Gradual Hope

Sermon for Pentecost +19 A, Oct 19, 2014 on Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Mark 1:14-17

Jeremiah 31:31-34

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 8.41.37 AMand the house of Judah.  It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord.  But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Mark 1:14-17

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,  and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen.  And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

A recent article in the New Yorker on the Synod on the Family, in the Vatican was interesting.  It called attention to a document Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 11.22.22 AMreleased in 1864 by Pope Pius IX, called the “Syllabus of Errors.”  The Syllabus lists a series of ideas which people of that time were believing, that Pope Pius considered errors that must be avoided.  According to the author, these errors included democracy, freedom of speech, and opposition to slavery.  The most interesting one, considering where we have come, was the erroneous error that suggested that:

“80. The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.”

Now, we must realize that the “Syllabus of Errors” did not have the force of doctrine, according to some Catholic Theologians.  And we can see that many of its  supposed “errors” are embraced by most Catholics today.  The church has never been monolithic.  She has always included diverse views.  And the church has changed her views over time.

Well, this week the Catholic church produced a document describing the state of  the discussions going on now at the Synod on the Family, and perhaps you have heard something about the controversy it is stirring up.  The document asks: How can the church be welcoming to divorced people, or to non-traditional couples?

The Law of Gradualness

The document from the Synod this week also reminds us of a principle called “the law of gradualness” or a “step-by-step” advance” in progress in moral life that we are all called to.  Gradual progress in the moral life was developed in a former apostolic exhortation written by Pope John Paul II from 1981.

Here is the essence of the question: can the church welcome people who are living in incompletely faithful circumstances?  For example, can the church acknowledge loving faithfulness and sacrificial caring as positive steps in a morally good direction, even in non-traditional relationships and families?  We will have to wait and see what they conclude.

This brings up the whole question of moral and spiritual progress.  The “law of gradualness” simply means that we do not start out, morally or spiritually, at the finishing line.  We start at the starting line.  Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 11.24.58 AM

This truth is, for me, a great source of hope.  And I need that hope, because I know how far short I fall.  I am not nearly as loving as I should be.  I’m not as forgiving, as patient, as kind, or as accepting as I should be.  I’m not as self-controlled or as disciplined as I should be, in what I do, or even what I say.

But that is not a cause for despair, for me, but rather hope.  Because I can see that in some areas, at least, I have made some progress.  It has been gradual.  That is what the “law of gradualness” means.  Progress in a positive moral and spiritual direction should be what we all expect to make in our lives.

Moral Development LevelsScreen Shot 2014-10-18 at 11.26.51 AM

People who have studied the way we make gradual moral progress (like L. Kohlberg and C. Gilligan) have noticed that we all progress through stages.  We begin, according to Kohlberg, in the stage of “obedience and punishment.”  In that stage children learn to obey because they want to avoid being punished by the authorities (parents) whose rules cannot be questioned.

In the next stage, the moral rule is “tit for tat” – I do what is best for me.  Next is the “good boy / good girl” moral level.  It is good to have the approval of others, and bad to experience disapproval.

Then there is the “law and order” stage.  All laws are good and all laws must be obeyed.  Beyond that level is the recognition that there is a “social contract” at work behind the laws – that laws are made to protect the common good.  Finally, there are universal principles like justice which transcend culture.

Kohlberg was famous for telling moral dilemma stories and asking people what the right thing would be to do.  Should Mr. Heinz steal the medicine that he cannot afford to buy, in order to save his dying wife?  Why or why not?  People at different moral levels respond differently.

Getting Stuck, Morally

I heard someone awhile back discussing interrogation techniques used at Guantanamo Bay, like water-boarding.  For him, the morally relevant question was about citizenship: non-Americans were not protected by our laws and constitution, therefore what we did to them was not morally objectionable.  It made me wonder if he would defend slavery if it were still legal.

And this shows what Kohlberg also learned from all of these interviews: people can get stuck morally; in fact, he believed that only 20% ever reach the level of a morality based on universal principles.   People whom we have identified as moral leaders, like Jesus or Gandhi do, but most do not.

Gradual Progress is PossibleScreen Shot 2014-10-18 at 11.29.43 AM

But progress can be made, gradually, and therefore we have hope to grow, both morally and spiritually.

This is why we read the two texts we heard today.  Jeremiah foresees a new day for his people.  There will be, he says, a new covenant.  It will surpass the old one because instead of being written on tablets of stone, it will be written on the heart.  Who’s heart?  On everyone’s hearts.

“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD.”

Obeying laws because they are chiseled on stone somewhere and someone will punish you for breaking them, is a much lower moral level than obeying the dictates of conscience, the laws that have become internalized in the heart.

Jeremiah pictures God giving those laws on stone tablets to children whom he led “by the hand” out of Egypt.  It was “early days.”  They needed to start at the starting line.  But that was never the final goal.  The finish line has a new covenant and a new law, known by everyone, imprinted on their hearts.

All of us know it is wrong to cause harm, even to the powerless and defenseless who threaten no retaliation.

All of us know it is wrong to act unfairly: to tilt the scales in favor of a privileged group at the expense of others.

And all of us can gradually grow in our capacity to include more and more people in our circle of moral concern.  We should expect to grow; we should expect to change.  We should expect that when, as Paul said, we were children, that we thought like children do – morality was only about fear and punishment.  But when we became adults, we put away childish things.

In the end, Paul endorses three universal values: faith, hope, and love.  And he is even able to discern a moral ranking among these: the greatest, he says, is love.  (1 Cor. 13)

Jesus’ Call to the Gradual JourneyScreen Shot 2014-10-18 at 11.36.50 AM

Gradual development is what Jesus expects of us as well.  There are many texts I thought of using as our reading.  I chose the one from the beginning of Mark’s gospel because it is so clear.

Jesus, when first calling his original disciples, called them to make changes.  Their very identities would have to change.  They would leave their former vocational identities as fishermen to join Jesus in his ministry to people.

Follow me,”  Jesus called, “and I will make you fish for people.”

Notice what happened.  No miraculous, instantaneous transformations.  Instead, they simply responded to the call to follow Jesus.  To follow is to set out on a journey, trusting that the one leading knows where he is going.

A journey is gradual.  One step at a time.  One day at a time.  One moment at a time.  And this is the journey we are called to.  The journey of following Jesus, today, this moment.

Failure and Hope

You have probably noticed how many times those original disciples got it wrong, messed up, and had to be corrected – especially Peter.  Just last week we saw Jesus actually get angry at them when they tried to keep the little children from him.  But I love those stories of their failures.  They too give me hope, when I fail.  Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 11.38.28 AM

Jesus represents, for us, the finish line.  He looks like what we are aiming for.

His compassion for people in need is what we want to have.

His love for outcasts and marginalized people is what we want to exhibit.

His generous giving of his time, of his un-divided attention, and his physical resources is the generosity of spirit we aspire to.

His willingness to forgive, and forgive and forgive – his failing disciples, his un-comprehending family, and even, in the end, his mortal enemies – that is our goal.

And so is his spiritual life the goal we gradually journey towards.

Jesus’ sense of the God of the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, always and everywhere sustaining life, is what we want to experience.

Jesus’ participation in the synagogue’s public worship sets our pattern of regular gathering for worship.

