Parading Towards Significance

Sermon on Matthew 21:1-11 for Palm Sunday, Year A, 

Matthew 21:1-11Screen Shot 2014-04-12 at 4.52.33 PM

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

“Tell the daughter of Zion,

Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”Screen Shot 2014-04-12 at 3.07.41 PM

Parading Towards Significance

We lived abroad for a dozen years, two in Romania and ten in Croatia, where they do not play American football.  So it had been a long time since I had seen a game when I went to watch at the high school when my son started attending there.

Not only had I not seen American football for a long time, I had not seen a high school game since I was in high school.  I had forgotten about all the elaborate pomp and ceremony at the start.  It was almost like a an elaborate religious ritual for the whole community. Of course the band played and the cheerleaders performed, but the climax was when the gladiators, or rather, football players stormed onto the field.

People made a human corridor for them, at the end of which was a huge paper banner with the team logo and school name.  The players ran through the corridor and burst through the paper, and everyone cheered like mad.

Two events can radically change that happy memory.  One is loosing the game.  The other is losing the game, but winning the division championship.  When you lose a game, it makes the memory of the big splash entry seem a bit pathetic.  But if, by the end of the season, you win the championship, then even the games lost along the way seem different.

Today is Palm Sunday, and it feels like that to me.  We remember and celebrate the parade day and the happy “Hosanna!” cheers today as Jesus rides into Jerusalem.  But we know what is ahead; arrest, trial, and brutal crucifixion.  What keeps the happy parade from feeling pathetic in the light of crucifixion is that we also know about Easter and resurrection.  The story ends in triumph, not defeat.

The biblical pattern is suffering before glory; death before resurrection.  It is the same pattern for every human life; struggle and pain before transformation.  Moments of despair before hope.Screen Shot 2014-04-12 at 3.14.37 PM

The Other Parade 

Historians tell us that there may well have been two parades that day in Jerusalem.  Every year, the Roman governor, in this case Pontius Pilate, traveled from his coastal headquarters up to Jerusalem for major  festivals.  This was part of keeping control, of course. He came on his big horse with his soldiers and brought with him extra troops in case there was trouble.

Trouble was not at all unlikely.  The festival was Passover; the celebration of Jewish independence from Pharaoh and the oppressive Egyptian empire.  Now they were living under Caesar and the oppressive Roman empire, and many were sharpening swords and looking for an opportunity to get on with the revolution.

So Pilate and his big burly parade would have been clanking and stomping into Jerusalem from the west just about the same time Jesus was coming from the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem.  The two parades may have almost mirrored each other.Screen Shot 2014-04-12 at 3.21.44 PM

Mockery 

Can you imagine a high school foot ball game which started with two grand entrances, coming from opposite ends of the field?  Picture this: at one end you have the home team players in their big helmets and imposing shoulder pads bursting through the banner.

At the same time, at the other end, running and stumbling through the banner is a Ronald McDonlald—looking circus clown, complete with oversized shoes, orange hair and a red nose.

It would be really funny, unless you became aware that the clown was from the opposing team and he intended his entry to mock the real players.  That could make everyone mad enough to turn the whole situation very ugly — even dangerous.

That is what was happening on the day that we call the “triumphal entry” of Jesus into Jerusalem.  The clown was Jesus.  He was intentionally mocking Pilate’s imperial parade.

Everything about what he did that day was planned and arranged in advance.  Matthew tells us that the donkey was pre-planned and the owner was ready to receive the request to use it.

Everything was set up as street theater, to mock Pilate’s parade, his prestige and his power.  Instead of a big imposing stallion war horse, Jesus rode a donkey.  In fact, a female donkey.  Matthew gives us the detail that she was accompanied by her colt.Screen Shot 2014-04-12 at 3.27.00 PM

The mockery goes even deeper.  Jesus was actually mocking not just the arrival parade of Pilate, but also, and more to the point, the Roman Triumphal parade.  When a victorious Roman general returned from his conquests, they gave him a huge parade called a “triumph.”

If Jesus had married and had a son, by the time he was a 40 year old man, he might have witnessed the Roman general Titus receiving his triumphal parade as he returned to Rome after conquering the Jewish revolt, burning the temple to the ground and slaughtering over one million Jews (according to Josephus).

It was just this kind of militaristic domination that Jesus was mocking.  He had the people prepared to wave palm branches as they had done several generations earlier as the Jews won independence from the Seleucids.  But that was a military victory.  Jesus was channeling Zechariah’s prophecy, riding his peace-donkey proclaiming a new empire: the empire of God.

Rules and Standards in God’s EmpireScreen Shot 2014-04-12 at 3.34.25 PM

The rules and standards are different in God’s empire.  Humility, not arrogance is the virtue held in highest esteem.  Service instead of exploitation is the path to greatness in God’s realm.  The little people, the “unwashed masses,” the powerless, the poor and the unprotected were the central focus of God’s care and concern in the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed.  Where Jesus is king, the goal is peace-making and the means are non-violent.

In short, there is hope for all those out-gunned and out-maneuvered peasants waving those palm branches and shouting “Hosanna” – “God saves.”  That hope has now been realized.  That is why we too can join in the festal shouting.

God is still saving us today.  God saves us from our hopelessness, because resurrections happen.  God saves us from the tyranny of evil.  He gives us a vision of new life, transformed by spiritual practices, empowered by his Spirit.  He saves us from living in the ego-driven small self, and raises us up to newness with Christ.

Yes, suffering and death comes before resurrection and new life; the biblical pattern comes true for all of us.  But we have hope in the midst of suffering that the last word to be spoken is God’s word of a hope-filled future.Screen Shot 2014-04-12 at 3.35.44 PM

Hope here in Gulf Shores

Our congregation here in Gulf Shores has gone through a period of suffering decline recently.  Some have been tempted to loose hope.  But let us open our eyes and see the hope that God has been preparing for us.

Because of the faithful stewardship and kind generosity of a recently deceased member, we have an amazing opportunity before us.  Her bequest has enabled us to do something new and hopeful.  Today we will install and commission our new Church Life Director.  God has gifted and equipped Pam in unique ways for new ministries of care, compassion, enrichment and outreach which will bless many people.

She will need all of our help and support as we go forward in unity into this hopeful future that God has opened for us.  Wish her well today at the reception, but also pray for her every day.  When new opportunities and programs are presented, join in.   Invite friends to participate with you.  As someone here said, this is not the time to be pew-potatoes but to be active participants as much as possible.

