Sunday, February 24, 2019

How is it possible to love your enemies? (A sermon from Luke 6:27-36)

My sermon title is the question that this text raises. The passage begins with a direct command from Jesus, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” What follows from that initial command are several specific examples of how this can play out in the culture of that day and time. Luke first offers some examples along the line of what we might think of as nonviolent protest. Standing back up and offering the other cheek after being slapped in humiliating fashion by someone in power would have been an act of nonviolent protest. The same can be said about taking off ones shirt, after someone in power has taken one’s coat. But then Luke talks about giving to those who beg. Perhaps the reason they are begging is because they have been stripped of necessities by those in power. At any rate, I want to focus today on the initial command: Love your enemies, do good to them, bless them, and pray for them.

I don’t know of any text that is more ignored by Christians than this one. Of course, no matter how much we ignore it, it won’t go away. Having grown up in church, I can’t ever remember a sermon on this text. The Baptist church I attended didn’t follow the Lectionary so it was easy for the preacher to pick the texts he liked and were easy to preach. However, if we are followers of Jesus we cannot ignore this text, because this text gets at the very heart and core of the gospel of Jesus.

An enemy would be anyone who wishes or actively pursues ways of hurting and harming us personally, or hurting and harming the people we most care about – our family and friends. Jesus tells us to love them, do good to them, bless them, and pray for them. How, in heaven’s name, is it possible to do this? I will have to be honest with you. I don’t have this down. I struggle with this. I would love to just ignore it. I’m tempted to throw my hands up in the air and say, “Jesus really didn’t expect us to do this.” But that would be an illusion. That would be a lie. Jesus does indeed expect for us to do this. This gets to the very core of what Jesus is about and what he reveals about God.

In one sense we have all acted as enemies of God. For anytime we fail to pray, bless, and do good to another human being, we are failing to love God. Anytime we hurt another human being we are hurting God. Because God lives in every person. God’s Spirit resides in every human life whether that person knows it or not. When we hurt another human being, we are hurting God. When we turn our back on someone in need we are turning our back on God.

I struggle with this command to love my enemies, and because of that I struggle to follow Jesus, because this is what Jesus is about. But I have to struggle with it. I have no choice. And it’s not because I’m a preacher. It’s because I profess to be a follower of Jesus. And if you profess to be a follower of Jesus, then you have to struggle with this too. If you don’t struggle with this, then you are not really a disciple of Jesus. You might be a Christian. You might be a church member. You might be good to your family. You might be a respected member of your community. But if we don’t struggle to obey this teaching, then we are not a disciple of Jesus. This gets to the very heart of the life and teaching of Jesus.

And the early followers of Jesus understood this. Paul, in his letter to the Romans says that all of us were reconciled to God through the death of Jesus while we were enemies (Rom. 5:10). Now, I’m not going to try to go into how that works for that would be another sermon. My point, however, is that because we have all hurt other people in some form or fashion we are all enemies of God, and yet God loves us, and has acted to reconcile us to God’s self even while we were in the very state of enmity against God. So this is the gospel. We have no choice but to try as best we can to love our enemies. If we don’t, then let’s be honest, and not claim to be a follower of Jesus. So this is my first point by the way. We have to love our enemies. Or at the minimum, we have to take this seriously and struggle with loving our enemies, even if we are not very good at it.

Now, my second point. As I act to love my enemies, I may discover that through my action, God is able to get through to my heart. If I can get my body, my hands and feet to actually do some good things for my enemy, and my mouth to actually bless my enemy, and my mind to actually pray for my enemy, God’s Spirit may be able to access my soul and my will, my mind and my heart and actually change me on the inside. Richard Rohr likes to say that more often than not, we are not changed, we are not transformed by thinking or feeling our way into new ways of living, new ways of acting and being. Rather, Rohr says, we act our way into new ways of thinking and feeling and being. If you think that you have to somehow feel love in your soul before you love your enemies, you will never love your enemies. However, if you start acting in positive ways to pray for your enemies, to bless your enemies, to do good to your enemies, you might begin to realize that the more you act, the more you do, the more you pray, the more you bless, the more heart changes, the more your soul is being transformed.

And this brings me to my last point. We can’t love our enemies on our own. The only way we can love our enemies is by trusting and allowing God to love in us and through us. The only way we can truly love our enemies is by relinquishing our ego and by letting the Divine Spirit of Love fill us and flow through us.

According to Luke Jesus says, “If you love those who love you, how big is that? Even people who do not respect God’s character and passion do as much. They love those who love them. But if you love your enemies your reward will indeed be great, for your reward will be that you will be like your Creator. You will demonstrate to the world that you are the children of God, because this is what God is like. God loves everyone. God is kind and gracious to the ungrateful and the wicked.” So Jesus says, “Be merciful to your enemies, just the way your Father in heaven is merciful.”

