Naming My Wilderness

Sermon on Luke 4:1-13 for the First Sunday in Lent, year C, Feb. 14, 2016

Luke 4:1-13Screen Shot 2016-02-13 at 9.58.54 AM

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written,
     ‘Worship the Lord your God,
         and serve only him.'”
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,
    ‘He will command his angels concerning you,
       to protect you,’
and
   ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
       so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”

Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Why tell the story of Jesus’ temptations?  I used to think it was to show that Jesus was perfectly sinless, because he was both human and divine.  But that is a really odd way to try to prove divinity, when you think about it.

I think there is a far greater reason for telling a story about Jesus being tempted by the devil.  To isolate three temptations is to identify the core of the Jesus project.  These are exactly the three issues that could put it all at risk of failure.  These are the central issues faced by every community that sets out to follow the Jesus path.

Setting: Wilderness (of course)Screen Shot 2016-02-13 at 10.01.14 AM

So the setting is important: the setting is wilderness.  That is, in the biblical story, the supreme place of challenge to the community.  The Hebrew Bible has a long narrative of 40 years of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness before reaching the promised land.  It was a time of constant testing.  The temptation to loose heart and return to Egypt was constant and strong.  There were hostile enemies, there were food and water shortages, and there were rocks and sand and endless sun; and no guarantee of reaching the destination, beyond a promise of an invisible God.

So the setting is the circumstance of challenges to faithfulness.  I am sure that Luke’s community, the small band of Jesus followers in the first century of our era felt many times that they were in the wilderness of challenge to faith.   The emperor cult was growing; showing disloyalty to Caesar, who was proclaimed the son of God on every dinari coin in your pocket could cost you your life.

The Spirit-Community

But this community of Jesus-followers had something precious that made it worth it.  It was the Spirit.  They had an experience of God’s present Spirit, that was transformative.  God’s Spirit, the risen Christ’s Spirit, had opened their eyes to radical new possibilities.

They had come to understand that the God who alone exists is good, and God is for them, and God is present, by God’s Spirit, luring them in each moment to goodness, beauty, and truth.

They had come to the radically transformed view that all people were made in God’s Screen Shot 2016-02-13 at 11.31.41 AMimage, that all were both precious and equal.  So their community had slaves and citizens sitting together at a common table.  Men and women, Greeks and Jews, learning, worshiping, and serving together.  All of this was a work of the Spirit – what else could account for it?

So the temptation story has to be told as a Spirit-directed story, and it is.  It begins,

“Full of the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit in the desert.”

By the way, what had just happened at the Jordan?  Jesus had been baptized and had seen a vision of the Spirit descending on him.

The community telling this story knows that the temptation to the kind of unfaithfulness to the central core of the Jesus-path is both an experience of harsh wilderness and an experience of the present Spirit.

And the only way to tell this story is to make the temptation to unfaithfulness come from the most diabolical source; the devil.  Why?  Because the risk is profound: get any one of these three wrong, and the whole thing collapses.

1.  Stone to Bread

So what are these core values at risk in this temptation scene?  The first one is this:

“He ate nothing during that (40 day) period.  When it was over, he was hungry.  The devil said to him, ‘if you are God’s son, tell the stone to become bread.”

Bread is legitimate.  And the need is real, not imagined.  In fact, the need is acute after Screen Shot 2016-02-13 at 11.40.29 AMthose 40 days of fasting.  But life is more than food.  As necessary as it is to have to care about  food, clothing and shelter, as right as it is to make sure the bills are paid, the roof does not leak, and the car is running, nevertheless, this community knows that life is not only about material values.

This community lives by the spiritual truth that Jesus, in the story, tells the devil:

“It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.”

“Bread” alone will never answer the question, “why am I here?”  What is my purpose in life?  Why do I feel moved by sunsets and the ocean?  By music and literature?  Why do I sense a connection with birds and whales?  What accounts for my sense that my life is grounded; that I am cared for?  That it will be OK?

Bread alone will never give the answers.  Bread alone cannot even account for my interest in the questions.  Life is so much deeper than bread alone.  That is what this community knows.  And we believe following Jesus is the path to that deeper way of living.  The life of the Spirit.

2.  Power and Glory

The second temptation in the story is the one that most clearly shows that this is a vision story.  The devil leads Jesus “up”, cryptically, Screen Shot 2016-02-13 at 11.45.52 AM

and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.

Kingdoms are all about power and glory – at least for the people who run them.  This story makes it clear: if power and glory are the goal, then the worship of the devil has already begun.

The devil says to Jesus,

“ If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”

If that is what you want, power and glory, you are already worshiping the devil.

But the community that calls Jesus “king” lives by an entirely alternative vision of the good.

“Blessed”, Jesus said, “are the poor”  
“Blessed are the meek,”
“Blessed are those” whose “hunger and thirst” is not for power and glory, but “for justice.”

This community welcomes the power-less and the glory-less; the widows, the orphans and the strangers; lepers, and foreigners, the ostracized and the marginalized, the very kinds of people Jesus spent his life among.

What does it mean to

“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him”,

as Jesus said in response to the devil?  It means we refuse to bow to the gods of power and glory, but embrace the God of all creation, the creator of every creature, and to love them all the way God does: unconditionally.  That is what is at the core of this community.

3.  The God Issue

The climactic temptation is the third event, (because in all folklore, the third is the climax) is this:

 “Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here”

In other words, make the focus of your spiritual life, a god who is there to serve yourself.  Make god the god of the personal bailout, the butler god, the rescue god.  Screen Shot 2016-02-13 at 11.56.13 AM

After all, doesn’t scripture say, as the devil well knows,

“it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,    so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

There is a fine line – but a profoundly important distinction to make – between the butler god who is there to fix all of life’s problems, and the God who grounds our lives, enabling us to say, “All is well.

Because the god of all fixes does not exist.  Evil does exist.  People suffer.
Ask the people starving in Syria today, or the ones in the basement bomb shelters in Aleppo, or the ones in those shabby overcrowded boats in the Mediterranean.

Ask the families of the people who did not get the miracle reprieve from cancer; the ones who did not make it through the operation.  The accident victims.

As the Jewish writer, Elie Wiesel said, after surviving the holocaust,

“The Omni-god died in the hangman’s noose in Auschwitz” 

– meaning the omnipotent butler god who comes to the rescue.

That is not what this community believes.  Rather we believe in the God Jesus worshiped.  Screen Shot 2016-02-13 at 11.59.22 AMThe God who is present in the wilderness with his people as they endure everything life throws at them.

We believe in the God who is Emmanuel, God with us, in every painful moment, loving us, suffering with us.  We believe in the crucified God who knows what human death tastes like.

And so yes, we believe our lives are grounded and supported.  That in spite of it all, there is a goodness that surrounds us.  We believe that just as God was there, by the Spirit, in Jesus’ wilderness, so he is in ours.

And we will be able to say, when it is over

“All is well, all is well, all manner of things will be well.” 

– Remembering that the one who first penned those words,  Julian of Norwich, was living through the horrors of the plague, in a time of civil war, and an illness that nearly killed her.

This community that follows Jesus no more depends for its faith on a magic rescue than its founder, Jesus got.  But he was able to trust, all the way to the end, all the way to the cross, and from it to say

“Father, forgive them, Into your hands I commit my spirit.”  