Palm Sunday is the perfect day to celebrate the new things that God is doing among us.  Let this day be a day of celebration and joy, and of renewed commitment.  Let us conclude with a quotation from the prophet Jeremiah,

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”  (Jer. 29:11)

 

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WWIW

Sermon on Matt. 7:12;  April 6, 2014;  Lent 5, Year A

Matt. 7:12  

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 7.26.02 PM

WWIW 

When I was a child we used to get a magazine for children called Highlights Kids.  I always looked forward to the hidden picture puzzles.  There would be a hand drawn picture using black ink on a white background, which included a dozen or so easily recognizable objects hidden in plain sight.  The goal was to find them all.  They could be anything from a hammer to an ice-cream cone, from a toothbrush to a fork, all there to be found and colored.

Things  hidden in plain site is what this “Golden Rule” text is like.  Right here, towards the finale of the first teaching of Jesus that launches his public ministry, the way Matthew tells it, is this perfectly plain and simple teaching:

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you”

It is not just a simple and good idea; for Jesus, this is the boiled down essence of everything the whole story of God in the bible was all about.  He said,

“for this is the law and the prophets.”

In which situations does it apply?  He said, “In everything.”  No limits, no exceptions.

In some respects, this is nothing new at all. In fact this is the exact implication of a teaching that goes all the way back to Moses himself, Leviticus 19:18

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

In another place, Jesus called this the second greatest commandment, right up there with the first commandment:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”

This simple teaching asks us to consider exactly one question as we interact with other people throughout our lives.  There is no mystery, no moral confusion, no secret knowledge or philosophical sophistication required. We are to ask ourselves, WWIW.  What would I want.Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 7.37.52 PM

Some people wear the bracelets with the letters WWJD, to remind themselves to ask, “What would Jesus Do?”  But for Jesus, it is even simpler than that: we only need to ask “What would I want?”

This is so simple and obvious, so “in plain sight” as a moral imperative, that neither Jesus nor Moses was the first to realize it.

Universally Known

If you were in Bible Study Thursday you heard as we read this same “Golden Rule” teaching, “do to others as you would have them do to you”  or the same thing said in the negative, “What is hateful to yourself, do to no other” said by people around the world and throughout history.

In ancient China, Confucius said, [these quotes are from the Wikipedia page on the Golden Rule]

“Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”

Lao-tze said,Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 7.46.23 PM

“Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.”

The ancient Egyptians have a text that says,

“That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another.”

In ancient Greece, Plato recounts Socrates saying,

“…it has been shown that to injure anyone is never just anywhere”

In Ancient Rome,  Seneca said,Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 7.47.14 PM

“expect from others what you did to them”

And yes, this teaching also appears in the Muslim’s bible, the Quran, written centuries after Jesus.

Hidden

So if this is such a clear and simple teaching, why would I call it hidden in plain sight?  In what sense is it hidden?  Only in the sense that throughout the history of the church from its early days to the present, people have felt so free to ignore it.Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 7.48.45 PM

I can illustrate it this way; most of our solid teachings of what is considered correct theology or “orthodoxy” are the result of theological controversies settled in ecumenical church councils.

We all know about the Nicene creed.  This was agreed to as the result of the council of Nicea in 325.  This council sought to end the “Arian Controversy” by affirming that Jesus, the Son of God, was “begotten” but not “made” and being of the “same substance” with the Father.

The church had split into factions over the issue of Jesus’ relationship to the Father, and whether he was of the “same substance” or only a “similar substance.”  So great was the conflict in the 4th century that there were street battles between mobs of Christians on opposing sides who used violence against each other. [see: Hellenic Heritage and Christian Challenge: Conflict over Panhellenic Sanctuaries in Late Antiqity, by Amelia Robertson Bown, chapt. 25 of Violence in Late Antiquity: Perceptions and Practices, edited by Harold Allen Drake]

The fact that neither Jesus nor the bible anywhere says anything about the essence of God nor of Jesus, and the odd question about how humans could ever know these things for themselves, should give us pause.  The fact that Christians were willing to use political force, threats, intimidations, banishment’s and even mob violence over  these esoteric imponderables should make us blush.

It was the Christian church, we will recall, that launched the inquisition, banned books and burned witches in its long dark history.  And all of this in the face of such clear, simple, teaching of Jesus.  Christian duty can be summed up simply as this:

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

There it is; hiding in plain sight.

What Would I Want?

Asking this one question: “What would I want?” in other words, “How would I want to be treated?” can eliminate the need for the commandments: “Thou shalt not kill, steal, commit adultery, bear false witness,” and even the positive commandment to “honor your father and mother.”  Of course I would not want to be killed or stolen from, cheated on, or lied to.  Of course I would want my children to honor my parental role.

It even answers questions like “How should I treat the environment?  What kind of condition should I leave the world in for my grandkids?”

So, this is a call to have an active imagination.  All that is necessary to know how God calls us to live is to simply imagine what it would be like to walk in someone else’s shoes – or moccasins -  yes, the native Americans also had this concept.Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 7.53.56 PM

The Original Position and the Veil of Ignorance

What is true for personal issues is also true for public concerns.  A famous American philosopher, John Rawls asks us to imagine ourselves in the “original position” of getting to make all the rules for how humans will relate to each other; the rules of justice.  We get to decide everything about the rules for what is just and right, but with one condition:  we will have to be a character, living in the world whose rules of justice we make, but we are not allowed to know anything about who we will be.  We decide justice behind the “veil of ignorance.”

So how will we write the rules for this world, if we cannot know in advance if we will be a rich person or a poor person?  What rules will we make if we do not know if we are going to be in the world as a man or a woman?  What will justice be if we do not know in advance if we will be able-bodied or disabled, or mentally challenged, or diseased, or aged, or Congolese or Chinese, Muslim or Catholic, straight or gay?

The reason this imaginative exercise is so brilliant is that it simply asks us to do the same thing Jesus asked us to do: consider how the world would look if you were in another person’s skin.

Examples

Let’s try it.

An African boy

You are an 8 year old boy, full of energy and curiosity, both naive and mischievous, born into an African family in a village near the coast of Senegal in  1785.  How does justice look to you when the salve traders sweep into your village and capture your parents and your sister, leaving you watching from up in the mango tree?

A Pritchard girl

Or, you are a 13 year old girl, who did not ask to be, but who was born to an unwed, addicted mother who was still in high school in Pritchard, Alabama.  You watch how the string of men who come and go from the house look at you, and it scares you.  You already know that even if you are among those who stay in school until graduation, almost no one goes to college.  No one, besides fast food restaurants maid services and Walmart, ever hires people like you.  And when they do, even working full time you will still be poor enough for food stamps.