And Jesus’ practices of silent withdrawal for prayer and meditation is our model for silent, contemplative or centering prayer.

And most of all, Jesus’ self-understanding as a child of God is exactly what he wants us to internalize – that our true self is not our small self – the self of roles, titles and ego-props.  But our true self is beloved daughter, beloved son; child of God.

The non-dual self that does not need, any more, to divide up the world into binary categories of us vs. them, all or nothing, good or bad, but rather who is willing to embrace diversity, complexity, and even paradox and mystery.

Ultimately it is the mystery of our oneness with the God of all creation.

So, the call is to follow Jesus on the Journey.

The journey is a gradual one of moral and spiritual development, day by day.  The goal is to live like Jesus lived, morally and spiritually.

Failure will be a frequent experience for us humans, but so will forgiveness.  Hope is that each new day is a new opportunity for gradual growth in faith, hope and love.

Now, we see all of this, as Paul said, “as through a glass, darkly.”  But one day we will “know as we are known.”   We will make progress towards that goal, albeit gradually.

So take courage.  Nothing good comes quickly.  The Spirit of God is at work in us day by day as we make this journey of gradualness that Jesus calls us to.


Generations of Hope

Sermon for Oct 12, 2014, Pentecost +18 A on Deut. 6:4-9 and Mark 10:13 l-16

Deut. 6:4-9 

Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.  You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.  Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.  Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.  Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead,  and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Mark 10:13-16  Screen Shot 2014-10-11 at 10.52.14 AM

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them.  But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. 

Are you feeling hopeful about the future these days?   I am sensing a lot of pessimism from all kinds of places, and it is starting to get to me.  World events could not be less encouraging – from the horrific violence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria to the raging ebola outbreak in Africa.

At home, there is a severe drought in California, while in Miami Beach, they are investing in huge pumps to keep out the rising tides.  And to top it off, even an innocent conversation about football spirals into the subject of domestic violence.

But it may be good to step back a bit and get some perspective.  As horrible as ISIS is, it bears no comparison with a world war.  As bad as ebola is, it is nothing like the plague in the 14th century, or even the influenza pandemic that killed millions in the early 20th century.  And, as inexcusable as domestic violence is, at least we live in an age in which most of us, at least in the West, believe that it is inexcusable.  That consensus was not the case, not that long ago.

Of course that still leaves the issue of climate change without a hopeful response; that issue is still on the table; historical comparisons only makes it look worse.

Hope and Children

Perhaps we can pin our hopes for the future on the children of today.  Armed with a good education that is solidly values-based and scientifically-astute, perhaps they can help solve some of the problems they have inherited.

Hope in the future that looks towards children for its substance is what the ancient Hebrews expressed in Torah.  Moses said:

“Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.  Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.”

Home School

Science you can learn at school, but values are first learned at home.  Moses wanted the children to first learn from their parents: “Thou shalt not kill, commit adultery, steal, lie, or covet.”  They should learn from their parents to care for “the widow, the orphan and the stranger” because, as their wisdom tradition says:Screen Shot 2014-10-11 at 10.57.06 AM

“Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker but those who are kind to the needy honor him.” (Prov. 14:31)

It should be that it is at home, from their parents, they first hear, and often hear, as Moses also said:

“You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin;…You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”  (Lev. 19:17-18)

Children Receive

Children, raised in homes that instill these values, could possibly be the hope for the future.  But children do not get to choose what they learn at home.  You didn’t; I didn’t.  Children are not choosers; they are recipients.  They receive what is given whether it is violence or love.  Screen Shot 2014-10-11 at 10.58.25 AM

And what they receive will most likely be what they will, in the future, also choose; violence or love.  For children raised with violence, unless and until there is major intervention (we Christians call it healing, forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation) the cycle that began with violence-received turns around to give violence.  The victimized become the victimizers.

This is why childhood must not ever be idealized or romanticized.  Christians can  be guilty of this, particularly because of the the text we read.  Jesus looks at the children gathered around him and tells us,

“for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

I have heard people say that this means things like being trusting and innocent as children.  But we adults have trouble with being trusting and innocent, partly because of what we have experienced in childhood.  Children are uniquely vulnerable to domination and victimization.

So, we must not romanticize children.  Rather, receiving the kingdom as a child means simply receiving it as a given, the way children receive life.  Why so?  Because, “The kingdom of God has come near,” as Jesus liked to say.  It is already present; so, to receive it as a child is to receive it as the given set of circumstances that you live in.  It is there, to be discovered, like a treasure you stumble onto.

It is like a realization, an awareness, or an “ah ha” of enlightenment.  The lights come on.  There is a new clarity.  All the old things look different.

And once having received the reality of the kingdom, then we look at the world and see what a broken, hurting, dangerous place that the kingdom has come to.

What does this mean for us?  This given-ness of the kingdom, when discovered, and received as a child, immediately has two results: the first is personal, and the second is public.

The PersonalScreen Shot 2014-10-11 at 11.06.41 AM

Personally, receiving the kingdom means living in a broken world in which God is present and active already.  It means that there is healing and redemption for all of the hurts, disappointments, and failures we have accumulated.  There is hope for lost-ones.  That is why the kingdom, Jesus tells us, is like the party the woman gave after finding the lost coin, the celebration over the lost sheep that was recovered, and the reconciled lost, prodigal son who found a family to come home to.

To receive the givenness of the kingdom means that we, who know ourselves as finite and mortal, and as sometimes weak, and other times, hurtful, can know ourselves instead as we were made to be, as children of God.  We can know our true identity as sons and daughters of God, loved by God, forgiven, and transformed.

To receive the givenness of the kingdom means that we can be present to our lives in each moment, not resisting and fighting the moments we are given, but accepting and receiving them, as children receive life, confident that we are safe, ultimately; that whatever comes, it will be okay.  God will be there for us; is here for us, in the only moment we are ever given – the present.

The PublicScreen Shot 2014-10-11 at 11.08.20 AM

Receiving the kingdom as children is more than just personal; it is also public.  Since the kingdom is a given for us, we look at our public lives from a kingdom perspective.  This means we look and see the world as God does, with compassion.

The best way to see what it means to look at the world compassionately is to notice what Jesus does as he gives this teaching: he reaches out to children.  He reaches out to touch and to bless those who are most at risk, uniquely vulnerable, unable to defend themselves, and he makes them the object of his concern.

This is what we do too, following Jesus: we turn our compassionate gaze towards the pain, towards the ones in need, towards the vulnerable.  Naturally, we reach out to children.

We do not have many children of our own around us now.  But we do have other people’s children around us, and we are reaching out to them.

It reminds me of the situation among the refugees of the former Yugoslavia we met.  Croatians, driven from their own homes and farms to the south, were forced to find refuge in a house that a Serb from the north had abandoned to flee southwards.  On someone else’s land they would till the gardens, plant flowers, and maintain simple crops.  They would sometimes say that they hoped that someone who was living in their house, on their land, was likewise keeping it well.

We may not have our own children or grandchildren to care for, but we do have the children of others.  We hope and pray that elsewhere, someone is looking after ours as well.

