Sunday, January 27, 2019

Living out our calling (A sermon from Luke 4:14-21)

In today’s Gospel passage Luke describes a scene set in the context of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. Now, Mark’s Gospel, which Matthew’s Gospel follows, doesn’t have Jesus visiting Nazareth until later in his Galilean ministry. Luke has Jesus in Nazareth right away and describes the scene somewhat differently than what appears in Mark and Matthew. This reminds us once again that the Gospel stories are not historical reports. They are proclamations of spiritual truth centered in the life and teachings of Jesus. The reason Luke places this first in his account and has Jesus say and do what he says and does is because Luke, at the very beginning, wants his readers to know what Jesus is all about and what God has called Jesus to do. So as we look at Jesus’ calling today, perhaps we can learn something about our own calling.

According to Luke’s arrangement we can conclude that Jesus’ sense of calling emerges out of his confidence – his trust and faith – in who he is. The scene follows right on the heels of Jesus’ baptism and struggle in the wilderness, both of which relate to Jesus’ understanding of who he is and what he is called to do. After Jesus’ baptism Luke says that while Jesus was praying the heavens parted, the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove, and a voice from heaven affirmed him saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The symbolism of the heavens opening, the dove descending, and the voice affirming his belovedness and sonship symbolizes the intimacy and connection Jesus has with God. Jesus knows who he is. Do we? Do we know who we are?

One of the keys to living out our calling is our capacity to trust and claim our identity as God’s daughters and sons. Have we heard the divine voice whispering to us that we are God’s beloved children? Like our birth into this world, this is not something we earn or achieve? It’s a given. It’s all gift and all grace. We are loved with an eternal love. Our true self is the Christ self – that’s who we are.

When we tap into our true self, the Christ self, we find the inspiration and courage to live out our calling, even when it is difficult. On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery Alabama, Rosa Parks did something that she was not supposed to do. She sat down at the front of a bus in one of the seats reserved for whites—a bold and daring act in a racist society. It has been told that years later a graduate student came to Rosa Parks and asked, “Why did you sit down at the front of the bus that day?” She did not say that she sat down to launch a movement. She had not planned to launch a movement. Rather, she said, she sat down because she was tired. But she did not mean that her legs were tired. She meant that her soul was tired. Her spirit was tired. She was tired of playing by racist rules; she was tired of denying her true self.

There were many influences and factors that contributed to her courageous and provocative act. She had studied the theory and tactics of nonviolence at the Highlander Folk School, where Martin Luther King Jr, was also a student. She was secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, whose members had discussed civil disobedience. But that day when she decided to sit where she was not allowed to sit, she had no guarantee that the principles of nonviolence would work or that she would even be backed by her community. She simply decided to be true to herself. She decided that she would claim her authentic self and not act in any way contrary to the truth about who she was, regardless of the consequences. I believe that if we are to be true to our calling we will be true to who we really are.

I also believe that when we live out our calling we will reflect something of the character and passion of God that we see embodied in the character and passion of Jesus. We will value what the Christ values. We will give ourselves to his agenda, not our own. What Christ regards as a priority will be our priority.

Jesus understood his calling in light of Isaiah 61. Luke says that he read from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” After he concluded the reading, with all eyes in the synagogue fixed on him, he said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” He is telling them that this is what he is primarily about. This is his calling. This is his mission. This is his agenda.

Jesus believed that the Spirit was leading him to bring good news to the poor. What might be good news to the poor? Perhaps it is the good news that in the kingdom of God, when God’s purpose, God’s intent, God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven poverty will be no more – for all will have enough to not just survive, but to thrive. Perhaps it’s the good news that there will no longer be an economic pecking order, but all will have just what they need to live a full live – no more and no less. If the first are made last and the last made first as Jesus said apparently numerous times, then all are placed on equal ground. If the first are last and the last are first, then everyone is equal. We all occupy the same place. There are no distinctions. There are no levels of worthiness or privilege.

Now maybe that’s not such good news to those who enjoy having more than others. Maybe that’s not what those in power, those who deem themselves “first” or “greatest” in society want, but that’s how it’s going down. We either love others as we love ourselves, or there’s no place for us in God’s kingdom. Whatever God’s judgment may involve or whatever form it may take, it’s purpose is to teach us how to love all people. Maybe this doesn’t sound like good news to those who enjoy having others indebted to them, those who enjoy place and position and power over others, but it’s good news to the poor. Jesus brings good news to the poor.

Jesus understood that he was called to proclaim release to those held captive and to work for the freedom of those oppressed. Our society employs any number of ways to hold folks down, to keep them captive, and to oppress them. And unfortunately and sadly too often today Christians are involved in the oppressing of others, rather than working for their liberation, just like the religious authorities did in Jesus’ day. Different context, different time, same sin and same problem. Consider how many Christians today side with the powers that be when refugees fleeing violence and poverty and abuse are denied asylum. These poor, vulnerable people are even accused of being criminals with evil intent. Families are separated. Children are stripped from their parents. They are held in tent cities and treated with disdain. “You don’t belong,” they are told. Those in power would crush the spirit and extinguish the divine light within God’s little ones. How is it possible to love’s one’s neighbor and side with the oppressor? It’s not. One can’t claim to love one’s neighbor, when one favors oppressing one’s neighbor.

