Did He Really Say That?

Did He Really Say That?

Sermon for Aug. 18, 2019, Pentecost 10C on Luke 12:49-56. Audio can be found here for several weeks.

Luke 12:49-56

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

I used to follow the musical work of Christian guitarist and singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. One of his most famous songs is probably also his most misunderstood. It’s called “If I had a Rocket Launcher.”   Each verse ends with that phrase “If I had a rocket launcher” repeated three times, followed by something ominous, which varies from verse to verse, starting with “If I had a rocket launcher, I would not hesitate.”  The first time I heard it, I asked myself, “Did he really say that?” 

Context matters: the humanitarian relief Organization Oxfam had sponsored Cockburn to go down to Mexico to visit refugee camps housing Guatemalans, that had been set up during the counterinsurgency campaign of the Guatemalan dictator Rios Montt.   Cockburn was horrified  by the stories he heard from those refugees.  The descriptions of the killings, disappearances of their children, the helicopter gunships that were even known to fire on those very refugee camps, just across the border in Mexico, he said made slasher horror films look tame by comparison.  The feeling he had in those camps came out in that song: “If I had a rocket launcher, I’d make somebody pay.”

In concerts I attended, the audience would sing along, and when they sang those phrases, I observed a lot of fist-pumps of affirmation.  But that’s where he was misunderstood.  Bruce Cockburn says he is against violence; his song was a pain-cry, not a call to arms. 

Yes, He Said It

I thought of that song when I was reflecting on the gospel text this week.  Jesus says, 

“I came to bring fire to the earth,” and  “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No…”

And I want to ask, “Did he really say that?”

Yes, he did.  And just like in Bruce Cockburn’s case, context matters.  Jesus was living in tense days.  They were the days of the Roman occupation, no less horrific than the days of Guatemala’s death squads.  Crucifixions were common, and so were the clandestine groups planing for  new violent resistance.  

In that context, Jesus was proclaiming the kingdom of God and the completely upside down perspective of justice, inclusion, and equality.  Some have described Jesus’ strategy as a third way.  He did not agree with the advocates of violent resistance.  In fact he believed that violent resistance would fail — which, eventually it did, with catastrophic results.  

But neither did he simply head out to the desert communities, as some did, passively uninvolved in the day-to-day life of struggling peasants.  He did not advocate quietism.  He did not believe in just keeping your head down and keeping quiet.

Rather, Jesus’ third way was a very public, intentional, non-violent confrontation with the powers-that-be.  He was disruptive.  He did the unexpected, the unconventional, and sometimes, the unheard of.  

Jewish Spirituality

How did he get there?  Just like all great movement leaders, Jesus’ famous public actions and teachings came from a whole life of preparation.  

Jewish spirituality, as reflected in the Psalms that Jesus knew and quoted, connected the God of the universe and the people on earth.  It was a combination of mysticism and ethics.  That was the tradition that formed Jesus.

As he taught and as he worked, Jesus was modeling a deep personal spirituality that produced a life of passionate attention to suffering.  He practiced meditation and prayer, which kept him connected with God whom he related to as a loving parent.  But that loving parent was not just a softie.  God, according to Jesus, also had desires.  His desires were for people to dismantle the conditions of oppression and discrimination and seek the common good.  

But, not everyone was convinced. Jesus was getting resistance from the people who benefited from the unjust and oppressive status quo.  So he could see — anyone could see — that a conflict was coming, and what he said seems to have come from a moment of frustration; it seems he wanted to get it over with. 

Take Aways

What do we learn here?  I think there are several things crucial to learn.  First that genuine personal spirituality, like the kind Jesus practiced, is the foundation of a life of trust in God.  Trust is the sense that it is going to be okay, that God is with you, even in the context of upsetting and uncertain times.  

Second, that genuine personal spirituality produces a passion for public action on behalf of suffering people.  There is no dichotomy between spiritual work and social work.  Loving your neighbor means addressing their life-conditions.  And it may included disrupting the status quo conditions that are life-diminishing.  

Disruptions

So, what kinds of disruptions would Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom make?  Luke gives us an example here: it is the challenge to the power dynamics that put some people in a position to control other people’s lives.  The illustration is the family.  People who want to maintain their positions of absolute power — fathers over sons, mothers over daughters, and mothers-in-law over daughters-in-law, will not like having their power limited.  

Families are societies in miniature, and Jesus’ call for a new perspective on power relationships was thoroughgoing.  He knew this would be disruptive and even divisive; as his parable predicted, some of the seed that the sower sowed would fall on rocky ground.  He was prepared to accept it.  So the “peace on earth” that the shepherds heard the angel choirs singing about at Jesus’ birth, in Luke’s gospel story, would come to people of “good will,” but maybe not to everybody.  It’s still true: When the power shifts away from the rich white males in the room, some of them suddenly get fragile and defensive.  

Jesus’ goal was not to teach manners.  Politeness was not his goal.  It was not his mission to make sure no one got upset.  His mission was not to offend people intentionally, but to work for the values of the kingdom on behalf of suffering and oppressed people.  That was offensive to some people; especially the people in power.

Part of Jesus’ frustration that produced his harsh rhetoric was that people were just not getting it.  There were signs all around that things were coming undone, politically, religiously, socially, and economically — and yet people were resisting.  He was sounding an alarm, but only getting push-back.  He says, with obvious frustration:

“You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

The Call to Interpret the Present

This is a clear call to all of us.  We have the responsibility to be able interpreters of “the present time.”  In other words, to identify the status quo conditions that are life-diminishing, and to be willing to disrupt the causes behind them. 

We have been tasked with knowing what the looming crisis is and responding to it with the perspective and values of the kingdom of God.  The crisis of our  “present time” may not look like the crisis of Jesus’ “present time,” but the call to interpret our times could not be more clear. 

It is interesting that Jesus pointed to the weather as an illustration.   It was just an illustration for him, but for us, it is, in fact, the current life-diminishing status quo that needs disruption. 

The crisis that is looming over us is the climate crisis.  How should we interpret “the present time?”  As a time which is short.  We do not have long to fix this.  As the ocean temperatures rise and the air temperatures rise, there is more moisture in the atmosphere — the rains and flooding we had this spring are probably going to be repeated.  

As the ocean temperatures rise, so do sea levels which put millions of people at risk.  Threats to agriculture are huge and will affect both the price and availability of food, which of course will disproportionately cause the poor to suffer.   Are there power dynamics involved in this crisis?  Yes, massive ones.  

Matthew 25 and Climate Crisis

This is where we see the connection between spiritual and social work.  Our Presbyterian Church is encouraging our congregations to become “Matthew 25 churches.”  At the end of the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25, Jesus famously says, “As you did it to the least of these, you have done it unto me.”  

Recently, Rev. Dr. Diane Givens Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, has spoken on the connection between the climate crisis and the call of Matthew 25 to serve “the least of these”.  She said, “Whole communities in some places are being displaced, torn apart because of global warming.”  

She called on congregations to answer the call to care for the earth.  She said, “We’ve got to make sure that we take care of God’s Earth so that our human siblings may be able to be refreshed and renewed through the waters of the Earth.” And quoting Jesus in Matthew 25, she said,  “As you did it to the least of these, you have done it unto me.”

Taking Responsibility

I wonder how much of the challenge we can accept?  Would we be willing to make lifestyle changes to respond to the call?  Probably we all have made many changes already, from our cloth grocery bags to our recycling practices.  

