Surviving 2020: The Bigger Picture

Surviving 2020: The Bigger Picture

Sermon for Sept. 27, 2020. Pentecost 17A

Video is here.

Matthew 21:23-32

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

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

Sometimes, when I have had to go through a particularly difficult circumstance, I have told myself, just think, in 24 hours this will be behind you.  I have found myself thinking that way about 2020; there will be a time when we look back on this year and all its calamities. Let us hope that we will be in a better condition in the future than we are now.  

It is not just the year 2020 that is in a state of significant change, it is perhaps only one year in the dawn of a new era for the church. 

If that sounds grandiose, consider this: author and professor Phyllis Tickle, in her book “The Great Emergence,” recounted a metaphor offered by Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer who noticed that about every five hundred years, the church has had what he called, a giant “rummage sale.” 

By that metaphor, he meant this: at about five hundred year intervals

the empowered structures of institutional Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable [constraint] that must be shattered so that renewal and new growth may occur.”  

Here is a sketch of those five hundred year events. About five hundred years after the birth of the church, as the Roman Empire was crumbling, Pope Gregory the Great established the system of monasteries that were to prove essential in seeing the church through the medieval dark ages. 

About five hundred years later, in the eleventh century, there was, what we now call, the Great Schism, in which Western Catholic Christianity and Eastern Orthodox Christianity went their separate ways. 

About five hundred years later in the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation was born. We date the start of the Reformation on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg castle, calling for an open debate. We are now, as of 2017, five hundred years after that event.  

The Recurring Question of Authority

Phyllis Tickle noticed that at each of these critical moments of change, the question of authority was crucial. Who gets to say what is right and wrong? Who gets to define orthodoxy? 

During the Protestant Reformation, there were debates about authority conducted in essays by the primary protagonists. John Calvin famously carried on a debate with Cardinal Sadoleto. The Cardinal claimed that the Roman church had kept the faith for fifteen-hundred years. 

Calvin argued that it was the Reformers who could lay claim to a more authentic faith, precisely because their version was more ancient. Calvin traced it all the way back to Augustine as the correct interpreter of scripture. 

The question of authority was being argued utilizing antiquity: whoever could lay claim to the most ancient version of the faith was correct.  

Jesus on Authority

Authority was the question that Jesus’ opponents put to him. The timing is important. Jesus had just ridden into the city on that donkey colt, went directly to the center of authority, the temple, and shut it down, at least symbolically, at least for several hours. 

He was, by that action, taking on the High priest, the chief priests, and the ruling council, all of whom belonged to the aristocratic class. He had told them that they had made the “house of prayer” into a “den of thieves.” Thieves hid their loot in their dens; the temple was the central bank, the repository of all of the records of debts the peasants had acquired, and of all the taxes taken from them.  

So, the challenge to Jesus was: what right do you have to challenge our authority? Jesus cleverly answered their question with a question of his own. 

Jesus had been a member of John the Baptist’s movement for a while, and though he parted company with John, he had learned a great deal from him. So, he was in a position to know that the leadership, who was challenging him, were not among the crowds who came to be baptized by John, repenting of the ways they had been unfaithful to the covenant. 

John had been executed by Herod Antipas, but many of the people believed he was a prophet, sent by God. 

So Jesus challenged his challengers to put their cards on the table: John’s baptism — what authority was it based on? Was it from God or just a human invention? Crowd-consciously, they declined to say, so Jesus also declined to say where his authority came from.  

The Parable of the Two Sons

Then, Jesus told a parable that at first seems to be a non-sequitur, but, when you look at it carefully, does address the question of authority.  

It is about two sons. Their father asks them to work in the fields. One says “no,” but he changes his mind, and does do the work. The other says “yes,” but does not work.

Now, there is one thing we might miss about this parable. Both sons dishonor their father. Saying “yes” but not following through dishonors the father’s authority. Saying “no” also dishonors the father’s authority, even if you later change your mind and obey. So both have dishonored the father,  undermining his authority; neither is without blame.

But Jesus’ question is not, which of the two honored his father, but which of the two did “the will of his father?”  Clearly the second, who went and did the work. 