God wants to draw everyone to God’s self, because a part of God lives in every human being. John Philip Newell, in the late 1980’s, with his wife and kids moved to the Western Isles of Scotland where Dr. Newell became the spiritual warden of Iona Abbey, a modern day religious community committed to nonviolence and justice. Since the sixth century, Iona has been a place of pilgrimage to which countless numbers of women and men have come seeking new beginnings in their lives. Early in their time at Iona Dr. Newell overheard a conversation between his son, who was five, and his older sister, who was 7. His son asked his sister, “Where is God?” His sister replied, “God is in our heart.” His son then replied, “So, God goes beat, beat, beat.” Dr. Newell says that whenever he is asked to say one thing about spirituality he quotes his son, “God goes beat, beat, beat.” Dr. Newell points out that God “is the very heart beat of life, the Soul within our soul, the Presence without whom where would be no present.”

Dr. Newell says sadly that today as a young man his son is often unable to hear the beat at the heart of life. In his late teens he suffered a severe mental breakdown that holds him in a type of imprisonment to anxiety and at time paranoia. As Dr. Newell and his family have come to live with his son’s mental illness, he has come to see that the illness is not just his son’s illness or theirs as a family. It certainly is his son’s illness as his son battles fear in almost every moment and every relationship. But it is not limited to his son. And it is not limited to their family. Dr. Newell points out that the fears his son experiences are the fears that drive our nation, our society, and our lifestyles. Dr. Newell says this, “I have come to believe that my son will not be truly well until we are all well, and that we [all the rest of us] will not be truly well until my son and others like him are well. Our healing belongs inextricably together.”

We should intuitively know this. As parents we are not truly well if our children are hurting are we? As a nation, we can never be well as long as other nations are suffering. Even as a human species, we will never be healed and whole as long as the creation is infected and fragmented. You see, wellness and wholeness, healing and liberation is not found in isolation, but in relationship. It can only be found when enemies become friends.

Loving our enemies does not mean we surrender to injustice. We must fight injustice. We must contend for what is right and good and just. But we do not fight hate with hate. We do not meet violence with violence. We love our enemies so God might have a little window to shine God’s light into the darkness of fear and prejudice and hate.

No one will ever say what is needed better than the way Martin Luther King, Jr. said it in a sermon written in a Georgia jail and preached just after the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama. Dr. King says, “Time is cluttered with the wreckage of communities which surrendered to hatred and violence. For the salvation of our nation and the salvation of mankind, we must follow another way. This does not mean that we abandon our righteous efforts. With every ounce of our energy we must continue to rid this nation of the incubus of segregation. But we shall not in the process relinquish our privilege and our obligation to love. While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community. To our most bitter opponents we say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you.’”

Now, Dr. King points out that we must continue to contend for justice. He says, “We cannot in good conscience obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.” But Dr. King also points out that working for justice does not diminish the need to love. He says, “Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”  

And that’s what it looks like and sounds like to be a follower of Jesus. There were a lot of good and decent people – a lot of pastors and Christian leaders – who never spoke against Dr. King, but they never spoke for him either and against the injustice of segregation. They were silent. They may have been good people, but they were not followers of Jesus. There are many Christians who wish I wouldn’t speak up against the injustice this President and his administration are perpetrating by spreading hate for and fear of immigrants. They have separated thousands of children from their parents, and we now know that in all probability many of those children will never be reunited with their parents. They severed these families without any plan or thought, which amounts to an attack on humanity and an attack on God. Now, I can be a good pastor without saying a word against this injustice, but I cannot be a follower of Jesus and be silent. I hope you understand that. But here’s the flip side. I cannot hate the President and the people who are carrying out these unjust policies. I hate what he is doing, but I cannot hate him, and be a follower of Jesus. I have to love him. I have to pray for him. I have to pray for his ultimate good, even as I oppose this injustice. I have no choice if I am a follower of Jesus.

The healing and redemption of our world depends on a spiritual awakening to the truth that we are all one people. And only love can create enough space for that awakening to occur. Only love can defeat evil, not by destroying it, but by transforming it. And you know sisters and brothers, evil is not out there, it is in here. It’s everyone of us. And this demon will not be expelled by the threat of violence or the threat of damnation, but only by the redemptive power of love. 

Our good God, we cannot love our enemies on our own. We don’t have the will and the strength and the inner power needed to do good to those who would wish our harm, to bless those who would hurt us, and to pray for those who want to diminish and demean us. We can only do this as we live in your Spirit and as your love fills us and flows through us. Help us to see that we are all one people, one humanity, one family, and that our healing is connected to the healing of everyone else. In the name of the Christ who lives in us all, I pray. Amen.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Blessed are you who are poor (A sermon from Luke 6:17-26)

Let’s all come clean and not pretend that we like what Jesus says in this passage. I don’t know of anyone who actually considers poverty a good thing. If God’s blessing is on the poor and God’s woe upon the rich, then most of us would rather have God’s woe than God’s blessing right? We are after all in worship, so let’s a least be honest with God and ourselves.