But Jesus says that in the kingdom of God all belong. All are chosen. All have worth and dignity. All reflect God’s likeness. Jesus would heal those held captive to sickness, and he would liberate all those oppressed by demonic powers that want to beat them down and keep them captive. Jesus understood that he was called to open people’s eyes to the truth of God’s love and grace, because he knew how blind people are to the reality of God’s magnanimous, unconditional love.

Do we have any idea, sisters and brothers, that we are called to proclaim and work for the same kind of things? We will if we share the Spirit of Christ. We will if we realize that we are all God’s daughters and sons who are called to be conduits through whom the Spirit of Christ can flow. Do we not realize that we, too, like Jesus, are called to share the character and passion of God?

If we are to live out our calling then we must not only trust in and claim our identity as the sons and daughters of God, we must also share the heart and passion of God, by mirroring, reflecting, and channeling the character and passion of Jesus. Jesus is our definitive revelation of what God is like and what God wants for all God’s children. We are first and foremost followers of Jesus. If we have no desire to share Jesus’ love and mercy and compassion, if we have no interest in bringing good news to the poor, or proclaiming release for the captives, or liberation for the oppressed, or helping the blind to see, then we shouldn’t call ourselves disciples of Jesus. In today’s “Christian” America there can be a vast difference between being a disciple of Jesus and being a Christian.

I shared last week, when just a few were here, about the time when I pastored in Maryland and was able to have a conversation with the chaplain of the Senate, who at the time, was Rev. Lloyd Ogilvie.  A church member, who was a Lieutenant with the Capital Police, invited me to offer a prayer at a New Officers Induction Ceremony, and while I was there he arranged this meeting. I asked Rev. Ogilvie  what he thought was the greatest need in the church today. He said, “For religious people to know God.” I will put it a different way, though similar. I think the greatest need in the church today is for Christians to be disciples of Jesus. Unless we aspire to obey his teachings and to share his character and passion we are not disciples of Jesus.

Last week, Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee shared a stage with Rev. William Barber of the Poor People’s movement, for an event celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. I’m not sure how those two were invited to the same event, but it sure made for some interesting conversation. Rev. Barber is a Christian prophet who doesn’t hold back. Rev. Barber said, “Politicians can’t say they love Dr. King and how he stood for love and unity, but then refuse to support his agenda.” He turned and said, “Right Governor?” Rev. Barber said, “Dr. King believed every citizen should have health care. If you believe that adequate health care should be the right of every citizen stand.” People all over the auditorium stood. Gov. Lee remained seated. Rev Barber then thundered, “If you can’t stand, then don’t say you love Dr. King!” He went on, “Of the twenty-five wealthiest countries in the world, we are the only one that doesn’t offer some form of universal health care. Now, some want to take away the pre-existing conditions provisions. There’s something wrong spiritually with people who want to do that.” I imagine Gov. Lee will think twice about the invitations he accepts next year. Rev. Barber didn’t stop there. He gave it to us preachers too. He said, “If you are a minister of the gospel and they can find you on your pastor’s anniversary, but can’t find you in the streets with the students and other folks standing up against injustice then you have no business being a minister.” He said, “If you are a preacher of the gospel and you ask your people to tithe, but you are not fighting for them to have a living wage you are lying.” He prophesied against us preachers too.

If we do not aspire to do the will of Jesus and to carry out his agenda, we are not followers of Jesus. We have no right to say we love Jesus. We might be Christians, we might be church members, we might be religious folk, we might love our country, but we do not love Jesus, we are not disciples of Jesus. Living out our calling means experiencing and expressing the character of Christ – his unconditional love and grace, and his passion for the poor, the captive, the oppressed, and the blind.

I would also add this. If we are to live out our calling, we, also, must realize that we ourselves are among the poor, the captive, the oppressed, and the blind. We might not be economically poor, but we are poor in spirit in so many ways. We are often poor in the way we care for each other. We are often poor in the way we express God’s love to people who are different than us. We are often poor in the meager ways we express God’s grace. Can we see how poor in spirit, how spiritually poor we are? Can we see how often we are held captive by our greed and pride, and how we are oppressed by feelings of prejudice toward and disregard of others? How often are we held in captivity by our feelings of hate and disdain of others, and by feelings of both superiority and inferiority. Sometimes our little self thinks of itself more highly than it is, and sometimes it deems itself more lowly than it is. Either way our ego holds us captive. Do we realize how blind we can be to these realities, and to our own biases and prejudices? Can we see how confined and constricted and oppressed our ego is when we lack mercy and the ability to forgive, and hold on to bitterness, resentments, and the seeking of revenge? Too often we cannot see, because our hearts are hardened and insensitive and calloused. We become blind to what is. So until we are able to see ourselves among the poor and the blind, among the captives and the oppressed, we will not be able to live out our calling, and we will not share the character and passion of Christ. 

