prayer is the means by which I open my life to God to participate in and help fulfill God’s will/dream/plan for the world. Prayer is the means by which I become aware of and sensitive to the ways of God’s love, and make my life available to experience and express God’s love in and through my life. Prayer is readiness and openness and participation in God’s inflow and outflow of blessing. Prayer is our way of being available to share in the workings of Divine Love.

Our good and gracious God, help us to see that what you want from us is our love, because you have already given us your love. Help us to discover over and over again what your love looks like and feels like. And may we not keep it to ourselves, for then it wouldn’t be love. Let us realize that the only way to grow in love is to give love away. Help us, through prayer, to be open and receptive to your wisdom and inspiration and compassion, so that we can participate in your loving ways and works in the world. In Christ’s name. Amen.

Monday, July 15, 2019

The Heart of True Religion (Luke 10:25-37)

This teaching of Jesus on love gets to the heart and soul of God’s will for humanity. I get to preach on this text yearly, because all three Synoptic Gospels has a version of this passage, and the Revised Common Lectionary includes this text yearly as part of its readings. Each version is different, and Luke’s version deviates significantly from Mark and Matthew’s version. Only Luke includes the story of what we have come to call the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which is why I love preaching Luke’s version of the story. All three versions make it clear that these two commandments – to love God with the totality of our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves – constitute the goal and fulfillment of healthy religion and what God longs to see in human relationships and society.

Luke, however, clearly puts the emphasis on the command to love one’s neighbor. For Luke, loving one’s neighbor is how one loves God. Actually, these are not two separate commands, but one command. When we love our neighbor as ourselves we are loving God whether we realize it or not. According to the Apostle John this is the central way we express love for God, namely, by loving others. John writes, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us . . . God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God” (4:12a, 16b). Whenever we love others, we are loving God. God is love, says John, and wherever love is God is. This is true regardless of what one believes about God. Now, I think we should be intentional in cultivating a relationship with God, but a relationship with God that doesn’t focus on loving others is no relationship at all. In fact, we are just fooling ourselves if we think we are pleasing God through all our religious activities and observances, if we do not love our neighbor as ourselves.

This is clearly Paul’s take on these two commandments as well. In fact, Paul doesn’t even mention in any of his letters the first command to love God with the totality of our being. Paul makes everything hinge on the command to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. In his letter to the Roman in chap. 13 he says, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Paul goes on to say that all the commandments can be “summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Then he concludes his argument by saying, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” Paul is clearly echoing the teaching of Jesus. Then, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul instructs the church not to use their freedom from the law for self-indulgence, but rather, he admonishes them, “through love become servants of one another.” “For the whole law,” says Paul, “is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” He doesn’t mention two commandments as Jesus did. He narrows it to a single command. The reason he can talk about loving our neighbor alone as the fulfillment of the law is because loving one’s neighbor automatically means loving God. We love God by loving our neighbor. Paul says a paragraph or two earlier that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything. This was a sacred rite and ritual to faithful Jews. Rather, he says, “the only thing that counts is faithfulness expressed through love.” That’s the only thing that matters says Paul.

Luke’s version of the story begins with a lawyer or scribe asking Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” One might inherit something now or in the future, so it’s hard to know exactly what the scribe intends. He could be asking, “What must I do to possess eternal life now or what must I do to receive eternal life in the next life?” A major point that John’s Gospel makes is that eternal life is now before it is later. Eternal life is life in God, with God, and for God. Of course, the scribe may have taken the view that eternal is something that is future. Either way, he wanted to know what he needed to do. He was right in thinking there was something he needed to do, but he was wrong, if he thought eternal life was a reward for doing something. Eternal life is not a reward that we earn. Jesus’ practice of welcoming all to the meal table symbolized God’s inclusive grace. Jesus challenged the major beliefs and practices within Judaism that made God and eternal life something you earned. Jesus would abolish all systems of meritocracy. Eternal life in God is a gift. However, it is a gift that needs to be unwrapped and appropriated. We appropriate and experience the gift by what we do, not by what we believe. You were not taught this, I know. I wasn’t either. But it’s clearly what this passage teaches.