I wonder if we would even consider our diets?  I have just read an article about the carbon costs of producing and consuming meat.  It is substantial.  When you consider all the land used for farming the grains that animals are fed, the carbon involved in driving tractors, spreading fertilizers, plus the way the land could be used if it were growing food for humans, the impact is huge.   According to British research, “One kilogram of beef protein has a carbon opportunity cost of 1250kg. That’s roughly equal to one passenger flying from London to New York and back.”  

The report concluded “If we want to prevent both climate and ecological catastrophes, the key task is to minimise the amount of land we use to feed ourselves, while changing the way the remaining land is farmed.”

But that would mean changing our diets.  I would like to ask us all to consider reducing the amount of meat and dairy we consume.  All of us can take steps, even if they being small.  Consider a meatless Monday.  Start to educate yourself about plant-based proteins.  Many Americans believe all kinds of myths about how much protein they need every day.  Many of us have no idea how much protein plants contain.  But we all can learn, and we all can adjust, and together, we can make a difference.  

Do not stop with diet.  Find ways to engage the issue of the climate crisis.  Join groups that are working to make a difference.  Make sure the people running for office know the issue is important and that you are a voter.  Address the power dynamics with the power of your voice.

Heeding the Call

Jesus was frustrated by the resistance he was getting to his his calls for change.  He was frustrated that his warning about the coming calamity of his “present day” was being ignored.  He called for people to wake up and interpret the present time accurately and change accordingly.  And finally, as in Matthew 25, he said, “As you did it to the least of these, you have done it unto me.”  

Let us be different.  Our core values and our core identity call us to action.  Our regular spiritual disciplines sustain us.  So, let us be those who head the call.  Let us be those who make the changes necessary to make a difference.  

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The Core Values of the Little Flock

The Core Values of the Little Flock

Sermon for August 11, 2019, Pentecost 9C. Audio will be here for several weeks.

    Luke 12:32-40

[Jesus said:] “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

“But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

At our last meeting of the Presbytery’s Future of the Church Committee, we heard a brief report on the book, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, by Tod Bolsinger.  I just finished reading it. 

The author uses the famous journey of discovery we know as the Lewis and Clark expedition to talk about the church in these uncharted times. 

Thomas Jefferson commissioned Lewis and Clark with the goal of finding the water route that would connect the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, which everyone knew had to exist. 

So when Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery team reached the source of the Missouri, and hauled their canoes up the Lemhi Pass, they fully expected to see a river on which they could float down to the Pacific. Instead, they saw the Rocky Mountains.  

There is no water route connecting the Mississippi to the Pacific coast. So what to do? They decided that their core value was not to find the water route, but discovery itself. So they traded their canoes for horses and pressed on into completely uncharted territory.  

As an interesting side note: they probably would not have survived if it were not for a teenage nursing mother who, along with her infant son, joined them. She was a young Native American woman who had been captured and taken as a slave. 

She was from a Western tribe, so she had been across those mountains and knew how to guide them. She was also probably the reason they were not killed by other Native Americans they encountered along the way.  

We should pause to note the irony here, that these highly-skilled, deeply committed and courageous white men owed their success, and even their lives to a teenage Native American woman; in fact, to a nursing mother.  

The Church in Uncharted Territory

That story is perfect to describe the church today. Things are changing. Things have already changed. We are in uncharted waters. 

Of course, the changes are not only in the church; the world is changing. Our country is changing. Distinguished Fellow of the Institute for the Future, Bob Johansen has written that in less than a generation, our world has become “VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.” Who would disagree? (He was quoted in Bolsinger’s book, p. 27) 

So what do you do when there is no map? How do you know where to go? Well, the first question you have to ask is, “Who are we?” “What is our identity?” What is our core mission?” 

The Corps of Discovery concluded that their core identity and mission was not water, but discovery itself.  

So that brings us to our text today, which fits remarkably with that setting and addresses those questions. There is a lot of wisdom here. So let us look at the text together. 

The VUCA Setting(s)

First to the setting. As you know, when you read the gospels — or any book for that matter — there are always at least two settings to keep in mind. One is the setting of the story in which the characters are living, acting and speaking. 

So, one setting is the time of Jesus. It is just a few decades before the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66 CE. It is just a few decades after the failed revolts against Rome that broke out all over the country when Herod the Great died in 4 BCE. 

So Jesus lived in between those violent, bloody events. But already people were pressing for the revolution that was coming. They were VUCA times: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. So, in that respect, they were like our times. That is one of the reasons there is wisdom for us here. 

The other setting to think about is the time the author, Luke, put quill to parchment and wrote the stories. He wrote some years after the failed revolt of 66. Jerusalem’s temple had been destroyed by the Roman army in retaliation, and according to Jewish historian Josephus, hundreds of thousands had died.  

By Luke’s time, many small but growing communities of followers of Jesus were springing up all around the Mediterranean and into Asia minor. Luke tells us (in Acts) that they were first known as the people of “the Way” — and only later were they called “little Christs” — or Christians — a name that probably was originally intended as an insult (Acts 9:2).  

Jesus’ followers had initially been identified with Judaism, but that had ended, and now the need to distance themselves from the failed Jewish revolt left them out on their own. 

As people who would not swear allegiance by sacrifice to the Divine Roman Emperor, they were vulnerable to the charge of treason. So, times for them were also VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.

So, when Luke records Jesus’ words about how his followers should think of themselves, and Jesus’ warnings about the need to be prepared, he is recording words from one VUCA setting, in Jesus’ times, and making them relevant for another VUCA setting; in his own times. So, I believe they are also relevant for our VUCA setting in our uncharted territory.

The Little Flock

The words of Jesus to his fledgling community begin with fond affection. I picture Jesus with a soft smile on his face, the kind you get when you look at a baby, as he says, 

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

If the first question you ask in uncharted territory is “Who are we?” The answer Jesus gives his community is that they should consider themselves God’s “little flock.” 

How does God feel about this “little flock”? God, pictured as a loving parent, takes “good pleasure” in giving them what they need most: the gift of the kingdom. 

Who are we? At our core, we are beloved by God, whom we are invited to imagine with the human metaphor of a loving, giving parent. 

In other words, God is for us, not against us. God looks at us with “good pleasure,” not anger and wrath. God is giving and generous. We get to live in each moment knowing the kingdom of God has come; that God is with us. We can live, therefore, with trust, even in volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous times. 

We need not be fear-based people. Nor will we be seduced by the politics of scarcity. Even though we are a little flock — and in the setting of the time of Jesus, a very poor little flock of mostly peasants — we live according to the politics of abundance: there is enough for all of us. Five thousand can have a feast in the wilderness when we believe that. There will even be leftovers.

Because of our core identity as a beloved community, we can be a community of radical generosity. So, in Jesus’ setting, about the only way you could express that was by giving alms to the poor, the sick, the disabled, to widows and orphans.  

So Jesus says,

“Sell your possessions, and give alms.” 

In your acts of generosity, you will become rich spiritually. He calls it having “treasure in heaven.” And then he cites a proverb that may have been common in his day; something like it shows up in ethical literature of the day: 

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

We might say, “follow the money.”  

So our core identity as God’s beloved “little flock” is that we are engaged in meeting the needs around us with a generosity born out of our theology of abundance: there is enough — maybe not enough, as they say, for everyone’s greed, but certainly enough for everyone’s need.