Jesus then applied the parable to his opponents. He said that the people who were actually doing the will of God were not those who could talk a good talk, but the ones who were faithful in their behavior.  

The contrast is between the people who, as he said elsewhere, “sit in Moses’ seat” who had places of honor in the temple, and alternatively, the lowly peasants. From the temple that he had just symbolically shut down, they read the scrolls of the law and quoted Moses, but were simultaneously defrauding the poor of their last denarius.  

Jesus pointed out that the “prostitutes and tax collectors” had believed John’s message and repented. Let’s think about that. Why would a good Jewish woman become a prostitute? Absolute economic desperation is the answer. 

What do tax collectors do when they repent? Return the money they have defrauded the people of.  The prostitutes can go back to being the people they want to be when reparations have been made and they can afford their daily bread again.  

But the point to notice is that Jesus emphasized right action, not right words as establishing a claim to legitimacy, meaning authority. One son said the right word, “yes” but his “yes” was vacuous. The other said the wrong words, but his actions were the main thing.  

Right Action and the Foundation of our Faith

Let us close the circle. We began by reflection on our times as disrupted times of change. Whether or not there is any substance to the idea of a five-hundred-year repeating pattern, nevertheless, it is obvious to everyone that we are in a time of change. I believe this is not bad news; at least not all bad news. 

There is good news here too. The good news is that we, in the church, are newly awake to the importance of right action. We see in a new and more significant way that following Jesus was never supposed to be comprised of merely repeating creeds correctly.  

Following Jesus was not supposed to be saying the correct “yes” but actually going out into the field and doing the work of God. And that work includes doing justice. Making sure the prostitutes do not have to resort to that vocation to put food on the table, and making it clear that oppressive systems, like defrauding the poor must not be tolerated.  

We are making the same argument that Calvin made to Cardinal Sadoleto, only we are pushing the question of antiquity back even further than Calvin did. We have come to see that the authentic faith is not defined by the theologians of the fourth century like Augustine, but is the gospel of the kingdom that Jesus himself proclaimed.  

Good News

That gospel is indeed, exactly what the word “gospel” means, “good news” because of the way it involves liberation. First: spiritual liberation. Jesus taught us that God is not honored by temple rituals or the reading of the right words, but by the spirituality of belovedness manifesting itself in compassion and the quest for justice. 

Jesus’ message is that even the prodigal sons and daughters, and the lost sheep are still objects of love by a Heavenly Father/Mother who watches over them. 

Let’s make it personal: the good news is that we are beloved by God, who is not out to condemn us, but to lure us to goodness, to encourage us to do the next right thing; to embrace each other without judgment, and to create beloved communities of mutuality across all boundaries that would divide us. 

The second liberation is that these spiritually liberated communities become the incubators of ministries of compassion and mercy, bridges of reconciliation, advocates for justice, and channels of liberation from oppression. The gospel is good news to the poor, the marginalized, and the excluded. 

Well, 2020 is not over yet; and what is ahead for us, we do not know. There is no guarantee that things will not get worse before they get better. But we believe we are part of a story that is longer than this year, and bigger than this nation. We are part of God’s story. So, let us take our place on our watch, in our generation, faithfully doing the work God has called us to, and in which we find our shalom, our deepest joy.  

Jesus’ First Fish Story

Jesus’ First Fish Story

Sermon for Sept. 20, 2020, Pentecost 16A

Video is here.

Jonah 3:10-4:11

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.

The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

Someone once said, “The Bible is true, and some of it happened.” I like that quote.  Some of it did happen, but I don’t believe the Jonah and the Whale story happened (actually, it’s not a whale, but a “great fish”). 

But I believe the story teaches something powerfully true. The reason I don’t believe it happened is not that I don’t believe in miracles. In fact, I believe the fact that there is a story like Jonah in the Hebrew Bible is its own miracle.  I hope that will be clear soon.  

I also believe that the story of Jonah was part of what formed Jesus’ worldview, which was so radically different from the worldview of the majority of people in his culture. 

Ironically, his radical perspective came from part of his Biblical tradition, as evidenced by the Jonah story, even if it was the minority report.  