Naming My Wilderness

How do you name your wilderness?   Where is there the greatest temptation for you to remain faithful?  Where is the pain in your life?

Listen, wherever it is; God meets you there.  God is with you there.  God is there bringing goodness, even in the midst of tragedy; bringing hope that you are not alone, and that no suffering is meaningless nor final.

This community of Jesus-followers, this Spirit-directed, Spirit-infused community lives by these values:  bread alone is never enough for people who were created as  spiritual beings.

Power and glory are diabolical aims; we are a community of, and for, the power-less and the glory-less.

And the God who is for us, is not a butler.  God is the ground of our being, the light by which we see goodness, truth and beauty, our Source and our Destination, our confidence and our hope.

 

.


The Past, the Present, and the Future Perfect

Sermon on Exodus 34:29-35 and Luke 9:28-36 for Transfiguration Sunday, February 7, 2016

Luke 9:28-36

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

The transfiguration story should strike us as eerie; other-worldly; even weird.  And that is, I believe, part of its purpose.

So, I want to begin by another great parable from Peter Rollins.  He does not claim it  as original, but calls it an “old anecdote” but I first heard it in his book, How (Not) to Speak of God.   (I may modify it just a bit).

It goes like this:  A mystic, a Presbyterian pastor and a fundamentalist preacher all die on Screen Shot 2016-02-06 at 11.13.43 AMthe same day and find themselves at heaven’s pearly gates.  Peter greets them there and informs them that they will each need to be interviewed by Jesus as to the state of their doctrine before being allowed to enter heaven.  The first to be called in to the interview room is the mystic.  After five hours he reappears with a smile, saying, “I thought I had got it all wrong.”  The next one Peter calls to be  interviewed is the Presbyterian.  After a full day he emerges from the room with a frown, saying to himself, “How could I have been so foolish!”  Finally Peter ushers the fundamentalist into the room.  A few days go by with no sign of him.  Finally the door opens and Jesus himself appears, exclaiming, “How could I have gotten it all so wrong?”

The mystic has a real relationship with God, but has never been able to pin it down.  It is always like trying to nail smoke to a board.  He has never been certain.

The Presbyterian had a system all worked out, he thought, but in the presence of the Divine, he came to see how inadequate his grasp had been.

The fundamentalist clung to his certainty and would not give up his interpretation of God, even in the very presence of God.

Encountering the DivineScreen Shot 2016-02-06 at 12.00.16 PM

I have said before that Jesus himself was a mystic.  Some scholars call him a “Spirit man”.  This text is a good example.  It begins, as so many others do, of Jesus going off to pray.  To pray is to encounter the Divine; to be in the presence of God.  Jesus’ location is important.  Religious people may go to a temple to pray; mystics go to the mountains – or to the forest, or the ocean, or to an inner sacred space they make anywhere.

What is God like?  How do you describe an encounter with God?  For Moses, at Sinai, we read of a mountain shrouded by a cloud of darkness, and a voice thundering forth, terrifying everyone.

For Elijah, on the same mountain, many years later, after a mighty wind and an earthquake, we read that God was present as a voice, like “the sound of sheer silence.”   Whether these descriptions lead towards or away from knowledge is an open question.  Whether the Divine is revealed or concealed is not clear.  Nevertheless,  the Divine is experienced as present and real.

Now, in our New Testament text, we read a new story of an encounter with the Divine, on Screen Shot 2016-02-06 at 12.03.39 PManother mountain. Gathering elements from other mystical encounters, Luke weaves a thick description.  Moses and Elijah appear.  So does an enveloping cloud.  So does the voice.  Moses left his mountaintop encounter with God with a face that shone so brightly he needed to veil himself before the people.  Here, Jesus’ whole being, clothing and all, radiate God’s glorious presence.

In the Bible’s store-house of stories of God-encounters, some meet God in dreams, as Abraham famously does.  That story emphasized the deep terrifying dark sleep that Abraham was in, as he dreamed the vision of God, making a covenant with him and his future family.  Jacob dreamed of a ladder to heaven.

Luke includes the sleepy dream element here as well.  All four gospels have this story (although in John, only a few elements remain).  Luke alone has the disciples floating awkwardly between dreamy sleep and wakefulness as they bear witness to this scene of glory.  In Matthew, Jesus himself calls the whole thing a “vision.”

Peter’s 3 Mistakes

In all three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) Peter makes his famous blunder. His mistake is therefore an important part of the teaching. There are probably three mistakes he makes at once, by suggesting they set up three tent-shrines to mark this moment.  All three are crucial mistakes to undo.

The first is that though this mystical moment means something important, it does not mean that making a static place of religious observance is the point.  That is what a shrine does.  It takes an encounter, and turns it into an object.

One of the huge innovations Jesus makes is that the encounter with God is moved out of Screen Shot 2016-02-06 at 12.41.11 PMthe temple, and into the streets.  God is experienced, as Jesus’ whole life shows, in the encounter of God in prayer and in the encounter with people, not in temples.  There is no need for a new static shrine, but rather a direct experience.

Second, it would be wrong to put Jesus on the same level, giving him a booth along side of Moses and Elijah, as if the three were equally important.  Moses and Elijah were people of great significance.  Their encounters with God profoundly changed them and shaped the life of the people.  But they were experiences of the past.  Now God was doing a new thing, and Jesus is it; he should not be on a level with the ones who spoke for God in the past.

Third, the climax and therefore the main point of this mystical experience is the direct word from the voice, directing us to the words of Jesus.  The way to live into the Divine was not by shrines and rituals, but by following Jesus.

In Mark, God’s voice calls Jesus his “beloved son.”  In Luke, God calls Jesus his “chosen son.”  Luke wants the main point to be, not just that Jesus is special to God, but that Jesus is God’s chosen instrument; the one to listen to.  A shrine to commemorate the moment would not be the point; the point would be to do what that voice from the cloud said, “listen to him.”

Listening to himScreen Shot 2016-02-06 at 12.05.45 PM

So, our quest is to do just that.  To listen so that we can follow Jesus.  We imitate Jesus and his practice of prayer, knowing that in silence, in meditation, in contemplative prayer, we encounter the mysterious Divine, just as Jesus did.

But we are humble about defining that encounter.  We are reluctant to get dogmatic about a God who is best known by images of concealing clouds and the brightness of glory.  We understand the limitations of even speaking words about a Divine presence encountered in visions and dreams.

How do we speak of One who appears as a burning bush, naming himself  “I am that I am,” a name that is as close to “Pure Becoming” as can be.  The one whom Paul would say, “in whom we live and move and have our being.”

So, in this story, instead of staying on the mountain at static shrines, Jesus leads them down the mountain to confront evil, suffering, and injustice.  His path will be to Jerusalem, and will, he knows quite well, involve his own great suffering.

Paul once said that we used to know Jesus “according to a human point of view,”  but we no longer do.  That is what is happening in this story.  This story pictures a transition of our vision of Jesus.  We move from understanding Jesus as someone who is remarkable, to someone who is compelling.

We get the message: “Listen to him.”  We should put a copy of the Sermon on the Mount in our hearts.  It should ring in our ears.  The words and actions of Jesus should form the shape of all our words and all of our actions, both public and private.

As this story illustrates, we have come to understand that God is best followed, by following Jesus.  Whatever we think of God, it has to agree with what we know of Jesus.  As a youth pastor said, “God has to be at least as nice as Jesus.”