Jesus responds to the scribe’s question with his own question turning it back to the scribe: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” In Luke’s version it is the lawyer, rather than Jesus, who recites the two commandments about loving God and loving neighbor. Then, after he answers by reciting these two commandments, Jesus says, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” Not believe this. Do this and you will live. Do this, namely, love God and love your neighbor (or we could say, Love God by loving your neighbor) and you will live. That is, you will experience and express the very life of the eternal God. We intentionally and consciously enter into a friendship and partnership with God through what we do. And what we do is love our neighbor as ourselves. As Paul says, that’s the only thing that counts.

I have shared before and will share again the story Phillip Gulley tells about the time when, as a young minister, he accepted a call to pastor a Quaker meeting in Indianapolis. It was a small community, but a very loving and caring community. The main reason for the contagious caring spirit that characterized that faith community rested in the presence of a couple who had helped start the congregation years before, Lyman and Harriet Combs. When Gulley met them in 1990, they were retired and had devoted their remaining years to ministering to others. Lyman volunteered each day at a homeless shelter. Harriet made it her practice to be available to anyone in need. She babysat, transported people to appointments, tended the sick, visited the lonely, and did so, says Gulley, with such good humor and joy that to be in her presence was a redemptive experience.

Over the years, the small faith community there took on their demeanor. A joyful and grateful spirit infused the church’s worship and ministry. The little church was incredibly generous, regularly emptying its bank account to help the less fortunate. Because of the church’s close proximity to several resources for the homeless, they were frequently visited by mentally ill persons, all of whom were warmly welcomed and made to feel at home. So often, people who needed to be touched in a special way, after a divorce, after the death of a loved one, or in the throes of a very painful experience, would stumble into their little church and find strength, comfort, and hope.

The church did eventually attract more people. But as gracious as the people of the church were, Gulley would often find himself frustrated by their apparent indifference when it came to growing their numbers and getting more people in the community to come. On one occasion, frustrated that the church was not growing in numbers the way he wanted it too, he asked Harriet why that was. Her response was, “I guess it was never our goal to have a large church.” Their denomination, as almost all denominations do, had spent considerable resources trying to attract new participants to their congregations, so Gulley was a bit surprised and not a little concerned by Harriet’s response, which seemed to contradict their denomination’s priority. Gulley was young and energetic and wanted the numbers to increase. I remember being the very same way. So he asked Harriet, “Then why are we here?” She said smiling, “To love.” That’s why we are here. Gulley could have passed for the scribe and Harriet for Jesus. Do this and you will live, says Jesus. Love your neighbor as yourself, says Jesus, and you will experience God’s life and spread God’s life wherever you go.

Then the scribe, says Luke, “wanting to justify himself” asks, “Who is my neighbor?” It’s hard to know the scribe’s intention. Luke tells us earlier in the passage that he wanted to “test” Jesus, but testing can be a negative thing or a positive thing. I think this scribe was genuinely interested in being right with God. So he asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Who is it, then, that I need to love in order to experience the life of God and be right with God? In response, as Jesus loved to do, he told a story. I like to tell stories, because you will remember a story, when you forget everything else.

Jesus begins the story with, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” Last week I told about Author Nikos Kazantzakis in his native Crete passing an elderly woman carrying a basket of figs. She paused, picked out two figs, and gave them to Kazantzakis. “Do you know me, old lady?” he asked. She said, “No, my boy. Do I have to know you to give you something? You are a human being, aren’t you? Isn’t that enough?” It’s not a Jew or a Samaritan or a Gentile or a scribe or teacher or soldier or anyone else – just a man, a human being, one of God’s children who gets robbed and beaten and left for dead.

Many who read this story from within an exclusive Christian viewpoint see the story mainly as an illustration of the kind of love we should show to a neighbor. And certainly that is part of it. The one who stopped to help the suffering man made sacrifices of time and money. It was both costly and risky. It could have been a trap, so he took a risk. And the help needed required an investment of both money and time.

But as true as that is, that’s not the main point Jesus intended. The question asked by the scribe is not, “What do I need to do to love my neighbor?” But rather, “Who is my neighbor?” I suspect, being an interpreter of scripture, he knew what he was supposed to do. The law and the prophets are full of exhortations to love – to act in compassion and to do justice on behalf of the poor and vulnerable. The question is, “Who should I extend such costly and risky care and compassion to?”

