Imagining a Better World

Sermon for the 5th Sunday in Lent, 2015, March 22, 2015, on John 12:20-24 &  Jeremiah 31:31-34

John 12:20-24
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Jeremiah 31:31-34
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt — a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 8.23.16 PM

A fiery preacher took the stand and whipped up the believers into a frenzy.  When the service was over they left, not as a congregation of worshipers but more like an angry mob.  They went to the nearby Catholic church, broke in, and started smashing “idols” as they called them, and looting the gold and silver.  They completely gutted it.  Then they made their way to several monasteries, looting and smashing statues.

I’m not taking abut what ISIS is doing in Iraq and in Syria to Christian churches, though it is eerily similar.  I am taking about John Knox and the Protestant Reformation in Scotland in 1560.

That was not an isolated event.  In the years following the start of the Reformation in the 16th century, there were religious wars between Protestants and Catholics throughout Europe for decades and decades.  Each side had real armies.  Governments were overthrown.  It was brutal.  At one battle alone, the Battle of  White Mountain which helped bring to and end the famous “Thirty Years War” the casualties numbered over 4,000.

Many of these wars were civil wars.  Some were primarily religious in motivation, but many were the result of a toxic mixture of politics, ethnic animosity, and national rivalry.  It all sounds very familiar, and modern.

Civil War in the Middle East
Right now there is a huge civil war going on, under the banner of religion, but motivated underneath by other factors too, like ethnic conflict and the quest for power, control, and of course, money.   This time I am talking about the Middle East.
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This past Friday, quadruple suicide bombers attacked mosques in Yemen killing at least 137 and wounding hundreds more.  These were Muslims killing Muslims.   Sunni Muslims attacking and killing Shiite Muslims; a civil war.

ISIS and Al Qaeda are both Sunni Muslim organizations.  Sunni’s account Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 8.27.31 PMfor three-fourths of all Muslims.   Shia Islam is the minority.

ISIS and Al Qaeda both base their radical version of Sunni Islam on one particular movement called Wahhabism.  Named for its eighteenth century founder, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, it started as a reform movement.  Wahhab wanted to purify Islam of non-Islamic practices like idolatry, the “cults of the saints” and tomb visitation.

We might notice that an iconoclastic reform movement that smashes idols and calls people who venerate statues “infidels” was what John Knox was leading also.  We need to be humble when we get the urge to feel moral superiority, and we do not need to reach back to the Crusades to find reasons for such humility.

Wahhab and the House of Saud
Anyway, Mr. Wahhab made an alliance with an influential family, the House of Saud.  The deal was this: as long as the Saudi’s Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 8.28.45 PMpromoted and propagated the strict teachings of Wahhabist Sunni Islam, then the Wahhabi’s would bring them “power and glory” and rule of  “lands and men.”  In other words, military support.

That was the eighteenth century.  The alliance held.  By the 1970’s the Saudi’s are becoming rich with petrol dollars.  So, keeping their end of the bargain, they use this enormous wealth to propagate this fundamentalist, rigid, extremist version of Sunni Islam called Wahhabism, all over the Middle East, and the world.

They have been spending an estimated $2 to 3 billion per year since 1975.  They sponsor schools for Islamic learning called Madrases.  Some actually teach things besides memorization of the Quran, but many do not.  Of course they produce extremists.  That is what movements of radical purity reform do.  Ask John Knox.

One of their chief targets are the Shia Muslims whom they consider idolators and infidels.  It just so happens that Iran is predominantly Shia, and ethnically Persian, making the tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran intense on several levels at once.  They are both ethnically and religiously different.

Let us consider a question here:  When is it ever a good idea to get involved in someone else’s religious and civil war?  I cannot imagine when that is a good idea

So What?  The Alternative Vision
So what does all of this have to do with us on this 5th Sunday in the Season of Lent, one week from Palm Sunday and Holy Week?  Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 8.33.20 PM

Exactly this:  we are people of an alternative vision.  It is the vision of the prophets; it is the vision of Jesus.  And even though that vision has been betrayed time and time again by the church itself, by its many capitulations to the violent, divisive ways of the world, we are called to embrace that alternative vision.

It is the vision of a world reconciled.  It is the vision of the peaceable kingdom.  It is a vision of embrace as a real, possible alternative to exclusion.

The Hour of Openness
Consider our gospel reading. At what moment, in the Gospel of John, does Jesus finally say that the hour for him had come?  At the moment that the Greeks, the non-Jewish gentiles come to Philip saying, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  Everything in John is symbolic.  This is the symbolic moment of the door swings open to the world.  God’s grace is for everyone.  No exceptions.

Though the world of humans may be expert in dividing up into mutually exclusive oppositions of “us” versus “them” we have an alternative vision.  It is the vision of the world reconciled; of Jews and Greeks, slave and free, male and female all finding a place at the table together; a feast of shalom, of peace, well-being and wholeness.

This is exactly the kind of openheartedness that Jesus demonstrated time and time again.  He reached across gender lines to heal suffering women.  He looked past religious and ethnic differences to minister to Samaritans.  He even overcame barriers constructed by by the binaries of oppressor and victim in his compassion for Roman soldiers.

Jesus taught and practiced the forgiveness of enemies.  He refused resistance, even when it was offered in the Garden.  He was faithful to God’s purposes even to the point of death, trusting that,

“unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  

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We are that fruit. We are the people of the New Covenant.  Jeremiah imagined a time when the old covenant of Moses, chiseled in words on tablets of stone would be replaced by concepts written  on the heart.  We are called to internalize a new vision.

It starts with a new vision of God as Loving Father instead of vengeful Monarch.  When we embrace for ourselves the truth that God is for us, not against us, we can be transformed.  When we internalize the message that “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” we can live authentically and compassionately.

When we know ourselves as entirely forgiven, we become people capable of forgiving others.   When we hear and know the words of Jeremiah that God’s desire is to be our God and have us as God’s people, it fills us with hope instead of despair.

The Call to Imagination
People who have the new covenant internalized in their hearts are called to imagine a better world.   It begins with us.  It begins with a commitment to understanding  people who are different from us instead of knee-jerk vilification of them.

We are called to understand people of different races.  We can start right here in our own country.  It is simply uninformed ignorance that writes off the behavior of young black men in our country as disobedient belligerence; the product of bad parenting.  The seeds of systemic injustice sown for years does produce bitter fruit.  But blaming the bad apple for the poisoned soil that the tree grew in is unworthy of  thinking adults, let alone Christians, no matter who their father was.

We are called to understand Muslims.  Most of them hate what ISIS is doing.  Most of them reject a Wahhabist version of their faith, even though the minority who do are  ready to be so violent.  We know that Christians, Jews, Yazidi and others lived side by side Shia and Sunni Muslims in what is now Iraq, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt for centuries with out violent conflict.

We are called to seek levels of understanding that go beneath the cable news surface and talk radio demagoguery.  This is God’s world, and everyone in it is God’s creature.  Therefore we are called to dialogue, to conversations that promote understanding.

I know this is a minority view; I accept that it is far more gratifying to the ego to simply pick up the the biggest club you can find and start swinging it at the bad guys.  But that is exactly the tactic of the bad guys.  If evil fights evil, what do you call the winner?  Evil.

But there is another way.  It is the way of the internalized New Covenant.  It is an embrace of a world of neighbors.  It is a vision of a shared humanity.  It is the vision of the way of shalom, of peace, of reconciliation.