And God has to be at least as interested in gathering people who will join together and follow Jesus, as Jesus himself was.  That is what we are here to do.

We follow him into the spiritual practice of contemplative prayer on the mountain, and then we follow him into ministries of compassion and mercy down with the people.  We follow him in a direct encounter and relationship with our mysterious God, and we follow him in a full embrace of hurting humanity.

A Lenten Suggestion

The season of the lengthening of the days, or Lent, is coming, starting this Wednesday.  I have made and will repeat a suggestion.  Often people give up something they enjoy during lent as a spiritual discipline.  My suggestion is that we give up time; time enough to do some intentionally spiritual reading and reflecting.  I have a list prepared, mostly of Richard Rohr’s books, which I find so helpful.  I would begin with The Immortal Diamond or Falling Upward.  For those in recovery, perhaps Breathing Underwater.

Make this Lent count.  And prepare to be amazed at what you encounter.


Jesus’ Stories and the Jesus Story: rejection and the big picture

Sermon on Deuteronomy 26:1-11 and Luke 4:21-30 for the 4th Epiphany, year C, January 31, 2016

Luke 4:21-30
Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

I am often amazed to observe a pattern of behavior that just seems like it should be Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 9.49.41 AMimpossible, except that it keeps happening all the time.  It is that people lose the forest for the trees.  People lose sight of the main thing, in favor of tiny minor side issues.  For example, kids will gather together to have fun; they will decide to play a game, but then spend so much time arguing about the rules or who cheated, or what is not fair, that instead of having fun, everyone ends up having a bad time.

Similarly, it amazes me that our country, a nation of immigrants has such a regular habit of ostracizing immigrants.  We Northern and Western Europeans who happened to get here first (after the native population), ostracized others, in the Southern and Eastern Europeans when they first arrived in successive waves.

It also amazes me that our country, which attracted so many of our ancestors from Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.06.16 AMEurope specifically for religious freedom, especially freedom from governmental meddling in religion, is proclaimed to be a one-religion country by politicians and the media.

It happens so often, and so loudly these days, that it almost feels as though our founding father’s view of  the value religious pluralism was downright unpatriotic.  Imagine, Jefferson being considered anti-American!   But that is the absurdity that often happens when the big-picture is lost.

It happens in so many ways: Christianity is supposed to be about one big idea; Love.  God is essentially love, we say.  Love that involves forgiveness.  Love that motivates grace.  Love that is limitless and extravagant.  Love that even embraces self-sacrifice.

But we could spend all day sharing stories of examples of Christian individuals and  groups that seemed to have totally lost track of love, both personally, and in their relationships with others.

But even though the big ideas get lost and forgotten so often, it is good to keep reminding ourselves of them.  We  must be prepared, however, to face push-back.  When we bring up for discussion the big idea that has been turned upside down, the ones who like it upside down do not go away quietly.

The Honor-less Home BoyScreen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.12.26 AM

That is what is happening in this text from Luke.  It is not just from Luke.  This is one of those stories that makes it into all four gospels: Jesus was rejected in his hometown.

No prophet,” he says, referring to himself,  “is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”

In Nazareth, Jesus is merely “Joseph’s son” – a landless peasant, most likely, a day-laborer-type; the kind you see hanging around the construction site, looking for work, early in the morning.  Not exactly the kind of material that produces  a person capable of profound religious insight.  He probably did not even have a formal education.

He was bright, however, and did impress people with his acumen.  He certainly knew his Hebrew bible.  He could pull out stories effortlessly.  He dropped in two in a row without a blink here. One was about the great prophet Elijah, on the run from the wicked queen that wanted him dead, escaping across the border to shelter with a Gentile widow.  There, he saves her from starvation during a famine by a miraculous supply of grain and oil.

The other story was about Elijah’s successor  Elisha who cured a Syrian man of his “leprosy.”  The one thing these two stories have in common is that in each one, an Israelite prophet is a conduit for God’s grace, extending to a non-Israelite foreigner.

Reminding the folks in Nazareth that God’s love extends beyond their national boundaries and includes people who are ethnically and religiously different, makes no one happy.  In fact, they get so mad, at least the way Luke tells it, they want to kill Jesus.  Luke is super-vague about how Jesus got away from the murderous mob, but anyway, the plot failed that time.  Maybe it is a prequel to what is going to happen later, more successfully, for Jesus’ opposition.

Biblical Aliens

Anyway, this story got me thinking about the notion of resistance itself.  Why do people resist hearing or accepting something – even something fundamental?  Why do some Americans resist the thought of welcoming immigrants so strongly, when we are a nation of immigrants?  Why do Christians lose sight of love, when it is the foundation of all that we believe about God and virtue?

Why did the people of Nazareth, with their Hebrew bibles full of reasons for knowing that God’s grace extends beyond their own people, have such a hard time hearing it from their home-town boy?  The bible is full of it: from the Creation story that gives us all a common source, to the story of Ruth the Moabitess, or the story Jonah’s call to go to Assyrian Nineveh.

How could the people, whose liturgy reminded them every year to say,

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, … The Lord brought us out of Egypt … and he brought us into this place” 

not have a place in their hearts for other aliens?  Talk about loosing sight of the big picture!

Resistance as ThematicScreen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.54.02 AM

But all of this made me reflect on the big picture in this story.  Jesus was rejected.  Jesus’ message was resisted.  That is the largest fact about this story.

Which made me ask the more personal question: where is there resistance in me, to what I understand of Jesus’ message?

I remember being struck by a comment someone made – maybe Jen Hammond – at the start of her on-line FB reading group for the book, The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice.  She said we should notice when we feel a resistance to the ethical practices being described in the book.  Where is the resistance coming from?

The idea is that after becoming mindfully aware that there is, in me, resistance, how do I feel about the resistance?  Is it coming from a good place?  Or do I feel a pull to grow into the kind of person who is not resisting that particular ethical calling?

One of the most important, large-picture, main-thing ideas we all affirm is that our quest is to be followers of Jesus.  So, we already have at least a mental commitment to agreeing with Jesus’ message and perspective.  So, we have reasons to ask ourselves, where, in me, is there resistance? Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.58.59 AM

  • Is it in Jesus’ teaching about outsiders, as in this story, specifically?
  • Is it in Jesus’ teachings about poverty and wealth,
  • the dangers of loving money,
  • his perspective on accumulation of assets,
  • or about apathy towards the suffering of the poor?

There are all kinds of topics in Jesus’ teachings, and many of his lifestyle practices, that can produce resistance in us, when we consider following him:

  • like his insistence on forgiveness of enemies;
  • his rejection of violence;
  • his radically open commensality (open table fellowship);
  • his egalitarian rejection of social hierarchies;
  • his concept of a newly constituted definition of family;
  • his demolition of the doctrine of divine retribution;
  • and even his commitment to the risk of radical trust;

not to mention his example of non-resistance, even to the point of self-sacrifice;
there are plenty of areas of Jesus’ teaching  and example to feel resistant about.

The Sources of our Resistance

So, we ask ourselves, where is that resistance coming from?  Is it  coming from a good place, or after noticing that I feel resistance, should I give it some thoughtful reflection?  Even some prayerful reflection?

For me, the resistance usually comes from sources like fear. I fear looking ridiculous, I fear being weak, I fear not fitting into what everyone else thinks.  I fear the danger of risk; I fear the pain, or even the inconvenience of self-denial, I fear change.