Our calling as disciples of Jesus is to share his love and compassion for all people. We do that first, by trusting in God’s word to us that we are God’s beloved daughters and sons. We listen to the voice of the Spirit telling us who we are. Then we yield to the flow of the Spirit so that we can become who we are, so that we can experience and express the character of Christ and his passion for the rejected and excluded and those pushed out and beaten down. And in order to have the humility to live out the agenda of Jesus, we need to see how spiritually poor we are, how imprisoned to our ego we are, how oppressed we are by our negative patterns, and how blind we are to our biases and prejudices. Whatever the specifics of God’s calling upon our lives may be, it will always lead us into the way of Jesus – to engage in the agenda of Jesus, which means bringing good news to the poor, setting captives free, bringing sight to the blind, liberating the oppressed, and proclaiming the acceptance, forgiveness, and gracious welcome of God.  

Our good God, let it be so. Amen and Amen.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Weddings, Wine, and the Joy of a Christ-filled Life (A sermon from John 2:1-11)

The best wedding story I have ever heard comes from Robert Fulghum in his book, It was on fire when I lay down on it. It was a wedding he officiated that was produced on an epic scale by the Mother of the Bride, who Fulghum simply designates, the MOB. There was an eighteen-piece brass ensemble and gift registries spreading across most of the continental United States—with 24 bridesmaids, groomsmen, flower-petal-throwers, and ring bearers.  Fulghum says, "Looking back, it seems now that the rehearsal and dinner on the evening before the great event were not unlike what took place in Napoleon's camp the night before Waterloo. Nothing had been left to chance. Nothing could prevent a victory on the coming day. Nobody would EVER forget this wedding."

The great day came. The plans were all working --until the climactic moment of the processional. Fulghum writes:   “Ah, the bride. She had been dressed for hours if not days. No adrenaline was left in her body. Left alone with her father in the reception hall of the church while the march of the maidens went on and on, she walked along the tables laden with gourmet goodies and absentmindedly sampled first the little pink and yellow and green mints. Then she picked through the silver bowls of mixed nuts and ate the pecans. Followed by a cheese ball or two, some black olives, a handful of glazed almonds, a little sausage with a frilly toothpick stuck in it, a couple of shrimps blanketed in bacon, and a cracker piled with liver pate. To wash this down--a glass of pick champagne. Her father gave it to her. To calm her nerves. What you noticed as the bride stood in the doorway was not her dress, but her face. White. For what was coming down the aisle was a living grenade with the pin pulled out. The bride threw up. Just as she walked by her mother.  And by 'threw up,' I don't mean a polite lady like urp into her handkerchief. She puked. There's just no nice word for it. I mean, she hosed the front of the chancel--hitting two bridesmaids, the groom and ring bearer, and me. . . .  Only two people were seen smiling. One was the mother of the groom. And the other was the father of the bride. 

Fulghum explains how they pulled themselves together for a much quieter ceremony in the reception hall. And how "everybody cried, as people are suppose to do at weddings, mostly because the groom held the bride in his arms through the whole ceremony. And no groom ever kissed a bride more tenderly than he."  

One of the first stories we are told about Jesus in the Gospel of John is his attendance at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. The Gospel writer describes this story as a “sign.” He doesn’t call this a miracle, he calls it a “sign” – that is, the significance of this story is what the story signifies or symbolizes. The story discloses some things much more important than Jesus simply making sure the wedding party didn’t run out of wine. It is called a “sign” because it conveys spiritual truth. Gospel stories are not historical reports, they are spiritual proclamations, and they function much like parables in communicating spiritual truth.

Weddings in Jewish culture were highly festive, lively, joyous events, and that alone says something significant about a Christ-filled life. And then, of course, we have the wine, and what it symbolizes. In this story Jesus turns water into wine; in the church culture of my youth church leaders seemed to be much more concerned about turning the wine into grape juice. Certainly there are some scriptures that warn us of the abuse of wine. In writing to the Ephesians Paul says, “Do not be drunk with wine, which leads to debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit of Christ.” On the other hand, there are many scriptures, especially in the prophets and in the psalms where an abundance of wine symbolizes abundance and fullness of life in God’s kingdom, where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Listen to what the prophet Amos says, “The time is coming, says the Lord, when . . . the mountains will drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.” The wine in our story today functions as a symbol of the rich, full, joyful life the Christ wants each of us to know and experience.

Joy is the product of grace, and that is what the Christ brings into our lives when we trust him and follow him. In the prologue or introduction to this gospel, the writer says, “The Word [that is, the revelation] of God became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory [Jesus embodies what a human being fully alive in the life of God looks like] . . . full of grace and truth. . . . From his fullness we have all received [everyone of us, whether we know it or not], grace upon grace.” Grace heaped upon grace. Grace in exchange for grace.

I think it is significant to note that the water changed into wine was from the water jars used “for the Jewish rites of purification.” Jesus, as you know, often provoked the religious authorities of his day in the ways he confronted legalistic religion and the misuse of purification rites and rituals as a way of creating a religious pecking order and worthiness system. So it’s not insignificant that the wine came out of jars used in purification rites. This is very contemporary, because too much religion today, and too much Christian religion in particular, is caught up in rewards and punishments, which fosters pride and competition, and often leads to elitism and exceptionalism and to the exclusion of those deemed unworthy.