A woman I know (true story)

Or, you are a professional woman with a college degree and a good job working in the technology division of a bank when suddenly you have a car accident that leaves you with a traumatic brain injury.  Now, even the slightest thing makes you filled with unbearable anxiety and fear.  Your impulse control part of the brain was damaged in the accident and so you say things you shouldn’t.  Nobody wants to be your friend, so you spend your days in loneliness and aimlessness.  You threaten suicide and while you are locked up in the mental hospital you miss a rent payment.  Upon release, you discover that they have changed the locks  of your apartment, having cleared out all your belongings and put them somewhere in storage.  What would you want to happen next?

In every case, the simple act of imagining ourselves in other people’s positions, asking “How would I want to be treated?”  tells us what we should do.

Excuses

But what about exceptional circumstances?  What if someone else strikes the first blow?  What if someone says something insulting or offensive, or intentionally hurtful to us?  What if their behavior is simply inexcusable?  What if they did wrong?  Then are we free to respond in kind?  Then does this mandate go away?  Then are we off the moral hook?   Well, how does it sound to you?:

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you”Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 8.03.14 PM

Spiritual Maturity Defined

This, then defines spiritual maturity.  This is the test of our true condition.  Every time we treat others the way we would want to be treated, we demonstrate our true character.

This teaching expects us to be the adults in the room, even when others are behaving badly.   No double standards; one rule for everyone; ourselves included.  We are the ones who absorb instead of returning the wrongs.  In this, we are called to imitate Jesus himself, as Paul tells us:

“Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor.   For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” (Romans 15)

So we have gone from the personal to the public and now back to the personal realm.  In the kingdom of God, it is a seamless cloth.  We are to walk in this world, in both our personal lives and in our public and political lives as those who understand, believe, and put into practice the essence of the Jesus—kingdom—love ethic:

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you”

This, then, is an act of trust in God.  If there is a score to settle, we leave it with God.  If there is a price to be paid in order to accomplish justice, then we trust that after we have paid it, we will still have enough, so it is okay to part with it.  If there is moral courage, patience, and strength we need, God, through the present Spirit will supply it in full measure.

Let us assert our trusting commitment to bring this command out into the light.  Christians, this is our calling:

 

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.”

 

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Prayer and the Good Father

Sermon for Lent 4, Year A,  March 30, 2014, Sermon on the Mount Series on Matthew 7:7-11

Matthew 7:7-11
“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

Prayer and the Good FatherScreen Shot 2014-03-29 at 10.28.32 AM

I want to talk about prayer today because there is one aspect of prayer that I am an expert in: I’m an expert in not getting what I ask for. I pray for peace, but the wars just keep going, and new ones pop up frequently. I pray for unity in the church, but churches keep splitting. I pray that our political leaders would be wise, just and compassionate, and look what we get instead. I could go on, but you get the point.

I know lots of the verses in the bible about prayer, like the ones we read today, that seem to promise quite a bit. We heard today that “everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened,” but we know that lots of times nothing is received, the seeking does not end in finding, and the door stays shut.

Other times, though, prayer does seem to work. We pray for safe travel and we arrive safely. We pray for healing, and our loved ones recovered. We pray for our church’s future when things look bleak, and we are blessed by a generous bequest.

So, that leaves us wondering what to expect. This is personal to each of us. We have all been on hospital beds looking up at the ceiling lights, praying for good outcomes. We have all prayed many prayers for loved ones with cancer, and heart disease and all the other things that can go wrong with our bodies.

Promises and Caveats

Everyone who prays knows not to automatically expect to get what we want. There are these odd little caveats that come up in bible verses on prayer. Jesus once said “ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” but before that he said, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you,” which puts an oddly vague condition on the “whatever.” (John 15).

He tells us that we will receive anything we ask for “in his name” – which again seems to make it possible to ask in a way that is not “in his name” – and we have heard sermons on what that could possibly mean.

Some verses, like in James, tell us to pray in faith, because if we doubt we will not receive anything. That one is particularly unsatisfying because if the very nature of prayer is that nothing is automatically guaranteed, how could we not have at least a measure of doubt.

In fact the more we are desperate for the prayer to work because the situation is dire, the more reasons there are for doubt; the cancer has spread, the breathing is worse, the medicine does not seem to be working.

The oddest thing is that sometimes, even when we have doubted, it seems the prayers were answered anyway.Screen Shot 2014-03-29 at 10.30.57 AM

Jesus too

We cannot beat ourselves up about this, as if it is our fault for not meeting all the vague criteria when prayers are not answered: even Jesus himself experienced prayer requests that were refused. In the garden, on the night of his arrest, he famously asked for the bitter cup of suffering pass from him – but instead he had to drink that cup to the bottom. His request was refused.

Prayer has fundamental questions built into it. They are conundrums: we will never solve them. We could ask:
Why pray, since we are not telling God anything God does not already know?
Or, we could ask, does God need to be coaxed or begged to do good? Clearly not.Screen Shot 2014-03-29 at 10.33.36 AM

Prayer Questions off the Table

But though there are mysteries, this teaching of Jesus on prayer does something extremely important. It takes some of our prayer questions off the table.
The most difficult question that we ever raise is the “why?” question. I just saw that twenty years after writing a book on prayer, Philip Yancey has a new one coming out entitled, “The Question that Never Goes Away” – and that question is “why?”

Why are our prayer requests sometimes rejected? Why do people we love suffer? Why do they die before reaching old age? Why do bad things happen, even when we pray.

The Fault Fear

The biggest issue for all of us is that we fear that we know the answer, and the answer is us. We fear that we are at fault. We fear that we are the reason the prayers were not answered. We were not good enough, or we were not praying in the right way, or the right quantity, or worse, we are being punished for past sins.

This is exactly what Jesus is taking off the table. These dark thoughts are simply wrong. It is not the case that God punishes us by rejecting our prayer requests, or holds out on us until we fulfill a list of vague requirements.

How do I know? Why am I sure? Because I would never do that to one of my sons, and Jesus invites us to make exactly that comparison.

Listen again:

“Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”Screen Shot 2014-03-29 at 10.35.01 AM

Once when my son was little we had just gotten an ice cream cone. As we were walking, he held the cone at an angle instead of straight up, and the ice-cream fell to the ground. Immediately he burst into tears. The look of despair he made I will never forget. It pulled at my heart! I bent down and comforted him and assured him that we would replace it.

If I, being evil, in other words a fallible human being, not good, as God alone is good, if I know how to do the right thing as a loving father, “how much more will our Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him?”

Yes, we are authorized to make the comparison. God is like us fathers, only much better than we humans can be.

God is at issue

So this teaching on prayer ends up really being a teaching on the nature and character of God. Sometimes to answer one question you need to put it in a broader context.Screen Shot 2014-03-29 at 10.36.48 AM

In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye asks his wife of 25 years, “Do you love me?” Golde responds, “Do I love you? For twenty-five years I’ve washed your clothes, Cooked your meals, cleaned your house, Given you children, milked the cow.”