Resistance also comes from what spiritual teachers like Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 11.04.26 AMcall the “small self,” or the “false self.”  This is the self that we all need, initially, to build up a sense of who we are as people in the “first half of life.”

In order to be a well-adjusted, competent, self-confident person, we all construct a sense of self.  It is like a container that we build for our inner-person.  It includes an understanding of our place in our family.  It includes the roles we have – spouse, parent, employee, citizen.

It includes the groups we identify with; our race, our gender, our sexual orientation, our state, our religion, our country – all of the things we use when we are introducing ourselves, or when we think of our biographical details.  This self-identity is the work of the first half of life.

But all of these ways of defining ourselves are only the container for our inner being, our soul; our deepest truest, real self.   In other words, the false self is our ego. The false self  is what we get attached to – the source of so much of our suffering, as Buddhist teaching uncovers.   This is the self that, at one point, Jesus calls us to die to.

For people of Christian faith, we say that our truest self is that we are children of a loving Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 11.08.48 AMGod.  That is who we are, and nothing can ever change that.  This is what we are called to live into; the resurrected self  that follows the dying to self.

So, Rohr says, whenever we are offended, whenever we feel the urge to have an angry response, it is most likely our false selves that are being offended.

So, when our team, our family, our group is insulted or criticized, or feels threatened, our false self responds the way the people of Nazareth did when Jesus suggested that God loves foreigners.  Resistance comes from the false self, the ego-self.

The Big Picture Lesson

So the gospel text we read today is a story about people who are resisting the Jesus path.  Taken by itself, in isolation from the longer story of Jesus, it is a rather negative lesson.  But let us draw back and look again at the big picture.

God does love both Israelites and non-Israelites, as Jesus taught.  And this is especially good news to us, who are non-Israelites.  The good news really is good news.  Jesus moved on from there and found people who did not resist his message, but embraced it.  They found in the good news of the kingdom, a source of life and healing.

Let that be what this story calls us to: to be people who examine our own resistance, so that we can lower it, all the way down, to the point that we accept, even joyfully accept the Jesus path.

A Lenten Practice

How can we do this?  I have a practical suggestion.   The season of Lent is just a couple of weeks away.  Ash Wednesday is Feb. 10th.  Often we give up something we enjoy in Lent, as a spiritual practice.  Let us make it count this time.  I would like you to consider giving up some time.

Instead of giving up chocolate or meat or candy, consider giving up a regular set amount of time every day; time for reading.   Consider reading somethings that will help you on your spiritual journey.

We have enough time between now and Lent for you to select a book and either find it locally or to order it.   I would be happy to make recommendations.  I would begin with Richard Rohr’s Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self,  or Falling Upward, a Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.  And there are many other great wisdom sources.

Let us all be people of the Jesus path, who recognize resistance as a sign of the places we need to grow in.  And let us intentionally engage the kind of spiritual practices that promote spiritual growth.  Let us make use of special seasons, like Lent, to be even more intentional, and make it count, so that next year at this time we can look back and see the progress we have made. People who do not resist, but who joyfully embrace the Jesus path.


The Wonderful World We Seek

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, C, January 24, 2016,  on Isaiah 61:1-2a and Luke 4:14-21
The Wonderful World We Seek

Isaiah 61:1-2a
    The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,Screen Shot 2016-01-23 at 11.12.42 AM
        because the Lord has anointed me;
    he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
        to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim liberty to the captives,
        and release to the prisoners;
    to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor

Luke 4:14-21
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
   “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
     because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
    He has sent me to proclaim
        release to the captives
     and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

As hard as it is for me to believe it, by this time next year we will have already witnessed Screen Shot 2016-01-23 at 11.15.00 AMthe swearing in of the 45th president of the United States.  We will have seen another inauguration day and heard another inauguration day speech.

Without having heard it, we already know how it will go.  Inauguration speeches lay out the agenda.  They cast a vision.  In it, the new president announces what he or she wants to accomplish.  Implicit or explicit in those plans, is a vision of our country.  What should we look like?  What should we value?  What should we be known for in the world?

Lincoln’s 2nd Inauguration Speech

One of the most famous is probably Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural speech in which he said,Screen Shot 2016-01-23 at 8.07.02 AM

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

We just heard a reading of Jesus’ inauguration speech, or at least the closest thing to it.   Jesus never got elected to any office, and he certainly was never a head of state.  But he did have a vision of how things should be, and a plan for how to get there.

Clearly Lincoln was consciously echoing Jesus and the biblical tradition, in lines like “bind up the wounds” and in the words “widow” and “orphan.”  Normally, in the bible, “widow and orphan” are only two, of a three-word triad, that includes “stranger,” meaning someone from another blood-line, an “alien”.

But Lincoln did not mention “the stranger” in that speech.  I cannot help but wonder if   reconstruction would have looked different if  welcoming the “stranger,” including the former slaves, would have been included, as part of our ethical vision.  Speeches are as important for what they do say, as for what they do not say.

Jesus’ “Inauguration Speech”Screen Shot 2016-01-23 at 11.20.43 AM

So, Lincoln echoed Jesus.  Jesus himself, of course, was consciously echoing the biblical tradition of the prophets in his inaugural address.  His reading was from the prophetic book of  Isaiah.  In this part of Isaiah, the prophet announces a new vision for the people who have been devastated; devastated by the calamity of war, of loosing the war, of becoming forced immigrants, of living under oppression in Babylon, captives of an empire, just as their ancestors had been in Egypt.

Jesus used Isaiah’s words to speak of a new vision to people who were back in their land, but who were living under the boot of another empire, this time Rome.  Most of the people in that synagogue in Nazareth, where Jesus was reading, according to Luke’s scene, were poor people.  Many had lost their land; many were in debt, literally.  And many were in the process of being seduced by a vision of their future solution  that included violence; rebellion.

What Jesus did not Quote

It is powerfully important to observe that Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah’s vision of the future God has for the people, stops short of a final phrase.  Jesus affirms the vision of the prophet, in which there can be, as he quotes,

“good news to the poor…release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind,”

and in which “the oppressed go free,”  and “the year of the Lord’s favor” is proclaimed.

But Isaiah’s final line, after proclaiming  “the year of the lord’s favor” is “and the day of vengeance of our God”.

Jesus rejected vengeance and violence as a solution.  He rejected the notion that God’s future was going to be accomplished by force.  Even though John the baptist believed this – that God (not humans) would come down with fire, Jesus’ vision of God’s future was a non-violent vision.

Jesus’ Kingdom Vision

If you had to summarize Jesus’ message in a phrase, what would you say?  I hope all of us would know to say that Jesus announced that the kingdom of God is here and now as a present reality.

How do you get to that point at which  you understand that what God wants is for everyone to embrace the vision of a peaceful kingdom, instead of a victorious war?

I believe this insight, for Jesus, came spiritually.  It is not an accident that the first words from the Isaiah text Jesus read from are:Screen Shot 2016-01-23 at 11.26.05 AM

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me”

Jesus’ Spiritual Practice

Jesus habit of practicing prayer was at they heart of his spirituality.  Today we call this contemplative prayer, or centering prayer, of simply meditation.  It is sitting in silence, in the present moment, aware of the Presence of God.

