Sunday, March 24, 2019

Repent or perish? (A sermon from Luke 13:1-9)

Today’s Gospel reading is a text that I think many Christians misread and therefore misapply. I said last week that Jesus knows the fate that awaits him in Jerusalem. The handwriting is on the wall. Jesus does not need any special revelation to know that the religious authorities want him out of the picture. He has preached and practiced an inclusive table fellowship, inviting all sorts of people who were disdained and considered unworthy by the gatekeepers. He intentionally violated laws that the religious establishment used to create a worthiness system to keep people under their control. He provoked them and challenged their authority in various ways. And when he leads a peace march into Jerusalem, which is what Palm Sunday is about, and then afterward when he stages a protest in the Temple, he seals his fate. He will perish at their hands.

And, as I said last week, he also knows that unless his people change their ways they too will perish at the hands of the Romans. And a few decades later that is exactly what happens. Luke’s Gospel was written at least one decade, maybe two decades after the Romans swept down on Jerusalem destroying the Temple in a war that did not last very long. The Romans crushed the Jews and many of Jesus’ fellow Jews perished.

This is what Jesus is talking about in this passage of scripture. The two questions Jesus poses have to do with God’s involvement in events that cause people to perish. In the first instance Pilate, for whatever reason, kills some Galileans. We don’t know why he killed them. He wouldn’t have to have had a reason since he was a Roman in power over the Jews. Jesus asks if they perished because they were worse sinners than the rest. Jesus says, “No.” The second instance is about a tower falling and killing eighteen people. The same question is asked, “Were they worse sinners than the rest?” Jesus says again, “No.” Jesus makes no attempt to explain why God had nothing to do with those two tragedies, he just says, “No.” Perhaps Jesus knows that it is an exercise in futility to try to figure out why things happen the way they happen. Or maybe Jesus thinks that it should be obvious to anyone who seriously ponders it. And it really should be obvious. God’s hand is not positioned over a zap button, which God decides to push from time to time. On the flip side, neither does God intervene to keep us from perishing. None of us have special protection against cancer and any other disease, or against a lunatic nationalist or whoever else who might start firing automatic weapons in a church, or a theater, or a school, or in a busy downtown shopping center. We do not perish because we are worse sinners, and we are not protected because we are more righteous. God does not work in the world from without. God works in the world from within. So because God works from within, not without, God is limited in what God can do.

Now, there are different views on why this is so. Since Jesus didn’t go there, I’m not about to go there either. All I have anyway is a theory, which is all any of us have. There’s no way to know why, though it should be fairly obvious that this is how God works in the world. God is not responsible for violence, either from humans or natural disasters. And God does not prevent violence from happening, either from humans or natural disasters. Jesus says, “No.” Jesus doesn’t try to explain it. I doubt if he could explain it. We don’t have access to that knowledge. It’s beyond us. It’s beyond Jesus. He just says, “No.”   

Now, in my opinion too many persons of faith mistakingly for whatever reason want to make God responsible. I heard about a lady who decided to get a pet after her husband died so that the house would not seem so empty. So she went to the pet store and the pet store owner talked her in to getting a parrot. She brought it home and after a few days the parrot started talking. Now, I have to tell you that this was one foul with a very foul mouth. This woman could not believe the words that came out of the parrot one after another – blankety blank, blank, blanky . . .   She tried everything she could think of it to cure it. She would squirt it with a water bottle. She would take its food. She tried throwing a blanket over the cage. She tried to return it to no avail. They were glad to get it out of the store.

One afternoon her pastor called and wanted to stop in for a few minutes to visit. So in her haste to pick up in the house a little bit, she forgot about the parrot. So the pastor came and they had a little visit, and just as he was leaving, this crazy bird billowed out the most horrendous string of curse words you ever heard. She was so upset that as soon as the pastor stepped out of the door she raced over to the cage, grabbed the bird by the neck, and flung it into the freezer. She thought I’ll just let this bird cool off a little bit.

Well, just then the phone rang and she forgot about the parrot. When she remembered some time later and opened the door, out creeps this bird, stiff as a board, ice cycles hanging off its feathers, beak almost frozen together. The parrot says, "I reeeeeppppent." Then it points its frozen feather back  to the icebox and says, still shivering, “Ttttteeell me.  WWWhat ddddid that Turkey do?"

There are Christians who think that’s what God does. But instead of the freezer, God throws us into a fire pit. That’s not how God works. Jesus says, “No.” Then he says, “Unless you repent, unless you change, unless you turn around, you will likewise perish.” Jesus is not talking about perishing at the hand of God in this life or the next. He is talking to his fellow Jews about perishing at the hand of the Romans. Jesus knows that if his fellow Jews continue to respond to the hate of their oppressors with hate, and to violence with violence, they will perish. And many of them did indeed perish a few decades later when the Romans descended upon Jerusalem.

I believe Jesus thought he could help change the spiritual and moral climate of his people, so they might avert the disaster he could foresee. He did works of mercy and justice. He healed the sick. He set free the oppressed. He embodied the compassion of God. He told them to love their enemies, not to hate their enemies. He knew that hate would lead to violence, and violence would bring down the wrath of Rome upon their heads. Jesus knew that unless they changed their attitudes and actions, unless they repented of their lust for vengeance, they would perish at the hands of their oppressors. A modern equivalent would be to say that unless we repent/change/turn around in the way we are misusing the earth's resources, depleting the ozone layer, and dispensing toxins into our atmosphere and waters, we as a human species (along with many other species) are going to perish. I cannot emphasize this enough sisters and brothers: WE DO NOT NEED TO BE SAVED FROM GOD. We need to be saved from our sins, because it's our sins - our greed, hate, and violence - that are killing us emotionally, morally, spiritually, and physically.