I believe there was never a time we needed the truth that this story teaches more than today. The character, Jonah, hated his enemies, the Assyrians, whose capital city was Nineveh. He wanted their destruction, not their redemption. 

That same attitude of hating one’s opponents is alive and well today.  

The Plot of Jonah 

Anyway, Jonah is a great story, so let’s get into it. Our reading today picks up the story at the end. Many of us know the story well, but for those who don’t, here is the basic plotline. 

Jonah is an Israelite prophet. As such, he did not foretell the future, so much as proclaim God’s word to the people in his own time. The story begins with God telling Jonah to go to Assyria’s capital city, Nineveh, and 

cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.

 In other words, go proclaim the message that judgment is coming as the consequence of their wickedness.  

The Assyrians were infamously brutal, even by ancient standards.  The prophet Nahum called Nineveh a “city of bloodshed”. 

Most scholars believe the book of Jonah was written long after the Assyrians conquered the Northern ten tribes of Israel, and took the survivors away captive. There was a lot of bad blood between them. 

Hating the Assyrians was uncontroversial. This is why it is so remarkable that the story of Jonah was ever kept and became part of the Hebrew Bible, but it did!

Jonah Flees

So, you would think that it would please Jonah to go cry out a message of judgment against Nineveh, but he was not pleased. He got on a ship bound for a city in modern Spain — the opposite direction from Nineveh. 

The Storm at Sea

God had other plans; God made a storm come up at sea during Jonah’s attempted escape. The poor sailors try everything to save the ship, but to no avail. 

Finally, in desperation, they cast lots to see who is to blame for the storm, and the lot falls on Jonah. He then comes clean. He admits that he is fleeing from God, and they must throw him overboard if they want the sea to calm. They don’t want to, but nothing else has worked, so eventually, they do.  

That is when God provided a “great fish” to swallow Jonah whole. The story says he was in the belly of the fish “three days and three nights.” 

Jonah then did what most people would do inside the belly of a fish — he composed an elegant prayer in Hebrew poetry, complete with vivid imagery and three stanzas. After three days and nights, the fish 

spewed Jonah out on the dry land.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time with the same message, and this time Jonah acquiesces. He goes to the great Assyrian city of Nineveh and tells the people, 

forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” 

I can see him making this proclamation with vengeful glee.  

Spoiler Alert: They Repent

But here is where something as unlikely as being swallowed by a great fish happens: the Assyrian people hear the message and repent. Even the king repents, quite humbly. 

He proclaims a total national fast. Just to be thorough, he even decrees that the animals shall not eat or drink anything for three days, and they, along with everyone else, should be covered in the sackcloth sign of mourning. 

If you have ever seen sheep, goats, or cows out in the field, the idea that you could somehow keep all of them cloaked is absurd enough, but keeping animals from grazing would be quite a feat!  I believe there is some humor intended here.  

Anyway, God saw how they all 

turned from their wicked ways” 

and the text says, 

God changed his mind about the calamity that he said he would bring upon them and he did not do it.” (3:10). 

That was too much for Jonah. 

“He became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, is this not what I said while I was in my own country?  That is why I fled…for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing.” (4:2). 

We should just pause here and note that this picture of God is highly relational. God is not like Aristotle’s unmoved mover, an unchangeable monarch in heaven whose word is written in stone. The God of the Hebrew Bible is reactive, responsive, and personal.  

The Forgiving God Concept

Anyway, where did Jonah get this idea about God? How did he become convinced that God was 

gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing?” 

He came by it honestly. It is a common belief today that the God of the Hebrew Bible was all wrath, judgment, and fury, in contrast to the God of the New Testament who is all love. That idea of two different Gods goes all the way back to the first century, and although it was considered a heresy (called Marcionism), it is still widely believed.  

The trouble is that the Hebrew Bible has several different ways of conceiving God, and they are not at all consistent. 

Yes, sometimes God is pictured full of wrath, judgment, and fury. But at other times God is pictured as Jonah said, 

gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing.” 

But which was more true?  

Jonah got it right. How can we be sure? The central story of the Hebrew Bible is the exodus story; Moses leads the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt to freedom. In that most central story, Moses has a direct encounter with God. 