People of the New Covenant: know that you are forgiven and loved, and go into the world with the mandate to live as loving forgivers.  The world desperately needs advocates for peace, advocates for understanding, and advocates for love.  If it is not we who can be those advocates, than who else can it be?


The Universal Message

Sermon on Psalm 19 for the Third  Sunday in Lent, Year B, March 8, 2015

Psalm 19

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
 and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
 and night to night declares knowledge
There is no speech, nor are there words;
 their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
 and their words to the end of the world.
In the heavens God has set a tent for the sun,
 which comes out like a beloved from a wedding canopy,
and like a strong athlete runs its course with joy
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
 and its circuit to the end of them;
and nothing is hid from its heat.
The law of God is perfect,Screen Shot 2015-03-07 at 12.02.05 PM
 reviving the soul;
the decrees of God are sure,
 making wise the simple;
the precepts of God are right,
 rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of God is clear,
 enlightening the eyes;
the fear of God is pure,
 enduring forever;
the ordinances of God are true
 and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
 even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
 and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover by them is your servant warned;
 in keeping them there is great reward.
But who can detect their errors?
 Clear me from hidden faults.
Keep back your servant also from the insolent;
 do not let them have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless,
 and innocent of great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth
 and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you, O God
 my rock and my redeemer.

The Universal Message

I am a softie for nature.  Besides music, I am most often moved deeply and spiritually by Creation.  Quite often the sky draws my heart upwards in wonder and awe.  Sunshine, streaming through clouds, sunrises and sunsets, amaze me.  And so do the stars on a clear night.

We now know from scientists that the light we see when we look at the stars has taken a long time to reach us.  We know the speed of light and the distance of the stars from the earth, so we can calculate how long the light we see has spent traveling to us.

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They say that Polaris, the North Star, may be over 400 light years away.  Four hundred years ago would be 1615.  The light we see today started its journey back then.  I have a personal connection with the events of that year.

That was the year Hungarian Gabriel Bethlen was recognized by Holy Roman Emperor  Mathias, as Prince of Transylvania, endorsing what had happened several years earlier at the Transylvanian Diet at Kolozsvár (or, in Romanian Cluj-Napoca).  That was the city where our family lived for two years from 1991-1993.

Prince Bethlen was a Hungarian Protestant, or Calvinist, which was what they called Reformed Christians in those days.   Hapsburg Europe was predominantly Catholic and persecuted Protestants.  Bethlen had the freedom to practice his faith because Holy Roman Emperor Mathias had signed the Peace of Vienna in 1609 providing religious tolerance at least in his area.

So we had the privilege of living among Reformed Christians whose faith survived because of tolerance which was signed into law 400 years ago.  The light I see from the North star tonight left when that was happening.

The Declaration of the HeavensScreen Shot 2015-03-07 at 10.52.03 AM

Today we read a Psalm of praise that begins looking upwards at the heavens with awe and wonder.

“The heavens are telling the glory of God”

For me, nothing truer could be said.  No matter how much science I learn to explain the universe, it still fills me with awe and wonder.

Without a voice confined to mere spoken words, the heavens, the sun, the moon and all the stars, the Psalm says:

   “…proclaims God’s handiwork. 

Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. 

…their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.”

The message is universal.  Everyone can see it, and hear it. Everyone feels the heat of the sun and sees its light.  One sun illumines all the diverse places on earth.  One source of light shines on all people of all languages, races, customs and religions.

Revolutionary MonotheismScreen Shot 2015-03-07 at 12.06.16 PM

But the idea that this one sun is the work of one God was not known for a long time.  This simple Psalm represents a revolutionary idea that changed the whole world.  In this Psalm, one God, not many gods, exist.  The One God is the Creator God.  The sun that travels across the sky by day silently sings praise to this One God.

Previously, before the Jews brought Monotheism to the world, people were poly-theists.  They believed in many gods.  The sun, in fact, was one of them.  His name, in Mesopotamian cultures, was Shamash.  Shamash was just one among many gods.

Besides the big gods of nature like the sun god, the moon god and star gods, there were also local gods, tribal deities for each people-group.  The concept that there is only one God leads immediately to the concept of universality: if there is only one God then this one is the God of all people.  There are no tribal deities any more.

No FavoritesScreen Shot 2015-03-07 at 11.39.52 AM

That means that there are no favorites with God.  There are no people who can claim exceptionalism.  All people, every race and tongue is equally made in God’s image and treasured by the Creator.

That is why the scandal of racism is so deeply and profoundly scandalous. Racial discrimination is a direct attack on the very roots of our theology.  No one can despise any other human without despising the God who made them.

This weekend, today, we celebrate the gains that have been made in the civil rights movement in our country, as we commemorate the tragedy of “Bloody Sunday” fifty years ago in Selma, Alabama.  But we also hear the scathing report of the Justice Department about the racism in the Ferguson system and know that there is a tremendous amount of work left to do.   We believe in One God, and therefore we are committed to a world of equal justice for all.

What is the Creator Like?

But there are still some questions left open.  What is this one Creator God like?  This is not an easy question.  If you simply observe nature, you get a mixed answer.  The same sun that can thrill you with wonder as it rises and sets can scorch the earth with drought, leading to the deaths of thousands.

Nature alone may fill you with dread as much as wonder, in the face of hurricanes, tsunamis, and bitter winter storms.  The heavens that declare the glory of God without words leave us without explanations for the inglorious insults of nature.   Maybe God is malevolent, or simply apathetic to our suffering.  Who knows?  The sun doesn’t say.

The Joy of TorahScreen Shot 2015-03-07 at 12.11.23 PM

So we do need speech that goes beyond the silent declarations of the heavens.  Which is exactly why the Psalm that begins with the wordless speech of the heavens immediately turns to praise God-the-Creator for being God-the-Revealer: the God who has given Torah, Guidance, or Instruction.  The Psalmist sings:

“ The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure
making wise the simple;”

The Law, or, literally, the “Torah” of the Creator God is perfect, reviving the “soul” or, inner being, making us wise.

Revolutionary Moral Monotheism

What enlightenment does Torah give us?  The second great revolutionary concept: that God is morally good.  That the Creator God is for us.  That God in fact loves us and wants what is best for us, our flourishing.

If there is only one God, and God is the creator, then God must be Great in every sense – greater than the sun or moon; creator that all the stars together.  And, amazingly it is exactly in those places in Torah where God’s greatness is proclaimed and celebrated, we see something else:  we see that the greatness of God is directed towards the humans that God made.  In fact, specifically towards the weakest of humans.

One example, among many, will have to do for now.

“For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe,  who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.”  – Deut. 10:17-18

In Torah we learn that the God we celebrate when we look at the ancient stars is the God who created us in God’s image, and whose greatness is on display precisely in his moral goodness, and especially in his compassion and mercy for those who suffer.  This is why the Psalmist says that the torah of God “revives the soul;” it is life-giving!

Embracing GraceScreen Shot 2015-03-07 at 12.16.20 PM

Recently columnist Ana Marie Cox found faith and came out publicly as a Christian in an article in the Daily Beast.  She was interviewed about it on Morning Joe.   Joe’s cohost, Mika Brzezinski who had known her in the past, told Ana that she had seen a big change in her, as if she had gone from being “tied up in knots” to being “at peace.”