The parable that follows is related to this situation between the Jews and the Romans. Neither the owner of the garden who is ready to cut down the fruitless fig tree, nor the gardener who manages to persuade the owner to give the tree a little more time, neither one, owner or gardener is meant to represent God. The point of the parable, and this is one parable that I believe just has one point, is that time is running out, and there will come a point in time when it’s too late to avert the disaster they are bringing upon themselves. Again, this warning is very applicable to us in our current world. We have mismanaged this planet and time is running out. We are misusing the earth’s resources creating a toxic environment that will eventually kill us and our planet. And it won’t be long before the damage we are doing is irreversible, so the time for change is now.

Once we understand this context, we can better apply this scripture personally. Time is running for all of us, so now is the time for change. From God’s side of things, time is irrelevant, because time never runs out. From our side of things, every day is precious, because there is never any guarantee we will have another one. So, the time to change is now.

Earlier in this Gospel when Jesus begins his ministry and announces his agenda in the synagogue at Nazareth, he reads that wonderful text from Isaiah about preaching good news to the poor, setting prisoners free, giving sight to the blind, liberating the oppressed, and proclaiming God’s acceptance. Then he says, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Today is the day for us to fulfill that scripture, too, as Jesus’ followers. Today is the day for us to continue the gracious works of Jesus.

Paul tells the Corinthians, “Today is the day of salvation.” Today is the day to begin the process of healing the hurts and wounds in our lives. Today is the day to seek deliverance from our false attachments and from our harmful addictions. Today is the day to begin the journey to becoming a more gracious, generous, and grateful person. Today is the day to change, to repent, to make a new start that will lead to healing, liberation, and transformation.

A key part of this process is the ability to see where we need to change, to honestly and openly admit our need for change, and then do what we need to do in order to implement that change. For there can be no change and growth until see we need it, admit and confess we need it, and then do something about it.

In the film The Browning Version, Andrew Crocker-Harris (Albert Finney) is a strict classical literature professor at a British boys prep school. He is much disliked by the students and with good reason. Two events, however, have a profound impact on his life—his marriage ends and a student shows him genuine appreciation. Richard Rohr likes to say it takes suffering or love to bring about change. I guess he got some of both. His suffering through the breakup of his marriage and the love he felt from this student humbles him enough for him to see the truth about himself. 

At this time Harris is assigned to speak at a graduation ceremony. After his introduction and a smattering of a polite acknowledgment, he stands up to face the group with a serious expression on his face. He puts on his glasses, takes out his note cards and starts to say a few words about the importance of the classics.  Then he stops, unable to continue. He finishes a sentence, pauses, and walks down the steps of the platform to the main floor saying nothing. Then in a penitent voice he says to the student body,

“I am sorry. I am sorry because I have deserved the epithet “Hitler of the Lower Fifth.” I am sorry because I have failed to give you what is your right to demand of me as your teacher: sympathy, encouragement, humanity. I have degraded the noblest calling a man can follow, the care and molding of the young. When I entered this school, I still believed that I had a vocation in teaching. I knew what I wanted to do.  And yet I did not do it.  I cannot offer excuses. I have failed and miserably failed. And I can only hope that you can find it in your hearts, you and the countless others who have gone before you, to forgive me for having let you down. I shan’t find it easy to forgive myself. That is all.”

As difficult as it is, our acknowledgement and admission to ourselves, to God, and to others regarding our need to change is vital to our becoming the persons and communities God wants us to be. And that’s where it has to start.

Gracious God, surely your heart must break at the many ways we hurt ourselves and hurt one another. I am so thankful that you never withdraw the invitation to change. If the door is ever closed, it is closed from our side, not your side. Give us grace we need to see those blind spots where we need to change, so that we can begin that process that will form us more fully into your likeness. Amen.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

We all are welcome to the table (A sermon from Luke 13:31-35)

Jesus knows his death is imminent. Hence the cryptic statement, “I am casting out demons and performing cures today, tomorrow, and the third day I finish my work.” I suspect that in the passing on of this tradition the third day reference was added at some point, which is an allusion to God’s resurrection and vindication of Jesus. We have the same thing in Jesus’ passion announcements to his disciples. Looking back after the event it all forms one piece: his life, death, and vindication by God.

Jesus knows he’s going to die at the hands of the religious and political leaders. The handwriting is on the wall. Jesus knows something else too. He also knows that his people are headed for disaster. He can feel the animosity of his countrymen toward their oppressors, the Romans. He can since the growing anger and hate. He knows where it will lead and what will happen. They will clash, and the Romans will bring to bear their powerful army on his people, Israel. Maybe Jesus thought that if enough people would take seriously his teachings about loving God and neighbor that it could change the moral and spiritual climate, and perhaps avert this catastrophe. But now he knows what is to come to pass.

So I imagine Jesus feeling all of this as he expresses this lament over Jerusalem: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” We should try as best we can to feel the anguish and heartbreak and grief in Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem. And I believe we should also see in Jesus’ lament God’s passion and  grief for all God’s creation. Jesus is the microcosm of the Divine macrocosm. Jesus, the man gives us a glimpse into the heart and passion of the universal God.

The works of Jesus are summarized here as “casting out demons and performing cures.” This is religious language that describes the two primary activities Jesus engaged in besides his work of teaching and preaching. Besides being a teacher and prophet, Jesus was a healer and liberator. He wanted to see people and communities liberated from the demonic. That is, he wanted persons and communities to be set free from anything that oppressed them and enslaved them and made them sick, and kept them from becoming all that God wanted them to be as persons and communities. He wanted to see persons and communities healed and made whole in all aspects of life – physically, spiritually, emotionally, and socially. But the work Jesus was called to do put him at odds with the religious and political establishment of his day. They wanted to put a stop to his work from its inception, and Jesus knows as he sets his face toward Jerusalem that what he has to do there will only strengthen their resolve. So he knows his death is imminent and inevitable, and he tries to prepare his disciples for that moment.