I certainly don’t believe God wants anyone to live in poverty – to be economically deprived and materially impoverished. Do you think that is what God wants for God’s creation, for God’s daughters and sons? Do you think God wants us to be in want – to barely have enough to survive, let alone thrive? I don’t believe that for one minute. So what for heaven’s sake is Jesus saying here?

First off, if we take our scriptures with any seriousness at all we have to acknowledge how much God cares for the poor. How does one get to be poor? Well, in ancient Israel a couple of years of really bad harvests could do it. One might have to sell off one’s land to purchase food to survive. Similarly, an enemy could destroy the crops and the land making the land unproductive. Today, it can happen if one loses one’s job or for whatever reason one’s career is no longer viable. Then, as today, powerful people for their own advantage and wealth may have figured out how to confiscate the land and possessions of those barely making it, creating a deeper indebtedness and bondage to those in power. And of course, one may have simply been born into a family or community cycle of poverty and exploitation by people in power that provides neither the incentive nor the knowledge of how to break free. None of us would call this a “blessing” and yet Jesus is audacious enough to pronounce, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

Under Israel’s covenant with God those who were not poor were required by law to make provision for the poor so their needs would be met. This was not voluntary. Care for the poor was legislated in their covenant with God, which was binding on every Israelite. We read for example in Deut. 15: “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns . . . do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. . . . I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land” [by the way, this included the alien, the immigrant, the stranger, the non-Jew]. This was commanded. It wasn’t optional or voluntary.

All through the prophets and the psalms we have God’s prophets and faithful servants proclaiming God’s judgment on those who oppress or take advantage of the poor. For example Isaiah says, “The Lord enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor? Says the Lord God of hosts” (3:14-15). Followers of Christ should be asking: Do we have policies in place, do we have a tax system that crushes the poor? According to God’s prophets and servants God is the champion of the poor. The Psalmist says, “God raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes” (113:7-8a). God takes the side of the poor. And if we want to do God’s will then we will be the champion of the poor as well. So, it was legislated in Israel’s covenant with God that those who had enough would provide for those who didn’t. This was not left for chance. It was not left for charity. It was mandated in the law. Those who had adequate resources would provide for those who didn’t, so that everyone had enough. That was at the heart of Israel’s covenant and part of what it meant to love your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus, of course, would have known all of this from his scriptures and traditions. And yet, it’s one thing to recognize one’s obligation to protect and provide for the poor, and to trust that God is the champion of the poor, but it’s still quite another thing to say, “Blessed are you who are poor.” Even a society rooted in a theology of God’s provision and compassion for the poor is still not quite prepared for the shocking pronouncement of Jesus, “Blessed are you who are poor.” Since God is the champion of the poor, it is understandable why Jesus gives preferential treatment to the poor. It is understandable why Jesus stands with and speaks for the poor. But still why would Jesus say, “Blessed are you who are poor?” 

Now, if you have listened to any of my sermons over the years or spent any time at all in the Gospels reading those texts that I have preached from over the years, then you are well aware that Jesus was constantly challenging the status quo and reversing conventional wisdom, and he often did this in rather shocking and provocative ways. The conventional wisdom of Jesus’ day was not much different than the conventional wisdom of today. Many of Jesus’ fellow Jews thought then, what many Christians think today, namely, that it’s the well-to-do who are blessed. And yet Jesus seems very eager to shatter that notion. Jesus not only says, “Blessed are you who are poor,” he goes on to say, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” So it’s not just, “Blessed are the poor” – which is shocking enough. But it’s also, “Woe to you who are rich.” Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” And he also says, “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.” Jesus says, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” But then he says, “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.” Jesus says, “Blessed are you when people hate you, and exclude you, and revile you, and defame you, because you participate in my cause.” But he also says, “Woe to you when all speak well of you like they did to the false prophets.”
What is Jesus doing? Jesus is turning our conventional wisdom upside down and he is directly confronting our religious ego. “You well-to-do think you are blessed by God. Well, you better dig a little deeper in your thinking. You think the poor are at a disadvantage, that maybe they are even being punished by God, well, you got it all wrong,” says Jesus, “the kingdom of God belongs to the poor.”

Author Philip Yancey tells about a friend of his who was on a bus riding to work and overheard a conversation between the young woman sitting next to him and her neighbor across the aisle.  The woman was reading Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled, which for many weeks was on The New York Times Best-Seller list. A friend had given it to her—said it changed her life. The man across the aisle asked her what it was about. She said she wasn’t sure, she hadn’t got very far yet. Then she began flipping through the book naming some of the titles, “Discipline, Love, Grace . . .” The man stopped her, “What’s grace?” he asked. She said, “I don’t know. I haven’t got to grace yet.”