Warnings for VUCA Times

Because the times are so volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous for us, just as they were for Jesus’ original followers, some warnings are needed.

“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit… Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes;…You also must be ready”

Jesus also uses the metaphor of a thief, coming to break into the house. There is no time in which it is right to let down your guard.  

What could these warnings mean? How do you prepare for action when you don’t know whether you will be needing a canoe or a horse? How do you stay alert and keep ready? 

Certainly not by collecting swords for the coming battle: Jesus specifically ruled that option out, saying 

those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” 

So what kind of alertness and preparedness could possibly be helpful?  

Who Are We?  What are our Core Values?

I believe the only kind that can help when you are off the map in uncharted territory is to do what Jesus just did for his followers: keep re-visiting your core identity and core values. That is what we are called to do in these times.  Keep asking, “Who are we?”  

I keep asking that question when I hear and watch the news. I look at what is happening to families and how we are treating children at the border, and I ask, “Is that who we are, as a country?” How did we get this way? Are we really this fear-based? Or is it some darker motivation?  

I have actually served a congregation of immigrants. I know for a fact that it takes exactly one generation to go from being an accented foreigner to a completely indistinguishable Chicagoan, who will argue with you over who makes the best deep-dish pizza, and who can recite more Cubs statistics than you ever wanted to hear. 

That story of immigrants is, by now, old and totally boring, since the end is so well known. So why all the talk of invasions? Who are we? What are our core values?

I ask who we are when I hear about what is happening in other areas too.  At a time in which we are already experiencing the massive deadly effects of the climate crisis, and with the prospect of an unimaginably worse future, our government is rolling back over 80 regulations intended to protect our planet, according to research from Harvard and Columbia Law Schools. 

Is that who we are: people who value short term financial gain over the future of the planet our grandchildren will have to live on? Is money the God in whom we trust after all?  

I ask who are we when we keep tolerating mass shootings.  When semi-automatic weapons can fire off 100 rounds as fast as you can pull the trigger, and the conversation turns immediately to the constitution, instead of the bodies on the ground, I wonder who we are?  What are our core values? 

 Maybe some common sense legislation will finally become law, but I have heard reports that a semiautomatic weapons ban will not be included.  

Maybe we are indeed headed into a future of being a small, minority “little flock” of people who are trying to take Jesus seriously. Maybe people with the identity and core values we embrace, which we have learned from Jesus, will be facing mountains ahead.  

If so, okay. We can accept that. Our core identity and core values will remain, even if they are dwarfed by mountains of money, fear, and hatred. Like Lewis and Clark’s Discovery Corps, we will press on. 

We are awake to the deeper reality that the kingdom of God has arrived, even amid the empires of the day. We know who we are, and we know what our mission is. We are the “beloved community”, the  “little flock,” with a big calling, moving forward with trust, off the map, into uncharted territory, but not unaccompanied.  

Our lamps will stay lit. We will stay alert. We know in whom we trust; we know it to the core.

The God We Can Pray To

The God We Can Pray To

Sermon for July 28, 2019, Pentecost 7C. Audio can be found here for several weeks.

Luke 11:1-13

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: 

Father, hallowed be your name. 
Your kingdom come. 
Give us each day our daily bread. 
And forgive us our sins, 
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. 
And do not bring us to the time of trial.” 

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. 

“So I say to you, 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 a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

I was visiting some folks while I was on vacation and heard this story, told by the brother about his sister.  The brother, now retired, remembered what happened in their family when his older sister became pregnant.  They were an Irish Catholic family.  She wanted to marry the father of her baby, but he was Protestant.  So her father went to the priest to ask permission to give his daughter in marriage to a Protestant.  Permission was denied.  The priest told him that if he did, he would go straight to hell.  

So, he went to another priest with the same question, and received the same answer.  What was he to do?  How could he not give away his precious daughter in marriage to the man she loved? But how could he sacrifice his eternal soul to hell?  He sat long, with his whisky, in despair.  

Finally, he made his choice.  He loved his daughter.  They would go to the military base where the man she loved was serving and have a wedding performed by a chaplain.  He was willing to sacrifice his eternal destiny for his daughter.  

The brother who watched his father and his older sister go through this crisis as a thirteen-year-old said, he gave up on faith, and God, and the church all at once. 

Someone in the group asked what I, the clergy person present, thought about it.  I answered this way:  The outspoken atheist, Sam Harris has said that everyone is an atheist with respect to versions of God that we do not believe in.  

So, Christians, he pointed out, are atheists with respect to pagan gods, and with respect to Hindu gods, and so on.  So, we can all affirm that we are atheists with respect to versions of God that we do not believe in.  

Sidebar: this does not mean that we do not respect people of other religions or their beliefs, it just means that we are Christians who have several ideas that are important to us as we conceive of the God Jesus taught us to put our trust in.  

The point is that the God I trust in is not the kind of God that sends people to hell; especially not for intermarriage between Protestants and Catholics.  I am, you could say, an atheist with respect to that version of God.  

I do not believe that is the version of God that Jesus taught us to trust in.  I am an atheist with respect to a judgmental, punitive, angry version of God, precisely because I believe Jesus was an atheist with respect to that incorrect understanding of God (regardless of how many times God was understood to be that way in the writings of the Hebrew Bible.)

In fact, I believe that it was high on Jesus’ agenda to teach a version of God that was a radical challenge to the notion of God that many of his contemporaries believed in.  

And that is exactly what Jesus was doing in the text we read.  He was teaching about prayer, yes, but at the heart of his teaching about prayer was a radical reformulation of the God he taught us to pray to. 

Prayer is communication with God.  To pray means to have a concept of the kind of God we are praying to.  Our way of understanding God makes all the difference.   

So, how did Jesus teach about what kind of God to believe in, as he was teaching his followers to pray?    He did not start from scratch.  

Starting with the Kaddish

Jesus was Jewish, as were all of his early disciples. To teach them to pray, Jesus started with the typical Jewish daily prayer they called the “Kaddish.”  Kaddish means “sanctification,”  The Jewish prayer begins with a request that God’s name be sanctified, or made holy (see Scott McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed.”)  That sounds similar to the way the Lord’s Prayer begins “Hallowed (holy) is your name.”  

The Kaddish says, “Magnified and sanctified be his great name in the world he created according to his will.  May he establish his kingdom during your life and during your days, and during the life of all the house of Israel, speedily and in the near future.  Amen.

So, Jesus started with this standard daily Jewish prayer.  But he made some changes to it.  The first was that “Abba,” father, came before the request to sanctify God’s name.  

“Father (Abba), hallowed be your name.”

Notice also that the Kaddish says “his name” while Jesus changes it to “your name” as if talking, not about God, but directly to God. 

Both of these changes, calling God “Abba-Father” or even “daddy” and speaking directly to him show how intimately Jesus conceived of his relationship to God.

How do we pray?  We think of ourselves speaking directly to someone who is as personal and as caring as the perfect father (or mother) would be; attentive, concerned, one who is a stake-holder in our concerns.

Yes, but, Really?

But is that God?  Isn’t the God of the universe beyond all human categories of being?  Doesn’t God, as the bible says, dwell “in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see”? (1 Tim 6:16).

Yes, and this is part of the mystery of faith: that God is utterly unknowable, “wholly other” than we, finite mortal creatures, beyond all thought or imagination.  God is not a separate being, but is the source of all being.  