Jesus died a sacrificial death because he lived a sacrificial life. I’m sure Jesus knew from the time he initiated his public work as healer, liberator, teacher, and prophet that what God had called him to do was dangerous work indeed. Jesus sided with the poor and welcomed to table the very ones the religious leaders excluded from fellowship. Jesus welcomed those deemed to be traitors and all manner of people who were lawbreakers, which is what the word “sinners” refers to in the Gospels. He knew that in doing such work, in speaking truth to power and engaging in works of mercy and justice, he would pay the ultimate price. In that sense Jesus’ death was a ransom he paid to liberate people from the demonic.

The works of Jesus – works of mercy and justice, works of healing and liberation – will take different forms in society, but they all come from the same source, namely, God’s inclusive love. When God’s inclusive love is filling our lives we are committed to the same values Jesus lived and taught. The works themselves may vary, but the one source is God. Just think how different the Christian influence of the West might have had on the rest of world if the focus of Jesus had been the focus of the mission work of the church.  

John Philip Newell gave a talk in Ottawa, Ontario on some of the main themes of the prologue of John’s Gospel. He emphasized the truth of John 1:9 pointing out that the light of God enlightens every person coming into the world. In attendance that evening was a Canadian Mohawk elder. He had been invited to draw some parallels between his First Nations spirituality and the spirituality of the Celtic world that Dr. Newell was expounding in his presentation. At the end of Dr. Newell’s talk this Mohawk elder stood with tears in his eyes. He said to Dr. Newell and the people present: “As I listened tonight . . . I have been wondering where I would be tonight. I have been wondering where my people would be tonight. And I have been wondering where we would be as a Western world tonight if the mission that come to us from Europe centuries ago had come expecting to find light in us.”

The great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber said, "I do not believe in Jesus but I do believe with him." What was his saying? He was saying that he did not share the beliefs his Christian brothers and sisters had about Jesus. But he did share the values that Jesus believed in and lived by. What do you think is most important? Believing things about Jesus or sharing the values and doing the works of Jesus? In the whole Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) there is not a single word about what to believe; it’s all about what to do and how to live. Jesus’ teachings and works are all expressions of what it means and looks like to love your neighbor as yourself. Believing in the modern sense of the term is much easier. Because doing the works of Jesus can get you killed. And Jesus knew that. This is why Jesus told would be disciples to count the cost. He said the student is no different than his teacher. If they hate me, they will hate you. And why would they hate them? Certainly not because of the things they might believe. But rather, they would be hated and opposed because of the values they would embody and the works they would do.

When Jesus called disciples he didn’t say you have to believe this or that. He said what you have to do is deny your little self, take up your cross, and follow me. He said, “If you want to be my disciple then you have to do what I do, be committed to works of healing and liberation, and be willing to die for the cause of mercy and justice.” Are we willing to die in the pursuit of mercy and restorative justice? Are we willing to die in the struggle to heal all people, not just our kind of people? Are we willing to die to liberate all people from oppression and injustice? Are we willing to speak out about the inequalities and injustices of our society? Are we willing to take on fear and hate and prejudice regardless of the cost? This is what Jesus is asking? How much are we willing to love people – all people – not just the people in our church or group or nation, not just people who believe like us and talk like us and look like us and live like us – all people? That’s the question of discipleship. What are we willing to give our lives for – to sacrifice – in order to love all people.

Fred Craddock tells about going home to west Tennessee to visit, where an old high school chum named Buck owned a restaurant. One day Fred went in and Buck said, “Let’s go for coffee.” Fred said, “Isn’t this the restaurant.” And Buck said, “I don’t know. Sometimes I wonder.” So they went out for coffee. Buck said, “Did you see the curtain?” Fred said, “Buck, I saw the curtain. I always see the curtain.”

In that little town they had a number of shotgun buildings, with two entrances, front and back. One entrance was off the street; the other was off the alley, with a curtain and the kitchen in the middle. In that day, if you were white you entered off the street, but if you were black you entered through the alley. And there was that curtain.

Buck said, “Did you see the curtain.” Fred said, “I saw the curtain.” Buck said, “The curtain has to come down.” Fred said, “Good, bring it down.” Buck said, “That’s easy for you to say.” He couldn’t leave it up and he couldn’t take it down. He was a mess. He said to Fred, “If I take the curtain down, I lose a lot of customers, maybe even my business.” But then he said, “If I leave that curtain up, I lose my soul.”

That’s the issue of discipleship. It’s not believe this and that and here is your ticket to heaven. The question is not about belief in the modern sense of the word, but it is about faith in its ancient, biblical sense. Am I willing to commit my life, to trust in and be faithful to the inclusive love of Jesus, to the values and works of healing and liberation he embraced and expressed? Am I willing to tear down that curtain even if it costs me something, even if it costs me my life? Will I love my neighbor all the way to the cross? That’s the question.

When Jesus confronted the religious and social gatekeepers of his day it had nothing to do with what people believed about God. It had everything to do with the nature of God’s inclusive love. Jesus challenged their practices of exclusion and condemnation, and the ways they used and controlled people for their own advantage. Jesus made loving your neighbor the focus of his life and ministry.  How did we miss this? This is what the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are all about.

The passage ends with Jesus saying, “You will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” Whenever a biblical text makes reference to the “name” of someone, the name represents the character and values of the person.  I don’t think we can really “see,” that is, know and experience the Christ, until we trust in and are committed to the inclusive love of Jesus, which got him killed. Jesus incarnated the character and passion of God. We cannot really know Jesus and know the God he lived for and served until we embody and incarnate the values he lived by and the character and passion he expressed. It’s all about following the way of Jesus, his way of inclusive love.  Nowhere in Matthew, Mark, and Luke does Jesus say believe in me. What he says is follow me. And even in John’s Gospel when we are invited to believe in Jesus, the ancient meaning of that word, which is very different that modern meanings of that word, means to trust in the trustworthiness of Jesus and be faithful to the way of Jesus, which according to that Gospel, is the way of truth and grace.  