In that silence, we stop the mental chatter that normally fills our minds.  We turn of  the chatter that wants to judge everything according to our own tastes and preferences.  We turn off the chatter of comparison and competition.  We turn off the chatter of wanting things to be different than they are.

And in this state of silence, we find that we become more aware of the presence of God.  We find that we are more sensitive to the Spirit of God.  We find that we are more awake to the signs of God’s presence in the world; to beauty, to goodness, and to truth.

Let us think about these three signs:  We are more aware of beauty, and the way the beautiful is given to us freely as a gift.  We respond with awe, and with wonder, and even with scientific curiosity.

We find that we are more attuned to goodness; we see it all around us.  We watch the way people are lured to be good to those around them, without hope for return.   People will go out of their way to transport people to doctors.  People will come to and donate to a yoga benefit for someone they may not even have met.  People will help refugees of another religion from a part of the world we have never been to, just because we feel the lure of goodness.

And people will long for the truth, instead of deceptions and outright lies.  We notice that strange tug of truth, when people live into an awareness that we humans are all essentially one.  That we all share this fragile planet.  That each of us is, as Genesis says, an image of God, or in the Greek version, an icon of God.  Each one, full of the dignity of person-hood, worthy of respect; deserving of compassion.

A Spiritual VisionScreen Shot 2016-01-23 at 11.36.49 AM

To be able to say, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me” – which Jesus was able to say, which we all are able to say, is the basis for everything else.  How could this Spirit of the God of all creation not want peace among all his children?  So Jesus’ vision of God’s future is a vision of peace, without vengeance.

The fruit of a practice of spirituality, that includes meditation, is always compassion.  In meditation, because the incessantly needy ego voice is not permitted to speak in our minds, we become more aware of others.  Our compassion muscle strengthens.

And so we begin to see the people we used to not see. We begin to notice, as Jesus did, the needs of the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed.

We notice that the poor may be in poverty after working hard all week long at a job that does not pay a living wage.  We notice the people captive to addictions and to self-destructive life-styles.

We notice that there is great blindness all around us; that our own white-privilege blinds us to the ways people of color are still marginalized.  We notice that there is oppression all around the world – there is still slavery; there are children mining cobalt instead of going to school.  There are families who will never be free from cycles of forced labor in Asia and in Africa.

Jesus’ Method of Response

We cannot solve all of the world’s problems, but we can make life better for one, or two, or some.  We can do what Jesus intended: live as though God was king.  Live into the reality of the kingdom.Screen Shot 2016-01-23 at 11.13.23 AM

And so we will do what Jesus taught us to do: we will form small communities.  These communities will practice “open commensality”; they be open-table communities that welcome to all people, with no purity boundaries to cross.

These communities, called churches, will be communities of spiritual practice, and of compassionate response.  We will gather to worship the God who shows God’s self in every moment of beauty, of goodness and truth.  And we will break bread and share one common cup, in affirmation of our unity, and of God’s infinite grace.

And we will rise up from common worship and go into our mission, into our worlds.  We will create practical conduits for our compassion; food pantries, homeless shelters, children’s homes, and places to help local children with their homework.  We will be outposts of the kingdom, or kin-dom of God.

So, as we affirmed in our call to worship, let us hear the call to believe and practice our vision, set forth in Jesus’ inaugural words:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon us!
God has anointed us to bring good news to the poor,
To proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free.
Let us worship the God of justice and peace!”


Banquet Wine, Open Tables

Sermon on Isaiah 25:6-9 and John 2:1-11 for Epiphany +2 C, January 17, 2016, the weekend of Martin Luther King jr.

John 2:1-11
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 10.43.57 AMthere. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

I was listening to the podcast that Dr. Roger Ray puts out each week.  He told of a time, in a Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 10.18.32 AMmoment of tension, even danger that he faced on a trip to Jerusalem several years ago.  In that context, their group leader said something simple, but profound.  If you squeeze a lemon, you will get lemon juice, because that’s all that is inside a lemon.  If you squeeze an orange you will get orange juice, because that’s all that is inside and orange.

Then he asked the question: when you are squeezed, when you are put into a difficult situation, what comes out of you?

He pointed out that the easy days do not reveal what is inside of us.  You find out what is inside, when you are scared, or threatened, or under pressure; when the world is squeezing you.

These are not easy days.  I think the world is squeezing us now.  Maybe more than it has in a long time.  There are all kinds of things to fear, from Isis to domestic terrorists.  From the unstable plans of a newly aggressive Russia to the threat posed by the huge Sunni—Shi’a stand-off between Saudi Arabia and Iran.  There is massive climate change and environmental degradation.

Domestically we are all now aware on this weekend of the anniversary of his birth, that the racial divide in this country was not healed, despite Dr. King’s speeches and achievements.  Now that we have videos everywhere, we see what happens in the dark; things that were formerly hidden, and it horrifies us.

Then there are the pressures of modern life – the pace of it, the economics, the problems families face, and the totally inappropriate and destructive ways so many people choose to self-sooth and self-medicate, and to deal with their problems.  This list could go on all day.   The pressure is on, and we all feel squeezed.  So what is coming out of us?

Here to Re-Calibrate our Hearts

This is why we are here today.  We are here to withdraw for a moment from the craziness of the cable news cycle, from the fear mongering and political posturing, and to engage in the practices of a Christian community; practices whose purpose is to re-calibrate our hearts, so that the Spirit of Christ will be formed within us.  So that, when squeezed by the pressures of life, what comes out is not anger, blaming, division and violence, but rather peace, understanding, forgiveness and a hopeful vision of a just world.

So let the re-calibration begin.  It starts with the vision we embrace of the end-game.  Where is all of this going?  What do we want the future to be?  What is the meaning of the part our small lives will play in getting us there?

An End-Game VisionScreen Shot 2016-01-16 at 10.41.30 AM

In this community, our vision, the future we seek, is given in our ancient wisdom texts.  We dipped into one today: the prophet Isaiah.

The prophets were poets.  So, in a beautiful poetic image, Isaiah shows us the vision of the end-game; the future we seek.   It is an image of a banquet.  He sings:

“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.”

Rich food and well-aged wines; excellence and abundance.  The mouth waters, the stomach growls; hunger is present, but satisfaction is at hand.

And who is there at this feast of abundance?  “All peoples.”  No one is neglected. No one is left out.  No one is passed over.  Everyone is together, gathered around one table in common.  That is our vision.

The Jesus-Re-calibration

So, we re-calibrate our hearts by coming here to learn from prophets like Isaiah.  We also re-calibrate our hearts by listening to and watching Jesus.  We, baptized Christians, have committed ourselves to following the Jesus path.  The practices we engage, on that path Jesus marked out for us, produce in us, we believe, what will come out of us when squeezed.

Our text today is from the gospel of John.  John, like Isaiah, writes in images.  John does not write in poetry, exactly, but rather in what we may think of as parables.  Tightly constructed stories in which he embeds symbols and allusions to other texts and other stories in a richly complex way.

John loves to sound echoes and let them bounce around his creative canyon as he tells his stories.  This one begins with words that are famous for Israelites, “On the third day.”  In the most famous of all Jewish stories, the exodus from slavery, every Jewish person knows what happened at Mt. Sinai “on the third day.”  That was the day, after the days of preparation and anticipation, God thundered from the mountain.  Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 10.49.21 AM

In that story, God’s glory was revealed in a terrifying display of power.  Only Moses could stand to be on the mountain. And after that terrifying display of glory, on the third day, Moses comes down the mountain with Torah.  God’s instructions; God’s guidance for the community. (The story is told in Exodus 19)

The guidance of Torah covered all of life, from the rules of religious practice, to the morality of family life, and included concepts of justice for the whole community.  Torah, along with Temple became the pillars of Israelite identity.