We must never lose sight of this great truth.   God is good, but not tame, as C.S. Lewis famously pointed out; God has not been domesticated and cannot be.

This is exactly what it means to say “hallowed (or made holy) is your name”.  Holiness means god-ish-ness.  God’s name, God’s essence is divine, infinite, eternal, or, “holy.”  God is not a mortal to be messed with.  

Neither is God a big masculine person in the sky.  God is not a man.  Nor is God a woman.  God is beyond gender; both Adam and Eve, as the creation story goes, are made equally “in the image of God.”  The divine includes male and female but is beyond both.

Infinite only?

This could lead us to a problem.  How would it be for us, if all that we knew about God was that God was infinite?  We would be overwhelmed with awe, probably fearful of what God might do to us, probably worried that we had not appeased God in some way.

But this is the beauty of our mysterious Trinitarian faith: that the infinite God can be experienced in the analogy of a loving “father” or “mother” who loves God’s children as the perfect parent would, and looks after them, to raise them well.

So, God is aware that we need daily bread, and God provides the conditions for us to have it.  God is aware that we will mess up, get it wrong, do the wrong thing, and God stands ready to mercifully forgive.  But, God requires that his children do the same, that is, forgive each other, as God does, when they wrong each other.  

God’s Kingdom, Come

Just like the Jewish Kaddish prayer, Jesus taught us to pray that God’s kingdom would come.  But instead of thinking of it as a future event when God would come crashing down out of the clouds to crush the bad guys, Jesus helped us to pray that God’s kingdom, God’s realm would simply “come.”   

In Matthew’s version of the prayer which we are more familiar with, this simple request is explained as “on earth as it is in heaven.”   This simply means “here and now.”  “Your kingdom come” simply means “May God be in charge here and now.”  

Or, in other words, may we live as those who want what God wants, here and now, for ourselves, for others, and for our precious planet.  

To pray for the kingdom to come is to pray: 

  • May justice be done.  
  • May the hungry be fed.  
  • May the homeless find shelter.  
  • May the victims of discrimination and abuse find security and healing.
  • May the sick have access to health care.  
  • May our water, air, and soil be clean and our planet not overheated for us and for our children.  
  • May love and harmony, forgiveness, and reconciliation define our relationships.  
  • May we be peacemakers; “instruments of peace,” as St. Francis prayed.
  • May we be able to come to God, trusting God to be our perfect parent, with all of our concerns; with all of our hurts, our disappointments, our unfulfilled longings, our grief and our worry about the uncertain future.  
  • May we be able to pour out our hearts to God with the confidence that God cares and that God has the capacity to redeem all the evil that has happened, by offering new futures.  

Trust in God as Father/Mother

May we have the trusting confidence in God as father, or mother, to keep asking, even when we don’t see anything happening.  Even when it feels as fruitless as banging on a neighbor’s door at midnight.   

The mysterious, infinite God of the universe can be appealed to as a loving father/mother.  There is no way God would give his/her children a snake when they asked for a fish, or a scorpion instead of an egg!  Even a human father or mother with all of their failings knows better than to do that!  How much more does God love and care for us?

But this does not mean that bread or fish or eggs drop out of the sky when we pray.  God has given us hands and feet, brains and muscles, and expects us to work hard, be prudent, and self-disciplined.  

And, God has given us the capacity to be the answer to the prayers of others who need bread, or fish, or eggs.  We can be the answer to the cries of the children at the border and the people lost in the desert to which their poverty, vulnerability, and hopelessness have pushed them.  We can be their answers to prayers by our courageous, compassionate response to their suffering.  

Praying (not understanding) 

I do not pretend to understand how prayer works, or why.  I don’t believe God needs to be informed, as if God didn’t know, or reminded as if God forgot.  I don’t believe God needs to be assuaged, by groveling, and I don’t think he is holding out for the best deal I can offer.  I don’t think God is waiting until prayers accumulate, like sugar on a kitchen scale, before agreeing to respond.  

All I know is that I have this need to say “Oh my God” and know that there is someone there to hear, who cares, and who wants what is best for me more than I do for myself.  A God far different from the one that sends people to hell for giving away their daughters in marriage to people of other faiths.  

This is the God Jesus taught us to pray to: an utterly, infinitely holy divine being, whom we can trust and know as “Abba, the Aramaic word for father or Ima, the word for mother.”

The Poisonous Question

The Poisonous Question

Sermon on Luke 10:25-37 for July 14, 2019, Pentecost 6C. Audio can be found here for several weeks.

Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

New Testament Scholars all agree that one of the most certain things we can know about the historical Jesus is that he told parables.  Many of them contain surprises.  Sometimes they completely reverse our expectations.  

Jesus’ parables are set in normal life — they are about farmers in their fields or families with rebellious sons, or sheep that get lost.  

The parable we call The Good Samaritan is probably Jesus’ most well known and loved, even if it is also so well ignored.  But we cannot ignore it.  This parable has never been more relevant, so let us try to take a fresh look at it again.

The Biblical Scholar and his Questions

It begins with a confrontation.  Luke calls the man who confronted Jesus a “lawyer” but the “law” that he was a trained expert in was not civil law, it was the Law of Moses, the Torah.  So, we would call him a Biblical scholar.

Anyway, he asks a question that we think we understand, but most of us probably do not.  He asks, 

“what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

It sounds like he is asking how to get to heaven.  That’s not what he was asking.  Most Jewish people had no concept of heaven yet.  But they did have the idea that there were two ages you could live in: this one and the coming one. This age is full of evil, oppression, and suffering; the coming age would be an age of justice and vindication of the righteous.  

How does the new age arrive?  Opinions differed.  Maybe God would just miraculously intervene, maybe God would empower humans to successfully overthrow the Romas, just as God had done in the stories of Joshua’s armies defeating the Canaanites, many years before.  Messiah would be the leader, of course. 

But anyway, the righteous would live in the age to come, and that’s what this Bible scholar wants for himself.  

The First Answer

So Jesus asks him to answer his own question.  At least this is how Luke tells it.  In Mark, which was the first version, the scholar asks Jesus, and Jesus answers; but today, we are reading Luke’s version.  So Jesus asks the question:

“He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”

The Bible scholar answers.  He goes to the very law that is at the heart of Judaism. 

“He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind;”

That law became the basis of the creed, the Shema, that faithful Jewish people recited twice daily, so it is at the heart of Jewish identity and spirituality.

But, interestingly, the bible scholar adds a second law, in the same breath, even the same sentence, saying,

“and your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18)

Neighboring in Torah

Now, the word “neighbor” is going to become a big deal in this story, so let us just take a moment before we continue to ask, “What was so important about the neighbor?”  

Every Jewish person would know that “neighbor” was a huge concept in the Law of Moses.  In English, “neighbor” translates a couple of Hebrew words, which together occur over 200 times.  It is a huge concept.  Let me give you just a couple of examples:

“If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor.”

Deut. 15:7   

Here are a couple from the Ten Commandments:

“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 

Ex. 20:16

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

Ex. 20:17 

And the last example I will give actually supplies the reason for the law based on the very character of God.  It is a law about making a personal loan and taking something for collateral:

“If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down;  27 for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.”

Ex. 22:26 

So God’s compassion requires that the cloak, even though it is collateral for the loan, be returned so the poor person has something to cover herself in the cool Palestinian night.  