Too much religion in general and Christianity in particular is graceless and joyless. The late Dr. Kenneth Chafin tells about a delightful woman, a relative of his, who quit going to church years ago because the church of which she was a member was such a killjoy. Some of the deacons would slip over to the high school the night of the Saturday dance and mark down all the young people of the church who were dancing. They would pass their names to the pastor who called them out from the pulpit on Sunday and embarrassed them. Who in their right mind would want anything to do with that?

When the master of the banquet tasted the water that Jesus had changed into wine he said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.” The life that is made available to us by following the way of Jesus is the best there is, because it’s a life grounded in grace. It’s a life full of mercy, love, compassion, generosity, gratitude, and goodness. And that makes for lasting, authentic joy. 

I heard a comedian say one time, “Have you noticed how little kids seem to have a McDonald’s shaped vacuum in their bodies. They all want the same thing. In a moment of marketing genius the folks at McDonald’s called it the “Happy Meal”—a combination of food and a prize—that gives kids about five minutes of happiness.” He tells about the time when his kids went through the Happy Meal stage. They were in line waiting to place their order and he tried to convince them that the Happy Meal wasn’t that great of a deal. He tried to talk them into ordering something else and he would take them to K-Mart and buy them a toy.” They wouldn’t hear of it. They started chanting, “We want a Happy Meal. We want a Happy Meal.” He said the lady in the next line looked at him like, “Great day! Get your kids a happy meal you cheap skate!” 

He went on to say, “Our kids never come back and say, ‘Thanks Mom, thanks Dad, for all those happy meals. They brought me lasting satisfaction.’” He asks, “You ever wonder why Ronald McDonald has that stupid grin on his face. Thirty some billion happy meals—that’s why!” He says, “You would think kids would catch on. You would think they would finally say, ‘I’m not going to set myself up for disappointment any more. No more happy meals. But they just keep chanting, “I want a Happy Meal.”   

Now, let’s be honest. We are just big kids aren’t we? The only difference between us and our kids is that our happy meals get more sophisticated and expensive. How many people in our culture are living as if happiness is just one more happy meal away? If I could just acquire more money, more stuff, or more applause or more power, or if I had more freedom to do what I want to do. If I just had a different job, or had a different life, I would be happier. For how long? That kind of happiness is based on the desires and aspirations of the false self. That’s not who we really are. So it can’t endure. It’s a kind of happiness that is superficial and fleeting.

Who are we really? We are the daughters and sons of God, and we are designed to reflect God’s likeness. Our true self is the Christ self. So until we reflect something of the character and passion of God we will not know true joy. Until we embody some of the compassion, kindness, love, grace, inclusiveness, and truth of Christ, and his passion for what is just and good and right, until we echo and mirror the love and grace of the Christ, we will not experience true joy.

The pattern that leads to the joy of Christ is hinted at in our story. In the story when Mary tells Jesus that they are out of wine, Jesus responds, “Woman [which is a respectful title, not a derogatory one], what concern is that to you and me, my hour has not yet come.” Every reader of John’s Gospel knows that “my hour” is a reference to Jesus’ death, wherein is disclosed the glory of God’s love for the world. The story begins with, “On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee.” Once again, every reader of John’s Gospel would know that the reference to the third day is an allusion to the day when God raised Jesus from the dead vindicating his life and message. In John 12 the writer points out that the pattern of death and resurrection is the pattern for all spiritual transformation. Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Very truly I tell you unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed.  But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” Out of death comes life. The path to true spiritual joy is always death and resurrection. We all have some things in our lives we have to die to, we have to let go of – harmful attitudes and egotistic desires that arise from our false selves. We have to die to our false selves so that our true selves, the Christ self, can flourish.

When Mary says, “they have no wine” speaking to the dilemma this newly married is facing, she could just as well be speaking to the dilemma multitudes of people are facing today. Many people today are living out their days without any substantive spiritual dimension to their lives. They are going about their daily business with no awareness, no authentic experience of God’s love. And this is just as true of religious people as nonreligious people.

When I pastored in Maryland before coming here one of my members, who was a Lieutenant with the Capital Police, arranged for me to sit down one afternoon with the Chaplain of the Senate, Rev. Lloyd Olgivie. One of the questions I asked him was, “What do you think is the greatest need in the church today.” Without hesitation he said, “For religious people to know God.” He was well aware that many Christians in our churches do not have any real God experience. Knowing about God is not the same as knowing God. When we come to actually know God through personal experience of God’s love, we often discover that we thought we knew about God no longer makes sense.

So much of what we experience today – the emptiness we feel in our souls and the alienation we feel toward others, our preoccupation with work or leisure, hour after hour of staring at a television screen, our need to accumulate more stuff, our frustrations and petty anger, feelings of disillusionment – all of this and more are symptomatic of our lack of any substantive spiritual life.