You know what I think Jesus is doing here by challenging the status quo and the conventional wisdom of his day? I think he is trying to get his hearers to a place of grace. Only the grace of God can heal and redeem and transform our lives and relationships. Only the grace of God can transform society in a way that eliminates poverty.

Fred Craddock tells about the time he was in a distant city involved in a seminar. The seminar ended on Saturday, but their host had encouraged them if they could to stay over on Sunday, because the airline would give them a big break for staying over Saturday night. So Craddock stayed over. He found a little church to attend on Sunday just down from the little motel where they were staying. It was a small building, modestly built, not elaborate in any way, but warm and friendly. By the time the service began there were maybe a hundred or so people in there. At the appointed hour the choir came in, and following the choir the minister. The minister was a man, about 6’4,’’ quite heavy, but the most noticeable feature, says Fred, was his stumbling, lumbering gait. He was awkward, appeared to almost fall, with his long arms useless at his sides, like they were awaiting further instruction. His head was misshaped, his hair askew. He stumbled up three or four steps to get to the pulpit. When he faced the congregation, Fred could see the milky film over his eyes, one of his eyes going out, nothing coming in to the other. When he read, he held the book close to his nose. When he spoke, said Fred, the sinews of his neck worked with such vigor as he pushed out his words, it was as if he had learned to speak as an adult.

He read and preached from 1 Corinthians 13. His words were not prophetic nor poetic, but they were pastoral. They were so warm and so full of love, and Fred was captivated as he watched the congregation, because obviously they returned the love that the preacher radiated. Fred said that it reminded him of a scene out of the “Beauty and the Beast” or “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

Fred wanted to get to know this man who was so unattractive and yet attractive at the same time. So he lingered at the door hoping to invite the minister out to lunch. He couldn’t go, but they visited for a few minutes after the service. The affection between pastor and people amazed Fred as he observed the good bye greetings at the door as the people shook the pastor’s hand. One woman who was maybe about 70 shook his hand and said, “I wish I knew your mother.” Fred could tell that this woman was as captivated as he was at the spiritual warmth and power that seemed to emanate from this man, so she said, “I wish I knew your mother.” The preacher said, “My mother’s name is Grace.”

Well, when everyone had left and Fred began to visit with him Fred said to him, “That was an unusual response you gave to that woman, ‘My mother’s name is Grace.’”  “It is? he said. “When I was born I was put up for adoption at the Department of Family Services. But as you can see, nobody wanted to adopt me. So I went from foster home to foster home, and when I was about sixteen or seventeen, I saw some young people going into a church. I wanted to be with those young people, so I went in, and there I met grace – there I met the grace of God.”

Sometimes, brothers and sisters, life itself has a way of shaking up the status quo and calling into question the conventional wisdom of our times. Sometimes the unexpected experiences of our lives help us to meet the grace of God – the sudden death of a loved one, the loss of a job or a career, the diminishment of our physical health and mobility, a long struggle with a serious and life threatening illness, the break-up of a marriage or a long term relationship with a significant other. Sometimes the experiences of our lives can lead us to God’s grace. But then sometimes, it takes the shocking words of a prophet or a spiritual teacher to at least get us thinking about our need for God’s grace.

Blessed are those who are poor, who are hungry, who weep, who are rejected and excluded and reviled, because they know how much they need God’s grace and God’s presence in their lives. But woe to those of us who are rich, who are affluent, who are well-off, because we don’t know how poor we really are. We may have nothing to cry over. We laugh with our family and friends. We can buy what we need. We can preoccupy ourselves with a variety of interests. We have enough power and place and prominence to feel like we are important. We may have no idea how lucky we are. Maybe we even think we deserve what we have, or that we have earned all we have. If the truth were known maybe we even think we are somehow better than those who have less.  

If we don’t have any life experiences to help shatter these illusions, to challenge and confront our ego, then we need a prophet like Jesus to come along and put his own life and reputation on the line by confronting the conventional wisdom of the day that has nurtured us in these lies and deceptions.

I will tell you this too. If any of us go out and try to minister and serve the most vulnerable and less fortunate, and if we do so self-righteously or condescendingly, then we are really the ones who are most in need of help. We are the ones who are lost. We are the ones who are blind. We are poor, but we don’t know it. Sisters and brothers, God’s blessing is for the poor, and if we don’t know we are poor, then we cannot know God’s blessing. How long will it take for more of us to realize that it doesn’t matter how affluent we are, how many achievements we have accomplished, or how many accolades have been heaped upon us. We are all just as poor as everyone else. We are all one people. We all stand on common ground. No one is better than anyone else. We are all the offspring of God, and we only have one mother, and her name is Grace. 