You can see how important this concept of neighbor is.  You have huge ethical obligations to your neighbor.  Care of neighbor is right up there with the foundational obligation to love the Lord your God.  Some scholars have called this  the ethics of “neighboring.”

So Jesus says,

“You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”  

The Poisonous Question

And now comes what I am calling the poisonous question.  Luke tells us the bible scholar’s motivation for asking it: he wants to justify himself.  

Think about that.  That means he is aware of his own track record.  Maybe he has been ethically responsible to some people, people he considers legitimate “neighbors,” but not to everyone.  Is he off the hook?  Here is the poisonous question:

“he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In other words, what are the limits around my ethical obligations?  

Whose cloak do I need to return at night, after a loan, and whose can I just keep, and it is okay with God?  

Who must I not bear false witness against, and who is okay with God to lie to?  

Whose wife am I allowed to covet?  What are the rules; where are the boundaries?

The Parable Answer

So, in response, Jesus tells this famous story.  It has all kinds of clever details.  The victim in the story is stripped — so he is wearing no ethnically-identifiable clothing.  

He is half-dead, so he is not talking — you cannot know what language he speaks, or what regional accent he may have.  

So how do you know if he is a Jewish man, a neighbor, in need of your compassion?  Maybe he is even a Samaritan half-breed?  We hate those guys.  They are heretics.  And they are not people we call “neighbor.”   

So, in the story, two people come down the road; they see him, but pass by without helping him.  No reason is given — but every Jewish person would understand.  Both of these men work at the temple.  One is a priest, the other a Levite.  If they become religiously impure they cannot do their jobs until the period of impurity expires.  Touching a corpse — if he is dead already, or touching blood — we assume this victim is pretty bloody — make you impure, according to the Law of Moses.  So, of course, they have “good,” religious reasons to pass by.  

A third man comes down the road, and this is, indeed the despised Samaritan.  And, as Jesus liked to do in his parables, expectations of what would happen are reversed: the miserable Samaritan stops to help.  In fact, his help is outrageously profuse and generous.  

He went above and beyond the call.  Not only did he give him emergency first aid, but he also put the victim on his own donkey, and put him up in an inn.  Not only that, he promised the inn-keeper a blank check for his expenses!  

Who does that?  Well, someone who is “moved with pity” meaning, compassion, as Luke tells us the Samaritan was.  Just as God’s motive of compassion was given in the law about obligations to a neighbor, so this Samaritan too, was motivated by the same reason: compassion.  

So Jesus wraps up with another question to the Bible scholar — and this too is a complete reversal of expectations.  We are waiting for an answer to the scholar’s  poisonous question, “Who is my neighbor?”  But instead, we get this, from Jesus:

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

The answer is obvious:

He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” 

Mercy is another synonym for compassion.

“Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Identity

It is so interesting to me that Jesus told this parable in this way, to make it impossible to know the victim’s identity.  He is just a human being.  The only relevant question is, are you willing to see him as a neighbor and treat him as a neighbor?  

It’s no small question.  Remember, neighboring is right up there with the command to love the Lord your God as the basic requirement for life in the age to come.  

So why is this almost universally disregarded?  History is filled with racism, bigotry, ethnic animosity and identity-based discrimination, violence, and exclusion.  I have seen it up close in Croatia.  I have seen it up close in America.  We have all seen the news.  It is the oldest story humans tell.  

We like “us,” we hate “them.”  We are compassionate to “us,”, we are enemies with“them.”  We know who our neighbors are, and to the devil with the rest of them.  

I had a conversation with a Christian leader several years ago when the subject of waterboarding suspected terrorists was in the news.  He actually said to me, “But these people are not Americans. They are not protected by the constitution.”  Right.  They are not citizens.  So, God is okay with torturing them?  They must not be neighbors?  I wonder if the Good Samaritan was worried about constitutional rights?  Something tells me it was not a concern.  

Humaneness

As far as I understand it, the criteria for showing compassion that Jesus used was simple humaneness.  Treating people humanely is what matters.  It is exactly how we would want to be treated.  This applies across the board.  

That’s why it is wrong to treat people of other races, ethnicities, or orientations inhumanely.  That’s why it is wrong to treat incarcerated people inhumanely.  That’s why it is wrong to treat undocumented people inhumanely, no matter how they crossed the border.  Our humanity requires that we treat them humanely.

Pushing it Further

I believe this extends to our own grandchildren too, which is why it is so urgent that we protect the climate of the planet they are going to be living on.  

I want to push the question a step further.  Why should the same thing not be true for our treatment of animals as well — at least those creatures who are capable of conscious suffering?  I believe they must be treated humanely as well, though it almost feels ridiculous to say that, here and now, when we do not even treat immigrant children humanely.   

Final Question

So, the story we read ends with another question.  Clearly, the biblical scholar got the answer right: Who was the neighbor to the victim?  It was the one who showed compassion.  Jesus confirmed his answer, saying, 

Go and do likewise.” 

So, the final question is, did he?  

Or, maybe the question is, “Will we?”

Making Persons

Making Persons

Sermon for July 7, 2019, Pentecost 4C, and the Installation of Soniyyah (Sonna) B. Key as Community Ministries Pastor. Audio can be found here for several weeks.

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’

“Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”

The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

I read Richard Rohr’s daily emails, as some of you do.  Wednesday he quoted theologian, author, and speaker Sister Joan Chittister, and I liked it so much I posted it on Facebook.  It is about finding God everywhere, which is what contemplatives of every tradition have discovered.  She said, 

“Contemplation is immersion in the God who created this world for all of us. And the mystics of every major religion . . . remind us of that. Hinduism tells us that within the cave of the heart, God dwells, not just in the forest. And the Buddhists say, “Buddha is present in all places, in all beings, in all things, in all lands, not just in the monastery.”  “Where can I go to flee from your presence?” the Jewish Psalmist says [Psalm 139:7]. “Whithersoever you turn, there is the face of God,” Islam teaches. And Christianity reminds us always: “Ever since the creation of the world, God’s invisible nature has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” [Romans 1:20]. . . .”

The Jewish book Wisdom, in the Apocrypha says, “God’s immortal Spirit is in all things.”  (Wisdom 12:1).  

When asked by the woman at the well, according to the story in the Gospel of John, where was the right place to worship, in the temple on this mountain, or the one on that mountain, Jesus replied, 

God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” 

(John 4:24)  

That is what we affirm; God is Spirit, and God’s Spirit is present everywhere and active everywhere.  It is God’s Spirit that is the lure to goodness that we all sense.  God’s Spirit is the impulse to seek truth, and to create beauty.  To quote from the book of Wisdom again, God is the “author of beauty.” (13:3)

What Do We Have to Offer?

But this begs a question.  If God is present and active everywhere, and if that fact is knowable and discoverable by people of all faith traditions, as we have seen it is, then what is so special about our faith tradition?   The text for today compels us to ask that question.  For me, the answer is amazing and wonderful.  

Fist, I want to frame what I am going to say this way:  I believe that Christianity has some beautiful and unique gifts to give the world — in fact, crucially important gifts.  I also believe that every religion has unique gifts to give.  So, with no disrespect to any other religion, today the question is: what does our tradition have to offer the world?