By contrast, the attitudes and actions that flow out of our true selves – the generosity and gratitude, the grace and goodness, the love and compassion – lead to a fullness of joy that enlivens us, that makes us feel fully alive. But it doesn’t happen magically. There’s no magical set of religious beliefs to adhere to or religious rites or rituals to perform. The life of Jesus and the teaching of Jesus and his followers show us the way forward. We must first claim who we really are, namely, God’s beloved daughters and sons. But also, we must become aware of who we are not. We must become aware of the trap of the false self and its egocentric tendencies. And we must trust the Spirit of Christ within us to empower us to become more loving, generous, and grateful persons. And as we do, the joy and love of Christ will replace the bitterness and selfishness of our false self.

Our good God, help us see how much of the frustration and anger and emptiness we feel are the consequences of living out of our false selves. Help us to realize who we really are and to reflect your character in our thinking and feeling and doing, so that we might enter into your joy. Help us to relinquish our quest for a fleeting happiness, so that we might enter into a lasting and eternal joy. In the name of Christ I pray. Amen.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

What does it mean to be baptized in the Holy Spirit? (A sermon from Luke 3:15-17, 21-22)

John, the Baptizer drew people from the villages and towns out into the desert to hear his message and to be baptized. As he baptized people he pointed them to Jesus, who would come after him, whom he said would baptize them in the Holy Spirit. What does a baptism in the Spirit of Christ look like or feel like? What does it involve?  

Luke describes John’s baptism in v. 3 as “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” It seems to be that any baptism that represents in some way a new beginning or chapter in our lives must include repentance and forgiveness. I think it is often assumed that forgiveness of sins is the receiving of forgiveness from God, but the text doesn’t specifically say that. In reality, forgiveness is never just a one-way street. If you look at the teachings of Jesus regarding forgiveness in the Gospels Jesus inseparably connects receiving forgiveness with extending forgiveness. The model prayer makes this connection clear. We pray, “forgive us our trespasses (or sins) as we forgive those who have trespassed (or sinned) against us.” The kind of repentance that leads to forgiveness is not just about confessing our sins to God and enjoying God’s forgiveness, it’s equally about changing our attitude and posture toward others within a forgiving framework. It’s just as much about acknowledging to others the hurt and offense we have caused them as it is confessing our sins to God. It’s just as much about letting go of grudges and resentments we have harbored against others, as it is about admitting these things to God. Forgiveness is never just about God forgiving us, it’s just as much about our forgiving others and our seeking forgiveness from others.   

At the heart of any baptism or immersion in the Spirit is the experience of sharing and receiving forgiveness. Forgiveness opens the door to new spiritual experiences. It can lead us into a deeper relationship with the God who indwells us and who equally dwells in everyone else. Because God’s Spirit resides in every human being, every new beginning with another person is always a new beginning with God. A relationship with God is always tied to our relationships with others. There is no such thing as loving God without loving others. We open ourselves to a new beginning with God when we find the courage and honesty and humility to forgive those who have hurt us and seek forgiveness from those we have hurt. We open ourselves up to spiritual renewal, to an immersion in God’s Spirit when we acknowledge and let go past hurts and grudges that we have harbored against others. The giving and receiving of forgiveness is at the heart of any immersion or baptism in God’s Spirit.

The text says that the one coming after John will baptize with or in the Spirit and with or in fire. The fire is “unquenchable” and will burn up the chaff, but leave the wheat. I believe that we totally misapply this text if we make the wheat and the chaff different groups of people, and if we make the fire, the fire of God’s wrath. The fire cannot be the fire of divine anger or judgment, because the fire is unquenchable. God’s wrath or judgment is not “unquenchable.” The fire of God’s judgment is momentary, temporary, and instrumental. It’s purpose is to correct and purify.

Abraham Heschel was a scholar of the Hebrew Bible and a Jewish mystic. He spoke as if he knew God intimately, and I have no doubt that he did. He points out in his classic work on the Prophets that the dominant purpose of God’s anger in the prophets and in the psalms is to bring about the repentance of God’s people. There is no divine anger for anger’s sake. It’s a temporary state. Isaiah declares, “In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, But with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer” (Isa. 54:8). The Psalmist bids us give thanks to God, “For his anger is but for a moment; his favor (steadfast, faithful love) is for a lifetime.” Heschel points out that the secret of God’s anger is God’s care. There is nothing greater than the certainty of God’s care. Isaiah speaking on behalf of all God’s people says, “For though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me. Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and will not be afraid, for the Lord is my strength and my might . . .” (12:1b-2). Whatever the symbolism of hell points to (and it is a symbol, it’s not something that is literal), it’s only temporary. It’s not forever. Only God’s love that binds us to God and from which no power in heaven or on earth can sever is eternal. Whatever hell is or may be, it is not eternal.