So, similarly, “on the third” day, Jesus shows up; not on a mountain of the glory of God, but at a common peasant wedding.  It is a time of scarcity.  It is a wedding feast that has run out of wine.

By the end of that a third day, God’s glory will be revealed in this story as it was in Moses’s story, but with some significant differences.  There will be no thunder and lightening.  No one will be terrified.  And neither will there be a new law produced.

Rather the glory of God is displayed by an abundance of excellent wine.  If it sounds like an echo of Isaiah’s future feast at the common table, it should.

John concludes his parable with these words:

“Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”

Six Stone Jars of Purification WaterScreen Shot 2016-01-16 at 10.45.41 AM

One of the layers of symbolism that John builds into this story is the place where the water, that becomes wine, is stored.  John cryptically tells us that it comes from  the filling of 6 stone water jars.  Exactly 6, not seven.  Seven is the perfect number, the number of completion, like a completed creation; on the seventh day, God rested.  Is there something almost, but not yet complete about those purification water jars?

The 6 stone jars are there to store the waters needed for the Jewish purification practices.  Why would that detail matter?

Because Torah, the law of Moses, had a number of concerns.  It was concerned with both religious practice and with the life of the community.  It was concerned to create a just society of fairness and compassion, but it was also concerned with purity.

In fact, a wall of separation was needed to keep the Torah-observant Israelite pure, free of contamination.  Some things could make you impure, simply by touching them, like corpses or blood.  Some practices made things impure, like mixing of seeds in a common field, or fabrics in a common cloth.  Certain foods were not to be eaten.   People who ate impure food became impure themselves.  They were not welcome at the table.

And when an Israelite became impure, there were directions in the law of Moses for what to do.  Sometimes a sacrifice was required.  Sometimes ritual washing was required.

Purity vs. Justice

But sometimes, the quest for personal purity created a conflict with the practice of compassion and the quest for justice.

What do you do, for example, if someone is impure due to leprosy?  Avoid them?  Certainly. Do not let them touch you.  They are excluded.

What do you do if an animal falls into a pit on the Sabbath?  Help it out, in the name of compassion, or wait all day, so as not to violate the purity of the Sabbath?

What if a person falls prey to robbers who beat him bloody, and leave him half-dead, or worse, on the side of the road?  Touching him will make you impure, so perhaps  you walk by on the other side of the road.

In fact, a person might ask:  Is the quest for purity really at the heart of what God wants?  Will the purity quest lead to God’s hopeful future of a feast for all people at a common table?  Will there be wine and joy in a purity-obsessed community?

Or, is there something deeper that God desires?  Are there “weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faith” as Jesus once said (Matt 23:23)

The Glory on the Third DayScreen Shot 2016-01-16 at 11.49.58 AM

Perhaps the glory of God, on the third day, could best be experienced as the waters of purification being replaced by the wine of the kingdom; excellent wine, of such   abundance, that it could never be exhausted.

And perhaps this is the wine that could be served at an open table, where all people, not just the ones who pass the purity test, can come and find community.

Baptism and Purity

The community of people who follow the Jesus path do practice a purity ritual, but it is interesting to reflect on it.  Our purity ritual is baptism.  In baptism, we experience a bath that signifies cleansing from sin.  It is not an achievement we earn for ourselves; baptism is simply something we receive.  It is a sign of grace; a gift.

And once received, we never need to repeat it.  We are not on a purity quest.  We believe that we are forgiven.  In baptism we are cleansed and claimed as God’s own people.  In baptism we are called to embrace the vision of Jesus, the vision of a common table.  In baptism, we are given a seat at the table, and a glass for the abundant wine of the kingdom.  “Well aged wine, strained clear.”

And at this common table, we consume a food that becomes part of us.  We break a common loaf of bread, and become one body; the body of Christ.

This is a body that is able to accept that pressures will come.  This is a body that is destined to be squeezed, even crushed, as Jesus was.  The juice that flows out from inside will be the wine of forgiveness, the wine of justice, and the wine of compassion, because that is what was inside.

Cryptically Jesus told his mother that his hour had not yet come, that day, at the wedding in Cana.  John is preparing us for a plot that will unfold steadily until it reaches Jerusalem.  And there, the hour of Jesus’ glory will finally arrive.  It is the hour of his crucifixion.  And blood will flow.

It will not be blood of contamination, but the wine of the kingdom; the wine of mercy, the wine of non-retaliation.  The wine that eschews self-protection in favor of self-sacrifice.  This is the wine that we hold up to our lips as we gather at table, recalibrating our hearts to an alternative standard, an alternative vision.

The Squeeze is OnScreen Shot 2016-01-16 at 11.01.01 AM

We live in days of great squeezing pressure.  All these years after Dr. King’s work towards reconciliation, many people have cause to wonder still, “Do black lives matter?”  They matter to us, on this weekend of his birthday.  Squeeze us on racial issues, and we will stand in solidarity with them in front of any gun.

In these days of religious intolerance, is it a squeezing moment when a Muslim woman stands up at a political rally in peaceful silence, simply proclaiming the presence of diversity in our nation?

If so, what comes out of the inside of us as she stands?  For those of us who have been named and claimed in baptism, who follow the Jesus path of an open table, who live into the vision of the prophets, we will stand with her, and invite her to join us at the common table.

With re-calibrated hearts, we will leave this place, renewed and nourished, ready to play our part in making God’s dream, Dr. King’s dream, and our dream, one day closer to reality.

 

.


Down to the River to Pray

Sermon on Luke 3 for Baptism of Jesus Sunday, Year C, Jan. 10, 2015

Luke 3:1, 3-6, 15-17, 21-22 (The Message)

While Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea; Herod, ruler of Galilee;… John, out in the desert at the time, received a message from God. He went all through the country around the Jordan River preaching a baptism of life-change leading to forgiveness of sins, as described in the words of Isaiah the prophet:

Thunder in the desert!Screen Shot 2016-01-09 at 4.23.02 PM
“Prepare God’s arrival!
Make the road smooth and straight!
Every ditch will be filled in,
Every bump smoothed out,
The detours straightened out,
All the ruts paved over.
Everyone will be there to see
The parade of God’s salvation.”

When crowds of people came out for baptism because it was the popular thing to do,

The interest of the people by now was building. They were all beginning to wonder, “Could this John be the Messiah?”

But John intervened: “I’m baptizing you here in the river. The main character in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.”

After all the people were baptized, Jesus was baptized. As he was praying, the sky opened up and the Holy Spirit, like a dove descending, came down on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.”

The reading above is  from the Message version of the New Testament.  Screen Shot 2016-01-09 at 4.19.42 PMThe language is fresh and unusual.  Instead of saying that John the baptist is preaching a baptism of repentance, it says he was “preaching a baptism of life-change”.

Instead of Isaiah’s line about a voice crying out in the desert, the Message version says, “Thunder in the desert!”  I like that – sometimes powerful prophets “thundered” their prophecies.