The Harvest

The question must be asked, because of this text.  Jesus, according to Luke, tells the disciples that the world is like a field of ripe grain, and that they are the harvesters.  They are to do what the Hispanic migrants do in our country: bring in the harvest.  They are to gather people together for God’s purposes.  What are God’s purposes?  It is their abundance, their shalom, their wellbeing, their blessing.  

Jesus came by this agricultural metaphor honestly.  You find it often in the Hebrew Bible.  In the Psalms, for example, there is a celebration of the joy of being back home in Zion (Jerusalem), after the tragedy of exile.  They were forced out of their country, sowing seeds of tears, but they returned reaping abundance.  

       Restore our fortunes, O Lord…
  May those who sow in tears
        reap with shouts of joy. 

    Those who go out weeping,
      bearing the seed for sowing,
    shall come home with shouts of joy,
        carrying their sheaves

(Psalm 126:4-6)

So, Jesus is saying to his disciples that the time is now; strip down to the bare necessities, take only what you need.  

Go to a community and embed yourself in that community.  Become one of them, on their level.  

Receive the gifts of that community’s hospitality, and share the unique gifts you have to give that community.  The gifts you have to give will be healing for that community.  

But expect that it will not always be easy.  There may be resistance.  Fine.  Accept that, and move on.  There will be people — in fact, plenty of people — hungry for the unique gifts that you can bring.  

Making people Persons

Well, what are the gifts Christianity brings to the community that are so healing?  They are all the gifts that open up and spill out from the proclamation that

the kingdom of God has come near.

When people awaken to the beautiful vision of the kingdom of God, what happens?  I love the way Dr. John Vervaeke, a lecturer at the University of Toronto in the departments of psychology, cognitive science put it:

“Christianity can say [something] to all of the non-persons of the Roman Empire: (who are non-persons?) all the women, all the children, all the non-male citizens, all the sick, all the poor, all the widowed.  [Christianity] can take all of those non-persons and say, “We will turn you into persons; persons that belong to the kingdom of God”

How?  Just look at Jesus’ message?  Agape Love!  Vervaeke continues:

“[By] loving… you turn a non-person into a person. It’s the closest thing to a miracle, and that sounds hackneyed, I know, but stop and think about this; you depend on agape! It’s because people loved you [starting in infancy] before you [became a fully developed] person, that you have [been able to] become the person you are.” 

Episode 15 – Awakening from the Meaning Crisis – Marcus Aurelius and Jesus

This is the healing gift we bring to the communities we embed ourselves in.  We can proclaim, affirm, and celebrate the dignity, respect, and value of every person whom we believe, God has made in God’s own image. 

By loving them, we affirm them as persons.  We see them. We listen to them.  We become allies, advocates, and even full accomplices with them, in the depersonalizing struggles they face. 

Community Ministries

This is the ministry we have been engaged in as a congregation in so many ways.  Today, let us celebrate that.  And this is the ministry to which Rev. Sonna has been called.  It is a ministry outside the walls of the church, in the community, to the community, with the community and for the community of the River Valley.  

Do not expect to see her here every Sunday, nor to be in her office 24/7.  Her ministry will be in homes, cafes, the library, and in public spaces where the community lives.  

Our job is to support her with our love and prayers.  Our job is to listen to her, as she listens to the community.  We will dream with her as she imagines what a harvest of shalom can look like in new contexts.  

The Need

Let us return to the text for one final question.  Are the fields really ripe for the harvest?  Isn’t it the case, in these days, that people have abandoned the quest to find meaning through organized religion and clergy? 

Well, the answer is “yes,” as far as that goes.   According to the book written by the PC(USA)’s 1,001 New Worshiping Communities project,

The unchurched population in the United States is so extensive that, if it were a nation, it would be the fifth most populated nation on the planet.” 

– from Lost in America, Tom Clegg and Warren Bird, in New Worshiping Communities by Vera White and Charles Wiley, p. 23

Nevertheless, it is also the case, according to a recent Gallup poll that over 90% of the US population claims to believe in God. 

Many people identify themselves as “Spiritual, but not religious.”  In other words, hungry, but unsatisfied with the food that they have been served by the institutional churches they have experienced.  

Well, there is a new table available, and on it, there is a “feast of rich food, of well-aged wines, strained clear,” as the prophet Isaiah imagined it.  (Isaiah 25:6)  

But many people today need it “to go.”  They are more likely to be found waiting for a meal at a food truck than in a traditional restaurant.   

That’s what Community Ministry is about: it’s the food truck, taking the feast out of the building to the people who are spiritually hungry, where they live.  It is about loving them into full personhood, healing the wounds of a depersonalizing world, proclaiming the beautiful vision of the kingdom of God.  

Coming Out Christian

Coming Out Christian

Sermon for June 30, 2019, Pentecost 3C. Audio will be here for several weeks.

Luke 9:51-62

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

I have read the bible a lot in my life, so I remember how surprised I was, when I went to seminary, to learn some of the things I had missed.  A huge theme in the gospels is what they call “discipleship failure.”  

Repeatedly the disciples don’t get it.  They don’t understand, they have faulty priorities, they lack compassion, and have to be corrected by Jesus.  It was obvious that Peter got it wrong, and also Thomas, but I missed how large a theme the failures of all the disciples were.  

I will tell you part of why I missed that, a bit later, but first, let us just notice how that theme that comes out so strongly in today’s text.  

Why would the gospels highlight the failure theme?  My professors told us that the likely reason is that the early Christians struggled to live faithfully into Jesus’ admittedly radical, and often counter-intuitive path.  

Who, after all, would claim to be good at turning the other cheek, loving enemies, welcoming strangers, or praying for those who persecute you?  It has never been easy to actually follow Jesus.  It was not easy then, and it is not easy today.  

So, the church remembered, and recorded, and handed on stories of the original disciples getting it wrong, partly to show the ways they got it wrong, and partly to encourage us, who also get it wrong, that we are not alone in the struggle — but that failure is not fatal.  Jesus corrected the disciples, but he never gave up on them.  Jesus modeled grace, which is the very character of the God Jesus taught us about. 

We are going to look at the kinds of discipleship failures Jesus had to correct in this text, and then we are going to reflect on what it means to follow Jesus today, in our context, which is different, but not easy.

A Journey of Change

So, the story, according to Luke’s gospel, takes place on a journey.  Most of Luke is set on this long journey Jesus and the disciples make from Galilee to Jerusalem.  That is part of the point: following Jesus is being on a life-journey.  We are not expected to stay put, as we are.  We have to learn, and learning involves making a lot of mistakes before you get it right.  Failure is just part of the journey. We are expected to grow and to change. 

I love the way the poet Mary Oliver wrote about change:

We do one thing or another; we stay the same, or we
change.
Congratulations if
you have changed.” 

(from “Almost a Conversation” her collection, Evidence)

Ethnic Animosity

So, on this journey, they have to pass through Samaria.  Most of us know that there was ethnic animosity between Jews and Samaritans.  The Samaritans, Luke says, “did not receive him” when Jesus went through their village.  

The cardinal virtue in the ancient world was to provide hospitality to travelers.  They broke it.  So the disciples get angry.  They ask Jesus,

“Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 

They are asking to do what the Hebrew Bible says Elijah did; call down fire from heaven on the bad guys.  (2Kings 1:9).  But there are two things wrong with this idea.  

First, Jesus rejected the use of violence.  Even if the Hebrew Bible is full of divinely sanctioned violence, Jesus was a person who showed that he would rather die than kill.  He taught us to love our enemies, just as God does.  So no, calling down fire from heaven is wrong.