Every question about prayer is, in the end, a wider question about God. And it is a question about his love for us.

Here is the point: would even an earthly father give a child who was hungry for bread a stone instead? Would he withhold something good just to punish with a pay-back some insult to his ego?

A pompous, insecure king might, but is God like that?
No, Jesus tells us. God is like a loving father, only so much more than we humans ever could be. He is more loving, more kind, more merciful, more gracious, Screen Shot 2014-03-29 at 9.52.52 AMmore generous, and infinitely wiser.

Now there were times when my sons cried for something that I refused – like staying up later than bed time, or an ice cream cone before supper. I’m sure God feels put into that position by our many silly, selfish or self-indulgent requests.

We have all sung a long like, “O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz” – right?

But we have also prayed for healings, for someone’s survival, for all kinds of things that we did not receive. We knocked but the door stayed shut.

One Question AnsweredScreen Shot 2014-03-29 at 10.16.54 AM

This teaching does not answer the why question that never goes away, except that it takes one answer off the table. God does not use rejected requests as punishments. No good father would do that. God is good. God would never do that.

This teaching invites us to consider God our Father

  • not as an impersonal spiritual force,
  • not like a capricious, moody Zeus,
  • and not like an easily offended and vengeful monarch.

Those ideas are simply immature and mistaken. God is our heavenly Father as Jesus repeatedly called him. God, as Father, longs for our relationship to him, which includes frequent, honest, open communication. Ask, Seek, Knock. He is listening.

So, when you are on that bed, or beside that bed in the hospital, when you are still awake at night because of concerns that will not let you sleep, even when you are in doubt that anything good could happen, know this: you are not being punished by God.

Rather, do this: pray. Ask. Seek. Knock.

The one you are asking is your heavenly father, so keep asking.

The one you are seeking something good from loves you.

The one on the other side of the door is the father who has invited you to knock, so keep knocking.

And then trust your Heavenly Father with the outcomes.

The mystery will not go away, and the questions will not be answered. But we can at least know who it is we are praying to; our Father is Good. He loves us. Trust him.


Practical Implications

The personal is political and the political is personal.

If we can imagine God caring for us as a good Father, how could we not imagine his care for all of the human begins on this planet whom he made “in his image?”

If we can imagine that God does care for each person, whom are we free not to care for?

If we can understand our own personal needs and ask the Father to meet them – for financial security, for decent wages, for reliable affordable housing and health care, for a decent education, to be treated fairly, humanly, and justly, how could we not see that these needs are shared by all people and work to achieve them?

If we can pray for the safety of our sons an daughters in uniform, how can we not see that our enemy’s soldiers are sons and daughters as well, and to work, pray, and vote for peaceful solutions?

If we can pray that our children and their children are able to live on a planet which sustains them with clean water, air, and uncontaminated soil, how could we not set ourselves to working to promote policies that protect our environment?

 

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The Log and the Moral High Ground

Sermon on Matthew 7:1-6 for Lent 3 A, March 16, 2014

 Matthew 7:1-6

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.  Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?  5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. 

 “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you. Screen Shot 2014-03-22 at 10.22.19 AM

Once, Michelle and I were invited over to another couple’s home for dinner.  When we walked in we both noticed a brown blotch on the dining room wall at about at eye level.  It looked like a coffee cup had been thrown.   The atmosphere between the host couple was icy.  We could tell that it was not going to be a fun time.

We have all had that experience of being in a place in which the relationships have become toxic.  It happens between couples, married or not, between siblings, in families, in organizations, in churches – in fact, no place where people gather is free from the danger of toxicity.   When it happens, it sucks the oxygen out of the room.  The joy is gone.  People turn to all kinds of coping strategies that range from pathetic and immature to down right destructive and harmful.

There is an Alternative

It does not have to be that way.  There is another way to be.  Even toxic relationships can be healed and transformed.  It is easy.  But it is hard.  It is easy to know what needs to be done.  It is hard to do it.Screen Shot 2014-03-22 at 10.34.26 AM

This teaching of Jesus that we have read is about how to have relationships that do not become toxic.  Why is it here?  Jesus is not a marriage and family therapist nor an organizational consultant.  But here, in the Sermon on the Mount, the first major set of teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is laying the groundwork for his new community.

We have noticed how Jesus is being presented to us by Matthew as the new Moses, teaching from the new mountain the new Torah.  Think about it for a moment: what was the occasion when Moses went up Mt. Sinai and came down with the tablets of Torah?  It was the exodus from slavery to freedom.  That was the formative event for the people of God, the Israelites.

Moses was forming a new community with a new identity.  The Torah told them how they were to live together as a community bound together by covenant.

Now, Jesus is forming a renewed community, bound together by a new covenant, and giving us instructions about how to live together.  This new community is supposed to be a radically alternative to the way humans often function together.  Instead of power and wealth, this community values meekness and poverty of spirit.  It values peacemaking over tactics, games and strategies.  It values purity of heart over devious schemes and duplicity.   This is supposed to be a healthy and health-giving, community; a joy and pleasure to be a part of.

So what is to keep it from becoming just another toxic group of frustrated, angry, bitter people?  This teaching is how.  We can sum it up easily: don’t be judgmental, and be hard on yourself before you find fault in others.

The Problem of High Ideals

But it starts with a big problem.  A community that has high ideals and high standards like ours is even more vulnerable to becoming toxic, precisely Screen Shot 2014-03-22 at 10.32.09 AMbecause of its high standards.  We know what kind of life  is congratulated as “blessed” and what kind is not.  A high-standards community is uniquely vulnerable to becoming a judgmental community as we hold one another accountable to those high standards.

We in the church have to face this squarely.  Most of the world that surrounds us believes that we are experts in being judgmental.  We have a well-earned reputation.  We have, in the past, made people wear scarlet letters.  We have shamed people.  We have, for example, looked down our noses at tattoos and body piercings, as if they were signs of inner darkness, and we have been blind to our own pettiness and arrogance.

So, this is going to be a difficult one for us to handle.   Our own high standards make being judgmental feel appropriate, like we are holding the moral high ground.

The Key: Holding Ourselves to the Standard

The key, according to Jesus, is that our high standards should be the standards we hold ourselves to.  Our attitude towards others has to be tolerance and forgiveness, as Jesus has already taught.

Every time we feel the urge to wag the finger we should remember what they told us as children: at least three other fingers point back at ourselves.