Reaching out to childrenScreen Shot 2014-10-11 at 11.11.14 AM

For many years this congregation has reached out to the children of our community by our after school tutoring program.  As you have helped these youngsters do their homework you have done significant kingdom-work.  You have formed relationships – some have even become pen-pals.  You have shown these kids that someone loves them enough to take time for them.  And you have helped them have success instead of damaging failure in school.

Right now we are hosting a pre-school and a whole variety of after school programs for the children of our community to help them develop positive values and skills for their future.  This is just the beginning – we are actively planing more ways of reaching out as well.

As Presbyterians we are one of the support churches for the Presbyterian Home for Children that specifically ministers to children that come from places of great suffering and pain.  And lives have been transformed.  Bodies and hearts have been healed.  Cycles of violence have been stopped. Hope has replaced hopelessness.

This is what we do.  People who receive the kingdom as children, look with compassion at children – all the children of the world.  We pray or peace, we get help to victims after disasters.

Around the world we build schools and hospitals, we send bright, intelligent, compassionate people to go for us to teach and to care for refugees and orphans.

We adjust our own lifestyles to be compassionate to future generations who will inherit the planet we leave for them, reducing, recycling, reusing, and supporting policies that protect our air, land and water.

So, yes, children are the future.  But even more significantly, children are the present.  They are here, now.  And we are here, now.  And one of the reasons God has put us here, is to have people of compassion to continue to do just what Jesus did when he said:

“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs”


Pessimist, Optimist, Realist, or Theist?

Sermon on Matthew 21:33-46 for Pentecost +17 A, October 5, 2014

Matthew 21:33-46

[And Jesus said:] “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:Screen Shot 2014-10-03 at 6.35.00 PM
 ‘The stone that the builders rejected
  has become the cornerstone;
 this was the Lord’s doing,
  and it is amazing in our eyes’?

“Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

Pessimist, Optimist, Realist, or Theist?Screen Shot 2014-10-03 at 4.55.02 PM

As much as I do not like my newly quiet, empty-nest house, now that my youngest has gone off to college, I do believe it is a good thing.   If I asked any of you to tell me what the goal of parenting is, I believe you would say something like the familiar expression: “to give a child roots, and wings.”

The goal of raising children is to give them first, good roots: a sense of who they are, the knowledge that they are loved and valued, and that the world is waiting for their gifts and contribution.  And then, having done the roots-part, to give them wings to fly; to set them free to grow into the adults that they will become.  First roots, then wings.  The wings-part is painful, but important, and good.

What is the Goal of Life?

The goal of proper parenting is easy to know and describe.  But other goals are not.  What is the goal of life?  Would that be a difficult question for you to answer?  Why are you here?  What is it all about?  Especially, given the fact that life is fleeting, temporary, and often a complicated mixture of satisfaction and frustration; joy and pain?  What is the goal of it all?

We are living in a strange time now, in so many respects.  Knowledge is exploding.   We just watched a documentary (ElectronScreen Shot 2014-10-03 at 4.56.52 PM Fever) on the scientific work at the Large Hadron Collider.  Over 10,000 scientists from over 100 countries collaborated to recreate conditions that existed just moments after the Big Bang and to try to find the Higgs boson, potentially explaining the origin of all matter.

Apparently they did discover the Higgs boson.  But there are lots of questions that remain unanswered.  What does it mean to push the edges of our understanding back, close to the beginning of the universe?  Would a purely scientific explanation ever be enough to answer that most basic and important question: what is the goal of life?  What does it mean?

The Meaning Quest: Deep and Universal

The question of meaning is not a trivial question.   There are plenty of people who have achieved success and affluence, who have lived in utter despair at not being able to know what life means; what the goal is.  Certainly success and even affluence are nice, but are barren as resources for meaning.

The meaning question is not trivial for another reason: it is universal.  People all over the world, from the ancient past to the complex present, want to know – or actually, more accurately – need to know what their lives mean.

For myself, it seems so clear that a purely material universe that can be known and described scientifically is not capable of accounting either for meaning (beyond pure randomness and chance) or even of explaining why the need we all have for meaning is so profoundly and universally crucial to our existence.  We all need meaning and do not live happy lives without it.  There must be something more than energy and time.

Religion and MeaningScreen Shot 2014-10-03 at 4.51.13 PM

Religions around the world can be understood as attempts at providing meaning.  But humans are always involved in religions, and so they get complicated.  Issues of power and authority come up quickly and often overwhelm the basic quest.  “Who is an insider vs. outsider” questions take up lots of time in many religions, as well as issues of guilt and punishment.

All of these side-issues tend to side-track, if not totally subvert, the quest for meaning.  Some religions seem to be able to keep closer to the goal, while others seem to have lost sight of it altogether.

The Old, Simple Answer

I want to offer an understating of the goal and meaning of life.  It is not new, not original, and not complicated.  I believe its Screen Shot 2014-10-03 at 4.59.16 PMtruth is evidenced by its simplicity.  The goal of life is union.  I am a Christian, which makes me a monotheist, so the way we put it is that the goal of life is union with God.  God, understood as the source of all, which necessarily means that union with God is also a form of union with everything (though it has not been a big part of our tradition, historically, to speak of it that way – but see John 1:1-5; 17:20-21, Col. 1:15-20; Eph. 1:3-10; Rom. 8:22-23).

Our core story is that humans were created to live and experience life with God – that is, if anything, what the metaphor of Eden is about.  But humans experience a life of exile; like Adam and Eve, outside the garden.  We are both at home and not at home in the world.

The Universal Lure from Beyond

As universal as the need and quest for meaning is, a sense of longing for a home we have left is also part of who we humans are.  Nearly all humans sense another world; another way to be.  There is a feeling of being lured and called to a another reality.  We long to return from exile and come home to the Garden, or to the  promised land.

Jesus and the Quest

The Gospel text we read today has all of this as its background and points us forward.  We do not have time to look at it in detail – that is what our adult Sunday School class is all about.  So I will outline the main ideas.

The scene is near the last days of Jesus’ life on earth.  After a ministry in Galilee to the North, Jesus has journeyed to the capital, Jerusalem.  He has made his way into the city in that famous ride on the donkey, an intentional parody of Pilate’s military pomp and parade.

Then Jesus has gone to the very heart of the religion of his people, the temple, and shut it down temporarily.  It was a symbolic action – reminiscent of symbolic actions the prophets of Israel were famous for; a way of acting-out the message in dramatic form.

The message was that things had gone wrong; entirely wrong.  The religion of Israel that was supposed to help people find union with God had become something else.

In the hands of humans, the religion had become focused on who is inside, who is outside, on guilt and punishment, and about power and control for the ones in power and  in control.   That is not a new or unique set of conditions that religions get into.  Anyone who reads church history has read the same thing again and again.

Jesus’ authority to send this message and do these symbolic acts has just been challenged by the men who feel threatened by them.  They have demanded to know who authorized this non-priest from a low class family from the sticks to challenge them.

Now, this is what follows that challenge.  Jesus tells a parable.  God’s vineyard, in the hands of unscrupulous tenants, has failed in its mission of fruitfulness.  To mix the metaphor from a vineyard to a building construction site, Jesus says that the nation-builders, as they liked to think of themselves, have rejected the very cornerstone of the building.  They have lost sight of the goal.