The second way this request of fire from heaven is wrong-headed is that it is a rejection of the “other” on ethnic grounds.  If you have problems with people of other races or religions, as the disciples clearly did here, then you do not yet get Jesus.  

Jesus was constantly crossing lines to reach out to non-Jewish people, specifically including Samaritans — remember the woman at the well and her village?  This is not a small point for Jesus.  

Of course it is not easy, and of course, we will fail to get it right, but to follow Jesus means being on the journey from every form of racism, overt or covert, personal or systemic.  Jesus is not okay with it, and we must never be okay with it.   We are not supposed to be causing human suffering, we are supposed to be alleviating it.   So the disciples were wrong on those two counts: violence and bigotry.

The Non-followers 

Then, since Luke is on the theme of discipleship failures, he strings together a series of similar conversations.  Jesus repeatedly called people to follow him.  Here we see some of the stated or implied reasons people gave for not following Jesus.  

One says she or he will follow Jesus wherever — but Jesus says it is going to be rough.  Sometimes there will be no place to lay your head down in comfort and safety.   The following objections lead us to assume that this first one was put off by the difficulty, and did not follow Jesus.  

So what are the next objections?  One has aging parents to care for until they die, which could take years.   

Another has apron strings that cannot be let go of, so she or he wants to go back to Galilee for a final, maybe lengthy, goodbye.  

We could spend some time unpacking each of these objections and each of Jesus’ responses, and that would be good to do sometime, but right now, let us just notice the big picture; lots of people fail to follow Jesus.  It is hard.  It is demanding.  It is counter-cultural and counter-intuitive.  Some just do not think it is doable, or worth it.  

Jesus put a lot of effort into teaching about how valuable and how amazing the kingdom of God is — think of the parables about the treasure hidden in the field, the pearl of great price, the wedding banquet — but some people just don’t see it.  They have eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear, as Jesus said.  It’s tragic.  

The same thing can be said of our day.  It is still hard to follow Jesus.  It is still counter-cultural, and it is still true that many people fail.  

On Not Reading the Gospels

Now I want to get back to why I missed the huge theme of discipleship failure in the gospels, even though I was in church every Sunday for both Sunday School and worship, all my life.  

Here it is: besides Christmas and Easter, in the church I grew up in, we hardly ever read the gospels.  Now, this may shock you, because we hear the gospels read every Sunday.  But I grew up Evangelical, and they do not.  

There is a perfectly reasonable explanation for it:  Evangelicals subscribe to a version of theology (called Dispensationalism) that teaches this: The reason Jesus “came” was to offer the kingdom of God to the Jews.  So he taught a lot about the kingdom, its values, and its ethics.  But the Jews rejected the kingdom and rejected Jesus as their Messiah.  So, God had to implement plan B, which is the church.  

When Jesus returns to earth after the tribulation, the teaching goes, he will set up his 1,000-year kingdom, based in Jerusalem.  So all of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom and its values are for that future millennium, not for now, in the church age.  In the church in which I grew up, besides Christmas and Easter, I almost never heard preaching from the gospels.  

I believe this is one of the reasons we are in the state we are in now, in this country.    Huge numbers of Evangelical Christians think that Christianity is just about having faith that Jesus will save you from hell, and that is what the gospel is about; period.   All that teaching about loving your neighbor as yourself is for another time.  Friends, that is, in my understanding, about as wrong as it can get.  

Jesus called people to follow him and that is what he meant.  The way we Reformed Christians look at it, we respond to God’s gracious love for us — in spite of our frequent failures — with gratitude.  Gratitude is expressed in concrete acts of love, compassion, welcome, mercy, and service to all the people God loves — which is exactly what Jesus modeled and taught.  

Who Owns the Name?

But now, we have a problem.  The Evangelicals get a lot of media attention.  They have their schools and colleges, magazines and television shows all across this country, and in the countries where their missionaries have gone.  Most Americans think that to be a Christian is to be an Evangelical.  

So what does that mean for us who take such a different view?  We tend to be quiet about being Christians.  We do our ministries of feeding people, of responding to disasters, of working for a better climate, of all kinds of advocacy, and we do them under the radar.  

We do not want to be identified with the Christians who are okay with separating children from families at the border and keeping them in inhumane conditions.  We do not want to be identified with the crazy conspiracy theories that they keep coming up with.  So we keep our faith quiet.  We are closeted Christians.

Learning from the Gay Community

Well, this is the last day of Gay Pride month, and I think the church needs to learn a lesson from the LGBTQ community.  They have shown us what courage means.  They have shown us what it means to risk shaming and humiliation in order to be known for who they are.  They know how to come out of the closet.  We have to admire them; they are models for us.  They can teach us how to come out.

I believe it is time for us to come out as Christians.  It is time to reclaim the narrative and the name.  It is time to let the country know that there is an alternative way of being a Christian that actually takes Jesus seriously.  

It is time to come out against racism and racist policies, including racist immigration policies, specifically because we are followers of Jesus.  

It is time to be public allies with the LGBTQ community because Jesus welcomed everyone, and we are his followers.  

It is time to work hard against climate change specifically because Jesus taught us to love, not just to love flowers and birds, but to love people — like our grandchildren, that will have to live on the planet we leave to them.   

It is time to come out as Christians when we feed the hungry and work to eliminate poverty; we are not just humanists, we are Christians on a journey, following Jesus.  

Yes, we fail.  Yes, we get it wrong.  We freely admit that.  But we serve a God of Grace who does not shame us for our failures, but whose Spirit is working in us at every moment to empower us to keep on the journey with Jesus as our guide.  

We will come out as Christians; not obnoxiously, not arrogantly, but humbly and unabashedly being public followers of Jesus.  

The Message of the Silent Voice

The Message of the Silent Voice

 Sermon on 1 Kings 19:1–4, 8–15a for June 23, 2019, Pentecost 2C. Audio will be here for several weeks.

1 Kings 19:1–4, 8–15a

[ King ] Ahab told [ his wife, queen Jezebel ] all that [ the prophet ] Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets  [ of Baal ] with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then [ Elijah ] was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

But [ Elijah ] went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” 

He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food for forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

[ The Lord ] said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus….”

I grew up in a Christian home, so the subject of God, what God wants from us, and how God communicates with us has always been present, at some level, to me.  

As children, we take everything literally, and assume that the God-stories we are told are uncontroversial.  Later, most of us realize how problematic, if not impossible that view is.  We also become aware of the way literature works, with its metaphors and symbols.  

We come to understand that the stories we read are often trying to get at the human condition, far below the surface of the narrative.  For example, Little Red Riding Hood is not a literal story, and its purpose is not to warn children about wolves.  It is far deeper than that.

We keep returning to ancient stories for good reasons, even though we often find them troubling.  We realize that in the ancient world, not many people could read and write — most people were peasants who did not have the time, nor the luxury for education.  Writing was expensive.  Before paper, parchment or animal hides (vellum) were labor-intensive to produce.  

It took a great deal of effort to keep stories in circulation and to make them available to the next generation.  Old copies had to be re-copied before they withered away, requiring more investment and more effort.  

So, communities that maintained and transmitted stories through the generations, did not do so lightly.  They saw, in the texts that they handed down, wisdom worth the cost and effort.  