What I see in Jesus’ passionate lament over Jerusalem is the heart of God for all people, for all God’s children. God wants to gather in everyone just as a mother hen wants to gather in her brood. God wants to yank down all the curtains and tear down all the walls, and let everyone know they are welcome here. But God is limited. Whatever God does in the world or in our lives is cooperative, not coercive. God does not force God’s good will on anyone and make us do anything we do not want to do. God cannot heal or liberate someone who does not want to be healed or liberated. We have to cooperate and participate in the process. We have to share God’s love for the world (that is, we have to experience for ourselves God’s inclusive love) if we are going to change, and we have to share God’s love with the world (that is, we have to be practitioners of and witnesses to this love) if the world is going to change. That’s just how it works. God wants to gather all God’s children together, but God’s children have to want to be gathered and be willing to be gathered. And God needs more of God’s children to embody God’s love.

God doesn’t need more people to believe this and that about Jesus, the Bible, the reality of heaven and hell, or anything else some Christians think are all important. Some even call them fundamentals. God needs more image-bearers who will reflect God’s own love. That is the one fundamental where Jesus put all the emphasis. God needs more people to practice and preach the love of Jesus, regardless of what they believe about Jesus. When we get to the end of Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus is portrayed as the teacher par excellence, Jesus, having been vindicated by God, says to his disciples, “Go and make disciples.” Not, “Go tell them they have to believe in my virgin birth, my deity, my atoning death, or anything else that many Christians today think is all important.” But rather, go teach them to be followers of my way. Go teach them to be practitioners of God’s inclusive love.

Gracious God, I have fallen short of living out your inclusive love for all people. I cannot hide this from you. There are people I would rather not have to sit by at your table. In fact, if the truth were known I don’t even want to see them at your table, because I do not share fully your inclusive love. So help me, O God, grow into it. Help us all, Lord, grow into it, so that your heartbreak and anguish and grief over the world may be our heartbreak and anguish and grief too. Amen.

Monday, March 11, 2019

How Does God Work in the World?

In my book, Being a Progressive Christian, I have a piece tilted, "God's Loving Judgment." I argue that God's judgment, whatever it may consist of, is restorative and redemptive, not punitive and retributive. I never speculate on how God judges and what that may involve or look like. A spiritual growth group using my book presented me with the question, "How do we know God is correcting us?" Below is my response:

Your question actually must be addressed in light of a larger question about how God actually works in the world and in our lives. I don’t see God intervening in “judgment” or “blessing” the way the prophets sometimes envisioned. The Jewish view of God tended to see God as the transcendent "Other." Over and separate from the creation. I think when we get to the revelation in Jesus that view of God begins to shift. God is here and now. In God we “live, move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28).  According to Paul we are indwelt by God. We are in God (Christ, Spirit) and God is in us.

If God is with us and in us – not out there – how does this work? How does God relate to us now? Is God orchestrating events and experiences to bring about the results God wants? Not directly. Not in any kind of coercive way. God suggests, woos, draws, speaks, prompts, lures – but does God intervene in judgment? I don’t think so.

God apparently loves giving the creation freedom, even to destroy itself. Could God intervene in some direct way if God wanted to? And does God intervene occasionally? No one can know, but I have an opinion. And that is all it is – an opinion.

If God could intervene I don’t think God would have utilized the process of evolution to create the universe and life on earth. We are talking billions of years here for the first life forms to emerge. Think of the struggle – the pain and suffering – that is part and parcel to the process of evolving life. If God could have instantly created the universe like the mythic story of creation suggests in Genesis 1 then why wouldn’t God have simply done it that way.

Process theologians believe God is still evolving. I don’t know about that, but I do think God is doing what God can do. I tend to think that evolution was the only way God could bring forth life. I know I am placing limits on God. But is it necessary to imagine a completely unlimited God? We can’t even conceive of that anyway.

I think of God and all material reality incarnationally. The whole universe is an expression of God revealing and expressing God’s self. Maybe it would be helpful to even think of the universe or universes (there could be more than one) as being the body of God. The growing, evolving, becoming body of God. God is looking and finding ways to bring into existence other life forms, not in order to use or manipulate them, but to love and care for them, so they might learn to love and care too. And of course, our (the Christian) definitive expression of what God is like is found in Jesus.

God, I believe, is personal, but God is so much more than that, so we can’t actually say God is a person, because a person is limited to time and space. I don’t believe God is limited by time and space, though God relates to us personally as persons do. God is Spirit and God as Spirit pervades and permeates everything. Everything is connected to God. God fills the empty space between things and is a part of the things themselves. All reality is a web of life deriving its energy from God. So God, I imagine, does not operate outside of us, the way a father or mother is outside of the child imposing discipline and correction. God is inside working from within, guiding in non-coercive ways.

I don’t know how judgment works specifically in this sort of view of God, except to say that I think God is using everything to grow us, develop us, teach us, heal us, redeem us, and transform us. You and I are one with God. A vital part of our growth depends on our capacity to cooperate with the work and actions of God within us. I know that in my best moments, I am doing what the Spirit is leading me to do.

I have said all that to say that I can’t answer the question, for obviously I do not believe God acts from the outside of creation, but from within, and that means God doesn’t get to bring about everything God wants. God needs people to cooperate with God in bringing about God’s will. God can’t say like a mother to her child, “Ok, no computer until you shape up.”  