People of the Log

But here is the problem.  We do not see ourselves as we are.  We all have a log in our eyes when it comes to sober self-awareness.  All of us.Screen Shot 2014-03-22 at 10.30.13 AM

When I was in seminary we were having a discussion, probably theological, I do not recall, but at one point my friend said you me, “You really like to argue.”  I said immediately, “No I don’t!” I wanted to argue with him about it.  He was a counseling major so he knew what to say when people were being ridiculous, so he told me, “You may wish to check out that perception.”  In other words: “wrong!”  What was obvious to him and probably everybody, I was blind to.

It happens all the time.  This is part of what being married is for.  Michelle tells me I don’t open doors normally, I burst into a room – I never knew that about myself.  She tells me often that my tone of voice is too sharp.  It doesn’t feel sharp to me.   She tells me I look angry sometimes – to me, concern of all kinds makes me frown.  I talk too fast – but it doesn’t feel fast to me. This list could go on and on.

We are all like this; we are simply unaware of aspects of ourselves that are blatantly obvious to everyone else.

Judges, All

And, we are experts at finding flaws in other people.  We people of high personal standards are better at holding other people to those standards than holding ourselves to them.  And so, we judge people.  We criticize, we complain to other people, we fire off sharp emails, we punish with stony silence or glares or sharp retorts, or leaving, or worse.  And our relationships become poisoned and toxic.

It does not have to be this way.  We can have healthy relationships.  We can have health-giving relationships which are a joy and source of life to us.

It starts with the person in the mirror.  We are the ones required to turn off the judgmentalism.  We are the ones required to take the log out, because it is in our eye.

Starting with the Self

But it hurts because this is all about ego; it is all about our pride.  It is all about our need to be right and to prove to everyone that we are right.  This is what Richard Rohr calls our false self, or our small self.

The false self wants to look good.  It wants to win.  It gets all ego-invested in its own ideas so that it becomes protective and defensive.  Alternative points of view are threatening.  The small self sees the world dualistically, as either-or, black or white, all or nothing, win or lose.  There can be no compromise, no gray areas, no ambiguity or uncertainty.  It has to hold the moral high ground.  The judgmental person is operating out of this false self.

This is how we all started.  This is characteristic of what is supposed to be, as Rohr says, first half of life issues.  But we are supposed to grow out of the false self in the second half of life.  The true self is who we are in God – beloved, precious, forgiven, found, non-dual.

The Two Paths to the Second Half of Life

So how do we get from false self to true self?  What pushes us from judgmentalism to open-heartedness?   What helps us go from the dualistic first half of life to the non-dual second half of life?  Rohr is right, I believe, to suggest that there are only two means: suffering and contemplative practices.Screen Shot 2014-03-22 at 9.33.04 AM

We will all suffer.  That is a given.  That is what it means to be a mortal human being.  All of us have experienced suffering, and all of us will.  For many, the suffering will become our teacher.  We will learn what is important and what is ephemeral; what is of lasting significance and what is the thin veneer.  We will learn to see the ego for the small sham that it is, and let go of its petty pretensions.

The other path to the second half of life is the path of contemplation.  This gets us back to the theme of Christian spiritual practices.   In contemplative or centering prayer, we are silent.

In silence, we say no to the constant chattering of our internal monologue.  We take a break from the continual judgments we make as we narrate our experience to ourselves – telling ourselves why we like this color and not that one, or how this driver is bad or how that facial expression was meant to hurt us.  We turn off the ego-centered voice, and put in its place a sacred word that anchors us in the present moment, non-judgmentally, letting it be just as it is.

It Works

I can tell you that this practice of silent, contemplative prayer has had an effect on me.  I can tell you also that Michelle wishes it to be much quicker and more effective – transformation takes time.  I have a long way to go, but I can tell it is working.  Now when I hear her tell me that my tone was sharp, I am sometimes able to listen and consider it, whereas before, I simply “knew” she was mistaken.  I cannot see the log in my own eye, but I can slowly become open to learning that it is there.

Jesus is forming us as a new community.  A non-toxic community.  In fact a healthy and health-giving community.  It is a community of high standards.  It knows what is holy and sacred, and protects its values from being cast aside and trampled.

But  the members of this community know how to hold ourselves accountable to our high standards without being judgmental and fault-finding of others.  We know how to forgive, and we do it, even seventy times seven if needed.

We daily grow and mature in faith by taking time for daily spiritual practices like silent contemplation.  The world is not used to us being this kind of community, but is desperate for us to be so.  It needs us to be this kind of community as much as it needs salt and light.  For if we become toxic, is there any hope?

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Jesus Meets Fibber McGee’s Closet

Sermon on Matthew 6:19-34, Lent 2, Year A, March 16, 2014

Sermon on the Mount Series

Matthew 6:19-34

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal;  but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light;  but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?   Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?   And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?   And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin,   yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.   But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?   Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’   For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.   But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 7.03.36 PM

In the summers between years of college I painted houses, which gave me a lot of time to listen to the radio.  The public radio station in Cincinnati played old time radio shows like “The Shadow,” “The Great Gildersleeve,” and “Bob and Ray,” but one of the best, to me, was  “Fibber McGee and Molly.”   The show was about depression-era married couple whose domestic life provided an endless stream of jokes.

The best running joke was Fibber McGee’s closet, which he claimed to have arranged “just the way he wanted it” – meaning absolutely haphazardly.  It was so stuffed with junk that each time he opened the door, an avalanche buried him.  The sound effects were so good I could picture everything falling out, from the rusty horse-shoe to the ten-foot pole.

The scene is funny because, like all good humor, it is based in pain.  We all identify  with it.  We have closets full of clothing we do not wear.  We have junk drawers full of things we will never use because we do not even remember what is in them.  We have attics, garages, sheds, and even storage units full of stuff.

But we still get our heads turned by the garage sale merchandise sitting out in the yard as we drive by on Saturday morning, as if there was something more we needed.

Jesus and stuff

As I was reading a book on the Sermon on the Mount this week, I found a quote that summed up Jesus’ teaching here better than any other.

Jesus’ message can be reduced to these ideas: Live simply. Possessions are mysteriously idolatrous. Trust God.” -  Scott McKnight, Sermon on the Mount (The Story of God Bible Commentary) (Kindle Location 4993). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Mysteriously idolatrous” is the phrase that jumped out.  It is so true.  It is not just that possessions have the capacity to become idols, but that that power they have is mysterious.  It us up there in mysteriousness with the power of sexual attraction and the fear of death.

Getting Practical

Bible Study, this past Thursday was about these same verses.  As I was finishing my preparation on Wednesday evening, I had a thought about how Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 7.07.49 PMto apply its teaching immediately in a practical way.  If you were there, you heard me suggest that we all go home and find something to throw away.  Go to that closet or that drawer or the shed, and find something we know we do not need, perhaps something we have not touched in the past two years, and get rid of it.