Not only that, but they are ready, willing and able to bring suffering to God’s messenger who is the only hope to put things right.  Jesus understands that he is in that role.  Screen Shot 2014-10-03 at 5.11.48 PM

Jesus is bringing the message of the gospel: that God’s love is unconditional; that we can be re-united with God, return from exile and come home to our true selves as sons and daughters of God.

The message is that this offer is not exclusive or performance-based, but universal, and offered on the basis of a merciful God who forgives, redeems, heals and restores the broken, the lost sheep, the prodigal sons and daughters.

So here is the question: how is this going to work out for Jesus?  Are they going to get it?  Will they turn from their misguided path and see the light?

No they will not.  And Jesus did not have to be a prophet to see which direction things were going to go.  He knew that his path would involve suffering, and he accepted that future.

Optimist, Pessimist, Realist, or what?

So this brings us to our central idea.  Should Jesus be an optimist, a pessimist, or a realist about his life?  And the same question applies to us as well.

Some want to make optimism itself the goal.  The idea is that thinking happy thoughts and remaining positive, regardless of the circumstances, will lead to peace and contentment.  Unfortunately, this simply falls apart when life really does fall apart.  Optimism can handle a rainy day, but it has a much harder time getting you through a funeral.

So, is a cold-faced realism, that does not expect much, the answer?  If so, maybe avoiding risks and keeping your head down is the best strategy for avoiding as much pain as possible.

Some simply give up in pessimism, believing the worst, and saying “See?  I told you so.”  “Isn’t it awful…?” is how most sentences start.  They circle the wagons of self-protection and end up contributing very little good in the world.

The alternative that Jesus show us to blind optimism, empty realism, or defeatist pessimism is Theism: a willingness to trust in God, the Heavenly Father.

The profound truth that Jesus teaches and models is that complete trust in God the Heavenly Father is possible, even in the face of suffering.  That even in the face of danger, even mortal danger, life can be lived in such union with God that Jesus knows he can relax, and be upheld by a mysterious grace.

Upheld by Mysterious GraceScreen Shot 2014-10-03 at 5.16.40 PM

This feeling of being upheld by grace beyond the explainable world is another nearly universal human experience.  We all sense a need for meaning, we all sense an exile from our true home, we all feel an alluring call to find that home, and we all feel upheld by a grace that we find impossible to explain.

The Christian explanation – as far as it goes, given the need for metaphoric language to point to realities that are beyond comprehension – is that the God who made us in his image longs for union with us as much as we do – in fact, infinitely more.  God, as Heavenly Father, calls all of his children to come home and find our true identity in “Him”.

Union and Compassion

The natural and inevitable consequence of union with God, the Source of the whole world is compassion.

Compassion for ourselves – knowing that as finite creatures we will never get it right, but that God loves us anyway.

Compassion for other people – especially people in pain and need – and including people who are quite different from ourselves – even to the extent of compassion for those who think of themselves as our enemies.

Compassion for the planet that sustains us, and that future generations are depending on to continue to sustain them – our children and their children.

This is the life that Jesus taught and lived.  In the end, even in the context of great suffering, he was able to say, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”  Union was complete.

The Practices and Table that Sustain Us

This is a complicated world, and we are quite fallible humans.  That is why we need to make use of the Christian practices and disciplines to help us on our journey of union with God: specifically prayer, common worship, and silent meditation, the tools we need for life.

Soon we will come to the table that offers us union with God.  We will eat and drink the bread and cup, and doing so, ingest the living bread and fruit of the vine.  They will become part of us; and we will become what we eat: the body of Christ.  In this meal of union, we will see the risen Christ among us.  By these signs and symbols, we will start to become aware of our union with each other, and with all of God’s creation.

Come to me” Jesus said.   Come; God is calling us all.


Saying, Doing, and the Difference it Makes

Sermon on Matthew 21:23-32 for Pentecost +16 A,  Sept. 28, 2014

Matthew 21:23-32

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.Screen Shot 2014-09-27 at 12.23.54 PM

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not'; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir'; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

Saying, Doing and the Difference it Makes

Like the man in the parable Jesus told, I have two grown sons. I am an “empty nester” now, but  I have to admit that compared to many others, I had it really easy.  They are both good lads; we never had knock-down, drag-out fights.  I tried to make my demands on them reasonable, and for their part, they were helpful and compliant.  Screen Shot 2014-09-27 at 12.33.21 PM

But there was one trick that they used that frustrated me on, let’s say, more than one occasion.  That was the “yes, but not immediately” response.   “Please cut the grass,” I would say, and then hear “Okay, but can I do it tomorrow, because I have some really pressing urgent thing I need to do now?”

They could be very convincing.  So, often (this is confessional) I would acquiesce and agree to the delay.  Of course, the next day, they would “not remember” my request, and we would start over.

Saying “yes,” but doing “no” got to be an issue.

Honor-Shame Cultures

This was not nearly so big a deal to me, in our Western culture, as it would be in Middle-Eastern cultures.  We look at “right and wrong” a bit differently.  We, in the West, think in terms of guilt and innocence: if the job eventually gets done, it’s done; that’s fine.

But in the Middle East, today, and in the days of the bible, honor and shame were even more important moral categories than guilt and innocence. (see comments in Feasting on the Gospels, Matthew, Vol. 2, by Cynthia Jarvis)Screen Shot 2014-09-27 at 12.38.10 PM

So a son who publicly said “no” to his father’s request would have shamed his father’s honor.  The son who said “yes” honored his father, as he was supposed to do.

God’s honor is a big topic in the Hebrew Bible.  The prophet Malachi based his whole critique of Israel’s sin on the basis that they were dishonoring God.

A son honors his father, and servants their master. If then I am a father, where is the honor due me? And if I am a master, where is the respect due me? says the LORD of hosts” Mal. 1:6

In those days, Malachi accused the temple priests of offering second-rate sacrificial animals; worship on the cheap.  Dishonoring to God, the Father, the Master of us all.

Honoring God

Jesus was deeply aware of the need to honor God as God.  In the Lord’s Prayer he taught us to say, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name” – may your name be holy – may you be honored.

How are we supposed to honor God?  The prayer answers the question.  We are to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  We ask God to help us resist the impulse to do succumb to temptation to do evil, but to follow his lead instead, and do good.  Jesus links together honor and faithful obedience.  Obedience honors God.

So, people who live in such a way as to appear as though they are saying a big “no” to God by disobeying every day, clearly do not honor God.  Roman-collaborating tax collectors and obviously people like prostitutes are God-dishonoring kinds of people, right?

On the other hand, the people Jesus is talking to in this scene, the “chief priests” who conduct the sacred services at the temple and the “elders of the people,” with their perfect teeth and Italian suits, say their honorific “yes” to God early, often, and right out there in public.  This is obvious to nearly everyone. Except to Jesus.

Where we are in the story

Let us take just a moment to recall where we are in Matthew’s story of Jesus.  This is near the end.  After spending most of his ministry in Galilee, Jesus has made the journey to the capital, the center of power.  He mocked Pilate’s army parade with his donkey ride into Jerusalem, and he has just cleared the money-changers out of the temple, temporarily shutting the whole thing down.

People are angry with him – people with something to loose, that is – like “the chief priests and elders of the people.”  They demand to know by what authority this non-priest from a no-name family out in the sticks thinks he is doing these things?