In both the article and interview Ana explained that what had changed for her came from her discovery of grace.  She said that she had been aware of herself as a “bad person” and even an “unforgivably bad person” but what “the gospel of grace has taught me is that I may be fallen…but that I am saved despite that.”

You cannot get that from looking at the sun and stars alone.   But in Torah, in scripture we learn that the creator God is also the Redeemer God who sets us free.  That God loves us and does forgive us.  This is what Jesus came to announce; this is the good news of the gospel: that God is best defined as God defines Godself in Torah:

“The LORD, the LORD,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” (Exod. 34:6)

This knowledge is, as the Psalmist describes it,

“More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.”

For us, as Christians, who believe that God is best and most fully revealed in the Living Word of God, in Jesus, the “Word made flesh” we have even more grounds for rejoicing.  God is in fact our Heavenly Father who “forgives us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

Closing the CircleScreen Shot 2015-03-07 at 12.09.14 PM

So, let us close this circle.  We began with the Great God who is on display in the heavens, the God who is One, as universal as the sun he created to shine on every  place on earth.  The One God who can never be harnessed to any one tribe or people, but the God of all people.

We noticed that the light of the stars that displays the glory of our Creator God is ancient light; that the North star’s light we see is already 400 years old.  That back in those days people of good courage were willing to sign declarations of religious tolerance and peace.

Sometimes I think we have not progressed much as a species in the past 400 years.  Racism still exists, and religious intolerance seems to be at an all-time high all around the world.  It is as if people have reverted back to the days when they thought that God was their own  tribal mascot.

People are willing to do terrible things and say horrible things in the name of upholding the fragile honor of their gods – and I do not just mean ISIS and Boko Haram.  People in this country attack Islam, as if the murderous extremists that pretend to represent it had any legitimacy.  We need to be clear:  ISIS no more represents Islam than the Irish Republican Army represented Christianity.

Our Calling 

But let us be the people who finally take to heart the wordless message of the heavens.  God is One; the sun that declares God’s glory shines on all the people of the earth, whatever their perception of God, whatever their religious practice.  As Jesus said, God

“makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matt. 5:45).

We have been enlightened by the words of Torah and by Jesus, the Word made flesh.  We understand the One Creator God as the Great God whose greatness is made manifest in moral goodness, in compassion in mercy and forgiveness.  No one is excluded.  No one is exceptional.

Let us also be the people who know what a blessing and privilege it is to live on this planet in a world that reflects the glory of God.  We have been given the mandate of stewardship of the planet on our watch in this generation.

Let us commit ourselves to live in such a way that there will be a glorious, clean planet around for the people who will be here 400 years from now; the people alive to see the light leaving the North star today.

May they be people who have learned to live in peace and in respectful coexistence with each other.  May we set the example and lead the way.

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Being Family

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year B, March 1, 2015 on Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 and Mark 8:31-38

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.”I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” 

God said to Abraham, “As for Sarah your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

Mark 8:31-38

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

31-38

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

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A photo of a dress on a mannequin has been making the news and is all over social media.  I first saw it on Facebook.  It has horizontal stripes of two colors.  What two colors?  That is the controversy.  Some people see them as white and gold, others see blue and black.  In my family, for example, Ben and Nathan see it oppositely.

Scientists have explanations; it is all about the eye and the brain.  But the interesting thing is that whichever way you see it, you are absolutely certain.  The comments people make on social media show how certain everyone is of their own perceptions.  Often you hear the question, “How can you possibly see it differently?”  But people do, in fact, see it differently.

This dress color controversy came at a perfect time.  It is a striking illustration of a controversy that has no clear way to be solved.  You cannot make me see those colors your way no matter how much you argue with me, no matter how emotional you get, no matter how many other testimonials you line up on your side.   Nor could I convince you.

Dealing with Controversy

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Our church has been going through the process of dealing with controversial issues of far more consequence than color perception, as we all know.  People are divided, see things differently, and emotions can get intense.

In another case of perfect timing, the texts we are given in the lectionary for this second Sunday in the season of Lent can help us, if we are open, to answer the question: how do we deal with a situation of deep controversy?

Importantly, the texts are not about the controversial issues; they are about something much deeper.  They are about who we are; our identity.

Abraham’s Family

The text we read from the Hebrew Bible is the famous promise God made to Abram, when he changed his name to Abraham; from “exalted father,” to “father of a multitude.”  Abraham was promised a family.

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The whole remainder of the Hebrew Bible is about this promise of a family and of land for the family to live on.  The family has a hard time getting started, as Abraham and Sarah are too old to have children.

But God is able to bring fruitfulness into situations of barrenness – which he does rather frequently in the stories of the Hebrew Bible.  So Abraham and Sarah finally have a son, Isaac. Isaac receives the sign of the covenant, which is circumcision, and the story of the family is off and running.

The family that came from Abraham grows into twelve tribes, and eventually does come into the land of promise many years later.  Their family story has quite a few  dark episodes.  Beneath the surface, every family has issues and problems.  I do not know any exceptions.

Circumcision – the First Church Controversy

Our lectionary text, you may have noticed, skipped over verses 8 – 14 of Genesis 17.  I do not know why, maybe they decided it was unsuitable reading: it is all about God’s command to Abraham to circumcise Isaac and every male member of the household.

Circumcision, God said, was the sign of the covenant for all generations.  It was serious.  God said an uncircumcised male should be cut off from the people.  God called it an “everlasting covenant.”

So, it is no surprise that circumcision became a huge controversy in the early church.  Paul went around preaching the gospel beyond the bounds of Jewish Palestine, and starting communities of faith among gentiles.

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In his mind, according to his letters, these church groups were supposed to think of themselves as families.  They were to treat each other as brothers and sisters, and treat older members with the respect and dignity of fathers and mothers.

For Paul, these people who put their trust in God and who embraced Jesus as Lord were a natural extension of Abraham’s family.  He said it as clearly as it can be said:

if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring (lit. “seed”), heirs according to the promise.”  – Gal. 3:29

The promise to which we are heirs, as Abraham’s offspring, is that promise to Abraham, the covenant that started the whole story.

But if we inherit the promise, and if the sign of the covenant that seals that promise  is circumcision, should not Christians become circumcised?  After all, it is for “all generations”!  That’s what the bible says.

But to a Greek-speaking, Hellenized gentile in the Roman empire, mutilation of the body was unthinkable.  They considered it barbaric and disgusting.

The Disgust Emotion

This is typical.  When we humans are faced with other humans who look at things differently or act differently, we often feel the disgust emotion.  We automatically feel superior to people who disgust us.

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It is funny how things can change though.  The idea of eating raw fish and seaweed used to disgust most Americans, and the people who ate them seemed strange if not a bit barbaric.  But then sushi became more and more available, and eventually we got used to the idea.  Some of us even tried it, and now enjoy it.  Disgust became acceptance and eventually even delight.

But anyway, the early church was deeply divided over the circumcision issue.  They had to have a big church conference about it, according to the book of Acts.  Each side made their case.  One side won and the other side lost the debate.  The rest is history.

The take-away is this:  both sides, the circumcised Jews who had followed Jesus and become Christians (who lost the debate) and the uncircumcised gentile followers of Jesus, were all in one family.  And they stayed as one family after the vote was over.