So the unquenchable fire that burns up the chaff is not the wrath of God, but the love of God. God’s anger is ultimately consumed by God’s love so that when the prodigal son or daughter comes home, he or she does not come home to a wrathful judge, but to a loving Father or Mother. Isn’t that what the parable Jesus told about the prodigal teaches. The prodigal comes home to a loving embrace. The fire of God’s loves consumes the chaff – the greed, egotism, the malice, the untruths, the pride, the lust for power, anything and everything that emerges out of the false self. It’s the false self that produces these destructive vices, because this is not who we really are. What the Spirit says to Jesus after he is baptized by John is what we will hear the Spirit say to us when we are baptized or immersed in the Spirit, namely, “You are God’s beloved daughter or son.” That’s who we really are. We just need to claim it, trust it, and live so that we become who we already are.

The late Fred Craddock tells about the time he ministered in a little community in southwest Oklahoma. There were four churches in that small community: a Methodist church, a Baptist church, a Nazarene church, and a disciples of Christ Christian church. Each had its share of the population, and generally attendance rose and fell according to the weather and whether it was time to harvest wheat.

The best and most consistent attendance in town, however, was not at the churches, but at the little café where all the pickup trucks were parked and where all the men gathered inside discussing the weather, their cattle, what kind of crop they were going to have, while their wives and children were in one of the four churches. The attendance of the churches wavered, up and down as church attendance goes, but the café consistently had good attendance every week.

Once in a while, says Fred, the café would lose one of their members because the wife or the kids finally got to him, and off he would go kind of sheepishly to one of the churches. But the men who gathered in the café on Sundays felt they were the largest and strongest group in town. These were not bad men, says Fred, they were mostly family men and hard working men, but did not see a need for the church.

The patron saint of the group at the café was Frank. Frank was 77 years old when Fred first met him. He was a farmer and a cattleman. He had been born in a sod house, and he had prospered. He was a real pioneer and with his credentials he was considered the patron saint of the café. One day Fred met Frank on the street. Fred had no intention of trying to convert him, but Frank put up his guard and took a shot at Fred anyway. Frank said, “I work hard and I take care of my family and I mind my own business.” He told Fred that as far as he was concerned, everything else was fluff. He was basically saying, “I’m not a prospect for your church, so don’t’ bother me. Leave me alone. I mind my business, you mind yours.”

So Fred left him alone, and didn’t bother him. But then one Sunday, Frank surprised everyone, especially the men at the café, when at 77 years of age he presented himself at the Christian church where Fred was serving for baptism. Some in the community thought Frank must have been sick, must have received a really bad health report and got scarred. Why else would old Frank join the church?  

So Fred asked him, “Frank, do you remember that little saying you use to give me, to keep us ministers off your back. You know, the one where you said, ‘I work hard, I take care of my family, and I mind my own business.’” He said, “Yea. I remember. I said that a lot.” Fred asked, “Do you still say that?” He said, “Yea, I guess I do still say that.” Fred asked, “Then what’s the difference now?” He said, “Brother Fred, I didn’t know then what my business was.” At 77 years of age Frank finally discovered what his business was.

Do we know what our business is? What is our business as God’s daughters and sons in the world? It’s pretty simple really. It is to love God and love others. In fact, the only way we can truly love God is by loving others, who are also the daughters and sons of God even if they don’t know it or live like it. When we love others we are loving God, because we are all one in the Spirit of Christ. Our business is to love each other because we all belong. Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Jesus of Nazareth embodied this unifying love in his teachings about loving others, and in his ministry to the sick and identification with the poor and the downtrodden, and in his common practice of inviting all to the meal table of fellowship. The man Jesus embodied love for others. As Christians, he is our definitive expression of what it means and looks like to love others. And, the living Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ makes this known to our hearts when we open our lives to God’s love and become immersed in Christ’s Spirit.

God’s Spirit is the Spirit of Love. Paul said that “the fruit of the Spirit is love,” then what follows, all the other virtues and qualities listed after that are but expressions of love. Love is the ultimate virtue, greater even than faith and hope, says Paul in his ode to love in 1 Corinthians 13. “Above all,” says Paul, “put on love, which binds everything else together.” This is what baptism in the Spirit is about.

To be led by the Spirit is to move from places and positions of exclusion to an ever growing and widening inclusion. Jesus even instructed his followers to love their enemies. The Spirit moves us from a position of limited blessing to a place of universal blessing, for we realize that it’s not just us – our family, our church, our group, our nation – who are blessed, but we are all blessed, because we are all one people in Christ Jesus.

Paul was so passionate about this that he wanted to establish local “in Christ” communities, local churches that would express to the world this oneness so others could see through the windows of these “in Christ” communities what the kin-dom of God is all about. Paul must have been so hugely disappointed numerous times when the communities he formed had such trouble and difficulty and faced so many problems in living out their oneness. And that, of course, continues to be the challenge isn’t it? And it is a great challenge, an immense challenge facing us today because fear and divisiveness and scapegoating and exclusion are being preached in the halls of power. And a good many Christians today have decided to abandon the gospel of peace and love, and follow this non-gospel, this false gospel of safety and security by means of exclusion and seclusion.

When we are immersed in the Holy Spirit, we know what our business is. We know that we are not the only ones beloved of God, and we know God wants us to build bridges, open doors, tear down walls, invite all to the table, and share God’s unquenchable, eternal, steadfast love with everyone using every opportunity we have.