Jesus evades their question with a clever one of his own – but notice this: he brings up John the baptist.  He says he will Screen Shot 2014-09-27 at 12.42.50 PManswer their authority-question only after they answer his authority-question: by whose authority did John call people for baptismal repentance:  God’s, or his own?

This is doubly significant.  On the surface level, it is significant because the “unwashed masses” of people believed John was a prophet, authorized by God.  But these shiny men in power did not go out to get baptized.  They sat that one out.  To publicly admit what they cynically believed in private would turn the people away from them, destroying their power-base.  So they are stumped into silence.

John the baptist’s demanding message

Below the surface, there is something going on at another significant level.  What did John call the people to do?  Why get baptized for repentance?  Repentance from what?  What was it that made the powerful gentry stay away?

Luke is the only one of the four gospel writers who has preserved John’s message for us, beyond the general call to repent because the kingdom was coming.  Listen to John’s central message:

the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”  In reply he (John) said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”  Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?”  He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”  Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”  (Luke 3)

John’s message was clear and demanding.  John called people to repent from lives of selfishness and oppression, and to live lives oriented toward the common good.  Screen Shot 2014-09-27 at 12.23.54 PM

Soldiers who had the power to extort whatever they wanted had to stop their extortion.  Tax farmers who enriched themselves by economic strangulation had to change their ways.  And anyone who had something to share had to share with others in need, from coats to food, if you had it, you had to share it.

This was the message that the powerful and the wealthy of Jerusalem did not go out to hear.  This was the last thing they wanted to hear. They had something to loose.

But other people behaved differently.  Tax collectors and prostitutes did go out to hear John’s message and responded with a repentant “yes.”  Tax collectors like Matthew himself were ready to join Jesus, and when they did, they not only stopped gouging, they showed their “yes” of obedience by making amends.

Jesus and The Common Good

Jesus consciously took up John’s message.  Jesus called his followers to lives of honoring God by means of obedience, shown by their commitment to working for the common good.

We are just moments away, in the story, from Jesus’ parable of the separation of the sheep and the goats.  The sheep are recognized, the king at the end of the age will say, because they lived for the common good.  The king in the story says to them,

for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’”  (Matt. 25)

What is that parable, if not a serious call to living for the common good?  This is how to honor God; by lives lived attentive to suffering, with eyes open to need, with acts of compassion and justice.

Jesus reserved his harshest criticism for the apparently honorable people of his day who had positions of power and respect.  He told them directly:

John came to you in the way of righteousness [or, justice] and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

Values Voting: the Jesus TestScreen Shot 2014-09-27 at 12.48.59 PM

We are getting close to the midterm elections.  Politicians today know how to dress nicely, look good and speak well.  They all look like honorable people in their press photos.  Most of them claim at least a moderate amount of religious interest.  Some are actually embarrassingly public about their religious commitments.

But the test, for me, when I go into the voting booth, is not how honorable they look on the outside.  The test I use is the Jesus-test: are they working for the common good?  Do they even believe there is such a thing as the common good?

Are they working for the vineyard – which we saw last week is a symbol of the nation as a whole?  Are they more like the son, in Jesus’ parable, who made a show of honoring his father with his public “yes” but who failed to follow through?  Or are they like the son who had a change of heart and, in the end, got the job done?

You can make a list of the things people today are saying are issues that should concern voters.  In fact that is a good idea.  Then go through the list and ask yourself: did Jesus ever mention this?   It is surprising to consider the issues that seem so important today that Jesus was silent about.

Then make another list of the issues Jesus cared about.  Look at the way he lived his life, what he did, and what he said.  Then ask, for each of the potential candidates, “Is she or he talking about this?  Are the issues that were important to Jesus important to her or him?”

Then pray for guidance.  We are not herd animals who blindly follow the pack.  We are Christians who are committed to honoring God by following Jesus.  This is our core value that effects everything: our personal relationships, our regular spiritual practices, and our public lives as citizens of this country and of the world.  May God give us the grace to be faithful sons and daughters, to say yes, and to honor God by our actions.

The Extravagant Generosity of God

Sermon on Matthew 20:1-16 for Pentecost +15 A, Sept. 21, 2014

Matthew 20:1-16

[And Jesus said:] “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning Screen Shot 2014-09-19 at 9.18.31 PMto hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

If this parable story were a true story, and if the story continued, it would go like this: “That was day one.  On day two, no one showed up for work until 5:00 in the afternoon.”  This kind of arrangement of paying everyone exactly the same wages no matter how long they work could only happen once.  After day one, the workers would wise up.  Who wants to work all day if you can get paid the same for an hour?

So, obviously this parable is not about economics, let alone economic justice, right?  Something much deeper is going on.

There is a lot of realism here.  In Jesus’ day, in Palestine, there were large estates, we might even call them plantations.  And there were many landless peasants who hired themselves out as day laborers.  At harvest time, in good years, there was plenty of work for everyone.  At other times of the year, and in lean years, you would be lucky to make enough to buy a daily bread for the family supper.

This is a parable that is probably set during harvest time in the vineyard when the pressure is on to bring in the grapes.  We could even imagine that bad weather was coming, so the urgency was great.

The Vineyard and the People Screen Shot 2014-09-19 at 9.27.40 PM

But if we are meant to look below the surface, what are we supposed to see?  The most obvious place to start is the vineyard.  A vineyard is a famous biblical symbol for the nation of Israel.  Israel is God’s vineyard.  The bible says God brought out a vine from Egypt, and transplanted the vine in a good and fertile land.  He cultivated it, and cared for it, and expected good fruit.  We all know that story: he ended up with  wild grapes and finally, the whole thing was overrun and ruined.

So a story about a vineyard, its hired hands, and how they are paid by the owner, must be about the people of Israel and how God treats them.  How would a story about that go?  A  fitting story could be told about an vineyard-owner giving fair wages and treating everyone with dignity and respect.  Presumably it would be a nice place to work, good relationships all around.

But this is not what we get.  Instead, we get a story in which God treats people in ways that get them upset.  There is jealousy in the end (people literally give each other “the evil eye” – which, I’m told, is still a big deal in the middle East).

Fairness seems to be the issue – but in a complicated way.  The owner of the vineyard agreed to pay a fair wage to the workers he hired early in the morning, and they agreed.  Fair is fair; they received what they had agreed to work for.  Screen Shot 2014-09-19 at 9.32.46 PM

But don’t we all kind-of sympathize with the early bird workers at the end of the day, when the slouches who only put in an hour, after the hottest part of the day was over, got paid the same?  Is that really fair?  As I said, even though they had agreed on the wages as fair, nobody would show up early the next day – neither you nor I.  The economics do not make any sense.

A Different Measure of Value

And that is the key to this parable.  It is indeed about how God, the owner treats the people who work in his vineyard.  He does not treat them by the measure of fairness that they treat each other with.  He does not treat them on the basis of their productivity.  They are neither paid by the piece nor the hour; God uses a completely different measure of value.

So what, then, is the measure God uses to value people?  The complete lack of detail here leaves us with only one option: that they are people.  Period.  Every person is provided for.