I never ask, “Did God cause this?” There may be multiple reasons why things happen to us, and God may not be involved at all. God may have wanted to prevent it from happening, but given the limitations on God working from the inside of things, God couldn’t. Surely God would prevent massive natural disasters and horrific mass genocides if God could.

I never ask, “Is this a judgment from God?” It’s the wrong question. The question I ask (whether it is something bad or something good that I experience) is, “What can I learn? How can I grow? How can I experience God and draw upon God’s grace and love in this particular moment? I may need God’s strength to get through. Or I may need to listen to God who may be telling me I need to deal with my ego, or my lack of forgiveness, or some other harmful pattern in my life. 

God not only speaks in a still small voice, God is active in small, hidden ways that we cannot see, like the yeast in the dough. The creation is the dough. Maybe the very idea of judgment is just an image, a symbol for helping us to relate to God. We are always wanting to literalize these images/symbols. The image of judgment as discipline and correction is a healthy one, because it reflects what is true about God. God wants to use everything that happens in our lives for our ultimate good and transformation.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Riding the Monsters Down (A sermon from Luke 4:1-13)

This brief account of Jesus’ testing could leave the impression that his testing came and went quickly. To counter that Luke tells us that Jesus was in the desert forty days. Forty is a symbolic number. It’s the number of days it rained in the great flood and the number of years Israel wandered in the wilderness. The number simply represents a lengthy period of time. Temptation never really ends. We face new tests all through our life’s journey.

For both Jesus and us, the Devil represents anything that presents a roadblock that would hinder us and prevent us from continuing on the spiritual path God has for us. We need not look outside ourselves for the Devil, for the greatest Devil we face is within us – our own ego. All three of the temptations Jesus confronts involves very subtle appeals to the ego. It would be convenient for us if the testing we face was something completely outside ourselves, for then we could excuse ourselves, like Flip Wilson used to say on “Laugh In”: The Devil made me do it. Maybe you heard about the lady who purchased a very expensive dress and when she got home her husband asked her why she bought it. He said, “You know, we can’t afford that.” She said, “Well, honey, the devil made me do it. I was trying it on in the store and he whispered, ‘I’ve never seen you look more gorgeous than you do in that dress.’ Her husband quipped, “Why didn’t you say, ‘Get behind me, Satan?’” She said, “I did” and he said, “It looks even better from behind.”  

In this first testing Jesus has been in a prolonged fast and the Devil tempts him to turn stones into bread. Jesus says in response, “One does not live by bread alone.” Parker Palmer makes the observation that ironically Jesus’ response has given some Christians justification for succumbing to the sin “of spiritualizing basic human needs to the point of ignoring poverty and starvation,” as if we can somehow “save the souls of the starving . . . without putting food in their mouths and without challenging the injustice that deprives them of their fair share.” The hungry need food before they need a Bible; they need a way to survive and live with some measure of dignity and be able to take care of their families, before someone preaches to them. And so there is no greater spiritual work than addressing those very physical needs. 

Keep in mind, too, that Jesus’ response here is his response to the devil, not starving people. In the proper context Jesus will indeed provide bread for hungry people. In some ways the idea that there are “deeper needs” is relative. If you are hungry or your children are hungry then there is no deeper need than finding food. Your deepest need is survival. But once food is provided, then other deeper needs surface.

The Devil prefaces his first testing of Jesus with a taunt that takes a familiar form. “If you are the Son of God then . . . .” How often are we tested by that same taunt that comes in a variety of forms? If you are a real man or a real woman then . . . If you are such a good parent then . . . If you really care then . . .  It’s a direct appeal to the ego. It’s the temptation to prove our identity, to prove our worth and our value. I wonder how many lives have been hurt and wrecked because they felt they could never measure up to the standards that would prove them worthy and give them significance or status or success. Think how many people are trying to earn love and acceptance.

Henry Nouwen left his teaching post at Harvard to be a chaplain to a house of handicapped people. He said that the first thing that struck him was how their liking or disliking him had nothing to do with any of the useful things he had done until them. They didn’t care about his degrees, or his prominent teaching posts at Yale and Harvard, or his ecumenical experience. They didn’t care about any of that. He couldn’t use any of the skills that had proved so practical in his past and he was suddenly faced with his naked self, open for affirmations and rejections, hugs and punches, all dependent on how he was perceived at the moment.  Nouwen writes, “It forced me to rediscover my true identity . . . forced me to let go of my relevant self—the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things—and forced me to reclaim that unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments.”  Maybe this is the place where we all need to come to, where we let go of our relevant self and stand before God and each other in all our vulnerability to be loved not for what we have done or can do, but for simply who we are.

We do not earn or merit the title child of God. It’s all gift. It’s pure grace. You don’t have to believe the right things, or do the right things, or belong to the right group to be called a child of God. It’s your birthright. Richard Rohr was spending time in silence and solitude in a hermitage somewhere, and hadn’t seen another human being in several days. Then one afternoon he was out for a walk and crossed paths with another monk who recognized him, and knew he did a lot of public teaching. He told Father Rohr, “Richard,” he said, “you must tell them that God is not out there; God is in here.” And then he scurried on his way. Yes. God is in here. You are in God, in Christ, in the Holy Spirit. God is in you and you are in God. And you didn’t earn that. It has always been true. And it’s also true that the Devil is not out there somewhere. The Devil is in here too. And hence the struggle. But the first thing about us and the most important thing about is not our sin, not our struggle with our little self, our ego, but rather the first thing about is our inseparable connection to God. Some teach that sin separates us from God. But that is not really true. Sin does not separate us from God. Sin separates us from our awareness and experience of God, but not from the reality of God who indwells everyone of us. We would not be alive if we were not connected to God. God is the life source and life force of the universe.