Our most loving Lord, give us eyes to see what is clearly our greatest purpose and calling as your children in the world. Help us to see that nothing competes with the calling to love others with your love. As we open our lives to you, inspire us and empower us to walk in your love. May your Spirit so fill us that our souls and bodies might become a wellspring from which your love endlessly flows out to refresh thirsty souls. Amen.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

When Christmas is Over it’s Over (A sermon from Matthew 2:1- 18)

I was sitting in my office working on this sermon with my door open, which is my policy. Jim and Betty show up as part of the team taking down all the Advent symbols and decorations. Jim yanked down my Christmas wreath on the door and said jokingly, or maybe not, “Christmas is over, get used to it.” I suppose nothing is as over as Christmas when it is over. We sing on Christmas "Oh little town of Bethlehem / How still we see thee lie" but we don't have any songs for what happens next in Matthew’s Gospel. It's not still anymore.

Matthew couples together the visit of the magi with King Herod’s wrath. In Matthew’s portrayal of the gospel’s beginnings, the joyful news heralded by the angel is now replaced by the loud weeping of the parents whose babies are killed in the wake of King Herod's rage. Matthew's Christmas pageant ends not with tinsel covered angels proclaiming peace on earth and goodwill toward all, nor with magi bringing gifts from afar, but with Rachel weeping for her slaughtered babies. 

The days after Christmas return us to the real world - a world where there is danger and risk and hurt and evil, a world where children die senselessly, a world where parents like those in Bethlehem live in fear and oppression, a world that sometimes erupts in holocaust and genocide. This is why the capacity to live without fear has nothing to do with our ability to prevent bad things from happening.

Matthew tells us that what took place in Bethlehem “fulfilled” what Jeremiah had prophesied about Rachel weeping for her children. Two other times (three in all) in this part of the story Matthew speaks of that which he writes as having “fulfilled” scripture. Matthew says that when Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus become refugees in Egypt they “fulfilled” the scripture that says, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” And then, at the end of the final scene when the holy family returns from Egypt they “fulfilled” the scripture that says, “He will be called a Nazorean.” Clearly, what Matthew means when he talks about the scripture being “fulfilled” is not what we usually mean when we use the word today. Matthew is NOT saying that God planned all of this to happen, rather, he is simply following a common Jewish practice of reading ancient texts in contemporary ways to show that the story of Jesus parallels and in some sense completes the story of Israel. Matthew is telling us that there is connection and continuity in the story of Israel and the story of Jesus. He is telling us that the God who was engaged in the life of Israel is engaged in the life of Jesus to bring redemption and hope to our world, and no amount of evil will change God’s mind when it comes to the redemption of God’s creation. Perhaps if we would spend some time reflecting we might find connections to our own personal and communal stories, because the Christ is engaged in our lives as well, whether we know it or not. Matthew reminds us that even when evil people do evil things and terrible tragedy results, God is not taken by surprise and in fact, God is still at work in and through the evil and suffering to bring healing and liberation to the world. No matter how bad things get God never gives up on any of us, and that is true for the oppressor as well as for the oppressed.

This part of the story gets real messy, but Matthew wants us to know that none of this is outside God’s engagement. While certainly this is not what God wills for the world, God is involved. Now, exactly how God is involved in all of this has been the subject of much discussion over the years, and some explanations are simply ridiculous, because they betray the character of God. Several years ago after the horrendous earthquake in Haiti where tens of thousands of people were killed and hundreds of thousands were left without food, shelter, and running water Pat Robertson of the 700 club proclaimed that the people of Haiti had made a pact with the Devil and brought this on themselves. Some Christian leaders say such crazy things.

When it comes to life’s tragedies and the magnitude of evil in the world, I do not find any consolation or hope in theological explanations that attempt to answer questions of “Why?” I spent a major portion of a doctrinal seminar struggling with this issue, and after a time of intense study and discussion I realized no explanation is without problems. There is no answer. No response resolves all the questions and tensions. It was then, I think, that I consciously decided such questions are largely a waste of time. But you see, and this is really important, I had to ask “Why?” and enter the struggle, before I could ever move on to a place where I didn’t need to ask “Why?” anymore. I had to struggle with the question before I could let go of the question.

There are some folks who would like to think that some of us are exceptions, that God gives some of us special provision or protection that God doesn’t give to others – because we have the right faith, or are born into the right family or country – that somehow we are exempt. But that is not true. The gospel does not enclose us in a safety bubble. We are not immune to random acts of violence or to common human suffering.

I used to express my gratitude for my situation in life by saying something like “I feel so blessed,” and I still use that expression sometimes, but I am very cautious and sensitive as to when I say it or how I use it, because I know there are those going through some really difficult times who do not feel so blessed.  So now I often say something like, “I feel so grateful” or “I feel fortunate or very lucky.”  I feel so blessed” could be understood to mean that others are not so blessed. I suspect that many who have used that expression don’t mean it that way, but that’s how it could very easily be understood. I don’t believe God favors some people over others, or blesses some people and not others, though God may have different assignments for us to do. Jesus could have only one mother who gave birth to him, right?