Cause for Celebration Screen Shot 2014-09-19 at 9.36.33 PM

This is why this story is such a source of hope and joy for us all.  God loves us simply as we are.  God values us because we are human beings whom God has made.  The most basic fact we can announce is “for God so loved the world.”  There are no exceptions.

We can and we should take this very personally.  God’s love for us is unconditional and inexhaustible.  We are not on a performance basis with God.  God does not love us because we are particularly good.  God does not love us because we worship and pray, or even because we give of ourselves in service.

Jesus Demonstrates God

This is what Jesus demonstrated by his lifestyle too.  He welcomed everyone.  He hung out with  disreputable people; even got a bad reputation for it.  He didn’t even withhold his care and compassion from non-Israelites.  There were no untouchables to him.  There were no distinctions that kept his love in check.  In fact, he seemed to go out of his way to extend God’s love across conventional boundaries like gender and purity.

Guilt and shame are often topics that religion brings up.  But Jesus never shamed anyone and never made people feel guilty.  Just the opposite.  With the possible exception, that is, of  the man in the story we call “the rich young ruler,” who heard Jesus’ mandate to help the poor and decided against it – that one may have left feeling baldly – though not because Jesus wanted that outcome for him.

This story of the owner who paid his workers the same wage is a cause for celebration.  God is good.  Good to all of us, and to everyone.  As Jesus told us, God sends rain on both “the righteous and the unrighteous.”

I do not know what is going on in your head when you think of God.   Ultimately, there are mysteries that our finite minds do not comprehend.  But our Christian theology makes one thing clear: God has to be as good as Jesus.  So any picture of God as a mean, vengeful, hostile person must have gone wrong.  This is a great cause of peace and joy for us.  God is for us, not against us.  And he is not waiting for us to earn or deserve favor.   This is cause for celebration.

Imitation follows Celebration

Celebration is quickly followed by imitation.  When we we comprehend that we are loved by God, just for being humans, then we understand what we are to do in this world: imitate God.

And this is one reason I am so thankful for this congregation.  We have, for all of the years of our existence, been active in sharing God’s love to this community, and even beyond.  We have fed hungry people, we have built homes, we have comforted the grieving, and we have provided places for recovery for many.  Screen Shot 2014-09-19 at 9.41.47 PM

We have been in mission to the children at the Presbyterian Children’s Home, and we have year after year, responded to special needs by supporting Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, the Self Development of People, and a host of other programs.   We have known God’s extravagant generosity towards us, and it motivates us to imitate God in generosity to others.

This is what the people of God do: we imitate God who loves people, just because they are people.  We love and respond without asking any questions: “how many hours did you work in the vineyard today?”  “What religion are you?”  “What is your political affiliation?”  We simply imitate God’s unconditional love.

Love is Practical

Love cannot be simply a psychological feeling.  That would not help anyone.  It must be practical.  The workers in the parable did not receive a hug and a thank you, they got paid real wages. The one question we do ask is the one that must have been in the mind of the owner of the vineyard:  how much is needed by each one today?  Screen Shot 2014-09-19 at 9.49.48 PM

How much do these day-workers need to take home today in order to put supper on the table and adequately care for their families?  Apparently a person needed, as it says literally, a denarius, the usual daily wage.

A denarius was not the bare minimum for survival.  Scholars estimate that the price of a loaf of bread in Jesus’ day was about one twelfth of a denarius (source: Jeremias, Jaochim, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1969, cited by Josh Brown.)

So, a fair day’s wage of one denarius was adequate compensation, not starvation-wages.  And everyone needed that amount.  Everyone got that amount.

When human beings are the subject, then the question of “how much is adequate?” must be asked.  The concerns of the market, the invisible hand, as Adam Smith called free market forces that respond coldly to supply and demand without consideration of the human question is simply not enough.  The question is, what is adequate to ensure a decent life?   The answer has to include food, housing, medical care, and eduction; basic human needs.

The people who are able to celebrate God’s extravagant generosity become people who imitate God by asking the “people question,” and keep asking it.  In fact, it is our faith that gives us reasons to think beyond where the secular mind thinks, simply about market economics.  We do not look at people as commodities and we do not ever agree to be labeled as consumers.

So we value people who are too old to work, or too sick or injured to be productive.  We value people who have mental disabilities, believing that they are as worthy of an adequate life, as the guys who were smart enough to invent mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps that turned out to be so helpful to us all, right?   We value the people checking us out at Walmart as much as the ones who own the company.  We believe that all of them deserve a living wage and a decent life.

So, a story about an absurd economy that would collapse after two days, ends up being a story about God and people.  And it ends up with implications that touch all the areas of life that concern people, including compassionate care and economic justice.

These are values issues that come directly from faith commitments.  This may not be how the secular world looks at things, but as the first line of the parable says, this is what the kingdom is like.  This is the vision we live into; people celebrating the goodness and extravagant generosity of God, by living lives of imitation of his  practical love for all people.


Walls and a Way Out

Sermon on Exodus 14:10-13, 19-31Matthew 18:21-35 for Pentecost +14 A, Sept. 14, 2014

Matthew 18:21-35

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 7.55.47 PM
     “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

On the surface it may not appear that there is much in common between the story of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt across the Red Sea, and the story Jesus told about the forgiving king and his unforgiving servant.  I believe, however, that at a deep level, the two tell one story; they are both about bondage and liberation.  God desires liberation for people in bondage.  And we are all in bondage; not to the Egyptians, but to something as strong and as dangerous.

There is great hope in these texts because God is constantly at work, providing a way out of our bondage.  But God has trouble here.  There are obstacles in the way.  There are enemies, strong ones, that seek to keep us enslaved and miserable.  God is able to overcome these enemies, as surely as God overcame Pharaoh and his army in the Exodus story.  But the final obstacle is the one that gives God the most trouble, and it is us, ourselves.  We are the ones who make the walls that confine us.

If we do not understand the nature of our own bondage, then perhaps we will not seek freedom.  If we do not trust God’s way out, then perhaps we will not take it.  If we turn back out of fear, we may miss out on the liberation God wants for us.

Preferring Graves in EgyptScreen Shot 2014-09-12 at 8.01.09 PM

The Israelites almost missed it.  As the story is told, on the verge of the great miracle they experienced, they begged to go back to being slaves.  Listen again to the way the bible describes their situation:

“As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the LORD.  They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? …it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”  (Exodus 14:10-12)

Fear makes self-preservation at any cost seem preferable to the risk of trusting God’s way out.  This is a deeply human reality.  The enemies seem too great, too powerful, and too close.  And the truth is that many people would prefer to die in Egypt as slaves than to take the risk of trusting God’s way out.

It must be said, in their defense, that God’s way out of bondage does seem dangerous and counter-intuitive.  For the Israelites, the sea they faced ahead, and the pounding of approaching hoofbeats behind, were the undeniable “facts on the ground.”  It was neither likely nor even easy to imagine a way out.

But there was a way out because God desires liberation for people in bondage.  This is the greatest theme of the Jewish story.  It is the theme of Jesus’ message.  God has always been at work to set his people free.

Un-forgiveness is Bondage; Forgiveness is Hard

It is time to be clear about what I mean (and this is the link between the two texts we read).  Insofar as we are unable to forgive, to that degree, we are in bondage.  This is why the final enemy that keeps us in bondage is so powerful; the enemy is ourselves.  This is what gives God the biggest problem: God does not force our hands.  God offers a way out; only our sense of self-protection and fear keep us from taking it.