I suggested that if there was any resistance we felt, any inner tug to keep hanging on, we should make a mental note of it.  We should look at that feeling of resistance, and see how mysteriously attached we are to our stuff – even to stuff that our minds tell us we have no need of.

My Experience

Well, that idea came to me on Wednesday, with no time to practice what I was preaching.  But Friday morning, I got a couple of plastic bags, and headed for the closet.  One bag was for the thrift shop, the other for the trash.  In no time the thrift shop bag was full.  Of course it was.  There were shirts and pants I would never put on again.

But the clothes were still good.  They had value.  Styles had changed and I no longer wanted to wear them but they were still perfectly wearable.  Maybe I should hang on to them?  I felt that mysterious tug.  I told myself it was ridiculous to hesitate.  But the hesitation mysteriously remained.Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 7.18.07 PM

Then I went to the junk drawer.  Tubes of glue and rolls of tape were there, along with screwdrivers, screws, plumbing parts and twist ties; a lot of potentially useful stuff.  But a lot of junk to throw away too.  At the bottom was an old dirty and corroded penny.

When I looked down at it I got the oddest feeling.  What do you do with an old dirty corroded penny.  I generally don’t even carry pennies around.  It’s not worth the time it would take to clean it.  But you don’t throw away money!   Mystery noted.  I put it in the coin jar in the closet.

How much is enough?

We have all heard sermons on these teachings of Jesus.  We know all about how Mammon is god-like, and how impossible it is to serve both the real God and Mammon at the same time.  We have heard about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, but we still feel that mysterious anxiety.

The age-old answer to the question, “How much is enough?” is still, absurdly, “a little  bit more.”

Twice in my life I have left nearly all my stuff behind and started over – not because I am a saint in this area, but out of sheer necessity.  The first time was  in 1991 when we had our own garage sale before going overseas with only our luggage.  It felt powerfully liberating.  The other time was a dozen years later when returned to the States with only our luggage.  Again, the feeling was amazing.

But, I have been home from overseas ten years now.  Now I have a house full of stuff.Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 7.10.20 PM

Attachment and Needs

Many of us are near the time in our lives when down-sizing is necessary.  And yet we resist.  Why?  We need to sit with that question and let it sink in.  We need to ask about attachment, because that is what this is about.  We need to ask about our sense of security because that is what this is about too.

And then we need to ask the God question; the trust question: what would it mean to live in a way that demonstrated my attachments were not misplaced?  What would it mean to live trusting that my security is in the God of “the birds of the air and the lilies of the field”?

It is not as if we can live without food, clothing and shelter.  These days, we need all kinds of things from cars to medical care.  Life is complex and expensive.  There is frank realism in Jesus’ teaching.  He says,

“indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things”

But there are also many many things that we do not need that we keep spending money on.

The Mystery and its Effects

This is a profoundly mysterious issue.  In the wealthy Western world where we live, charitable giving, even by people earning over $60,000 averages only 2% – 3%.  And that amount includes donations to universities, to research and to all charitable organizations, not just to churches.  With all the money we have, we still believe we need to spend 97 or 98% of it on ourselves.

We even keep spending beyond our means as well.  The average US household credit card debt in 2013 was $15,252.  It is very hard to hear an appeal to help the hungry or the homeless when the credit card interest keeps accumulating.

Jesus’ teaching here is simple:

“Live simply. Possessions are mysteriously idolatrous. Trust God.”

Practical SuggestionsScreen Shot 2014-03-14 at 7.14.33 PM

And yet this is about as hard as it gets.  So, I am going to offer some practical suggestions.

First, for those of us who are needing to down size but finding it difficult to let go of things that have sentimental value and memories associated with them, perhaps you might consider taking some thoughtful pictures.  Our phones have great cameras on them now.  Take a picture of the big dining room set, the couch, or whatever has the memory.  Keep the pictures, and then let the stuff go.

For all of us, whether downsizing now or not, I want to give us the same challenge that I gave in bible study: go home today and find something to throw away.  Let it go completely.  Don’t sell it, just treat it like trash.  The choice of what you throw out is completely yours.  Do this at least once each Sunday in Lent as a spiritual practice.  Practice intentional letting go.  Simplify.  Un-clutter.  Detach.

Next, go to the places where this stuff sits, year after year, and start thinning down.  Make a pile and take it to the thrift shop.  If you have not worn it or used it in the last two years, why do you still have it?

If you do have things of value that you no longer need, then give them away, or at least, sell them.  Put them on eBay or Craigslist.  Have a garage sale of your own.

And if any of this makes you struggle, if any of it puts a feeling of resistance or regret in your heart, notice it.  Acknowledge it for the powerful force that it is.   And then refuse to be a slave to that feeling.  It comes from Mammon, not from God.Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 7.15.55 PM

Give Away Money

Finally, give some money away.  Most of you have churches that you are members of up North.  When you go home, incase your pledge.  Even if it’s only by $10 or $20 a month, increase it.  Increase it every year.   It is not only because your church needs it; you and I need to give more of our money away.  Confront its mysterious power.  You have a choice.

Then, after you have increased your tithe, look around.  You and I have more than most of the world will ever imagine.  Where can you do some good with your money?  Find a cause, like literacy, or a problem, like malnutrition, and be a part of the solution.  Invest in a  micro-finance project t through an organization like Kiva.  Use your money to do some good and make a difference in the world.

Become the generous person God made you to be.  This is exactly what Jesus meant by “storing up treasures for Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 7.31.33 PMyourselves in heaven.”  Become liberated from the tyranny. Let loose; release; detach. You will feel better, less stressed, less anxious and less fearful.

Finally, let us hear this as a call to look at ourselves as we are, and to have a good laugh.  We are all Fibber McGee’s.  When you think about it, it is comical.  So, let’s open the closet door, cue the sound effects of the avalanche, then let’s do something about it.  Let us be followers of Jesus, determined to live simply, to say “no” to the mysterious power of possessions, and trust God.

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Wilderness: familiar?

Sermon on Matthew 4: 1– 11, Lent 1 A, March 9, 2014

 Matthew 4: 1– 11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.Screen Shot 2014-03-07 at 7.12.23 PM

I was trying to get my documents ready for taxes this past week.  I opened the program on my computer that tracks my accounts and provides categorized summaries of where the money went.  The program displays a big number at the bottom of the page by which it sums things up.  It says, “net worth.”  

Net worth has a number.  But I look at that number and I ask myself – is that my net worth?  Is that my net worth to my wife?  To my sons?  Is that what I am worth to my parents or siblings?  Is that what I am worth to the people I serve?  Is that my net worth in any meaningful sense to anything that really matters?