Gracious God, we are all beggars in need of the bread of life – all in need of your hope inspiring, compassion generating, love producing, and life sustaining grace. Fill all of us poor people with the riches of your grace. Amen.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Going Deeper (A sermon from Luke 5:1-11)

The story I read earlier from Luke 5, which is today’s sermon text, is Luke’s account of the call of Peter to be a disciple of Jesus. It’s different than the other two versions in the Gospels. In Mark’s account, which is followed by Matthew, Peter and his brother, Andrew, are by the seaside, apparently attending to their nets, when Jesus calls them to follow him. They immediately leave their nets and follow Jesus. That’s one version of the call of Simon Peter given by Mark and Matthew. In John’s account, Jesus calls Andrew first, who was not at the seaside fishing or attending nets at all, but with John the Baptist at the time. In John’s version Andrew is a follower of John the Baptist. He heeds the call, then goes out and finds his brother, Peter, and brings him to Jesus. Now, the reason I call attention to this is to remind you that we are not reading historical reports. There are echoes of memories in these stories, but these stories function more like parables crafted for the purpose of teaching spiritual truth.

In Luke’s version of the story Simon Peter had apparently been fishing all night in shallow water, expecting the fish to be there, but hadn’t caught any. Jesus tells him he needs to push out in deeper water. Go out deeper, says Jesus, and cast your nets there. The result is so many fish in the net he needs help getting to the bank. I think the primary meaning is this. If we aspire to be faithful to the call of Jesus to be his disciples, there is a good possibility that we may just need to cast our nets out in deeper water. I doubt if there is a single one of us here today who does not need to go deeper.

For one thing, we might need to go deeper in our capacity to love. In last week’s story Jesus confronted us with the question of who we are going to love and serve. He employed his own Jewish scriptures to make the point to his fellows Jews that God’s grace and love is not limited or restricted to Jews, and therefore they were not at liberty to choose who they were going to love and serve. The same can be said to Christians. God’s love and grace is not limited to people of Christian faith.

To paraphrase Paul in his letter to the Galatians he says, “Since a new era has dawned in Christ Jesus, and in Christ God has decisively made known God’s love, the only thing that counts is not beliefs and rituals, but faith working through love” (5:6). If one’s faith doesn’t make one more inclusive, more generous, more gracious, more forgiving, more welcoming, more hospitable, more compassionate and empathetic, then what good is it? This is the only test that’s worth applying to any religious faith.

Author Philip Gulley tells about the time a man showed up at his church with a bag of rocks. Gulley happened to be out of town on that particular Sunday. Almost everyone in his congregation was aware of this man’s animosity toward Gulley, so many were not a little bit nervous when, at the end of the service, he got up and walked to the front of the meeting room, carrying his bag of rocks. A few people even ducked out, fearing the worst. But they had nothing to fear, because this man laid his rocks on the altar and said, “Forgive me. I won’t be throwing rocks at your pastor anymore.”  Gulley says that the two of them still don’t agree on many things, but they both agree that Jesus commanded them to love one another. Gulley writes, “Though he remains unconvinced of the power of grace to save all, he demonstrated how grace had changed him.” Then Gulley says, “His grace also changed me, for what he didn’t know is that I’d been throwing rocks as well. When he dropped his, I was able to drop mine.” In order to go deeper some of us may have to drop the bag of rocks we’ve been carrying around.

In his letter to the Ephesians Paul says, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and slander, along with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” Paul says, “Be imitators of God . . . and live in love, as Christ loved us . . .” Some of us may need to go deeper in how we express our love toward others.  

We also may need to go deeper in our commitment to service and God’s cause in the world. How deep we need to go and what we need to do is something we need to work out with God. I had lunch with Lonnie and Fran Turner the other day. Lonnie and Fran are deeply committed to the poor people in Zambia, getting them clean water, opening up educational opportunities, improving their health care and overall quality of life. They love those people and are committed to those people. The only thing they retired from when they retired as missionaries with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was from being on CBF’s payroll and having to do things there way. Now, through their own organization, Partners in Development, they are investing all they can in helping to lift the poor people of Zambia out of their poverty. I tell Fran and Lonnie that they are my heroes. Lonnie is 71 and I guess they will be doing what they do until they simply can’t do it any longer because of health and age. You know this already, but I will say it anyway: I am never going to go that deep in my commitment to serve others. I will not go as deep as Lonnie and Fran. However, and this is big however, I can go deeper than where I am right now, and you can too. We have our limits. But we can go deeper.