Forgiveness, is hard.  It feels like lowering the sword in your hands just when your opponent is swinging his.  It makes you feel vulnerable.  Nobody wants to be the rug that people wipe their feet on.  Nobody wants to be the one that gets taken advantage of.  We want to be the kind of people that others take seriously and respect.  Forgiveness seems to undermine all of that.  We think forgiving makes us look weak.  It leaves us open to being hurt again.

That was exactly the kind of thinking that provoked Peter’s question to Jesus:

“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

Jesus’ Absurd StoryScreen Shot 2014-09-12 at 8.08.44 PM

So, Jesus answered with the story of the forgiving king and the unforgiving servant.  It is a famous story, we know it well.  In typical Jesus-fashion, it is filled with wild exaggeration to make the point.  The servant owes the king a fortune.  The king hears his plea for an installment payment arrangement, and unexpectedly  forgives all of the enormous debt at once.  Grace is scandalously extravagant.

That servant, however, finds a colleague who owes him a trivially small amount, hears him make the same plea for mercy he had just made to the king, but refuses to forgive.  It is as if the guy who won the lottery has you arrested for owing him a beer.  The comparison is intentionally ridiculous.

The point is plain: we have all been forgiven everything; how could we possibly withhold similar forgiveness?

And yet, we do.  We get hurt, so we become resentful.  We mentally replay events, conversations, and conflicts, reliving the pain each time.  So we hold grudges, act passively aggressive with silent treatments and sarcasm, and seek out vengeance.

At least, that is what we do when we are living under the bondage to the illusion that we are between the chariots of Pharaoh and the deep blue sea (or Red Sea) without a third option.

The Way Out 

But there is a third option.  We need to hear what Moses said to the fearful Israelites who wanted to return to slavery, just before the great crossing miracle:

“But Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today; …The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”

Jesus told us a story about how absurd it is not to forgive, but did not give us any how-to advice.  Moses did.  When the enemy is looming down on you and seeking to keep you in the bondage of resentment, bitterness and vengeance, there is a way out; there is hope.  Did you hear it?  Moses said,

“The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” 

StillnessScreen Shot 2014-09-12 at 8.14.30 PM

Keeping still is the key.  Keeping still is the exact opposite of the ruminating mind that keeps narrating the hurt and the offense to us, jabbering away in our minds about how justified we are and how deserving of “justice.”

Keeping still is what contemplative prayer-meditation is all about.  It is a powerful key to silencing the voices of vengeance in our heads and setting us free to be forgivers.  I love what Richard Rohr said:

“Contemplation is the key to unlocking the attachments and addictions of the mind so that we can see clearly. …some form of contemplative practice is necessary to be able to detach from your own agenda, your own anger, your own ego, and your own fear” (from the CD “Hierarchy of Truths: Jesus Use of Scripture”)

When we sit down and keep silent as a regular practice, we bring a stop to the chatter of our own minds.  Rohr continues,

We need some form of contemplative practice that touches our unconscious conditioning, where all our wounds lie, where all our defense mechanisms are operative secretly. Once these are not taken so seriously, there is finally room for the inrushing of God and grace!

That is liberation from bondage.  The “inrushing of God and grace” is like flinging the windows and doors open onto a dim, dank, smoke-filled room.  Suddenly it is bright and fresh.

Now, mercy and forgiveness can replace bitterness and resentment.  Practicing contemplative silence allows us to live as our true selves, as we are, not as our tender, vulnerable egos, but as children of a loving, liberating God.

The Jesus-Life of Forgiveness Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 8.16.09 PM

This is exactly the kind of life Jesus lived. Jesus practiced frequent silent spirituality, and he practiced the ability to forgive enemies, all the way to the point of death.

Jesus modeled for us the life of complete trust in a caring Heavenly Father who can be relied upon to meet our needs.  In the end, he did not take up the sword in his own defense.  Jesus practiced forgiveness, taught forgiveness, and we can say, requires his followers to be forgiving people.

So the question for all of us is: where are we still in bondage, needing release?  Who are the people in our lives that we are keeping an open tab on?  Who are we unwilling to forgive?

Forgiveness does not mean that we force ourselves to believe that the wrongs we have suffered were okay.  It simply means that we stop seeking or fantasizing revenge.  We leave it up to God.  When we remember the ones who wronged us, we wish for their redemption instead of for retribution.  We pray for their healing rather than for more suffering.  Forgiveness cuts the cycle from spinning around again.

We pray, as Jesus taught us to pray, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”   That is, we pray to be forgiven exactly as much as, as often as, and as completely as we forgive our debtors.  This is true freedom.  This is the transformation we all desire.

It is never too late to begin the daily discipline of silent contemplative prayer.  In fact, it is the one thing we will always be able to do, right up until we breath our last.  And it is the one thing that will let us reach that point without regret.

Peter asked, how many times should we forgive?  How do we manage to forgive even once?  The answer is here:

The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”

Hope in a Basket

Sermon on Exodus 1:8-2:10 & Acts 7:17-22 for Pentecost +11 A, August 24, 2014

 We all participated in the program of reading the entire bible at the same time in 90 days recently.  For many of us it was a Fam reuniongreat experience to see the big picture instead of getting lost in details.   But reading the whole bible means reading the parts we normally skip over, so for some of us, it was like going into a store-room that had not been opened for years – finding odd and unfamiliar things there.  We found disturbing things there too – especially all the violence.  

Well, a nearby church was also reading the bible in 90 days, and some of them were getting quite alarmed by what they were reading.  The issues ranged from science and the bible to the divinely sanctioned slaughter of the Canaanites. So, they called me to come by and lead two sessions with them at their Wednesday night adult program.  

What can you do with the whole Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) in two sessions?  I do not know if it helped anyone, but my goal was this: just like a new frame can change the way you see a picture, I wanted to put the Jewish stories of the Hebrew Bible in a frame that made sense.  

The Family Story Frame

The frame I used was the idea of the family story.  Everybody tells family stories.  Sometimes they come up at family holidays, and often when the family re-assembles for funerals.  People tell their own family stories to re-connect with each other and to say who they are.

So, you could tell your family story about life in this area, or how you came to live here on the coast from somewhere else in America.  You could even go back to where your family roots were before your people came to this country, in Europe, Asia or Africa.  

But the same story would be different if you told your story with reference to God.  How was God involved in your family story?  That would put the picture in a different frame.  You might think of times when hope seemed lost, but your family pulled through.  You made it to America, you made it through the Great Depression and World Wars, you even survived the turbulent ’60’s.  

So, you can look back and see the hand of God at work.  There were coincidences, help came from unexpected sources.  Even really bad experiences produced unimaginably good things.  

Well, the Hebrew Bible is like family story-telling with God in the picture.  For Jewish people, context is everything.  If you tell a story, it has to be a this-world story about people on this earth – the one God crafted for them to live on and filled with everything they need to be blessed and fruitful.  Everything that happens on earth happens within the context of God’s great Creation-blessing.  