In that encounter, up on Mt. Sinai, Israel’s God, YHWH, or “the Lord” discloses himself to Moses. A cloud descended onto the mountain where Moses was, and God proclaimed: 

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin….”  (Exod. 34). 

That same description of God is taken up and used repeatedly in several variations. It comes up in the prophets and many times in the Psalms of Israel.  

The Necessary Choice of Gods

I honestly do not know how you can have it both ways: how you can have a God who is full of wrath, judgment, and fury, and at the same time 

gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing.” 

I believe that Jesus came to that same conclusion — that it makes no sense to try to have it both ways. Jesus rejected the concept of God as full of wrath, judgment, and fury, in favor of the God who is 

gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing.”  

So, that brings us to the part of the Jonah story we read. Jonah is angry enough to want to die. He hates the Assyrians. He hates the fact that God doesn’t hate them. He hates that they are going to get redemption instead of judgment. 

Look at how entitled he feels he is: he thinks he is entitled to vengeance. He thinks he is entitled to be shaded from the sun. And he thinks he is entitled to tell God what God’s job is.  

It is utterly remarkable to me — like I said, a miracle — that this book exists. The whole point of the book is that Jonah got it right about God’s mercy, but completely wrong about his hatred. His vengeance-quest was ugly, selfish, small-minded, and opposite to what God wanted, and even if it was what most of his fellow Israelites wanted.  

God’s Question; Jesus’ Answer

The book ends with a question that the God of mercy who relented from punishing asks the angry prophet, 

should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”  

This is what formed Jesus’ view of God, and his view of other people. He accepted one of the perspectives about God, found in the Hebrew Bible, but rejected the other. Jesus did this explicitly. 

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes exception to several of the teachings of the Hebrew Bible, saying repeatedly, 

You have heard that it was said,” 

and follows up with 

but I say to you…”. 

He said 

You have heard that it was said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 

But he took the view that the book of Jonah teaches. Jesus said, 

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matt 5:44-45)

The Choice Before Us

That is not a popular view today. In fact, very few believe it. Very few, it seems, even aspire to it. 

So, we have a choice. We can follow the crowd of people who end up sitting with Jonah, angry, wishing vengeance on our enemies, or we can follow the Jesus-path of love and prayer for our enemies. 

According to Jesus, God does not, in fact, punish the bad guys. He sends sun and rain on the farms and fields of the evil and the good. Retribution, Jesus concluded, is not how it works. God is not like that.  

So what are we to do about the people whose words and actions we oppose, and even abhor? What do we do when we observe policies and practices by our leaders that hurt people, harm the environment, and mock at science and deny reality? 

I believe we are called to two kinds of responses: the very two responses that Jesus took in his day. 

First, we organize and nonviolently do everything we can to confront injustice, oppression, deceit, and discrimination. We are, as Jesus was, activists, who are not afraid to march, or donkey-ride, up to the center of power structures and systems of abuse and denounce them.  

But we do not act from motives of hatred or vengeance. We will not succumb to the temptation of vilifying our opponents as if they were not people whom God loves. 

We will wish, not for their harm, but their redemption. We will pray for them that they would be enlightened, that they would become compassionate, that they would consider the humanity of all people, and the special needs of the weak and vulnerable.  

All of this can be done if we would adopt the “lovingkindness” prayer for our opponents. We pray, 

May they be happy, may they be well, may they be filled with kindness and peace.” 

We pray that prayer with the understanding that if they were happy, instead of fearful, if they were healthy in every way, including ethically and spiritually, if they were filled with kindness toward everyone and were at peace internally, with nothing to prove and no one to be superior to, they would be transformed people. 

So let us not follow Jonah in animosity, but Jesus who called us to love our enemies. Let us oppose their policies, but let us pray for their redemption, saying, 

May they be happy, may they be well, may they be filled with kindness and peace.”

The Looming Danger and the Christian Way

The Looming Danger and the Christian Way

Sermon for Sept. 13, 2020, Pentecost 15A

Video is here.