Before Jesus was led into the wilderness to face this testing, he heard the voice of the Spirit say to him, “You are my Beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” If we are going to progress toward Christ likeness in becoming more loving persons we need to hear the Divine Voice say to us, “You are my beloved son, you are my beloved daughter, with you I am well pleased for simply being you.” That’s where we have to begin. As I say over and over: The spiritual life is about becoming who we already are. The little self, the ego is always going to question our true identity. The ego is going to present us with many temptations to abandon our true identity. The ego says, If you are a son of God or daughter of God then prove yourself. And the proof that the ego wants will always be the carrot on the stick that we cannot quite reach. Don’t fall for it sisters and brothers. You are loved right now at this moment with an eternal love. Claim it. Trust it. And let the Spirit of Christ help you become who you are.

Keep this in mind. Because the Spirit is the life and breath in whom we live, move, and have our being, our awareness of our true worth and identity is tied to our awareness of the true worth and identity of every other human being. And this brings us to the second testing. The Devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world – their power and glory and says, “This can all be yours, if you worship me.” This is what the ego says to us: “if you will serve me, you can have it all and you can be over all.” It’s the temptation to see and treat ourselves as separate from others, and as better than others. And when we see ourselves as better than others, then others become our pawns to be used for our own personal advantage or advancement. Or maybe it’s the group that we see as better – our religious faith, or political party, or nationality, or nation – our kind of people whoever that may be. The same goes for the creation. When we see ourselves as separate from creation, then creation becomes expendable, something we use and exploit to our own advantage and advancement.

In response to this challenge Jesus says, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only God.” The way we resist this temptation of the religious ego is by worshiping and serving God as the universal God, the God of all the kingdoms of the earth. I was interviewed last week by a young reporter who was doing a story on what some clergy felt about inclusivity. This, of course, was in the wake of the struggle in the United Methodist church for inclusion of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, which did not go well by the way. I told him that I believed the movement from exclusion to inclusion is critical to our movement toward Christ-likeness and becoming more loving people, which is what spirituality is all about. The temptation of the religious ego is the temptation to exclude people from the circle of God’s family because of religion, social status, sexual orientation, or whatever, so we can set ourselves up as better – more spiritual or blessed. It’s not enough to trust that we are loved; we must trust that we are all loved. We are all chosen. We all belong. 

The final test Jesus faces is what Henry Nouwen calls the temptation to be spectacular. If you are the Son of God, says the Devil, jump off the temple and God will dramatically intervene to save you. The ego says, “If you put on a good show and draw a crowd, and give that crowd something to talk about, think how much good you could do.” The problem is that once we get on that train, we come to care less and less about doing good, and more and more about gaining in status and popularity. A lot of preachers have went down that path. Jesus says in response, “No.” And tells us to say no as well. Jesus says if you want to do good the way I do good, then deny your little self, your ego self, take up your cross, and follow me. That’s the path of discipleship.

Now, these temptations Jesus faced in the desert, he will face over and over again in subtle ways throughout his ministry. The way to overcome them is by facing them honestly and struggling with them. It’s significant that our story begins by telling us that Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, was led by the Spirit to encounter the Devil in the wilderness. The Spirit led Jesus into this confrontation and struggle with his ego. The Spirit will always lead us to honestly face these struggles of our honestly. The Spirit of God leads us to confront questions about who we are and how we find worth. The Spirit leads us to confront the desire in our hearts to be superior to others and more special than the rest. And the Spirit leads us to admit our longings for popularity, position, and power, which we can easily conceal under the guise of all the good we can do. Our culture will allow us, perhaps even encourage us to ignore, deny, conceal, and repress the longings and desires of the little self/the ego; whereas the Spirit of Christ will lead us to be honest, truthful, and confessional regarding the struggles that go on in our soul. There is no need to conceal anything from God. We don’t have to prove ourselves. There is nothing we can do to make God love us less and nothing we can do to make God love us more

The Quaker educator Parker Palmer tells about being terrified at the prospect of propelling down a 110 foot cliff as part of an outdoor program he participated in called Outward Bound. As he made his way down the side of the cliff, he came to a very large crevice in the rock, and he froze. He couldn’t move. So the instructor yelled down to him that he needed to do exactly what the Outward Bound motto says to do. Parker didn’t know the motto. The instructor called out: If you can’t get out of it, get into it. He couldn’t go over it or around it. His only way out was to go in. Author Annie Dillard says that in the depths of human reality are “the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us.” Then she suggests riding these monsters down until we come to a place that “our sciences cannot locate or name . .  which gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil.”

Today is the first Sunday of Lent. What better way to begin than with a commitment to ride the monsters down into the depths of our hearts and souls. We will never overcome the temptations of the ego by ignoring them, denying them, or repressing them. We have to face them, ride them down, struggle with them, so that we can open our hearts and minds and souls to the power of God’s Spirit, which is nothing less than the power of Love.
As we begin our journey to the cross and beyond, O God, may we each be honest with you, with ourselves, and with one another about the longings, temptations, and struggles we struggle to overcome. Amen

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Seeing through the Lens of Jesus (A sermon from Luke 9:28-36)

Spiritual teacher Richard Rohr likes to say that our tendency is to see things, not as they are, but as we are. The point he makes is that many things in our lives prevent us from seeing what really is. Our capacity to see reality is shaped by many factors: our upbringing and the ways we are socialized into adulthood, our education, our social and community networks, our physiology and genetics, our religious faith and the ways we are indoctrinated into that faith. All kinds of influences affect how we see. Thus, the truism: We see as we are, rather than what really is. In his wonderful piece on love in his first letter to the Corinthians Paul makes the point that we all see a “poor reflection as in a mirror.” The NRSV says, we see “dimly.” We are all limited and biased in what and how we see. That’s part of the human condition. However, I believe, that we will see truth and reality more clearly if we see through the lens of Jesus.