I have to give the Jewish Christians a lot of credit.  They had history on their side,  they had centuries of tradition, they had faced ridicule, and they had bible verses to quote to support their opinions.  But after they lost, they were willing to stay together; not without bumps in the road, but they stayed together.  Why?  Because that is what families do (or, ought to do).

Practicing Self Denial

In other words, they were practicing the Christian discipline of self denial.  They put into practice Jesus’ words when he said,

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me

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There is maybe no greater form of self denial than to say “no” to the voice of the ego in our heads.  It takes spiritual maturity to say “no” to the internal voice that wants to assert itself, to justify ourselves, and to win the debate.

It is painful, and a kind of death to self, to stay at the table with people we disagree with.  But that is what mature families do.  It is easy to leave.  To slam the door.  To pick up the marbles and run off the play ground.  It feels good.  And that is why taking the high road of staying involves self denial.

Habits of Self Denial

I am sure that in your family, you have formed habits of self denial.  You practice self denial every time you keep your voice down in an argument.  You practice self denial each time you resist the urge to cut off the other person’s monologue.  You practice self denial each time you forgive the others when they were not able to act maturely, and each time you forgave a hurt.  Of course you did.  That is what families do.

Families that develop habits of self denial end up having long histories together.  They build up a treasury of shared experiences.  They have memories of going through rough times together – times of illness, times of loss, times of pain.  And they have the happy memories too, the vacations, the celebrations, the graduations, weddings, the baptisms, and the anniversaries.  Screen Shot 2015-02-28 at 7.13.15 PM

That is what we are: a family.  And that is why neither this current controversy nor the next one will kill us.  Winning is simply not the reason we stay in.  We stay because we are family.  We have a history with each other.  We have been to each other’s hospital rooms.  We have prayed for each other.   We have grieved with each other as we have stood side by side in funerals and memorial services.

We have worshiped together, shared meals together.  We have watched the children among us grow up.  We have attended their weddings and witnessed the baptism of their children.   That is what families do.

Missing the Community

I was in a conversation recently with a person who grew up in a Christian home; they all went to church regularly.  But in adulthood he left and does not consider himself a Christian, and does not attend church.  We were talking about ethics, about what is good.  He is a person who tries to be good and to do good.  He told me he does not miss going to church.

I told him I get that, but asked him if he misses the community?   He freely admitted he did miss the sense of family that a church is.

The church – unlike any other gathering, a club or a political organization or social group – functions like family.  We care for each other.  We call and text and write emails and cards to each other.  We miss each other when one is absent.  We are interested in hearing each others stories.  We jump up and go when someone needs help.  The short hand way to say this is that we love each other.

Being the Family We Are

There are all kinds of theological bases we could give for our unity in Christ.  But today, we simply give thanks for the family that God has put us in, as spiritual descendants of father Abraham.

We give thanks too, for the many times people around us have found the maturity and grace to practice self denial when we have been difficult to live with.  We commit ourselves to following Jesus and practicing self denial in our relationships with each other, recognizing the great cost he bore to bring us into the family.

Today, we will again gather around the supper table as the family of God.  We will break one bread and share one cup, and know ourselves as the body of Christ, the family of God.

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Life in Wilderness

Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, Year B, Feb 22, 2015, on Mark 1:9-15

Mark 1:9-15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

I attended a seminar in which we were all given a piece of paper and instructed to make a timeline of the significant events of

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our lives. Maybe you have done that. If you did that now, what moments of your life would you consider significant? Many of us would include graduations, getting hired, getting married, having children, and probably we would include significant losses as well, because loss changes us too.

Then we were asked to look at our timelines and to try to find the red line that connected the dots. What was consistent about ourselves through all the changes and the meandering paths our lives had taken? I guess the idea was that our essential selves would emerge from that effort to connect the dots.

The Line Stops at Today
But it made me think of where the line stopped. Of course whenever you do the timeline exercise, it stops at today. And what is ahead? What will tomorrow hold? We all wish we could say for certain, but we cannot. We do not know what will happen.

We know what normally happens, we know what we want to happen, we know what our plans are, but there are no guarantees. We are all one slip and fall away from the hospital; one distracted driver away from disaster; one microscopic virus away from serious trouble.

So, in that way, we are often in the experience of wilderness. We have a clear view of the footprints behind us, but there are no

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certainties ahead. The one thing we all know for certain is that someday the timeline that stops today will not have a tomorrow. We are mortal. We will die. The timing and circumstances we do not know, but the result, we know.

If you were here for the evening of Ash Wednesday, you heard Sara Miles say, in the video, that the church is about the only place we say the truth of our mortality. Our culture is full of messages telling us that this product or diet or pill or treatment will not only keep us alive, it will keep us young.

Most of us here know better. So, in the church, we face our mortality, we receive ashes, and we speak of death and we acknowledge the wilderness-like uncertainty of our lives, and the temptations that condition creates.

So the question then is how do we live? We have all received the terminal diagnosis that we do not live forever down here, so, how do we live as terminal patients?

The Jesus Paradigm
In the first Sunday of the season of the lengthening days, the season of Lent this year our gospel reading is from Mark, who shows us the way to live by showing us Jesus as the paradigm, the pattern.

Mark’s short gospel has none of the details we get in Matthew and Luke. From Mark we hear that Jesus was tempted, but get no specifics – no bread from stones, no jumping off the temple tower. That is not Mark’s focus.

What we are left with in Mark are cryptic notes about the event. Notes about timing: when Jesus went out into the wilderness and how long was he there. A note about why he went, and who or what was out there with him. We hear about what happened out there, the temptations, and what Jesus did following the whole experience. So we will take a look at each of these elements.

Timing: Beginning with Baptism

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First, timing; this is important: it was immediately after Jesus’ powerful, mystical experience of being baptized, and seeing a vision of the heavens being torn open and God’s Spirit descending on him in a nearly palpable way. In that experience, Jesus heard God name him as God’s beloved son.

Jesus is the paradigm for us: the spiritual journey for all of us begins in baptism, and becomes real for us when we come to know ourselves as sons and daughters of God. When we embrace that identity as children of God, created by God, loved by God, known personally by God, the spiritual journey has begun.

Upon knowing himself as God’s Son, Mark tells us the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. The picture to have in our minds is not the chauffeur as driver, the picture is a herder, driving an animal. There is not a lot of choice involved.

This is simply how it is. From the first cry we make, fresh out of the womb, to our final breath, we live in a world without certainty; wilderness, and therefore, of temptation.

Jesus spent forty days there, as Mark tells us; a day for each year his Jewish ancestors spent wandering in the wilderness after escaping Egyptian slavery. The journey with God is all about a journey in the wilderness of uncertainty and temptation.

While all of life is wilderness, in that it is uncertain, there are periods of time that are more intensely wilderness than others. Times of rupture, disruption, of unexpected events that throw us into the dark valleys of the wilderness. There is something significant to looking back on a period of time and realizing it as an episode that has concluded.

I experienced one of those the first year we were home from Croatia. I knew things were going to change for us, for all kinds of reasons, but the future was not a all clear to me, and it was a difficult year. But now I look back on that time as an episode, a period of intense wilderness that had a conclusion. The “forty days” which lasted a year for me, finally ended.

You have, I’m sure, gone through periods of intense wilderness as well. And probably there will be more ahead. But they do come to an end. This is helpful to remember when we are in the middle of one of those “forty day” periods. One day, we will be able to look back on this episode.