The Message version says that many people were coming out to the Jordan River to be baptized by John “because it was the popular thing to do.”  That’s where I’m not so sure.

John’s baptism was popular – so much so that it was recorded by the Jewish historian Josephus in his history of the Jews.  But it was popular for a reason.

The Jordan Location: Reenactment

It was not just that John baptized people – lots of religions from the ancient past to the present use ritual baths of one kind or another.  At Qumran, the desert community, they would ritually bathe multiple times every day.

It was not just the baptism, it was the location that mattered.  It was baptism in the Jordan River.  That is the river their ancestors crossed, led by Moses’ successor, Joshua, as they Screen Shot 2016-01-09 at 5.09.30 PMleft their forty years of wandering in the wilderness and entered the promised land.  The Jordan was the border.  It marked the transition from a landless people, to a people in their own land.  It marked the beginning of their existence as a nation.

So, to go down to the Jordan, and come up out of it was a re-enactment.  It was like a drama.  We might call it “street theater” only it was out where there were no streets.  I suppose we should save the name “street theater” for the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on the donkey, but that is getting ahead of the story.

Why would people leave the couch and the hearth and go out to the border of the country and reenact their ancestor’s initial entry into the land?  For one reason.  John had led them to expect something big.  John’s message was that God was about to enact his great “clean up operation” (to borrow J. D. Crossan’s language).

God was about to do something to put right everything that was wrong.  It was going to be big and flashy.  It would mean putting an end to the evil, the injustice, and the oppression of the present, and punishing those responsible.

So, it was time to get ready.  It was time for each person to be baptized; to clean house in each ones own life, and to return home to await the apocalyptic intervention of God.

Jesus and John: With, then NotScreen Shot 2016-01-09 at 4.19.58 PM

What did Jesus think about this plan?  Well, he was baptized by John.  Some scholars say that fact is about as well established as any historical fact can be.  Clearly, at least for a while, Jesus bought in.  At least while he was under the water, as Crossan says, Jesus thought John’s program made sense.

But something changed Jesus’ mind.  What it was, we are not told.  Some suggest that it was the fact that Herod Antipas had his soldiers round up John, and that he killed him, and God did nothing to stop it.  The great apocalyptic intervention from beyond never happened.

Could John’s murder have been the spark that ignited Jesus’ further, deeper reflections on God, and what God wanted to do in the world?  Perhaps so.

Well, what happened, in the river that day, and subsequently?  I will say what happened out of order.

After that river experience, after baptism – either right away or a bit later, Jesus eventually parted company with John’s movement, and went out preaching that the time had come, that God’s kingdom had already arrived.  And yes, personal repentance was called for, a “life change” as the Message version says, was necessary, because it was happening.

The Great Clean up Operation is Underway

What was happening?  God’s great clean-up of the world had begun; that’s what the kingdom of God is all about.  God’s work to put an end to the evil, the injustice, and the oppression of the present, just as John expected, was now in-progress.

But it was not going to come out of the sky like a thunder bolt from God’s Screen Shot 2016-01-09 at 5.24.30 PMhand alone.  God’s great clean-up operation, according to Jesus, was going to have to be collaborative.   It was a call to people to join in the vision of a world made right, the way it was created to be.  It was supposed to be like the idyllic picture of Adam and Eve in a plentiful garden, before power and corruption, jealousy and violence messed it up for nearly everyone.

Telling a God-story

It is hard to tell a story with God in it.  Whatever you do tends to distort God.  If you make God too great, the omnipotent Creator of the Universe, God ends up sounding cold, distant and impersonal, like the Force in Star Wars.

But if you make God personal and loving, God ends up being a being who is watching, perhaps interacting with the world, but also not interacting with the world in an inexplicable way.  God steps in Screen Shot 2016-01-09 at 5.28.48 PMto do things, and then fails to step in at other times, in a very unpredictable way.  Lots of bad things happen.  So, it is hard to tell a story with God in it.

Most ancient stories with God in them (though not all) presume a three storey world.  We are here on earth.  There is a world of the dead below us.  God is up in the sky above, looking down on it all.  That is the most common way to tell a story with God in it.

The baptism of Jesus story assumes a three-storey world too.  Jesus and John are on the earth, in a river on earth; nothing is said about the dead below, but God is up above.  And from God, up above, the way Luke (and Matthew and Mark) tell it, God’s Spirit comes down on Jesus in the form of a dove.  God’s voice thunders from heaven, and Jesus gets the message that he is God’s Son, loved by God, pleasing to God.”  And the next thing we know, Jesus is off preaching that the kingdom of God has arrived.

During Jesus Prayer

The way Luke tells the story, there is one interesting and unique feature.  Screen Shot 2016-01-09 at 5.33.13 PMAll of that descending Spirit dove and Voice action happens as Jesus is praying.  In other words, it is a visionary experience Jesus had during prayer.  (Lk 3:21)

Luke often tells us about Jesus praying.  He even tells us that Jesus’ habit was to go  out and pray, sometimes all night (see for example Luke 5:16; 6:12; 9:18).  Jesus was a deeply spiritual person; Marcus Borg calls him a “spirit man,” who was aware of, and in touch with, God’s spiritual presence.

For Jesus, God was accessible everywhere.  Every hillside was a potential temple of prayer.  And the God that Jesus prayed to out in the Galilean countryside was knowable.  Just look at the birds of the air, look at the lilies of the field.  Learn to trust as they do.  Learn from them to value things that are real and important, not treasure or power, but relatedness.

Jesus’ openness to God led him to join all of those going down to the river to be baptized by John.  He did what they all did: reject the evil, the oppression, the injustice of their day, and long for a time when God would begin his clean up operation.

But when John was killed, scholars believe that is when Jesus concluded that the way John imagined God would bring in his clean-up operation, God’s kingdom changed.  John spoke of an axe ready to chop down trees and a fire ready to destroy evil; an apocalyptic intervention from the heavens above.

A With-us God, Collaborative Action

Jesus, the man of prayer, the Spirit man, left the three storey world of the God that looks down on the world from above.  He became aware of, and in touch with the God who is at work already in the world.  The God who is present to the world, always; everywhere.  The God who gets down with us into the waters, the God who even suffers with us as we suffer from the messed up way the world is.

And, in a way that can only be captured in a story of him, in prayer, in the Jordan River, Jesus came to understand that he was filled with the Spirit of God; he was named by God as a beloved Son, a child of God, and nothing in the world could ever change that.

Our Baptismal Quest

Our quest, is to follow the Jesus path.  Our quest is to understand our relatedness to God as Jesus did; to know God as our loving Father.  To know God intimately; to be people of active and frequent prayer.  To be people who live every moment from an awareness that God’s Spirit is alive in us.  To live with the confident trust that our lives are grounded in the solid knowledge that God calls us his children; his sons and daughters.

This is what we enact at our baptisms.  Water, symbolizing a deep river is poured on our heads, and we are named.  We become children of God.

And that baptismal identity shapes our lives.  We are aware that God is calling us to a love-relationship that includes open access; frequent contact; contemplative prayer, silent meditation, just as Jesus practiced.