Romans 14:1-12

Matthew 18:21-35

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

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

Humans are complicated. We have rational minds, but we are capable of being wildly irrational. Even people with healthy minds can believe things that are not true. 

People often believe things about themselves that are not true, like that they are essentially bad, or unloveable, or unredeemable. That is tragic. 

Lots of people still believe that autism is related to vaccinations, even though the doctor that originally made that claim has been thoroughly discredited in the scientific and medical communities. 

We are going to talk about some untrue things that people believe today.

Our Capacity for Groupishness

Humans are complicated in other ways too. When things go well, we grow up in families in which there is love and support. We recognize our extended family, aunts, uncles, cousins, 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th cousins, and so on. We generally feel a kinship with our extended families, as I said, when things are going well. Some animals do that too. 

But we humans have amazing capacities to group ourselves in far greater and more complex ways than merely family relationships. We can form organizations, religions, even nations. We can rally around a common flag or king or country. We can believe so strongly in our connections to that flag or king or country that we are willing to die for it.  


But there is a dark side to this complex group-making that we humans are complex enough to accomplish. It is called pseudospeciation. 

It comes from two words, “pseudo,” which means false, as in the word pseudonym, and “species,” as in homosapiens species.  

We homosapiens are all of one species. “Sapien,” by the way, is a word that means wisdom. Our species is supposed to be distinguished by our wisdom. (Doesn’t that give you pause for thought?)

Even though there is only one homosapiens species that every human on our planet belongs to, our complex, sophisticated brains can create fictional species. We can invent species like the Aryans, and distinguish them from other fictional species like Jews. 

We look at cultural differences, or language differences, or skin pigmentation differences, or hair characteristics and decide that these indicate different species of humans. 

Nowadays, we are more likely to call those fictional species “races.” Once we do that, racism becomes inevitable. Once we believe the fictional story that there are different races of humans, we are most likely going to consider our race superior to the other races. Pseudospeciation leads to the dehumanization of the other. They can become the enemy.  

Serbs and Croats

Pseudospeciation is such a powerful mechanism, that it even works between nearly indistinguishable groups. I lived in Central Europe in which two groups of Christian Caucasians, who shared the same language group, and who had lived in the same country, who were geographically mixed and frequently intermarried, Serbs and Croats, went to war with each other with horrific consequences.  

This is not a new story. When Athens and Sparta went to war, in the fifth century B.C., the Greek general and historian Thucydides observed,

The Greeks did not understand each other any longer, though they spoke the same language.” 

I fear that pseudospeciation could happen again here in America. We already know what we were willing to do with the fiction of the Native American species and the African American species. Genocide, ethnic cleansing, and slavery have been a part of our national story. 

But now, I fear that the division between the red and blue political differences could reach the level of pseudospeciation. We simply see the world differently. We do not understand each other. We cannot talk to each other. We do not listen to each other. Where will this go? I fear to think.

A Christian Alternative

What I want to say, as a Christian pastor, is that I believe pseudospeciation is not a Christian practice. In fact, I believe it is an essentially un-Christians practice. We cannot and must not think of any other human as less than fully human. We cannot believe that we are superior to any other human. We are in this together.

The two texts we read from our scriptural wisdom tradition are based on the understanding that we are all in this together, and we have to find ways to work it out.  We are different, that is true, but that is not the truest truth. 

The truest truth is that we are all created by God, loved by God, and called to find ways to live together in peace.

The Diverse Church in Rome

So, Paul wrote to the early Christian community in Rome about how to do that. They were a mixed community if there ever was one. Romans and Jews were different linguistically, culturally, and, in their pre-Christian days, religiously. They had different holidays, customs, diets, and rules. 

So how were they ever going to come together as a new Christian community? Paul’s advice is, in my opinion, ethically revolutionary.  

Think, for a moment, about how deeply their views differed. Some believed that a good Christian could not eat any meat, because all meat was “offered,” at least by words and gestures, to pagan gods at the time of slaughter.  

Other people said that the pagan gods did not exist, since there is only one God, so have all the meat you can afford. Actually, the community was socially divided too. Meat was too expensive for poor people, so maybe poverty was in the background of the meat-avoider’s perspective. 