So, the question is, what do we want to see when we look back? How do we live in wilderness?

Let us look at Jesus’ experience as a model. Mark tells us that Jesus was not entirely alone out there. Though there were no other people, Jesus was joined by Satan, the tempter, and there were “wild beasts, along with angels who waited on him.”

Satan

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You are welcome to read this as you like; I read this Satan character as a metaphor of the spiritual struggle with temptation that Jesus endured, and that we all endure. This too is a paradigm of the spiritual life.

There is no one I know who does not struggle with all kinds of temptations, and the forces that allure us seem strong. We have desires. Usually, the desires we feel on the surface are merely ciphers for the deeper desires of our hearts.

For example, below the desires of the flesh are deep desires for human intimacy. Beneath the desire for wealth is the angst of insecurity and the quest for respect and admiration. Even the desire for food is often a manifestation of the need to sooth deeper hungers and longings.

How should we satisfy our desires and the temptations they bring? We all know right from wrong. We know that there are healthy, life-giving, life-affirming ways of pursuing our deepest desires, and there are the opposite. There are good ways and bad ways.

The good ways are the ways that promote our human flourishing as individuals and as communities. The bad ways always lead to destruction, division, conflict and illness. But the good ways are often long and hard, and the bad ways promise short-cuts and ease. So, yes, we live with temptations.

Wild Beasts
Besides the tempter, Satan, Mark cryptically tells us that the “wild beasts” were there too. I take the beasts, which seem scary to me, to be symbols of fear. Fear is the source of many temptations. We all have them: the fear that keeps us from really living our lives, from being our true selves, from getting out of our comfort zones. And the fear of taking risks, like the risk of loving, and the fear of failure that keeps us from attempting anything.

The beasts are also the forces that tempt us into hopelessness and despair. They are the forces of cynicism that smirk at the idea that there are life-giving alternatives, that there can be a morning of joy after a night of weeping; that forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption are possible.

Angels
Besides Satan the tempter and the fear mongering, cynical wild beasts, Mark says that angels waited on Jesus in his wilderness time. I take these ministering spirits as a metaphor for the constant, active presence of God’s Spirit who is there with us in wilderness. This is the key to overcoming the temptations.

We can only make it through the wilderness with the knowledge that we gained at baptism, that we really are God’s beloved children. That’s why the timing was important. Yes, we are in a place of uncertainty and temptation, but we are not abandoned there. God is there, with us all the time.

Alone all Night?

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I am told that some native American traditions have a male initiation ceremony which concludes with an all night experience. The young man is led into the forest blindfolded and taken to a log or stump to sit on. There, he must spend the night alone. During the night he has to confront his fears as he hears the hooting owl in the distance, the leaves and grass rustling in the wind, and as his imagination plays with the forest sounds and their unknown origins.

In the morning, he is allowed to remove the blindfold. As he does, he discovers his father who has sat through the night behind him, observing him, there to protect him if the need arose. He was not ever alone, though he did not know it.

We are never alone, though we often feel as though we are. But when does God our Father ever abandon his children? Look back at each of your periods of intense wilderness – were you abandoned? In fact the opposite. I have heard many of you describe how you have felt supported and accompanied by God in very difficult times – wilderness times.

Good News After Wilderness
The next thing Mark’s gospel shows us what happened after Jesus’ time of wilderness.

“Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Somehow, after the powerful experience of baptism, and following the 40 days of intense wilderness temptation, Jesus was newly energized to proclaim the good news of God. The good news is that God’s kingdom has come near.

Invitation: Make a Change

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The offer of the kingdom comes with the invitation to make a change, to “repent” to change our minds, to embrace a wider reality. To leave a narrow conception of the God-abandoned life, and to accept a vision of a life lived in the presence of a loving God, in the kingdom of God, in sight of the father who stays up all night in the wilderness with us.

The invitation to repentance is implicit acknowledgement that there are times we have succumbed to the temptations of wilderness. There are times we have chosen against the life-affirming path and have opted for the short cuts of self-protection.

There times we need to repent from and change; times when we acted out of selfishness and xenophobic-tribalism, neglecting the needy, apathetic at injustice, wishing for revenge instead of making peace, and falling into cynicism and despair. Times the beasts have gotten the best of us.

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So, the season of Lent is an invitation to embrace a wider consciousness. To believe the good news of God. To see that the line that connects our timeline’s significant moments is a close parallel line; that God was there for us and with us each zig and each zag that wandering line took.

The lines stop, so far, at today. Today we have choices. We are not guaranteed tomorrow, but we can choose how we will live, if given another day. Lent is the time we look at our spiritual practices and ask if they are rigorous enough to sustain us in faith and hope during wilderness periods.

In Lent we hear the invitation to make changes. Perhaps we are being called to a life of contemplative prayer.

Perhaps we are being called to new forms of action, or to new courageous advocacy on behalf of the powerless, on behalf of victims, and on behalf of voiceless ones, on behalf of our fragile planet.

Some of us may be called to reconcile relationships by initiating forgiveness.

All of us are called to repent, as the necessary pre-condition for receiving the good news of the kingdom.

So hear the call and believe the good news. Respond as children of God. Today, the timeline is still in motion. And the line, even in the wilderness, is parallel.

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Reasons for Singing

Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday, Year B on Mark 9:2-9, February 15, 2015

Mark 9:2-9
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

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I was at a youth camp one summer where, after the teaching sessions we had open question and answer time. I remember one student asking if there was any evidence that Jesus sang songs. I said, yes, because Mark and Matthew both tell us that on the night of the last supper, before they left the upper room to go to the Mount of Olives, the sang a hymn.

The comment is made so off-handedly it is clear that this was just the normal, expected thing to do. And of course it was. Jesus was Jewish. He worshipped in the Jewish synagogues. He read from the part of the bible we now call the “Old Testament” which has, within it, a hymnbook of 150 songs we call the book of Psalms.

Judaism is a singing faith. Some of the Psalm-songs even tell the people to praise the Lord with songs; enacting what it teaches: a song, telling us to sing. We Christians inherit the musical tradition in worship from our Jewish ancestors in the faith.

I am sure that the memory of that question about Jesus and singing came to mind because of this special day for this congregation: today we dedicate and begin to worship from the new Presbyterian Hymnal, “Glory to God.” It has over 800 hymns in it, selected from the thousands of possible songs from our tradition.

These songs link us to the faith of our fathers and mothers in past generations. These songs also bear witness to the living faith that, in each generation, continues to express itself in new songs.

Deep Reasons for Singing

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What do we have to sing about? Of course we can start with the good things in life that we are blessed with – the myriad of reasons for our gratitude, just as the song “For the beauty of the Earth” speaks of. But this morning we are going to consider another, deeper, more profound reason to sing.

This Sunday is more than hymnal dedication Sunday, it is Transfiguration Sunday. As I was thinking about dedicating a new hymnal on Transfiguration Sunday, it struck me how fitting it is.

We read the gospel story from Mark this year about that mysterious, numinous mountain-top moment. What happened on that mountain? A vision? A shared mystical occurrence?

However we want to imagine the meaning behind this thickly, intertextually layered narrative, the story is not about a rational event, but a powerful spiritual experience, similar to Jesus’ experience at his baptism.