Everything in our scriptural text today is focused on Jesus. When Peter intrudes onto the scene and speaks, Luke tells us that he didn’t know what he was saying. Jesus takes center stage. The passage we read responsively from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians speaks of the transformative potential of seeing through the lens of Jesus. Paul says that the more we are able to see the glory of the Lord reflected in the image of Christ, the more we will be transformed into that same image as we progress from one degree of glory to another. I would like to suggest today three areas where we have a great need to see more clearly. I would also suggest that if we could see through the lens of Jesus we could not only see more clearly, we could be transformed through our seeing.

First, we need to see our scriptures through the lens of Jesus. In our text, Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus. Moses represents the law, while Elijah represents the prophets. But it is Jesus who is alone affirmed by the Divine Voice who says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” In this way the story is saying that Jesus is the fulfillment of the best of the law and prophets. Listen to him, the Divine Voice says. The life and teachings of Jesus provide the lens through which we can read and interpret the Bible constructively and redemptively in ways that transform us into the glorious image of Christ.

If you consider any major issue that confronts the church today and that Christians debate such as issues relating to sexual orientation, issues of gender equality and authority in the church, how Christians should relate to government, the role of the military, divorce, the nature of Jesus or salvation, or any other issue relevant to our Christian faith we all appeal to scripture and draw from scripture. As you well know the Bible can be employed as an instrument of change or as a way of affirming the status quo. It can be used for good or evil. It can be preached as a means of liberation or it can be preached in ways that oppress and condemn others. My contention is that if we read and apply our scriptures through the lens of Jesus we are more likely to read and apply them in healthy, inclusive, life-affirming, and transformative ways. There is no guarantee of course, because we all tend to be blind to our biases. However, we are more likely to use the Bible in transformative ways if we see it and read it through the lens of Jesus.

Some years ago, when I was pastor of First Baptist Church in Greenup, Kentucky, I, along with three other pastors, tried to change the policy regarding women in our local Baptist Association. As the policy stood, women could not speak publicly to any issue up for vote at the annual meeting. (I know that sounds crazy, but this is Northeastern Kentucky in the 1980’s, which is still crazy but that’s the way it was).  In pressing for change, I addressed the body and talked about how Jesus broke with tradition and how he developed an egalitarian approach to ministry by calling women disciples. I talked about the social vision of the new creation Paul expounds in his letter to the Galatians, how in Christ all social, sexual, and racial barriers are abolished. I pointed to scriptures where women serve as coworkers and partners with Paul in preaching and teaching the gospel.

Do you know what happened? Those who opposed the change quoted scripture too. Oh yes. They came armed with scripture too. They quoted 1 Cor 14:34 that says that women should be silent and subordinate in the church and if they have anything to say they should ask their husbands at home. Someone asked, “What if they don’t have husbands.” They said, “They need to get husbands.” Then they quoted 1 Timothy 2 that says that women should be submissive and not teach in the presence of men, because Adam was created first and the woman was the one who was deceived by the serpent. It’s in the Bible they said. And they’re right. It’s in the Bible.

And everything that the Bible says is God’s word, right? No. No. A thousand times No! Now please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying one is a bad person if he or she believes that the whole Bible is literally the word of God. I was taught this in the church where I grew up and believed it. I believed this in the early years of my ministry and I wasn’t a bad person. I have family and friends who believe this today and they are not bad people. There are many caring, good, and decent people who believe the Bible is literally the word of God. I am not saying you are a bad person if you believe that, but I don’t know of any belief that has been used more to legitimize the status quo and justify so many bad and oppressive religious, political, and social customs, traditions, and practices. When I was able to take my blinders off (I still see dimly, I don’t see perfectly), I realized that believing the whole Bible is literally the word of God defies common sense.

For example, in one place in the Bible it says that God told Moses, and in another place God told Joshua to wipe out an entire group of people, men, women, and yes even the children. According to the Bible God tells Moses and Joshua to commit genocide. Do you believe the God of Jesus who tells us to love our enemies would order genocide? When I debate this biblical inerrantists hate it when I bring this up, but it’s in the Bible isn’t it? I ask them, “Would you ever order the complete destruction of a people, all men, women, and children?” And they say, No. So, I say, why do you think God would? You are more loving than the God you believe in. I know in my heart God would never commend or commit genocide. If God actually told Moses or Joshua to do that God would not be good. God would be evil. God is not evil, sisters and brothers. God is good. As we used to sing in one church I was in: God is good all the time.

So what was going on in those biblical texts where God orders genocide? I will tell you what was going on. The biblical writer was using God to justify his own evil. He was projecting onto God the hate and prejudice in his own heart. He was doing what many Christian leaders do today when they use scripture to justify their hatred and mistreatment of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, immigrants, or any person or group who they dislike. Isn’t it ironic that we would use scripture to dismiss and reject people, when it’s very clear that Jesus said we are love them.

We find in our Bible scriptural texts that are truly inspired by God’s Spirit and are inspirational, highly enlightened, and powerfully transformative. And yet we also find biblical texts that are uninspired, petty, punitive, vindictive, stifling, and only concerned with the status quo. Some texts take us three steps forward, while other texts take us two steps back. Now, sisters and brothers, we can’t go wrong if we let Jesus be our guide. If we could see all our scriptures – if we would read, interpret, discern, and apply these scriptures – through the character of Jesus – that is, through the grace, compassion, forgiveness, love, kindness, goodness, humility, integrity, generosity, and gratitude of Jesus, and if we could all our scriptures through the passion of Jesus – that is, through his commitment to speak truth to power and his commitment to restorative justice, to do what is good and right and just and loving – if we would see and read these scriptures through the character and passion of Jesus, then it would be fairly obvious to us which scriptures are relevant and which ones are not, which scriptures are inspired and which ones are not, which scriptures bring healing and liberation, and which ones do not. We need to see our scriptures, and for that matter all our religious customs and traditions through the lens of Jesus.