Some folks think that the more they focus on their own dreams and plans, their own interests and ambition, the happier they will be. But that’s not how it works. Psychologist Dr. Scott Peck, who wrote the bestselling book, “The Road Less Traveled,” tells about a woman he was trying to help who was lonely and depressed and after many months and several kinds of therapy they had made no progress. He was ready to recommend that she see someone else. Then one afternoon she arrived with a smile, her depression apparently lifted. Of course he wanted to know what happened. She explained that earlier in the day she went out to start her car and it wouldn’t start and so she called her pastor and asked if he could take her to her counseling appointment. He said he would as long as she didn’t mind stopping at the hospital while he made a visit. When they stopped at the hospital, her pastor suggested that while he made his visit she might visit with some patients, sharing with them a comforting passage of Scripture or saying a prayer for them. So she did and received such affirmation from her visits that it lifted her right out of her depression. Dr. Scott Peck said to her, “That’s great. Now you know what you can do to break free from your depression.” Her response was, “You don’t expect me to do that all the time do you.”

Service to others can move us beyond our own private concerns and redirect our energies away from our feelings of sadness and loneliness toward the needs and hurts of others, which in turn, opens us up to the fullness and joy of Christ.

How might the Spirit of Christ be leading you to go deeper in service to others? Albert Schweitzer was a brilliant man with earned doctoral degrees in theology, philosophy, music, and tropical medicine. He was a theological scholar, a concert pianist, and a medical doctor. He wrote a book titled, The Quest for the Historical Jesus that launched a whole new era in biblical and theological scholarship. In the midst of a brilliant theological career he decided to resign as a professor of theology and devote the second half of his life to medical mission work in Africa, doing what he called “something small in the spirit of Jesus.” The “something small” that the Lord led Dr. Schweitzer to do and Lonnie and Fran to do, may be significantly larger than “the something small” the Spirit leads us to do, but I suspect that all of us could go a little deeper.

One final area where many of us may need to go deeper is in our thinking about God and God’s relationship to the world. There might be a few of us who could stand to think less and do more. My wife sometimes suggests that I might be one of those. But I suspect, most of us need to do far more thinking than we do. Now, I’m sure many of you have heard me say numerous times that what we do for God and others is more important than what we think about God or believe about God. However, let me clarify. I hope I have not left the impression that what we believe or think about God is unimportant. It is actually very important, but not for the reason that some Christians think. Some Christians think that getting our beliefs about God correct is necessary and part of the requirement of being accepted before God (or being saved, or being blessed by God), as if God has a check list and we have to get so many things right about God before God let’s us in. That’s just crazy theology. If God is primarily concerned about how we love each other, then that theology makes no sense.

The reason what we believe or think about God is important is because we really do tend to live up or down to our beliefs. What we actually believe about God impacts how we relate to God and how we relate and respond to others. (And by the way, what we actually believe or think about God may not be what we profess we believe or think. We can profess we believe something, even convince ourselves we believe it, but not really believe it at all. That’s another sermon)

What I mean is this: If you think God is a vengeful God, if you believe that God has to have God’s pound of flesh, that God’s justice is more about retribution than restoration, that God makes people pay for their sins, if you believe that about God then you will probably have no reservations at all in pursuing vengeance on your enemies. If that’s how God is, if God is vengeful, why then should we not be vengeful too? You don’t have to look very far to see how many religious leaders use God to endorse and justify all sorts of vindictive and destructive attitudes and actions today.

We even see this in our own scriptures. There are a number of places in our scriptures, our holy Bible, our sacred texts, where God is used by the biblical writer to justify negative and even destructive attitudes and behavior. As Richard Rohr likes to say the biblical text reflects both the growth and the resistance of the human soul. The most obvious and most tragic form of resistance are in those places in the Bible where God is used to justify aggressive violence, even genocide. Now, when we get to the life of Jesus in the Gospels our human resistance is fully exposed. Would the God of Jesus, whom Jesus says loves all people, ever issue a command to completely destroy a civilization, men, women, children, even the animals? The God we read about in the Gospels, the God of Jesus, could never do that sort of thing, but evidently there were at least a couple of biblical writers that thought so or at least claimed so to justify their own evil.

If you believe in a punitive and vengeful God, if that is your operative image of God, then you will be punitive and vengeful too. But what we are actually doing is projecting onto God our own negativity and sin. The bottom line is this: What we think about God and believe about God matters because it impacts how we live and how we react and relate to others. What we believe about God actually tells us what is uppermost in our own hearts. If I believe in a vengeful God it’s because I have vengeance in my heart. The operative image you have of God will have a shaping or forming power in your life for good or for evil.  

So, these are some ways we can all go deeper. We can go deeper in our capacity to love. We can go deeper in our commitment to serve others and God’s cause in the world. And we can go deeper in how we think about and imagine God. When Simon went deeper, that’s when he had his revelatory encounter with Christ. His willingness to go deeper led to an ephiphany. He then realized his shortcomings- “I am a sinful man,” he said. In his experience of enlightenment he became aware of the changes he needed to make in his life. As we go deeper we will see more clearly the changes we need to make in our lives in order to be faithful disciples of Jesus and more loving and compassionate persons.    