Let’s not miss what Jesus says. Two religious leaders among the Jews, a priest and a Levite, did not think “the man” was worthy of their time and money. They passed by on the other side of the street so they wouldn’t even have to look at the man and see his face, and feel guilty for not stopping. A man asked his wife who had been to church that morning what the preacher preached on. She said, “Ignorance and apathy.” He said, “What’s that?” She said, “I don’t know and I don’t care.” That was the approach of the two religious leaders in Jesus’ story. But then a Samaritan passed that way, someone different racially and religiously than Jesus and the scribe. In fact, there was an ongoing feud between the Jews and the Samaritans. For the most part, the majority of both groups mutually detested and despised the other. As I have often said, if Jesus were telling the story today in our context, the two religious leaders who passed by would be a Baptist pastor and the worship leader. Mac, you and I wouldn’t look good at all in this story. The one who stopped to offer costly and risky care and help would be, perhaps, a Muslim, or undocumented person, or someone of a different religion and race. That person would be the hero in the story, just the way Jesus makes the Samaritan the hero in the story Jesus told to his fellow Jews. And many of us would be as mad at Jesus as the Jewish leaders were for making a Samaritan the hero who demonstrated what it looks like to love your neighbor as yourself.

When Jesus asked the scribe who it was among the three that loved his neighbor as himself, the scribe could not even bring himself to say the Samaritan. He said, “the one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.” Jesus makes it all about doing. Jesus asks us, Do you want to share in and cooperate with the eternal life and will of God? Do you want to know God and be right with God? Then go and do likewise. Go and love your neighbor- the Muslim, the undocumented person, the person of a different religion or race or sexual orientation. Go and love that person, your neighbor, as yourself.

Gracious God, inspire us, lead us, empower us to love like Jesus, and extend God’s welcome and acceptance and grace to all people, especially those different than us. Amen.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

The Work To Be Done (Luke 10:1-11; 17-20; Gal 6:2, 7-10)

Jesus says that the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few, so ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest. There is much work to do and few workers to do it. But even as we ask the Lord to send out workers, maybe we should give some thought to the work that needs to be done.

Answers will differ. Perhaps there was a time in our lives when we could assume that all Christians of a particular stripe would agree on the work to be done. If there was such a time, those days are gone. One of the interesting things modern biblical scholarship has exposed is how much diversity there was even in the early days of the Jesus movement.

What does Jesus sent out the the seventy to do? For one thing, he sends them out to heal the sick. One of the primary works of Jesus that the living Christ calls us to do are works of healing. Heal the sick, says Jesus. The word that we often translate as “heal” or “make whole” in the Gospels is the same word we translate as “save” in other contexts. Salvation in the Gospels is a restoration to wholeness. It is about healing. In the Gospels salvation is healing.

Fred Craddock tells about the time he was acting dean at Phillips Seminary. It was a short stint, he says. One day a woman stopped to see him. She wanted him to follow her to the parking lot and to her car. He was a little nervous, but he did. Slumped in the back seat was her brother. He had been a senior at the University of Oklahoma. He had been in a tragic car wreck and was in a coma for eight months. She had quit her job as a schoolteacher to take care of him. All of their resources had been exhausted. She said to Dr. Craddock, “I want you to heal him.”

He told her that he couldn’t do that. He could pray for him, but he couldn’t heal him. He said that he did not have the gift of healing. She got in the car, looked at Fred, and said “Then what in the world do you do?” And she drove off. Dr. Craddock said that afternoon he went back into his study, starred at his books, and tried to forget what she had said. Of course, we know the kind of healing she was wanting, which, of course, could not be given. But that question gave Dr. Craddock pause. “If you can’t heal, then what in the world do you do?” she asked.

What do you make of all the healing stories in the Gospels? We live in a different time and place. We have different perspectives on healing. We have different understandings of the causes of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual sickness. We have different understandings of the anti-human forces at work today that diminish our lives, which destructive powers we need deliverance and healing from.

