Monday, July 29, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 15, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 7, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 1, 2019

The Journey to True Freedom (Gal. 5:1, 13-25)

You have heard me say a number of times, “Religion can be the best thing in the world, and it can be the worst thing in the world.” And that’s as much true of our own religion, Christianity, as any other religion. Our Christian worship, scriptures, rituals, and practices can be liberating or suffocating. Paul, it seems, wants to get that message across to the Galatian Christians, some of whom, want to shackle themselves with the lesser and unnecessary aspects of the Mosaic law. Paul reminds them that he brought to them the way of true freedom in Christ, but now they want to settle for a yoke of slavery.

In our text Paul contrasts two ways of life. One way leads to life and true freedom; the other way leads to death and bondage. I am speaking of life and death metaphorically. One way is a healthy, redemptive, healing, transformative, and liberating way of life. The other is an unhealthy, non-redemptive, destructive and enslaving way of life. Paul identifies the two different ways of life as life according to the Spirit and life according to the flesh.

A number of spiritual writers have pointed out that Paul’s choice of the word “flesh” in contrast to the word “Spirit” is an unfortunate choice of words at best. Unfortunate because it has been so misunderstand by Christians and used to teach that the body is evil. The flesh as body is not evil or bad. In fact, Paul says the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Various explanations have been offered, none of which I find very satisfying, as to why Paul and other ancient Christian writers use this particular word to describe the opposite of life in the Spirit. What Paul calls “flesh” is a way of living rooted in the ego. Now, in one sense the ego is neither bad nor good. In one sense, a strong ego, aware of its boundaries, is vital to healthy functioning. But usually when we reference the ego we are thinking about the egocentric ego. Generally when spiritual writers talk about the ego today they are talking about the self-centered, self-absorbed self. What Paul calls the flesh we could call “the little self.” The self that sees itself separated or all alone and has to protect itself at all costs. This is the egocentric self. Thomas Merton was the first to use the term “false self” to describe this egocentric self, or little self. It’s false because that’s not who we really are or called to be. And the little self has all sorts of ways to defend and protect itself.

Our false selves are inseparably tied into a false culture. Our egocentric selves is part of an egocentric world. Both Paul and John use the word “world” in that negative way. John says in his first letter that the world as a system of egocentric culture is full of selfish ambition, greed, and boastful pride in riches and the status that goes with it. This is why John tells his readers, “love not the world,” because these things are not of God. Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “Do not be conformed to the world.” What he is saying is, “Don’t allow this egocentric system, the egocentric culture to shape you into its mold.” That’s not who we are. So it’s not just the egocentric self that poses a problem, it’s the egocentric culture that gives respectability to the little self and even justifies or vindicates the little self. For example, our culture basically teaches us that greed is good. Our whole economic system is based on it. Wanting what is bigger and better is good. Buying more stuff is good. Beating others to the top is good. Our egocentric culture, our “world,” the system in which we live, constitutes a corporate or collective false self, and it justifies the little self. The system encourages and blesses our individual greed that rises out of the false self. This is why it is so difficult to recognize the blindness of the false self, because the whole culture is blind, the whole world is blind when it comes to greed, for example, so it’s hard for us to see our own greed, when the world encourages our greed and blesses our greed. None of us escape this.

The egocentric self, and the egocentric culture, the little self and the system that supports it is personified in scripture as the devil or Satan. When Jesus is struggling with the Devil in the wilderness he is engaged in a very human struggle. He is struggling with the temptations of the false self and the false culture, which is a struggle not just with actions, but also with motives and the intents of the heart. It’s not just what we do. It’s also about why we do what we do. I might do something very good, and be totally egocentric or selfish in why I do what is good. Now, I would argue it’s always better to do something good rather than evil, but why we do what we do is important too.

The egocentric self is the great deceiver, and can keep us blind for a long time. This is why the serpent in the Genesis 3 story who tempts the human couple is described by the story writer as “the most subtle of all the wild beasts that God had made.” The egocentric self may see something that is evil as a good, and something good may be seen as weakness.

For example, right now in our country there are a number of people who look at our nation’s compassionless, hardline treatment (which is mistreatment) of the undocumented as an expression of strength. They don’t see it as evil or something bad. They see it as a good thing. That’s the blindness and deception of the little self. Something that is hurtful, the little self may see as a victory or an expression of strength – even moral strength. That’s how delusional the little self can be. Another example. Many people think of forgiveness as weakness. Loving one’s enemies is weakness in their eyes, not a moral strength. I look at the way I used to understand atonement and can now see how egocentric it is. I thought that in order for God to forgive sins, someone had to pay, namely, God’s unique Son.

Paul says in the passage that the works of the flesh, the works of the egocentric self are obvious. Well, they might be obvious to someone walking in the Spirit and living in the true self, but for those of us living in the false self they are not obvious at all. We may even think they are good things; that we should be doing these things. On more than one occasion I have thought that my workaholism, and my selfish ambition were good things blessed by God. My workaholism was carefully disguised as sacrifice. And my selfish ambition was cast in the form – well, this is all for the glory of God. In reality they were works of the flesh, they were products of my egocentric, little self.

Now it is God who makes us with an ego, and none of us escape the development of an egocentric self. It’s part of our human development. We would like to blame it on Adam and Eve, and some do, but that story in our Bibles is our story. It’s your story and my story, which by the way, is what makes sacred myth sacred.