Anyway, the details of it are not the point here: what we need to see is how radically different their views were. The non-eaters considered this a serious moral issue.  

And that was not the only issue that divided them. In the text we read, Paul says

Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike.” 

That is a monumental understatement. Jews kept the Sabbath. It’s in the Ten Commandments. The Jewish bible’s creation story said that even God rested on the Sabbath. It’s not an option. And it was not just a human holiday like Memorial Day: the Sabbath commandment came from God, according to the tradition.  

Be Convinced in Your Mind and Let it Go

What was Paul’s advice? Listen again:

Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also, those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.”

How could he be so flippant with those two major differences? I don’t believe he was being flippant, but rather that he had a belief in a value that went deeper than any set of practices about food or days. He said,

We do not live to ourselves.”  

That is the Christian way to think about it. It’s not about me. It’s not about me being right, having my way, getting the last word, or the correct view.

We do not live to ourselves.” 

One may be right about meat, and the other mistaken, but “We do not live to ourselves” so, he says, do not judge people who believe differently. We do not despise people who believe differently. Everyone is responsible to God, not to me.  

Jesus on Forgiveness

Oddly, Paul rarely quotes Jesus. Paul wrote Romans and all of his letters before the gospels were written. But though he doesn’t quote Jesus much, he certainly absorbed Jesus’ perspective. 

Jesus tried and tried to get us to understand that it’s not about us, personally, it’s about us collectively

If there is anything that scholars of the historical Jesus are sure of it is that he instituted the practice of sharing common meals with people who were different. 

He intentionally broke barriers that had been socially constructed that kept people apart. He did not believe in the categories of “pure and impure”” people as his culture did. So, he invited to the table “tax collectors and sinners” as they were collectively known; riffraff. Scum. Untouchables. He considered them all loved by God, so it was essential that they loved each other.  

Jesus was not blind to the fact that humans make life hard for each other; we offend each other, insult each other, hurt each other’s feelings, wound each other’s pride, encroach on each other’s territory, and even do worse things. But he said we should forgive each other. When forgiveness breaks down, it just makes a mess. 

An Absurd Story

So, he told an absurd story. He often used gross exaggeration to keep people’s attention and to make his points. One man owed a huge debt, let’s say ten million dollars. But he begged to be forgiven, and impossibly, he was. Then he found a man that owed him, let’s say one hundred dollars, and did not forgive him with horrific consequences that followed. That too is absurd. 

But the lesson is clear: when forgiveness breaks down in a community, the consequences are catastrophic. So the story ends with him getting ratted out. Notice how after getting caught not forgiving, his debt forgiveness was also withdrawn. Now we have two families in debtors prison. It’s a disaster.  When forgiveness breaks down in a community, the consequences are catastrophic.

Memory and Expansions

I have said that the gospels are a combination of genuine memories of the historical Jesus plus enlargements on that memory by the early Christians. 

Historical Jesus scholars believe that that last sentence in which Jesus reportedly says that God will be like the man who was ready to forgive until things changed, then he was ready to have the unforgiving man tortured until he repaid the ten million. 

Matthew says that Jesus said,

So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” 

God becomes the eternal torturer. Clearly, that was not the way Jesus thought of God.  

Forgiveness Again

But Jesus did teach forgiveness as a requirement for his followers. It’s even in the Lord’s prayer “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” It’s not about us, our rights, our need to have vengeance, which is such an ugly, destructive emotion.  

This whole perspective is what Paul absorbed which gave him the courage to tell his Roman Jewish and Gentile Christians to stop judging each other and get along.  

This Jesus-perspective is my only hope for our deeply divided country. It is, if we practice it, the antidote to the poison of pseudospeciation, the dehumanization of people we don’t agree with. 

We are in this together; that is the truth. We breathe each other’s air and so we have pandemics. We all have to live on a planet that is fulfilling our worst fears about climate change: intensified hurricanes, flooding, monster forest fires. It’s not about being polite, it’s about survival. 

The Christian perspective on all of this is that

We do not live to ourselves.” 

Our Survival may depend on believing that.

Liberation and Love

Liberation and Love

Sermon for Sept. 6, 2020, Pentecost 14A

Video is here.