Perhaps I could question that number’s significance, but there are some powerful truths it contains.  Like the practical answers to questions like: How am I going to keep paying the mortgage, the utilities, and keep food on the table?   How am I going to be able to handle crises, emergencies and dangers that every life includes?  And, there is the larger question of how I am thought of.  Am I valued?  Am I respected?  Does this net worth number not play an important role in those questions?

Then another question presented itself: where is God in this number?  What does it mean to be a baptized child of God in the face of real life challenges?  Does faith in God work outside the walls of the church where the real world starts?

I believe this important text that we read the first Sunday in Lent about the temptation of Jesus speaks to these questions, and we need its message.  This is a rich, multi-layered text.  We approached it from one perspective in Bible Study Thursday.  We will take it from another angle today.

Today I want us to see ourselves in this story.  I believe Matthew intended that his readers would see this not only as a story about Jesus, the Son of God, but also about themselves, as sons and daughters of God, in a world of wilderness and testing.  So, let us dive into the story.

Then: After the Baptism

We begin with the words,

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Screen Shot 2014-03-07 at 7.17.03 PM

Then” means something has just happened, and this story is what follows.  What has just happened is that Jesus has been baptized.  A heavenly voice announced to everyone that Jesus is God’s beloved Son, and the Spirit of God descended upon him.

We will notice that the devil challenges this head-on.  “If you are the son of God” he says to Jesus twice.  In some ways, all temptations and testings are about that central issue.

How do we know ourselves?  If we know ourselves as God’s children, claimed and named by God in baptism, just as Jesus was, then perhaps when the lean, hungry times come, when the crises come, when the net worth questions start pulling us into despair, we have an alternative set of answers to give.

Familiar Wilderness

Where does this story take place?  In the wilderness.  Matthew’s community would hear an echo of Israel’s story here.  After escaping Egypt the people spent forty years in the wilderness.  It was a time of great temptation and testing.  There was hunger and thirst, there was danger, there were crises, and faith was often hard to come by.

Matthew’s community had its own wilderness, living in the Roman empire with its bizarre emperors and their hostility to Jews and Christians.  I believe we all live with the experience of wilderness as well.  It is familiar territory.

Wilderness is the experience of being in a place with no roads or streets.  Which way do you go?  Wilderness is about not knowing what’s going to happen.   What is waiting on the other side of that rock?  How will this story turn out?  What is next – for me?  for my family?  for my church?  How long will I live?  What then?

Wilderness is about not knowing – and in this sense, it is an experience of the human condition.  None of us has a crystal ball.  Nothing about tomorrow has been guaranteed to anyone.  We are all, in this way, in wilderness every day.

“Make these stones into bread”

So what are the issues that we face in our wilderness?  First, hunger.  Jesus fasted for forty days and then was famished.  If there is any single word that we can use as a shorthand description of the human condition, it is hunger.   It is literal, because if we do not eat we do not live, and so it is also economic, because “there is no free lunch.”  It is also deeply personal, for we hunger for love, for acceptance, for esteem; we all know hunger.Screen Shot 2014-03-07 at 7.16.27 PM

Hunger is about suffering.  It is about not having what you need, and feeling it in your guts.  Nobody wants to suffer.  What are we to do?

So, in this story, the devil makes a suggestion.  If you say you are a baptized son or daughter of God, then get some bread out of God.  Pull the rope and call him, like the “upstairs people” do in Downton Abby, so he will come up from the servants’ quarters with a tray of rolls in his hand.

I hope it’s obvious why this kind of religion is doomed.  The question is, can sons and daughters of God remain faithful, trusting in God, even when hungry, even when suffering, even when there is no quick fix at hand?

Spiritual truth about Suffering

The spiritual truth is that if we did not go through times of suffering, we would probably live our whole lives under the illusion that we are self-sufficient and in-control.  It is our suffering that unveils that illusion.  It is our needs that show us our neediness.   It is our hunger that drives us to seek God, since bread never satisfies the longing in our deepest souls anyway.

Jesus has been baptized as God’s Son, and knows that the God who provided bread in the wilderness for Israel will meet his deepest needs.  He knows what is written, and so he knows that bread alone cannot satisfy.

“he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 

What we hunger for most is for the words that come from the mouth of God.  We long to hear him calling us beloved “son” and “daughter.”

“Throw yourself down”

Next, in this visionary experience, the devil tries again.  “If you are God’s son, then demand a crisis intervention from God.  Throw yourself down.  There are verses  in the bible about that,” says the devil – and he is right.  Angels will come and catch you.

Being on the pinnacle in danger of falling is about times of crises.  It is the inherent insecurity we all live with as mortal humans.  We live with inherited DNA with all of the family history that entails.  We live with the consequences of our own lives of risk-taking, bad decisions and indulgences.  And we live in a world of accidents and danger.

So, we live on pinnacles.  And if it were not enough that we live there ourselves, it is also true that we live with the threat to the well being of the many people whose fall from the pinnacle would cause us suffering – our spouses, our children and families.Screen Shot 2014-03-07 at 7.17.41 PM

Demand a Rescue

So the devil’s suggestion is to put God to the test.  Make your faith dependent on God’s crisis interventions.  If he gets me through this cancer, I will believe.  If the surgery goes well, I will be faithful.  If the market turns around in time, then I will know God has intervened.

This is doomed as well.  Even with perfect DNA, good nutrition, disciplined exercise, and a lucky life without accidents, eventually our mortal lives will come to an end.  That means a life of faith that depends on miraculous interventions, in the end, fails.

Jesus knows better than to put the Lord God to such tests.  Again, his deep preparation in the practices of his faith, his deep acquaintance with scripture guides him.  He replies:

“Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”Screen Shot 2014-03-07 at 7.18.44 PM

“Worship me”

The devil makes one more attempt.  In the vision, suddenly Jesus and the devil are on top of a mountain so high that all the kingdoms of the world are there, gleaming in the sun, in all their splendor.  The devil thinks they are his to give – and offers them at a price.  They are all for you, Jesus, if you “worship me”  – that is the condition.

This is the most difficult one.  It is the most hidden, subtle one.  If you are tempted by the splendor of the kingdoms of the world, then what are you tempted to worship?  Not the devil, but the splendor of the kingdoms.  The shiny things that glitter is what you want.

Do you see what this means?  Going for the gold, is in fact, going for the devil himself.  If you think your needs will be met by material assets, you have already sold your soul.  If you live for the market, now you know its name.  If you think net worth is measured in dollars, bit coin or Euros, you have bowed down, and the devil is laughing.  The market has never saved anyone; it is not within its power.

Such a thought is simply incompatible with a world in which the kingdoms of the world in all their material splendor are under God’s rule, obligated to God’s standards, accountable to God’s demand to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly.

Jesus has had enough.  He says,

“Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 

Worship and serve only the Lord your God:

- Not because you will never be hungry, never suffer.