Second, we need to see our sufferings through the lens of Jesus. It’s important to note that this epiphany on the mountain takes place in a context where Jesus has just told his disciples that in Jerusalem he is going to undergo great suffering and be rejected and killed by the religious and political establishment of his day. Luke also tells us that Jesus’ death is the subject of conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah on the mountain. One of the interesting differences between Luke’s version of the story and Mark and Matthew’s version of the story, is that in Luke’s version the discussion about Jesus’ death in Jerusalem takes place on the mountain, while he is enveloped in glory, rather than on the descent down the mountain as in Mark and Matthew. Luke’s version makes a stronger connection between Jesus’ experience of transfiguration and his suffering and death. Perhaps Luke is suggesting that there is a kind of glory in suffering, or even , better that there can be no glory without suffering. The pattern for all spiritual transformation is death and resurrection, suffering then glory.   

I am not implying that God is responsible for our suffering. But God most certainly uses suffering and incorporates suffering into our healing and redemption. Nelson Mandela spent twenty-seven years in prison, eighteen of them on Robben Island performing the totally senseless task of breaking big rocks into little rocks. The unrelenting brightness of the light which reflected off the white stone damaged his eyes making it difficult for him to even bear the flash of a camera. He and his colleagues were arrested because they stood up for rights that in other countries were claimed to be inalienable. When he was sent to prison, he had been leading the armed wing of the African National congress. Some look at the twenty-seven years he spent in prison and say, “What a waste.” But according to Bishop Tutu, who knew Mandela well, when Mandela first went to jail he believed in violence. He was angry, belligerent and quick-tempered, but he mellowed in prison. He began to discover spiritual qualities and attributes that he did not know he had. He became resilient and tolerant and patient. He learned to appreciate the weaknesses and failures that are part and parcel to all of us. He became, through his suffering, more compassionate, forgiving, gentle and understanding.

How is it that great suffering can either ennoble us or embitter us? Some, like Nelson Mandela, are transformed through suffering; others become calloused and hard and angry and evil. It all depends on our response to suffering, how we handle it, how we choose to react to it. Paul acknowledges this connection between suffering and glorification in his letter to the Romans when he says that if we suffer with Christ we also will be glorified with Christ. He tells the church to exalt in their sufferings because suffering produces endurance, character, and hope.

I realize that there are forms of suffering that seem to all human reasoning and logic to have no redemptive value. At least in this life we can’t see any redemptive value to them, and it all seems so senseless and tragic. But who knows how God may somehow even use suffering that is horrific and evil in ways that we cannot now see. One of the keys is the ability to see our suffering through the lens of Jesus.

Lastly, we need to see our sins through the lens of Jesus. In the movie The Mission a Jesuit priest is committed to establishing a Christian mission in South America for the Guarani Indians. In the process of carrying out this mission the priest crosses paths with Mendoza, a slave trader who terrorized the Indians, capturing and selling them into slavery. Mendoza kills his brother in a jealous rage and then is plagued by guilt and regret. When the priest meets him he is in despair and he has given up on life. Mendoza says to the priest, “For me there is no redemption.” But the priest is persistent in his claim that there is redemption, there is always hope. But Mendoza says, “There is no penance hard enough for me.” The priest responds, “But do you dare try it?” And Mendoza replies, “Do I dare? Do you dare to see it fail?” But the priest instills a small ray of hope and Mendoza decides to pursue a path to redemption.

Mendoza must face the Indian tribe against which he committed many atrocities. The priest requires as penance Mendoza to carry along 100 pounds of armor on their journey to the Indian village. It is an arduous journey over cliffs and waterfalls, and it is grueling for someone bearing 100 pounds of armor with rope and net. When they finally reach the tribe, the Indians are excited to see the priest. But when they recognize Mendoza, it becomes a moment of truth. One of the Indian leaders unsheathes a knife and holds it to Mendoza’s neck. Mendoza remains calm and prepares to receive his justly deserved punishment. But then, in an unexpected demonstration of grace, the Indian removes the knife from his throat and cuts the pack of armor free that has been strapped to his back. In a deeply moving scene we watch the armor clank down the mountainside. Suddenly Mendoza is overwhelmed at the grace, at the forgiveness and mercy given him, and he begins to sob uncontrollably as he falls to the ground in great remorse and repentance. It marks the beginning of his new life as a new person. He realizes that in spite of all the evil he had done to others, his life has value and God loves him. By the way, that’s how we most often experience God’s love. We experience God’s love and forgiveness through the love and forgiveness of others.

In v. 32 of our text Luke says that Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep. That’s where so many of us are today. We get weighed down in our narrow, punitive, petty understandings of God. We get weighed down in our trials and sufferings. We get weighed down in our failures and sins. Is there hope for us? Yes, a thousand times yes. Luke tells us that while the disciples were weighed down with sleep, they did not give in. They stayed awake, and behold says Luke, “they saw his glory.” If we will stay awake, if we will keep pressing on, if we will keep trusting and hoping and especially loving, because the greatest of these is love, if we will be faithful even though we may feel weighed down with confusion, or suffering, or sin, we too will see the glory of Christ shine through all of it. We will see and share in the glory of Christ.     

Our good God, give us the will and resolve, the faith, hope, and love to keep pressing on even though we may feel weighed down by our misunderstandings, our sufferings, and our sins. Help us to persist. To keep on keeping on. To endure and not give up – so that we might see through new eyes the glory of Christ. O God, help us to see the beauty of who you are. Help us to see how our sufferings can be incorporated into our transformation. And help us to see how magnanimous and unconditional is your forgiveness. In the name of Christ I pray. Amen.