Matthew 18:15-20

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

It is often uncanny to me how ancient wisdom literature can speak to today’s issues. The lectionary gives us these two texts which are interesting and even challenging for our times. 

But both of them also present us with problems. Sometimes you need to clear away the weeds before you can see the path, so let’s do some weed clearing, and then see where the path takes us.

Passover Remembered in Liturgy

We will start with the Exodus text, which is about the night of the first Passover. The setting for the story is the evening before the Hebrew people escape their condition of bondage in Egypt and head across the Red Sea to freedom. 

This is just after the announcement to Pharaoh of the tenth plague: the death of the firstborn children of Egypt.  

It seems odd to me now, that I used to read this text at face value, uncritically. 

Today, I am horrified by the thought of slaughtering an animal and using its blood to mark my doorway. It reminds me of the Charles Manson inspired murders. 

I am even more horrified by the idea of God’s angel of death being sent out to massacre children.  

No To Both Horrors

Thank God, the days of animal sacrifice are long gone, and thank God that Jesus taught us to think of God so completely differently. 

Jesus taught us, by words and actions that God is love. 

That God loves the world. 

That every person is made in the divine image. 

That God is good. 

That God wants our redemption from all the ways we hurt ourselves and each other destructively, including the ways in which we wish for vengeance on our enemies, instead of their enlightenment.  

Back to the Passover story. This story is not recited as events that simply unfold, but is told by means of instructions for remembering them in a future time. In other words, what we read are the instructions about how to remember the Passover in the future, by means of a liturgy. 

The text taught the people that the way to remember God’s liberation, was by marking the door frames of their homes with a sign. The sign was the symbol of life, for blood carried life.  

The point is this: Never forget that God wishes for your freedom, your liberation. Remember it by means of a sign of ultimate value. 

So, I take this story as a parable that teaches that God’s will for people is their freedom from all conditions which enslave them. And God’s people will be visibly known by a sign of life. We will return to this in a moment. 

Matthew’s all too Human Community

The second text we read was from Matthew’s gospel. This text reflects a time in Matthew’s young Christian community as they tried to work out life together. Communities are made up of people, and people will never fail to step on each other’s toes, offend each other, try to control each other, and hurt each other. 

People are people; we are human, and we all have both positive characteristics and dark sides, good days, and bad days. 

So, how should a community handle the behaviors that come from those dark sides on those bad days?  Well, a principle that they knew from the Jewish Law in the Hebrew Bible was that you never convict a person on the basis of a single testimony (Dut. 19:15). 

Whenever you hear a story from one person about another, always remember that you have heard one side of the story, and every story has more than one side. So, be slow to join accusations.  

The whole point is to try to work it out. Don’t rush to judgment. Try to get to a resolution, to reconciliation. In other words, keep your ego in check. 

The goal is not punishment, but the peace that comes from honesty. In order for this to work, someone is going to have to back down. Someone is going to have to admit fault. Someone is going to have to own what they did, stop making excuses for it, and apologize. 

Then, the other one is going to have to accept the apology and move on. Otherwise, what would be the point of talking about it?  

Ego Work

Both admitting fault and forgiving require ego work. We all have egos, meaning our sense of who we are and what we are entitled to. 

We all think everyone in the world owes us respect. We all want to be taken seriously. 

We all think our own perspective is right. 

We all want everyone else to give us the benefit of the doubt, to assume that we had perfect motives, and did our best, even when we didn’t. 

All those things are what we call ego. The Self, the ego, is that part of us that takes offense, and holds grudges. The ego is that part of ourselves that gets its feelings hurt when we don’t get what we think we are entitled to.  

Now, this is tricky for two reasons. We believe that Jesus taught us to live in such a way that we show respect to everyone, so, in that sense, everyone deserves respect. That is what we extend to others. But that is not what we are to demand for ourselves in the context of our community.  

The second way this teaching is tricky is that we are talking about life together in community. We are not talking about larger social issues. It is right for oppressed groups to demand justice and to be treated with respect. But inside the community, we are to turn the other cheek, and forgive “seventy times seven times.” 