But healing is still the great need we have as human beings and a society– on all levels – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. We have made great strides in some areas of healing, but still have a long way to go. I think most of us are more aware today of the connections between physical, psychic, and spiritual sickness, which can be very complex. And it is not just individuals who need healing. Our relationships need healing; our communities need healing; whole societies need healing. There are inseparable connections between works of healing and works of justice, which works we are also called to do as disciples of Jesus. The two kinds of works go hand-in-hand. When we work for justice, for what is right and good and just and fair, we are engaging in works of communal or societal healing.

Quite a few people had gathered at the large house for the reception. I don’t know the occasion, but there was a punch bowl, and some cake and peanuts and little mints and some sandwiches. You know the standard fare. Everyone was standing around, having the kind of conversations you have at such occasions. “I guess we’re going to get some rain this week.” “Did you see the game last night?” That kind of stuff. And then Brenda Williams walked into the room. And there was something about the room that changed when she walked in. It wasn’t her beauty or her appearance or anything like that. It had to do with who she was and what she was about.

She spent much of her time writing letters, making calls, going to see important people in high places about the way the law treats juvenile offenders. Seven days a week she worries the authorities to death. Someone asked her, “You enjoy doing that?” “No, not really,” was her reply. “You get paid for all that work. Do you have a position or title? Are you on a pay roll?” “Oh, no,” she said. “You have children in trouble with the law?” “No. My children are not in any trouble.” “Then why in the world do you spend your time doing that. It’s no fun. You’re not getting paid. None of your friends are doing it. Why are doing it?” Her answer, “Because I have to.”

She feels compelled. She has a calling. She has a commission. The Spirit of God inspires her and drives her into the wilderness where she confronts the powers that be on matters of justice for juvenile offenders. That kind of work is just as important as the works of mercy and kindness we do when we walk with someone in their time of grief or loss, or when we help in the soup kitchen or at the Simon House, or when we give generously of our resources and time to minister to those in distress or in personal or financial need.

Do you find it interesting that Jesus tells the seventy he sends out to stay at one place and to proclaim to that house that the kingdom of God is near. There is to be no shopping around for the best room and board. Jesus says, “Go to whatever house welcomes you.” And he tells them to eat whatever is set before them. Why is that? Remember that Jesus himself sat at table with all sorts of people. The table meal in the life and ministry of Jesus became an important, if not the most important symbol for the kingdom of God. All were welcome. No distinctions were made. All were on equal footing before God. The disciples are sent out to convey that same message. There can be no hint of privilege. It may be Jewish food or Gentile food set before them – it maybe a full course meal or trifles – it doesn’t make any difference. The kingdom has come near to all. That’s why Jesus instructs them to be servants of all, because the kingdom has come near to all. And that was the message Jesus said to proclaim to whoever would welcome them into their home and to their table. The kingdom of God is at hand. The kingdom of God has come near.

When Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, which was the central theme of his ministry, he is talking about God’s will for the world, and that includes both healing and justice. Paul tells the churches of Galatia to not be weary in doing what is right. He says that whenever we have opportunity let us “work for the good of all.” The common good is central to God’s kingdom and God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

As most of you know several years ago I raised my voice along with many other voices, and we did what little we could do to help get the Fairness ordinance passed here in Frankfort. The irony of that is that while there were other Christians and clergy like myself (I wasn’t alone by any means) advocating and speaking for that legislation, many more Christians were opposed to it. Far more Christians opposed it than favored it. One of the arguments that always baffled me, which was one of the most common arguments advanced against it by Christians was, “You can’t legislate fairness.” Personally, I think that argument was just a way for them to disguise their prejudice against the LGBT Community. And when you think about it, it’s a silly argument. Of course you can legislate fairness. We did it when we abolished the laws of segregation on a national level. We legislated fairness. And while many still broke the law, the law itself was helpful in bringing about change. Now, what you can’t legislate is individual transformation or the healing of a person’s or group’s racism or prejudice. Only the law of Christ can do that, which is the law of love. Only the love of God working in a person or community can heal racism and prejudice. But, yes indeed, we can legislate fairness, and we who are disciples of Jesus should demand that our representatives enact legislation that promotes fairness and justice. The healing of a society depends on it, and it’s a key part of the process.