That too is fitting to consider, on a day of hymnal dedication. Music too is non-rational in its effects. Somehow, music gets to places in our hearts that logic and reason never go. It moves us, sometimes to joy, other times to tears.

In the transfiguration story, Jesus, along with Peter, James, and John see figures they recognize as Moses and Elijah, who died hundreds of years before, and they are talking to Jesus. There is a lot going on here. The most obvious meaning of their presence is that the story of Jesus is part of a larger story, the story of Israel.

We remember that Moses and Elijah both had direct experiences of the presence of God on mountains. Elijah was hiding in the rock as the earthquake, the wind and the fire terrified him, only to finally experience the presence of God as “the sound of sheer silence” (1Kings 19:12).

Moses, on Mt. Sinai, experienced the cloud, along with a “devouring fire” lightening, thunder, trumpet blasts, and a voice that terrified everyone. In the Transfiguration story too, the presence of God is terrifying for the disciples.

Just as Moses and Elijah heard God speaking from the cloud, so again the voice of God, speaks saying:

“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

The timing is perfect. In Mark’s gospel, we read that Jesus has been saying things, but he has been having a hard time getting his disciples to listen to them so far.

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Specifically, just before they went up that mountain Jesus was telling them about his impending suffering, death, and they did not want to listen. When Jesus spoke of these, Peter actually rebuked him. That was the famous scene in which Jesus has to tell Peter “Get thee behind me Satan”.

They had a hard time wanting to listen those words. Suffering and death did not fit into Peter’s plan for Messiah. The music Peter and the others wanted to sing was a victory march.

But life is not like that, is it? Life involves suffering. We all have heartache, disappointment, grief and pain. We all go through experiences we cannot understand. And, we are mortal. We are alive today with the full knowledge that someday we will not be. That knowledge conditions all of our experiences of life, even its joys and successes, as the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us.

See Jesus, See God

And this brings us to, center of the story of the Transfiguration. Moses and Elijah disappear and only Jesus is there, and the voice says: this is my Son, listen to him! How could you make the point in any stronger way? We are to look at Jesus and see God in him. This is called “incarnation.”

Consider it for a moment. What does it mean to tell a story about God in human form?

What does the incarnation mean if not that the God we know is the God who totally embraced humanity, thoroughly, and completely.

This is why this is such a huge reason to sing. How should we think of God? How should we understand God? Like a volcanic eruption? Like a terrifying, rock-splitting whirlwind? Yes, that truth never goes away – God is overwhelming. But this story is here to say: to know God, look at Jesus. To understand God’s will, listen to him.

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And this is where it gets amazing; what happens to God in human form? He suffers.

The God we know, if only in part, analogically, as Paul says, “as through a glass, darkly,” we know by seeing what Jesus reveals about God. That God is willing to suffer just as we mortals suffer. That God is even willing to go all the way, and experience the suffering of death itself.

Jesus fully embraced his future suffering and death and was still able to know himself as God’s son, to understand that God was with him, even in his suffering, even in his death.

This is surely what we are invited to know: that we too, as sons and daughters of God are so cared for by a loving Heavenly Father that we can trust that he is with us every living moment of our lives. That he suffers when we suffer. That he knows the pain we feel. That we are never abandoned, never forgotten, never left to suffer alone. God is for us, and with us. This, if nothing else, give us reasons for singing.

Compassion for Suffering

And there is even more to sing about here. The God who knows human suffering has also given us eyes of compassion that are open to seeing the suffering all around us. And the God who calls us from the cloud on the mount to listen to the words of his beloved son has, in those words, given us a charge to keep. We are now God’s agents of compassion in the face of suffering.

We do listen to Jesus. We hear his call to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” We see people who are poor, people who experience discrimination, people who are disabled or challenged by a host of issues, and we feel the call to respond compassionately.

We know that it is not enough merely to pat ourselves on the back that there is equal opportunity for all of the able bodied and gifted people to “make it” in our society. We, who know the God who embraced human suffering, know that God calls us to respond in kind. So we are inspired to respond as we sing songs of justice and mercy, songs that anticipate the peaceable kingdom we long for.

So, the worst mistake to make on the Mount of Transfiguration is to want to stay there, up on the mountain, in mystical ecstasy, a long way from the people. Peter’s idea to build some booth-shrines was innocent, but wrong-headed. The action that counts is down the mountain.

The whole point is to go down to where the other humans are, and to be there for them. To be the people who have also been transformed, who now see what they could not have imagined before: that God is going to walk down that mountain with them.

And yes, the path will lead to suffering and even to death. It is the path all humans take. But new life will follow.

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So, yes there are millions of great reasons to sing praises to God. We are so blessed! But even more, we know that in our times of pain and suffering, God is with us, literally “feeling our pain.” He understands as one who has been there, and has the scars to prove it. And he will be with us right up to the end, and lead us through that final curtain.

In the mean time: he has put us here for a reason. We are to listen to Jesus, and respond to the call to discipleship and to service.

People of faith in the God who suffers: we have reasons to sing!

 

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The Message that Matters

Sermon for 5th Sunday After Epiphany, Year B, Feb 8, 2015, on Isaiah 40:21-31 and Mark 1:29-39

Isaiah 40:21-31

Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.

Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.  

Mark 1:29-39

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. 

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

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What do you take with you if you have to gather up the essentials and flee on foot?  Among your most necessary belongings, would you include your tambourine?

That question came up in bible study this past week.  The ancient Rabbi’s noticed that after the Israelites fled from Pharaoh’s Egypt and crossed the parted Red Sea, they sang songs.  Exodus tells us that Miriam led the women’s song, and

“all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing (15:20).

What would possess all the Israelite women to grab their tambourines when, for all they knew, they were fleeing for their lives?

The Rabbis say that they brought them because they were prepared for a miracle that would require a celebratory song and dance.  What gave them such confident hope?  Those women had experienced the miracle of God’s care for them when they had their babies, and so they were expecting redemption.

The babies they bore in Egypt were signs to them that the Creation blessing “be fruitful” was still in effect.   Not only the creation blessing, but for them, the blessing of Abraham and Sarah was being fulfilled as well.  They believed the promise “I will bless you and make you a great nation… and in you, all the families of the earth will be blessed.”  So, they took their tambourines, and were ready for the song and the dance.

So here is our question: would we have grabbed the tambourine?  How confident is our hope?

Maybe you are thinking that hope would be easier if, like those Jewish mothers, you had seen some miracles.

The Jewish Rabbis who gave us these reflections knew where the story was going.  The same people who sang and danced, the men and the women, would soon lose their hope when water became scarce in the wilderness.  They would lose their hope again when food got scarce, and even after the miracle manna, they would have other occasions of hopelessness in the face of trouble.  The path though the wilderness was a zigzag, and so was their spiritual journey.

For the Jewish people, hope or hopelessness was a question of which story, which narrative a person is living in.   The narrative we are living in tells us the answer to life’s questions: What kind of world am I living in?  What does this all mean?  Where is this going?   How will this end?  What then?

Some tell the narrative of hopelessness.  They have plenty of evidence.  Bricks without straw; a wilderness without water, Pharaoh’s approaching chariots; that was then.  This is now: ISIS, Putin, global terrorism, the economy (at least for normal people), health issues, family issues, politics, and the constantly ticking clock counting down our lives.

There always has been and there always will be abundant evidence for the narrative of hopelessness.  A single news broadcast confirms it – if you can even believe the news anchors anymore!