The Violent Contest of the gods

This is helpful to keep in mind as we approach this text about the prophet Elijah.  All texts are situated; this one is situated in ancient Israel.  

Violence was part of that world.  It is not that it was unquestionably good; some writers complained bitterly that they were victims of violence.  But violence was an accepted tool.  If you find that troublesome and problematic, you are in good company here.

This text opens with the threat of violence that Queen Jezebel makes against Elijah, as her vengeance for his violence against the prophets of Baal.  

In the previous story, there was a contest of the gods on Mt. Caramel which Yahweh won.  If you remember, the prophets of Baal set up sacrifices on altars, praying that Baal would send fire from heaven to consume them.  Baal never did.  

Elijah did the same, praying to Israel’s God, Yahweh, and fire fell from heaven.  Afterward, Elijah and his supporters, according to the story, slaughtered hundreds of the competing prophets of Baal.  

Stories like that make us wince at the bloodshed, which they should.  

The Flight Scene

So now, Elijah is fleeing as far away as he can get from Jezebel’s reach.  It is an odd story in many ways.  Elijah’s God has just proven stronger than Baal, but Elijah does not trust God to keep him alive.  So he flees southward.  

He seems utterly despondent, even depressed.  He wants to die.  He spends the night in a cave.  The cave is on Mount Horeb, the other name for Mount Sinai where, long before, Moses had experienced a revelation of God.  In fact, there are a number of parallels between Moses and Elijah in this story.  The contrast does not leave Elijah looking very good.  

Scholars have noticed that Moses’ concern was for his people, while Elijah comes across as completely self-concerned.  There are a number of subtle indications that Elijah is barely doing what God tells him to do, throughout this story; in fact, sometimes ignoring God altogether.  

There is both symbolism and realism in this story.  Elijah is on the mountain, like Moses, and will soon encounter God, as we read in this eerie, dream-like story.  

But there is a psychological realism at work as well.  Elijah is ambivalent about his prophetic vocation, about whether he can trust God or not, about the value of his life, and about how obedient he is willing to be.  

God tells him to come out of the cave and “stand on the mountain before the Lord,” but after the scary manifestations of power and the silence that followed, we read that “Elijah went out and stood at the entrance of the cave” — which means that he had not come out  before, when God told him to.

Maybe we don’t want to, but we can see ourselves in this ambivalent prophet.  Someone once said that most people want to be good, but not all the time.  That is probably true.  Most of us want to think that we are people of faith, acting in good faith, putting our trust in God.  That is probably true, to some extent.  But we have our limits.  Sometimes we get ego-centric.  God’s ways are not always our ways, if we are honest.  So, let’s not throw stones at Elijah.  

The Revelation

So the story continues: in spite of Elijah’s resistance and reluctance, God is not finished with him.  That is good news, for Elijah, and for us.  

So God wants to reveal Godself.  This is where this story gets so interesting.  When Moses was on that same mountain, many years earlier, God was revealed, the story says, in that the mountain quaked with thunder and lightning, and was covered in the thick smoke of God’s presence, and finally Moses heard God’s voice.  (Exodus 19)

Similarly, in this story, there are signs that nature has come unhinged: there was a mountain-splitting, rock-breaking wind, an earthquake, and a fire.  But unlike before, these were not the signs of the presence of God.  The text keeps repeating, “But the Lord was not in the wind…the Lord was not in the earthquake, the Lord was not in the fire.” And there was no voice.

Elijah had just recently experienced God in the fire that fell from heaven on Mt. Caramel to burn up his sacrifice; a feat which the prophets of Baal could not compete with.  But is that how we should expect God to be present; in miracles and displays of divine intervention?  Is that how it has worked for you?

I don’t know what your life experience is, but in mine, people who claim to produce God-miracles have mostly turned out to be phonies.  Anyway, the miracle on Mt. Caramel did not produce confident trust for Elijah.  

The Sound of Sheer Silence

The story reaches its climax with a conundrum.  God manifests Godself, it says, “in a sound of sheer silence.”  Silence makes no sound.  This is similar to a Zen koan, like “the sound of one hand clapping” — it is a cul-de-sac for the mind, with no way out.  The sound of God, is silence.  

I believe that this insight is one of the reasons this story was written and treasured and handed down through the generations.  It is in silence, not in flashy miracles, that we encounter God.  

Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine and the creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School wrote a book entitled, “Wherever You Go, There You Are.”  And that is the problem.  Wherever we are, our egos are there.  

All we need do to understand that is to try to be silent for a few minutes.  All kinds of thoughts immediately flood our minds.  There are things we need to do, there are memories we start ruminating about; we re-play past conversations and imagine future ones.  We become aware of our hunger or pain.  We imagine what others are thinking about us and whether we are adequately appreciated; we justify everything we have done.  Just try to be silent, and you find the ego there, chattering away.

Elijah was an ego-centric prophet.  He did some good, but even that was not enough to keep him from despair.  In the end, he got the message, but did he hear it?  The text is ambiguous.  God gives him three tasks, of which he will accomplish only one.  But those are stories for another time.

Learning from Silence

Anyone who has tried to be silent, for example, in meditation, knows how strong the ego-voice is.  But in meditation, we learn to say no to that ego voice.  We learn to die to the demands of our self-interested self.  Strangely, as we do, we become more attuned to the presence of God.  We find God “in the sound of sheer silence.

And then, after some time of learning silence, we notice that our egos have less power over us.  We become less ego-focused, less self-conscious, less selfish.  We become more other-focused, more compassionate, more forgiving, in fact, more loving.  That is the treasure of this text.  

I believe that when we have learned the secret of the practice of silence, we see things differently.  We see ourselves with more generosity and self-compassion.  

We see other people differently; things that used to irritate us about people we live with can become endearing characteristics; we are willing to let go of the irritation.  Insults are far less painful because we recognize that our true self, who we are as children of God, cannot be insulted; only our false self can be.  

I believe that those who have learned the secret of the practice of silence, and who have experienced letting go of the ego, see the world differently.  We are less ready to need scapegoats and blame targets.  We care about suffering.  We care about injustice, but we are not motivated by resentment.  

We care about the things that are happening that cause pain now, and the things that are going to cause more suffering in the future.  

So we care about the broken systems that produce results that cause suffering: immigration systems that treat people like animals, criminal justice systems that produce mass incarceration of people of color,  economic systems that create  massive wealth disparity, and all the systems that impact our planet’s ability to sustain human life.   

We care about every manifestation of discrimination, because we care about the real people who suffer it.  And as people who care, we turn our caring into action on behalf of others.  

Jesus and Silence

I believe that Jesus learned the lessons of this text. He spent time in silence; that was his habit.  And from the silence, he learned to see God everywhere — from the lilies of the field to the “least of these” in need of compassion.  

Jesus truly was a person-for-others; a person who was not ego-driven.  That was why he was so giving, going out of his way to bring God’s healing grace to people, even to the people who had gotten themselves lost, modeling for them the inclusive love and restorative justice of God.  

Jesus, then, is the lens through which we look at the stories of the Hebrew Bible.  Jesus rejected violence, so we read these stories of violence, knowing that there is a better way.  We read stories of ego-driven people, understanding that there is a more faithful way to live.  

But while we see things in these text that need to be left behind, we take the lessons of these ancient texts to heart.  We, like Jesus, find God in silence.  And finding God there, we then find the people that he loves, and we let God love them through our lives of humble compassion, and fearless justice.