- Not because you will be magically rescued from life’s precarious perch.

- Not because material security is on offer to save you.

But because you are a child of God.  You have been named and claimed in the waters of baptism.  God’s spirit has descended to dwell in you.  He will lead you through this, and through every wilderness time of uncertainty  – as he always has – and “as it has been written.”

Spiritual PracticesScreen Shot 2014-03-07 at 7.19.32 PM

There is one final lesson to take from the story of the temptations of Jesus.  It to notice is what is missing, and what is behind the scenes.

Missing is any supernatural help given to Jesus.  There were no anti-devil incantations, no miracle-making gestures, not even a prayer to escape.  Jesus, God’s son, gets no special God-help in this story, until after the devil leaves him when the angels finally show up to help.  So he is like us here, or we are like him.

What then enables him to resist temptations without special super-hero Jesus-powers?  The clue is in his responses.  He quotes scripture.  Not that scripture is magic, but it shows what has been going on behind the scenes.

Jesus has been for years a person of dedicated spiritual practices.  He has drunk deeply from the wells that nourish the spiritual life day by day, the practices that deepen and enable faith to overcome times of testing.

Jesus has been a person of deep prayer, meditation and silence.  Jesus has been a person at regular worship in his Jewish tradition.  Jesus has practiced the spiritual practices that have prepared him, on ordinary days, for the spiritual battles that come in the crisis.

This is the challenge to us on this first Sunday in the season of Lent:  make this a season of spiritual journey.  Set aside these 40 days as a time of renewed dedication to the practices of a faithful Christian: prayer, meditation, worship, generosity, and service.

Take up the challenge, sons and daughters of God.  Times of testing are  not over.  But God is ready to be there in our wilderness.  Let us be people prepared by practice for what lies ahead.

 

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Dead Ends, New Starts

Sermon for Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2014

I was up in Birmingham with my son who was interviewing for a university scholarship not long ago.  I don’t knowScreen Shot 2014-03-05 at 11.15.40 AM Birmingham well.  I was trying to find the diner where we planned to eat breakfast, but I found myself approaching a place where the road split, and just before it split there was a crossing street with its own traffic light.  Not knowing whether to take the left or right, I kept getting closer, until finally I realized I had run a red light and was headed into oncoming traffic.  I quickly turned off into a parking lot as the cars went by.

I thought to myself, life is sometimes like that.  We blunder into mistakes, make wrong moves, realize only too late that we have made bad decisions – but we get away with it.  It turns out okay.  Everybody has near-misses.

But then later when we were trying to find parking around the university, I turned down a street that ended up being exactly one block long. It was a dead end.

There are only two things you can do at a dead end.  You can sit there, stuck, going nowhere.  Or you can turn around.  There is no third option.

Life is like that too.  All of us have hit dead ends.  We have all engaged in dead-end thinking.  It gets us nowhere.  Some of us have taken a long time to accept it.  We can sit stuck for a good long time in that condition.  Eventually, however, denial becomes impossible, or the pain level gets too high, and we finally take option two: turning around and making a new start at finding our way.

Ash Wednesday is an opportunity to get un-stuck.  To change our thinking. It is a chance to recognize dead ends for what they are, and to decide to turn around and make a new start.

Honest Ashes

That’s why it begins with ashes.  Ashes are all about honesty.  They are not pretty.  They do not make us look younger, more attractive, or stylish.  They announce that we are what we are: merely mortal.  They announce that life is limited.  They advertise the truth that there are such things as dead ends.  Especially the dead ends we get into when we try to find ways around the fact that this life will end.

Ash Wednesday gives us the chance to become mindfully aware of the tragedy of our finitude – for we do experience it as tragedy.

As Richard Rohr says, “the essential human question is, “Are we related to something infinite or not?”   – Rohr, Richard (2010-12-30). Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Kindle Locations 339-340). St. Anthony Messenger Press. Kindle Edition.

The Christian answer is yes, but.

Yes, we are related to something infinite, but not because our own personal story is infinite.  It is not.  It is finite, mortal, and limited.

And we are related to something infinite, but not because of our group’s story – that is, the story we tell ourselves about how we belong to our gender, our family, our nation, our political group, or our anything.  These too are destined to pass away.

Rather, we are related to something infinite that Rohr calls “The story.”  It is the story of what God is doing in the world, and who we are in God.

Cardinal Virtues

The Christian response to this tragedy of being finite is the bold assertion of the three cardinal virtues of faith, hope and love.

Reinhold Niebuhr has said, “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.”

Mindfulness

Jon Kabat-Zinn has written a book entitled, “Wherever You Go, There You Are.”  It’s about the practice of mindfulness.  It is about coming to the awareness of things as they are and accepting them as they are.  It is about becoming open to the present moment just as it is, recognizing that the present is the only moment we are ever given.

Ash Wednesday gives us the chance to become mindfully aware.  We are mindful of our mortality; we are mindful of this moment of life.  As we face the fact of the present for what it is, we become aware that we have options.  If we are at a dead end, stuck, we can decide to turn around and continue the journey down other roads.  We can become newly open to faith, to hope, and to love.  We can lift up our eyes from our own limited story, to see ourselves in God’s story.

Jesus

Jesus helps us here.  As he taught in the text we heard, if our lives have been lived simply to accommodate the scrutiny of others, we can become mindfully aware that that is a dead end, and choose to live more authentically.  If we have lived the superficial and trivial lives of mindless acquisition of treasure, we can become mindfully aware of that dead end, and choose to turn around to live for higher values.

If we have been in despair of our mortality and have wondered what is lasting, we can choose to embrace faith, hope and love.  We can come to understand that our own personal story is part of a much larger story, and finds its truest meaning in that larger story: in God’s story.

Invitation

This season of Lent, I want to invite you to make a fresh start.  Receive the ashes and accept the truth.  We are mortal.  We are limited.  In this way, all of us experience life as tragic.

But there is no good reason to stay stuck at that dead end.  Life is also beautiful.  Each moment is alive and real.  But the meaning of our lives resides in a story that extends beyond our own personal lifetimes.  Find yourself in God’s story.

There is nothing trivial about God’s story; it is a redemption story.  We do not have to stay stuck at dead ends.  We do not have to live in denial.  We do not have to miss the present moment.

In a moment we will come to the the time in which we will come to receive the imposition of ashes.  You  will hear me say, ‘

Remember that you are dust, and to dust   you shall return.

I invite you to make the response:

“In life and in death, I belong to God.”

That is your assertion of the role of faith, hope and love in your life.  You belong to a longer story than the story of your life.  Your life is limited, but not tragic.  You are part of a redemption story; a love story.   Through Jesus, you are part of the story of God’s good creation.

 


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