Our Counter Narrative of Hope

We are here to assert a counter-narrative.  This is what it means to be a person of faith.  We are willing to believe that there is more to this world than meets the eye.    There is more than one possible way to tell the story; an alternative message.

To people who were beginning to loose hope, people who had plenty of evidence for hopelessness, Isaiah said, basically, “wake up and open your eyes!  Open your ears to an alternative narrative.”

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“Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?”

Then, he begins to tell the God-narrative.  How do you think all of this got here?  Look around; start with the stars that fill the sky:

“Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name”

Isaiah wonders how people could have missed the message they proclaim:

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.”

Yes, there is evidence for the narrative of hopelessness.  But open your eyes to wonder and your heart to awe.  Every leaf, every turtle, every burning candle can tell a story of beauty, of artistry, of amazement.

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My niece just had a beautiful baby.  Of course she has posted pictures on Facebook.  But not just pictures of the baby.  She has posted pictures of herself and her husband looking at that new life with the wonder and amazement of new parents.  Can anyone look at a newborn without getting the message?  Life is a gift.  A mystery.

So how do people who live in the context of real-life, of real problems, of zigzags, and of the full knowledge that none of us gets out of this alive, as mortals, internalize the creation narrative of hope?

Waiting as Spiritual Practice

This is the role of spiritual practice: to connect us with the source of hope.  Isaiah says:

“Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

Wait upon the Lord.”

Sit down for twenty minutes of silence daily.  Turn off the narrative the ego plays in the mind.  Consider only the breath that moves automatically in and out of your body, and simply let the moment be the wondrous gift that it is.

They shall mount of up with wings, like eagles.”

Soaring effortlessly is a beautiful picture of life lived in hope.

Creation, Evolution and Faith

The Berlin Archaeopteryx specimen  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archaeopteryx

The Berlin Archaeopteryx specimen
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archaeopteryx

I need to complexify this picture a bit, because today, faith based on creation and its Creator has become a challenge to modern, educated people.  We actually know about evolution.  We know, for example, that feathers did not evolve for flying, originally.  We have fossils of dinosaurs with feathers on their limbs  that could not possibly be of use as wings. Feathers were probably for regulating temperature and for mate selection.

We also know that our bodies contain carbon just like the carbon found in stars, formed at the moment of the big bang.

There are two more things we know now also: That scientific cosmologists admit to a whole series of conundrums when it comes to origins.  How was it that life exists, starting from lifeless matter?  And how does consciousness arise in living beings?  How do we account for anything being here instead of nothing.  No matter how far back you push the question, the question remains.  This is one thing we know.

The second thing is that we can, and we do, still feel wonder at the stars, and wonder at the sight of a bird in flight.  We were made to read an alternative narrative, a meaningful message that includes a non-material world.  We believe in things like justice, fairness, compassion, and love.  We believe in waiting in silence upon the Lord.  We believe it does renew our strength.

Jesus and the Message

This is what Jesus came to proclaim: the alternative message of hope.

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I wonder if you found this morning’s gospel reading odd?  Jesus heals Simon Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever, and she springs from her sick bed to serve people.  Jesus is met by a whole town full of sick people and possessed people and heals them, only to set out the next day for another place.

In the mean time, he disappears in the wee hours of the morning to go out and be alone in the dark.  When they found him, they said everyone was searching for him – presumably for another round of healing and exorcism, but he answers oddly:

“Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”

For Jesus, his message was more important than his healing ministry.  If we allow Jesus to say how he understood the purpose for his coming, we hear him say that the reason he came was to tell a story, to announce a narrative; to give a message.

What is the message?  What is the gospel?  So far in Mark’s gospel there has been exactly one message that Jesus has gone around proclaiming:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 

Let us unpack this message:

The time is fulfilled” meaning the present moment is the one that matters.

Repent;” meaning, change your thinking.

Believe in” – nor trust in – or commit yourself to the good news.

What good news?  The message is that “the kingdom of God has come near,” – is among you, is present.  God is king.

This is the narrative to live in.  You are not alone.  You are not unloved.  God is here and God is for you.  God is your source and God is your destination.   In God we live and  move and have our being.

And this is why Mark told the story in this compressed and symbolic way.  Jesus did not just heal Peter’s mother-in-law; he “took her by the hand and lifted her up.”  This was on the Sabbath when no such work was allowed.  Jesus broke with the old understanding of what it meant that God was present, and turned it upside down.

God was not present, for Jesus, like a line judge in tennis, announcing faults.  Rather God was on the side of healing and redemption.  And the person who gets the message, automatically starts living a life of grateful service, just as Simon’s mother-in-law modeled.

The Primacy of the Message

Yes, Jesus’ presence was a healing presence, and yes his ministry was a confrontation with evil on many levels.  But that was not primary.  The message was primary.  Why?

Because all the people Jesus healed probably got sick again, and all of them died.  No matter how many miracles you get along the way – water from a stone, manna in the desert, remission from the cancer – eventually we all go down to the dust.

So the question is, how are we going to live our lives?  Which narrative are we going to believe?  What is the message that will matter to us?

Jesus invites us to trust the narrative that says, the kingdom of God is a present reality.  God is here, not to evoke guilt and shame and fear of punishment, but to awaken us to love.  We are loved.  We are beloved.  We are sons and daughters of a loving heavenly father.

The Spirituality of the Hopeful

Partly because there are so many problems in the world, and in our lives, and in our heads and hearts, so many zigzags, this narrative, this message of hope is not the loudest nor easiest to hear.  That is why the person of faith is a person of spiritual practices.  Faith is sustained by “waiting on the Lord.”  Faith, trust, grows by doing what Jesus did – escaping for silent prayer.  Communion.  The experience of union with God.

And so Jesus’ goal was to go to the next town, and the next, and the next, and to spread the message that matters in every moment of our lives, and at the last moment of our lives.  The message that God is present.  The message that God is with us.  That God is good.  That God can be trusted.  The message that the  kingdom of God is at hand.

If that is not the narrative you believe, then hear the invitation to “repent;” to change your thinking.  What do you have to loose?  We may be wrong.  We may just be carbon in a soul-less universe that does not care one way or the other.

But we will risk paying the universe a compliment it does not deserve.  Because we may be right.  Look at the stars.  Look at the flight of an eagle.  Look at a newborn.  Believe the message of hope.

 

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Kingdom Challenges

Sermon for the 4th Sunday After Epiphany, B, Feb 1, 2015 on Mark 1:21-28

Mark 1:21-28

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching — with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

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On Mondays we have a group that meets together to practice Lectio Divina, or “spiritual reading” of a bible text.  Lectio Divina is an ancient practice with four parts: a reading of a text, spontaneous reflections about the text offered by several of the group, a brief time of silent prayer about the text, followed by a 20 minute silent, contemplative meditation.

In that silent time, we use a word or a phrase or an idea that came to mind during the reading or reflection time as our anchor, to keep our minds at rest in the present moment and in the presence of God.

A Sunny Day in Capernaum

4th cent. Synagogue built on site of 1st cent. synagogue in Capernaum

4th cent. Synagogue built on site of 1st cent. synagogue in Capernaum

So, Monday we read this gospel text about Jesus’ experience in the synagogue in Capernaum.  As we read, I was imagining the story – for me, it was a sunny day.  Jesus and his new followers went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, probably in the same frame of mind that we had when we showed up here today.  They, like we, were expecting to worship, to sing, pray, hear from scripture, and go home, hopefully encouraged and spiritually blessed.