Author Nikos Kazantzakis was walking along a dusty path in his native Crete. An elderly woman passed by, carrying a basket of figs. She paused, picked out two figs, and presented them to Kazantzakis. “Do you know me, old lady?” he asked. She looked at him puzzled and said, “No, my boy. Do I have to know you to give you something? You are a human being, aren’t you? So am I. Isn’t that enough?”

I wish to God it were enough. I’m sure you have been reading and hearing about the deplorable conditions where asylum seekers and migrants seeking safety from unsafe conditions are being held and how they are being mistreated. It’s tragic. Instead of allowing them to stay with relatives or friends or people or communities that would take them in until their papers can be processed and they can get a hearing, they are being imprisoned in overcrowded detention centers where conditions are inhumane and deplorable. And now our nation’s leader is talking about more raids on the undocumented gathering up even more people and placing them in those same conditions, or separating families and sending them back to places where they have not been in years and are unsafe. Isn’t it enough that they are human beings? God’s daughters and sons. God’s children loved by God. O no, it’s not, because there is no compassion, no concern at all. Just hate and prejudice and fear. That’s what guides the immigration policies and practices of our nation’s leaders today.

Paul says to the Galatian Christians, “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right (that is, what fulfills the law of Christ, the law of love, the law of love your neighbor as yourself), for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” Generally, in that culture those who constituted the family of faith were those who were the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in society. Not all of course, but many. Certainly the majority. When Paul writes to the Corinthians he tells them that not many of high status or wealth or those in the high standing of society have accepted the call to be part of the community of Christ. He tells them that God chooses the “foolish” things, and “low” things, and the “weak” things of the world to confound the wise and the strong and the rich. Paul doesn’t say “not any” well-to-do people and powerful people are called, but he does say, “not many” are called. And we know from story after story in the Gospels and from the teachings of Jesus that Jesus had a special interest and regard for the poor and vulnerable, as well as the outcasts and excluded in his society.

In the Hebrew scriptures three groups of people are singled out as worthy of special consideration, compassion, and care: strangers or aliens, that is, non-Jews, widows, and orphans. Scholars point out that the legal mandates for caring for these were quite unique among other known judicial systems in the Ancient Near East. Israel’s covenant with God, Israel’s law required consistent and outspoken advocacy and care for the weakest, least protected, and most disadvantaged in their society.

There is a story told about William Booth, the founder of the Salvation army, who spent many years reaching out to the poor and needy on the streets of London. Every Christmas, London churches sent out representatives to the streets to invite the poor to their Christmas celebrations. They would typically say, “All of you who are Anglicans, come with us.” Or “All of you who are Catholics, come with us.” Or all of you who are Methodists or Lutherans or whatever, come with us.” When all of that was done, there would still be left a large crowd. William Booth would shout out, “All of you who belong to no one, come with me!” Who do you think captured best the spirit of Jesus?

Jesus told the disciples to announce the kingdom of God has come near, when they sit down to table with all kinds of folks and when they engage in works of healing. We need a new vision of the kingdom of God. Actually, it’s an old vision we need. The vision that inspired and compelled Jesus to welcome all and heal all is the vision we need today. It’s a vision he died for on a Roman cross. The vision is captured beautifully in a poem by Cynthia Kirk titled “Kin-dom without Walls.”

Imagine a place / Where mercy resides, / Love forms each heart, /
Compassion lived out with grit and determination. / A place where lavish signs / Mark each path barrier free.

Imagine a place / Where skin tones are celebrated / Like the hues of tulips in springtime. / Where languages inspire / With symphonies of diversity. / Where Respect schools us / In custom and history / And every conversation / Begins with a bow of reverence.

Imagine a place where each person wears glasses, / Clarity of vision for all. / Recognizing each one, everything / Made in the image of God.

Imagine a place / Where carrots and pasta / Doctor’s skills and medications
Are not chained behind barbed wire- / Food, shelter, health care available for all.

Imagine a place where / Every key of oppression / Was melted down to form public art / Huge fish, doves, lions and lambs / On which children could play.

Imagine a place where / People no longer kept watch / Through the front window / To determine whether the welcome mat / Would remain on the porch.

Such is the work / The journey / They destination / In the kin_dom of God.

O God, inspire us to imagine, to dream, to pray, and to work for the kin_dom of God – where we all belong and we love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Amen.