Sophie, our oldest granddaughter, who is now 8, liked for me to read her the story “Going on a Bear Hunt” when she was 3 or 4. I discovered that there are any number of versions of the story in print and on YouTube, but the basic storyline is, of course, the same in all versions. Whatever the challenge, whether it is a forest or muddy swamp or snow storm, there is no going over it, no going under it, and no going around it, you have to go through it. In a lot of ways it is a great story that prepares kids for the struggles and hardships of life that inevitably come our way.  

There are some things we simply have to go through before we know and can see.  Maybe the symbolism of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the creation story is actually a blessing in disguise. One can’t really know either good or evil until one experiences good and evil.  Author and spiritual teacher Joan Chittister says, “There is no way to comprehend how to go through grief other than by going through it. There is no way to practice foregoing a hot rage that comes with feeling ignored or dismissed . . . There is no way to plan for the sense of abandonment you feel in a society that thinks differently from you; because your child is gay, maybe, or because you’re a woman and so automatically considered deficient for the work, perhaps, or because you’re not white in a white world, or because the person you thought was an eternal friend abandoned you.” She says, “Those things we need to figure out for ourselves, one situation at a time.”  In other words, the only way we can fully know them is by experiencing them and going through them ourselves.

Some of the pain we experience in life never goes away. A minister, writing in Christian Century, tells about the first time her mother visited in the church where she is the pastor. During the passing of the peace, what we would call the welcome, a woman, who realized that she was greeting the pastor’s mother, asked, “Just how many children do you have?” “Six,” her mother responded. Then she corrected herself. “Well, five who are living.” Then, as she turned to greet the next person her eyes filled with tears. Her firstborn had drowned more than 50 years ago when he was a small child. Even though that was so very long ago, that loss was still so very raw and real, that the most benign of questions could cause her to relive it at random moments – like during the passing of the peace at her daughter’s church. There are some tragedies and some losses we never get over. We learn to cope and get through, but we never get over them. Some pieces of our lives gets shattered and there is no fixing them. We simply have to learn how to do the best we can with the pieces that still work.

Now, the irony and paradox here is that from a spiritual perspective the one who hasn’t had to face in any real hardships or pain in life is at a disadvantage. This is part of the reason why Jesus says such strange things like, “Blessed are the poor,” or “Blessed are those who mourn,” or “Blessed are those  who are persecuted for righteousness sake.” It’s a different way of seeing.

One might think that there could be nothing worse than having to deal with too many problems and too many trials in life, and certainly, we can feel overwhelmed when the problems and sufferings of life fall upon us like raindrops. However, if we have eyes to see, we might realize that while having too many problems is a problem, it is a greater problem when we have so few problems in life that we come to feel entitled and never think of asking “Why?”

At this stage in my spiritual pilgrimage it is enough for me to know that God is with us in our suffering and that God suffers with us in our suffering – that our suffering somehow impacts and influences and affects God. Knowing that, I know enough. That’s part of what incarnation is about. That’s what “Emmanuel, God with us” is about. If we search our hearts deeply, if we listen intently to the Divine Voice, I believe that our hearts and spirits can intuitively grasp and know that wherever suffering is, that’s where God is (that’s where the Spirit is, that’s where the living Christ is). I’m convinced of two things. Wherever love is, God is, and wherever suffering is God is. Even though it may “seem” or “feel” like God is far away.

In the suffering at Bethlehem we see a prelude to events that take place a little later up the road at a place called Calvary, where the one called the King of the Jews bears the wrath of the powers that be. In the events that lead up to and culminate on Good Friday, once again, as at Bethlehem, violence and bloodshed and weeping break forth, but this time, Jesus does not escape. Jesus bears it all.

We need to understand, sisters and brothers, that the gospel of Jesus is not a gospel about worldly power and control and material success. The prosperity preachers have it all wrong. The symbol for our faith is not a scepter or a throne or a mansion is it? It is a cross – the very means used for Roman execution. The cross is a symbol of humiliation and rejection and defeat. It expresses vulnerability and weakness. And yet, this is the transforming symbol of our faith and the way to new life. There is no resurrection without death. As Paul so beautifully puts it in his first letter to the Corinthians, the wisdom and power of the cross constitute the wisdom and power of God for salvation. The wisdom of the cross is the wisdom of love and the power of the cross is the power of suffering. It takes both love and suffering to conform us to the likeness of Christ. The cross represents and symbolizes how far God is willing to go to show us the way through, which does not come by means of physical force or violence, but by means of endurance, forgiveness, and grace. Salvation is deliverance through our suffering, not from our suffering. This is even true of our sin. Salvation is not deliverance from our sin, but through our sin to a place of healing and liberation. / Today is Epiphany Sunday, and just maybe our greatest revelations come to us when we are living in the darkness.

Oh God, may we know in the core of our being that you suffer with us when we suffer. Help us to realize that you are not way out there, but right here – among us, with us, in us, absorbing it all. Help us to see that while you do not offer us answers, you give us your presence. And may we know, too, that the way through has been traveled already by Jesus, whose cross is always a reminder of and a witness to your great suffering love for each one of us.