Our gracious Lord, may we not be satisfied with mediocrity in the way we relate to you and others. May we give attention to your Spirit within us inviting the Spirit to work in and through our lives, growing and enlarging our capacity to love and serve one another. Help us go deeper in our thinking, our loving, and our doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. We cannot expect to become more aware, more enlightened, more loving, more full of your Spirit unless that is what we want. O God, may we each want that more today and in the days to come than we did yesterday and the days before that. As we now join together in eating the bread and drinking the juice, may we realize that just as you poured out your love and passion into the life of Jesus of Nazareth, so you desire to pour out your love and passion into our hearts and lives as well. May we want that too, and may we be willing to go a little deeper so that it may be so. In the name of Christ, I pray. Amen.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Who are we called to serve? (A sermon from Luke 4:21-30)

The Gospel story today picks up right where last week’s left off. Jesus entered the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth and 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.” As I said last week Jesus is telling them that this is what he is primarily about. This is his calling. This is his mission. This is his agenda.

Now, all of this is fine and good, as long as Jesus focuses on the right kind of people. That’s why we read in v. 22 that the people of Nazareth “spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came out of his mouth.” They thought Jesus was talking about their kind of people. But after Jesus tells them who he is really talking about their praise turns to rage.

Jesus begins by noting as a common bit of conventional wisdom that a prophet is not welcomed in his hometown. It’s curious that Luke would have Jesus say this at the beginning, when it most appropriately fits at the end. At any rate, it proves true. Jesus draws upon two stories from their Hebrew Bible. Luke wants us to know that Jesus was a faithful Jew all through his brief life. When Luke introduces this part of the story back in v.16 he tells us that it was Jesus’ common custom to be in the synagogue on the Sabbath. Even when the Jewish leaders raged against him and pushed him out to the edges of Judaism, Jesus, religiously, racially, and socially, was never anything other than a Jew. He never had any intention of departing from Judaism, his intention was to reform Judaism.

In drawing from the sacred texts that he shared in common with his fellow Jews, Jesus makes reference to two stories. He first calls attention to the story in 1 Kings 17. A famine has overtaken the land. There were many widows in Israel who were in need, no doubt, desperate need, but God sends Elijah, not to a Hebrew widow, but 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 Genitle. Luke says that after he told these two stories, drawn from their own scriptures, “all in the synagogue were filled with rage.”

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 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. They had reason to dislike Gentiles. Their country had a long history of being overrun by Gentile powers. And at this very time they were basically enslaved to Rome. They were given some measure of freedom, but the Romans could do to them whatever they wanted. 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.

Now, here’s the thing. Jesus used their own sacred traditions and texts to make his point. One commentator on this passage makes a very perceptive observation. He says, “For Luke, the tension that erupts here and will erupt again and again is not between Jesus and Judaism,” but rather “it is between Judaism and its own scriptures.” When I first started teaching and writing about an inclusive God who heals and redeems people who are not Christians, guess who was most upset with me? Christians. And in particular Baptist Christians. And why were they so upset? Because I drew from and utilized our very scriptures, the Christian scriptures, to make my case for an inclusive God. I don’t know if they were mad enough to hurl me over a cliff, but they would have loved to have driven me out of town, just the way they drove our church out of the local Association.

Why are religious exclusivists in general, and Christian exclusivists in particular so easily upset and angered? I think some of it has to do with our religious ego, which, by the way, we all struggle with to one degree or another. The ego wants to be right and feel superior to others. So when someone come along and says that God’s love knows no bounds or limits, that God welcomes and affirms “the other” who comes with a humble heart, no matter who the other is – the gay person, the Muslim, the Mexican, the Pittsburg Steeler fan – whoever – and they don’t have to believe the way we do or practice their faith the way we do to be on God’s side, when someone teaches that and tries to live that, the religious ego erupts.

I think we should all know by now, especially in light of what we have witnessed and lived through the last few years, that religious exclusivism can easily become a cover for exceptionalism, elitism, nationalism, racism, and sexism. Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that all religious or Christian exclusivists are racist and sexists and elitist. I have family members and friends who are Christian exclusivists and they are not racists or sexists. They are caring and compassionate people. But the fact remains, that Christian exclusivism can easily become and has become for some Christians a cover for prejudice and hate. And we see that in some of the hateful rhetoric from Christian leaders like Jerry Falwell, Jr., Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, and Robert Jeffress to name a few.

I heard someone say recently: We don’t need to be searching for common ground. We need to realize that we are already standing on common ground. Have you ever watched the closing celebration of the Olympics? They march out, country by country, wearing their official uniforms and carrying their national flags. But then almost inevitably at some point there is someone or a group of someones who break from the march, and usually it ignites a spontaneous eruption of enthusiasm. The neat, clearly defined groups of athletes disappear. Suddenly there is a kaleidoscope of color as athletes dance and shout and whirl about, hugging, laughing, and celebrating life together, all on common ground.