And that baptismal identity shapes our lives in other ways.  We hear the call to participate in God’s collaborative clean-up of the world.  We hear the call to work for justice, to end oppression and discrimination.  We feel the tug to be a part of God’s good will, to identify with the Galilean peasants of this world, the refugees fleeing violence, the multitude of decent Muslims under attack, the gay people of Alabama who want to marry,

We are people who can no longer live in a three storey world.  God, for us, is not above, somewhere, in the clouds, looking down on us, deciding to intervene, or inexplicably refusing to intervene.  God is down in these waters with us.  God is not a being separate from the world, but is the source of this beautiful, complicated, fragile, evolving world.

God is here, in this moment, and in every moment, luring us towards everything that is good, everything that is beautiful, everything that is true.  God is at work filling us with a longing to know ourselves at one with God, to truly know ourselves as God’s own, intimately connected to God as sons and daughters, to know ourselves as part of the family.  Longingly, lovingly engaged in the world, on the side of the suffering ones, just as God was, as the story of Jesus’ baptism shows us.


The Light That Shines

Sermon on John 1:1–18, for the 2nd Sunday of Christmas, Year C, January 3, 2016

John 1:1–18
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.] He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

I woke up early on New Year’s Day noticing that our outdoor Christmas house lighgtslights were still on – they are set to go off at sunrise, but it was so overcast they were sill shining.  I looked over to the other side of our cul-de-sac and saw that our neighbors, who had such tasteful and colorful lights, had already removed them.  They must not go to a church that celebrates the Christmas Season as we do.

For us, this is the second Sunday after Christmas so our text is the famous opening of John’s gospel.  If it had a title this text would be called “the mystery of the incarnation.”  Or perhaps, “What God looks like in human form”.

John’s Christmas: Universal and Particular

John’s gospel has no story of the baby Jesus being born to Mary and Joseph.  For John, to understand what God was doing through Jesus, you have to go back to the original creation.

In the beginning, he says, was One thing, one common source of all that exists.  John calls it the Word, the Divine Logos.  He says that this Divine Word is the source of everything, including life:

“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

There is something perplexing going on here.  John sets up a strong Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 3.40.18 PMtension, right from the beginning, between the universal and the particular.  The Divine Word is the source of everything; universally so.  The Divine life is in everything; universally.  The Divine Word shines like a light in everyone; universally.   John can say such universal statements like:

“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

And then John moves from universal to particular.  This Divine Word, this Life, this Light that lives and shines in everyone, lives and shines in a particular way in one: in Jesus, the Christ.  The light does not shine in John, we are told, who bore witness to the light, but in Jesus.

Jesus Shows us God

This is, for us, the doctrine of the incarnation.  For Christians, if we want to know what God is like, we look at Jesus.  The spotlight is on Jesus.  And in the light of Jesus, we come to understand God – as much as any human can ever understand anything about God.

That being said, notice that the tension between the universal and the particular has not been resolved nor removed.  There is a continuing yin and yang.

We believe in one universal source of all being that we all are part of. God is the ground of our being, the depth dimension of life, the One who names God’s name to Moses, at the burning bush, with the inscrutable YHWH, “I Am who I  Am,” which, scholars tell us, literally can be read “I will cause to be what I cause to be.”  The One that is prior to being itself.

And yet, we come to know this One ineffable source-of-being in a Screen Shot 2016-01-02 at 6.50.35 PMparticular person.  The Christ of the Cosmic big bang shines through Jesus, the first century Palestine Jew. The perplexing yin and yang tension of the universal and the particular never ceases.

In Jesus, the light shines.  We come to know God, through Jesus, as one who is not aloof and impersonal, but as a human who walks with us through our lives.  He experiences humanity. He loves, and he suffers, as we do.   He is misunderstood and mistreated.  He channels Gods mercy; he forgives.

It is in John’s gospel that we hear Jesus saying “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

So we seek to follow Jesus; to live in his light.  To reflect his light.  In another yin and yang moment, in Matthew’s gospel we hear Jesus telling his followers:

You are the light of the world.”  (Matt. 5:14)

New Year’s ReflectionsScreen Shot 2016-01-01 at 4.34.04 PM

So here it is, the first Sunday in this new year, 2016.  Many of us are have been thinking of the coming year ahead.  While the Christmas lights, for many of us, are still up, it is good to think about the light we want to walk in, and to reflect this year.

Often a new year starts with a look back at the year gone by.  So let is start there.  Every year contains a mixture of light and darkness.  Let us begin with the darkness.

As 2016 begins, let us ask ourselves, what are some things I can let go of that blocked the light from my life last year?   What were the practices, even the habits that block the light?   What did I do last year, when times were dark, that only made them darker instead of lighter?

What voices are we listening to that only increase the darkness, the negativity, the fear and anxiety in us?  We can decide not to give an ear to narratives of despair.

After taking inventory of the things that block the light, let us consider how we can more intentionally walk in the light of Christ this year.  What are the practices of a Jesus-follower that we can adopt or intensify this year?

Contemplative Practices

If I could have one wish for all of us it is that we would begin a contemplative practice this year.  I wish all of us would spend at least 20 minutes a day in silent, contemplative prayer-meditation.  I wish all of us could experience the long term benefits of a practice of wordless prayer – or prayer with one mantra word.

Over time, nothing I know of is better at helping us to live in the light of God’s presence, moment by moment.  Nothing else is better suited to diminish the darkness in our hearts.  Nothing brings more light than a daily practice of meditative, contemplative, centering prayer.

Growing LightScreen Shot 2016-01-01 at 4.01.26 PM

Walking in the light of Christ also means growing.  We should fully expect that next year at this time, we will be reflecting more of Christ’s light than we are this year.  We should expect that because of the decisions we make now, by this time next year, we will be better at forgiving, we will be kinder, we will be slower to criticize, and more generous.  Less angry.

We will be more honest, with ourselves, and with others.  We will make less excuses and believe our own excuses less.  There will be more kinds of people that we will allow room for in our hearts.  We will have greater compassion, and find more ways to put it into practical action.

We will grow in the light of wisdom as well.  I appreciate so much the wise words of Carl Jung that were quoted recently in the book The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice.  He was reflecting on the experience we all have that “what is true at one time for us, at some point no longer serves us, and eventually becomes a lie.”  He said:

“we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning – for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.”  quoted by Deborah Adele .

When I think about all the ways my understanding has grown and changed over my lifetime, it amazes me.  And I expect to keep growing and changing.

As we walk in the light, we discover more and more truth, about ourselves,Screen Shot 2016-01-02 at 6.52.46 PM about our dark sides, our ego-driven small selves.  And we are able to live in larger truths.  We had thought that our group was the only group, or the best group, or had all the truth and the best ways.

But that was when we were younger. Now, the light shines further for us, illumining people who are different from ourselves, whose practices are different, whose religion is different from ours, whose language for understanding the mystery of the yin and yang of ultimate reality and spiritual experience uses other narratives, other symbols and other rituals.

But in a greater light, we can see how we share a common quest, and that each tends to emphasize one side of the mystery over the other; some the universal, others the particular.  But both of us can, in common, reject the narratives of hatred and animosity, and instead, embrace narratives of tolerance and compassion for all people.  We can move into what Richard Rohr calls “unitive consciousness”; both-and, instead of either-or.

We can, and we will grow in greater light this year, because we affirm together the words of John’s gospel:

“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

How do you want to walk in more light this  year?  How do we, as a congregation, want to reflect more brightly the light of Christ this year?

Let these questions form our new year’s resolutions, as we prepare to see the new thing that God will do in and through us this year.


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