But Jewish story telling always has an eye open to the conundrum of the human condition.  We are these amazingly gifted, intelligent, resourceful creatures, even able to use language like nobody’s business, and yet at the same time we have this pernicious propensity to mess things up.   We can be pretty nasty.  Downright brutal if we think it serves us.  And we can be self-indulgent and even reckless, while blaming and scapegoating others without mercy.  We are both nearly god-like in some ways and nearly the opposite in others.

Context: Creation Blessing now complicatedMoses in basket painting

So we have just read a slice of the family story with God in it from Exodus.  The all-important context is that the blessed world that God created is a pretty complicated place.  There are now different races with different languages, there are empires and there are slaves.  The Hebrew people, as we pick up the story, are an ethnic minority living in the Egyptian empire where they are brutally oppressed slaves.

In other words, the context is really messed up.  This is not at all how people are supposed to live.  The conditions of oppression and brutalization are wrong; there is no justification for it.  Humans should not live this way in God’s world.   Nobody needs to be taught the golden rule – we all know it.  Egyptians know that what they are doing is wrong.  It is wrong for everybody, not just for people with a bible that tells them so.  

God’s Response, or not?

So, what is God going to do about it?  If you know the whole Moses story you know it is going to involve plagues of frogs and hail and an angel of death leading up to a marvelous escape on dry land though the middle of the Red Sea.  That story is coming.  

But this story we read is interesting for what is missing.  God is not mentioned at all.  This is also the way Jewish people told their family story with God in it: sometimes God was not in it.   

So you have these Hebrew people, living in Egypt where long ago they came to escape the famine back home, and now there is a new king with a short memory.  He does not remember how it was the Hebrew people, namely Joseph, who helped his country survive seven years of famine by storing up grain in the good years.  

The only thing this new king, or Pharaoh sees is a people who look different and speak a different language whom he can use and abuse to slave away in terrible conditions, so he can have cheap t-shirts, microwaves, cell phones and lawn care.   He does not exactly “get” the Creation-blessing perspective that applies to the whole world and all the people on the planet.  He thinks Egyptians are exceptional.

Besides, Hebrews multiply like rabbits.  So he makes them work all the more, lest they find the strength to rise up against him, join his enemies, or even escape.   

The Family Context

That’s the political context.  But then the story gets very small.  Suddenly it is about one man and one woman from the tribe of Levi, who have a baby.  But again, context is everything.  They have their baby, a boy, just after Pharaoh’s new law went into effect.  The midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, are under orders to kill newborn baby boys.  

Have you ever noticed how dumb this plan is?  If you want fewer babies, it would make more sense to eliminate potential mothers.  It takes very few men to have lots of babies, as long as there are women around, right?   But even dumber is that this unnamed Pharaoh-king has just ordered the elimination of his own slave population.  Who is going to build his supply cities if there are no boy slaves?   

But anyway, the two named women midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, powerless females, defy Pharaoh.  Civil disobedience is baked into the biblical cake.  No Pharaoh is the final authority – they all just think they are.   Their laws and their brutal enforcement machines are not the last word.  They can bring out the water cannons and the police dogs, even tear gas and the national guard, but their might does not make them right.  The system of race based oppression they are enforcing is simply wrong.

Irony Abounds

Hebrew story-telling is filled with irony.  Pharaoh tells everyone to throw the baby boys into the Nile, but the Nile is where baby Moses hides in safety. It is the      girls who are allowed to live, but it is females who subvert Pharaoh’s plans at every turn: the midwives, Moses’ sister, his own mother, even Pharaoh’s daughter.  Ironically, it is Moses’ mother who is paid by Pharaoh’s purse to nurse her own baby.  And Moses gets a royal eduction, tuition and room and board paid for by the palace itself.  

Hope in Irony

So, is God in this story after all?  How can we not see hope in all this irony?  It is also a feature of Hebrew story telling that so often the powerless little people make all the difference.  Women, not men succeed.  They have no obvious power but God characteristically uses the weak to shame the strong.  

God uses people who work for the good, for life-giving ends to subvert the injustice of a brutal system that is bent on death.  The women put themselves at risk to do the right thing, the life-supporting thing, and the future of the whole story turns on their courage.  

Personal Reviewhistoric church

Look back on your own story, and your family’s story.  How did you come to this moment?  As you look back, I’m sure there were periods of hard times.  There were times of impossible circumstances, darkness and even despair.  Like the Hebrew people in Egypt, it did not seem likely or even sane to believe things could get better.  

And what happened?  Probably no dramatic divine interventions.  No plagues against the problems and no parting of the sea.  And yet, maybe through ironic “twists of fate” coincidences, lucky breaks, unexpected healing, or slow, steady recovery, you are here today.  Looking back and noticing God at work in God’s unseen ways gives us reasons for hope for today and for our future.

A Fulfillment of Promise Story

We read from the book of Acts a slice of Stephen’s version of this Moses story.  He told it as a fulfillment story.  He said, 

  “as the time drew near for the fulfillment of the promise that God had made to Abraham, our people in Egypt increased and multiplied…”

I think we can read our own stories as promise-fulfillment stories too.  If we slow down enough to pay attention to our lives, we discern God’s good purposes at work behind the scenes.  When we pause to consider what it means that we have come through those past valleys to this moment, we are filled with hope.  

We can trust  that the God who helped Moses survive the crocodiles in that little basket (I know, the crocodiles are not Moses & Croc mentioned, but I cannot read this story without imagining them there sniffing around in the bulrushes) is watching over us too.  

The God who was there with Moses was the God who Jesus trusted with his life too, even in the context of another oppressive and brutal Empire.  Jesus showed us that a life of complete trust in the Creation God of the birds of the air and the lilies of the fields can be a life of hope, even in the face of death.

The Point is the ProcessScreen Shot 2014-08-23 at 6.46.06 PM

We do not know how our stories will end.  But that is not the point.  The point is the process.  The point is the one moment we ever have to live, which is this present moment.  In this present moment, we can trust that God is with us.  We can trust that God will accomplish God’s good purposes, and we can trust that we are in God’s hands.  

So, in the context of our lives we can have the courage we need for the moment we are living in.  And yes, courage is required.  Hope requires courage, because we live in a world in which the human propensity to mess things up keeps producing difficult circumstances.

We can face injustice with courage and hope, just like the midwives did, knowing that no authority, no system, no law has the last word.  This is God’s world, and no pretentious Pharaoh gets permission to treat humans as commodities.   No system, however successful it may make the few, justifies the oppression of others.  

We can face our own circumstances, as Moses’ family did, with the hope that God is going to be there for us every moment.  It may be scary and uncertain at times.  It may look even hopeless, and there will be times of loss and sorrow, but that is never how the story ends.  

We can wake up each new morning with wonder at the gift of life, and wondering how God is going to use people, events, coincidences and ironies to fulfill his original Creation blessing in our lives today.  

And we can even wonder how God is going to use us to bless the lives of others.  We may be the ones to discover the baby in the basket, or the ones giving after school tutoring to the ornery middle school Moseses in the neighborhood.    

Take the time, even today, to look back at your story.  Think of the ways God has been there, as in this story, unseen, behind the scenes, in process with you and your family.  And then take courage and renew hope that your Heavenly Father is still at work, just as Jesus taught us, now, and all the way to the end.   May God’s kingdom come, may God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Therein lies our hope.




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