So Jesus went into the synagogue to teach.  Normally the teaching was from the Hebrew Bible, perhaps from the prophet Isaiah which was apparently one of Jesus’ favorites.

People were impressed.  I imagine some elbow nudges were going on and some glances were being exchanged.  He seemed to know what he was talking about in a way that appeared authoritative – like he really “got it” at a deep level.  It was literally “remarkable,” and people remarked to each other about it.

Mark does not tell us what Jesus was teaching.  Up to this point (we are still in chapter 1) all Jesus has “taught” has been one sentence:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 

So far, Jesus has done nothing to antagonize anyone, so I imagine he and everyone there was surprised by the outburst that

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followed.  A man, who is  only identified by the “unclean spirit” he is under the influence of, confronts Jesus with obvious aggression.  We are not told anything about him, though I picture someone ugly and misshapen – I know, I’ve seen too many movies.

The voice that comes from the man is hostile.  It speaks using first person plurals:

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”

The demonic voices assume that Jesus is the one being aggressive; they assume that Jesus’ presence and teaching are a threat.  I picture the man sneering and maybe even slobbering as he screams is venomous accusations.

Picturing this man and his outburst, by the way, is not good at all for the brain.  It is completely negative, maybe it even brings up fears; certainly disgust.  Neuroscientists tell us that these kind of thoughts make the brain send stress hormones shooting around our bodies.  Well, sorry, but this is how the story goes.

So, this ugly screeching, de-humanized person fires off an odd sentence, strangely reverting to first person singular:

“I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

Elisha the prophet was called that too, so probably the assumption is that Jesus is a powerful prophet.  But why scream it out like that?   In those days, the idea was that if you named a spiritual being you had power over it.  Probably the demon wanted to overpower Jesus.

But the attempt fails.  Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit.  It threw him down, but then went out of him, and the newly re-humanized man was left unharmed.

The people, Mark tells us, were amazed.  Not only does Jesus teach with the authority of an insider with God, he clearly has authority over the spiritual realm as well.  They say,

“What kind of utterance is this? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and out they come!” 

So, I guess the demons were right to think that Jesus was a threat to them.  He  rebuked them, silenced them, and dispatched them.  Bad news for unclean spirits.

But to the person who had been their victim, what Jesus did was good.  He released a person who had been in bondage.

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Setting the captives free is what he came to do.  It is what Moses did, also by the power of God, many years ago.  It is what God wants to do for all of us.

As I pictured this in our Lectio Divina group the phrase that came to me was this:

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”   – Romans 12:21.

So, for the next 20 minutes in silence, I used that phrase as my anchor.

Spirituality: Enough?

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Meditation has become quite popular now.  You see and hear articles about it everywhere.  People have been practicing mindfulness meditation for centuries – maybe millennia.  Now, neuroscientists report its benefits.  It is great for your brain, and from there its benefits affect all your body’s systems.  So, it is great, and it works, and I recommend it highly.   Most people say it even makes you more compassionate, which is always a good thing.

There are a growing number of people who practice meditation but who are not connected to the church.  They feel alienated from institutional religion.  They sometimes define themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.”

I have great sympathy for them.  Just like the in the story, in which a man with an unclean spirit was harboring inside the synagogue – as if at home there (no one seemed to be surprised that he was there) so too, the church, through its history, has had some bad people in it, doing bad things.  For many, the church has been an unwelcoming place, even a place that practiced open discrimination.

But even though I get the reasons why the “spiritual but not religious” people have rejected the church, nevertheless, for me, it is not enough to be spiritual in some vague, general way.  For me, it is important that my spirituality be connected with a set of teachings, specifically the teachings of Jesus.

The Kingdom Confronts Evil

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Why?  Because, though it is bad for your brain to dwell on it, there really is such a thing as evil.  Whether or not you believe in literal demons and demonic possession is completely beside the point.  The point is that the one teaching of Jesus we have heard so far in Mark,

Repent, the Kingdom of God has come near,”

means that we are called to take sides in a cosmic struggle against evil.

This means that simply being personally spiritual, meditating or taking nature walks or other spiritual practices is great, but not enough, if it leaves us un-engaged.

And this is exactly why we turn to the teachings of Jesus and hold them up as our authority.   To follow Jesus is to be a person of both deep personal spirituality and of active engagement on the side of good, on the side of setting the captives free.

Not to be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good.”

An Insider: Me

Reflecting on the story, I thought about how that man with the unclean spirit was found inside the synagogue.  He was an insider.  This makes me think about insiders like me.  The evil in me.  My pride.  My selfishness.  My reluctance to turn the other cheek or go the second mile.  My relationship with my money.  But especially, my own tendency to demonize others instead of finding ways of overcoming evil with good.

These, for me, are powerful reasons for developing and maintaining spiritual practices, like silent prayerful meditation, the daily examen, and lectio divina.  I need them all. They all  help, and they also reveal how much room for improvement I have.  They both draw me to God and make me more mindfully aware of how I am living.  They push open doors to compassion too.

And these practices expose me, on a daily basis, to the teachings of Jesus that were so amazing to the people who heard them for the first time in Capernaum that day.  I need to hear them, daily.  I need to learn to look at my world with eyes open.  To ask myself “What does it mean to live as one aware that the kingdom of God has come near?”  What does it mean that the first word in Jesus’ kingdom proclamation is “repent” “change your thinking” “embrace a higher level of consciousness” as we discussed last week.

Seeing the Victims

I believe the teachings of Jesus make me more sensitive to seeing the victims, the people who are being dehumanized by evil.   For example, I go down the street and see all these Pay Day Lenders and Title Loan sharks who squeeze the last few dollars off people who are in financial trouble already, and I grieve for the pain they cause.  This is one of the reasons we and other churches started the Christian Service Center and work hard to keep its food pantry open.

In fact, Jesus’ teachings open my eyes to see that every victim is my neighbor, because I learn that the question that began as “Who is my neighbor?” quickly became “Who was a neighbor to him?” in the story of the Good Samaritan.

So, Jesus teaches me that I am a neighbor to all the people on the Edmund Pettus Bridge bridge in Selma. Jesus teaches me that I am a neighbor to the children who the Presbyterian Home for Children ministers to.  I am a neighbor to everyone who is being discriminated against, with no exceptions.  And I am a neighbor, as St. Francis figured out, to “father sun and sister moon,” to the whole eco-system that supports life for all of my neighbors on this fragile planet.  As a neighbor, I am called to be an advocate for all of them.

The Community under Jesus’ Authority

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Jesus also teaches us to be a new community, a family, a church, so that we can journey as followers together.  We organize so that we can worship together, learn together, and find ways to “overcome evil with good” together.  Today we will install a new session of elders to lead us in that quest to be a worshiping community, following the teachings of Jesus.

Jesus teaches us to recognize him, among us, in the breaking of the bread.  So today we will celebrate the Lord’s supper, according to his instructions.

We are something like the people in that synagogue in Capernaum: we too are amazed by Jesus’ teaching.  And we too take them as our authority.  We too, have heard his call to follow, and we have responded.

The only question we have left is how can we live in such a way that we are not overcome by evil, in us and around us, but find effective ways to overcome evil with good.   This is the kingdom challenge.

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