The common ground sisters and brothers is that we are all God’s children. We all have God’s Spirit. We are all stamped with God’s likeness, whether we know it or not. We are all welcome. We don’t to have pass any tests or earn any rewards or believe a particular set of doctrines. We just need to come with open, humble, and generous hearts.

I titled this sermon, “Who are we called to serve?” I could have just as easily titled it, “Who are we called to love?” Because you see, sisters and brothers, to love someone is to serve someone. We can’t say we love someone unless we are willing to work for their good. You may recall the story where Jesus caught his disciples arguing about who would be the greatest in God’s kingdom. He rebuked them. “This is not who you are,” he said. “You are not called to be lords, you are called to be servants of all. Not servants of select people who believe like us and think like us. No. Servants of all. Jesus said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life in service for the liberation of many.” If we ever accepted a call to discipleship this is what we signed up for – to love all people and be servants of all people.

Let me offer you some advice on how to go forward. Don’t try to jump in and love the world. The world is too big. The world is an object. You can easily lose your way trying to love the world. Rather, find someone in your world who is different than you – someone at work, or at school, or in an organization you are part of, or someone in your neighborhood – find someone who is different than you – maybe different religion, or different personality, or different race, or different interest, or different point of view, or different political party, and try your best with God’s help to serve that person, to do good for that person, because that’s what it means to love with the love of Christ.

In his book, Letters to My Children, Daniel Taylor tells about an experience he had in the sixth grade. Periodically the students were taught to dance and the teacher would line up the boys at the door of the classroom to choose their partners.  Thankfully, says Taylor, this was old school and this sort of thing is not done anymore. Imagine being one of the girls waiting to be chosen, and being passed by.

One girl named Mary was always chosen last. A childhood illness left her physically challenged and she wasn’t very pretty or smart. The assistant teacher happened to attend Taylor’s church and she pulled him aside one day and said, “Dan, next time we have dancing, I want you to choose Mary, it’s what Jesus would do?” That was heavy stuff. He couldn’t believe she was asking him to do that. The next time they had dancing he struggled with what to do—he hoped he would be last in line so he would have to choose Mary. Instead it turned out that he was the first in line.

As he looked at the faces of the girls before him, the pretty ones smiling—he noticed that Mary was the only one half-turned toward him—she had experienced this rejection many times, she knew she would not be picked. What would he do?  He says, “I remember feeling very far away. I heard my voice say, ‘I choose Mary.”  Taylor says that “never has reluctant virtue been so rewarded,” and as he wrote this he said, “Today I can still see her beeming face, fixated with surprise and pleasure and delight at being chosen. Taylor says, “I had to look away because I knew I didn’t deserve it.”

Do you think you could dance with someone who is different? Do you think you could serve and love that person? God does. God has no favorites. I know quite a few Christians who think we Christians are God’s favorites, but we are not.

Tony Campolo tells a wonderful story about getting off a plane in Honolulu at 3:30 in the morning wanting some breakfast. He found a little place that was open and as he sat at the counter sipping his coffee and eating his donut eight or nine women of the night walked in. The talk was loud and crude and Campolo felt completely out of place. But just as he was about to make his getaway he overheard a woman, whose name was Agnes, say, “Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m going to be thirty nine.”  Her friend responded in a nasty and sarcastic tone, “So what do you want from me? A birthday party?” The woman replied, “Why do you have to be so mean? I was just telling you. I have never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”

When Campolo heard that he made a decision. After the women left, Campolo inquired about them from the owner and cook named Harry.  Harry, a big guy and kind of ruff looking, said that the women came in every night about the same time. Campolo asked Harry what he thought about throwing Agnes a birthday party. Harry thought it was a great idea.

Campolo got the decorations while Harry made the cake, and the next evening when the women entered the dinner Agnes was given a surprise birthday party.  Agnes cried and was told to cut the cake. Agnes hesitated, looked down at the cake and said to Harry, “Would it be okay if I keep the cake a while? I mean is it all right if we don’t eat it right away?”

Harry said, “Sure! If you want to keep the cake, keep the cake. Take it home if you want to.” And with that Agnes picked up the cake like it was the Holy Grail and walked right out the door. Everyone else sort of stood there in stunned silence.  Finally Campolo said, “What do you say we pray?” And he started to pray, praying for Agnes that she would know God’s love. When he finished Harry learned over the counter and said, “Hey, you never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?” Campolo said, “The kind that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.” Harry responded, “No you don’t. There’s no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. I’d join a church like that.”

What if a few of us decided to be a church like that? What if a dozen of us decided to be a church like? What if several dozen of us decided to be a church like? We might usher in the kingdom of God.

Oh God, give us the will to take Jesus and his agenda seriously, to be committed to share his love for all by being ready to serve all. May we be a community that comes to reflect Jesus’ inclusiveness and his passion for those who have been beaten down in life? Help us to lean into that and live into that in Christ’s name. Amen.