In the very process of human development one of the first things that happens to all of us is the birth of self-consciousness or self-awareness. And it happens early. At some point as we move past infancy we become aware that the world is separate from ourselves. At some point we realize that I am different than you. I am someone, you are someone else. As infants, we have no such awareness. As infants the world is just an extension of ourselves. But at some point as we grow and develop as a human being we become aware that we are separate from the world.

As we grow we internalize all kinds of “messages” about who we are – from our parents, our peers, our teachers, the media, there are many people and influences that contribute to our formation. We form images of ourselves and others at a very young age before we even know how to think for ourselves. We worry about how we look and how we appear to others. We form an opinion about ourselves based on all these messages from our culture that we have internalized. Richard Rohr says that the false self is who we think we are based on these messages. We become very attached to this image we have about ourselves. We have a tendency to go in two different directions. On the one hand, we might develop an inflated ego and think too highly of ourselves. We might feel that we are better than others and develop a sense of entitlement or superiority. On the other hand, we might think too little of ourselves where the ego becomes deflated. We might feel like we are completely unworthy, even undeserving of love. Both ways of thinking are egocentric because we make it all about us. If you look at families today it’s hard to find a good balance. Some kids grow up thinking everything is about them. Other kids grow up never knowing what it is like to be loved.

This is what makes it so difficult for us to discover who we really are. Nevertheless, who we really are is already in our hearts, because we are created in the image of God. As Paul says in his talk to the Athenians in Acts 17, in God we live, move, and have our existence. But the true self gets buried in this avalanche of messaging that comes from our culture. So we have to discover our true self, the Christ self.

I like the story about the little girl who was three or four, when her parents brought home a new baby. Within a few hours of bringing the new baby home, the little girl made a rather strange request. She wanted to be alone with her new baby brother in his room. This made the parents a bit uneasy, but they had a good intercom system, so they gave her permission. They listened carefully as they heard their daughter’s footsteps moving across the baby’s room. They could imagine her tiptoeing looking in the baby’s crib. Then they heard her say to her three-day-old baby brother, “Tell me about God – I’ve almost forgotten.” That’s what the system, the egocentric system does to us. I believe in our better moments we all intuit that there is more to us and about us than what others think or have told us, but we have to discover that for ourselves.  

So what Paul calls life in the flesh can be thought of as life in the little self or false self. And what Paul calls life in the Spirit can be thought of as life in the Christ self, or the true self or the larger self. This is who we really are. This is what Paul calls the new humanity and living in the Spirit. The true self is what Paul calls Christ living in me. It’s the Christ self. This is the treasure in the field that we need to find for ourselves. The true self is who we are in God and who God is in us. It’s our birthright, but needs to be claimed. It’s pure gift, but needs to be unwrapped and put into practice.

So how do we discover our true self, our larger self, the Christ self? You might expect me to say, through faith, because that is what most of us were taught. But that’s not how we do it. Faith comes later and is part of the process. However, the one indispensable thing is love. Paul said to the Corinthians, “Now abide faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love.” In this passage in Galatians 5, Paul contrasts the works of the little self with the fruit of the Spirit. And the first thing he mentions is love. Then he goes on to mention other qualities – joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. But the primary quality is love and all the others flow from it. We have to experience and express love to discover our true self, the Christ self. God is love, says the Apostle John, and wherever love is God is. When we feel love and act in love, when we receive and give love, when we experience and express love we are living out of the true self.

Love is the way into the Christ self and out of the little self. I like the story of the mountaineer who was a hard, tough character. He was known for his quarreling and fighting. One week his brother asked him to care for his young son, because he and his wife had to be out on a work related trip. Part of his responsibility was getting the boy to his first grade class. On that first day, he met the boy’s teacher, who was single, and fell in love at first sight. It took him a long time to ask her out because he figured that someone educated and refined like her would never go out with him. But she did. And when he asked her to marry him, she said yes. One of his friends noticed the change in him and said, “You never want to fight any more. What happened?” He just said, “I ain’t got nothing against nobody.” What made the difference? Love opened him up to a new way of being. He discovered his true self, even though he wouldn’t know to call it that.

We Christians call this larger self the Christ self. But it really doesn’t matter what religious symbols or language we use. It’s the self living in the reality of Divine Love regardless of what we call it. As Christians our primary entry point is Jesus. When we learn about the compassion of Jesus and the inclusiveness of Jesus, and the way he confronted injustice and how he loved all people, even those set against him, we are learning how to live in our larger self. But regardless of how we discover it, when we experience and express selfless, inclusive, magnanimous love we are living in the true self, even if we call it something else.

I will conclude with this. Living in the true self is living in true freedom. Now, we are never completely free. Certainly not in this life. We don’t love perfectly. Even when we are at our best, there’s always some ego invested. So there is always the need to be continually growing in love. We never arrive. The more we are able to love like Jesus, who is our model of what the Christ self looks like, the more free we are. Paul says that when we are led by the Spirit, when we are living in the Christ self, we are not subject to the law. We don’t need lots of rules and regulations, when love rules and reigns in our lives. We know what to do. We know to do the loving thing and we do the loving thing, sometimes at great personal cost. Paul says basically what Jesus says, that the whole intent of the law can be summed up in a single commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That, sisters and brothers, is what we are called to do, because the true self, the Christ self, is the self pervaded by love.

Our good God, forgive us for the many times we have made far lesser things – like religious doctrine, and church traditions and rules, the most important thing. Help us to see that it ultimately doesn’t matter what we call this ultimate reality as long as we experience this ultimate reality by becoming channels of your love. In a few days many in our country will be celebrating freedom who don’t have the faintest notion what true freedom really is. Help us all to discover it and live it by learning how to love the way you love. Amen.