Clearing Matthew’s Weeds

Now, I mentioned that there were weeds that needed to be cleared away from both texts. Here we come to the weeds in this Matthew text. 

The next part of advice, I believe, is not a memory of the historical Jesus, but an expansion on that memory from Matthew’s community. It is the advice about what to do if negotiations fail and the one at fault does not own it, back down, admit it, and apologize. Matthew says, 

“if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.”

I do not believe the historical Jesus said that, because of the way he treated Gentiles and tax-collectors. In fact, Matthew’s gospel tells us that the disciple named Mathew was himself, a tax-collector, and also that Jesus accepted hime, and that he was compassionate to Gentiles.  

The Community Gathered in Jesus’ Name

But the final statement in this teaching is the key. Matthew says Jesus said:

“where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Two or three is the smallest community you can imagine, but it is sufficient. I wonder what Jesus would have thought about gathering virtually, as we have to do these days. I think he would understand. I think he would say, “When two or three gather around a common video of worship, or when they gather in a Zoom meeting, I am there with them.”

 When we gather, we gather in the name of Jesus. That means that Jesus is the basis for our community. The life and teachings of Jesus show us the way to live, including how to live together in community. 

We gather to remember Jesus and to let his words shape our lives. What we see, when we look at Jesus, is a person who demonstrated love at every turn. 

He loved his disciples, even when they failed. 

He loved people whom he called “lost,” whom other people wrote off as “sinners.” 

He loved people whom other people neglected, disrespected, or despised: sick people, Samaritan people, women, Gentile people, poor people, even children, which was counter-cultural at that time. 

Jesus was able to love because he had his ego under control. He did not get offended, even when he was being challenged. He did not need to be first, in fact, our tradition tells us that he washed the feet of his disciples; something only servants did. 

Jesus practiced the kind of spiritual practices, like meditation, or contemplation, that put his own ego in place. The community that gathers in his name seeks to do the same.  

Liberation from Enslavement to Ego

This is one of the levels of liberation we talk about: we can be liberated from slavery to ego when we practice the Jesus-way of living. 

We can be freed from the necessity of protecting our pride and defending our right-ness. 

We can be unshackled from the need to have the last word, be recognized, and be taken seriously by everyone. 

That is what Jesus saves us from, if we let him.  

So let us bring these two stories together. The Passover parable is about being liberated by a God who wants our freedom. The sign we wear to the world that we can spread, not only on our doorframes, but on our whole lives, is the sign that Jesus said would distinguish us as his followers: love.  

I cannot think of a time when we have needed this more than today. Our country is so divided; there is so much hostility, anger, arrogance, and derision — we all know it. Let us not be part of it! Let us be the solution. 

Let us be a community that models the Jesus-way of love; love for each other, and love for our enemies. 

All of our work for justice, equity, and inclusion is motivated, not by resentment and bitterness, but by love. Even when we have to confront systems of injustice and repression, we do it in love. Even when threatened, we respond with love. 

We keep doing the ego-work, keep our spiritual disciplines alive, we keep meditating, so that we can pray for those who oppose us, 

may they be happy, may they be well, may they be filled with kindness and peace.” 

As our scriptural wisdom tradition teaches,

love covers a multitude of sins.

The Costs of the Kingdom

The Costs of the Kingdom

Sermon for Aug. 30, 2020, Pentecost 13A

Matthew 16:21-28

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 

Then Jesus told his disciples, “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 will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

There are several scenes in the Bible that show a person directly encountering God.  All of them are weird.  Odd things happen.  

There is a dark cloud on mountain that is smoking and shaking and a blasting sound like a trumpet; there is a whirlwind that breaks rocks, followed by the sound of sheer silence; there are angels with six wings flying around saying “Holy, holy, holy” in the temple as it shakes nearly collapsing.  In this scene, there is a bush is on fire that does not burn itself out.  (Exodus 3:1-15)

How are we supposed to imagine God?  Are we even supposed to try?  Many theologians say no, but on the other hand, how can we not?   

What We Can Say About God

Even though these different direct-encounter scenes presents God differently, nevertheless, they share some common features.  God is overwhelming; awesome; bigger than nature.  

But God’s enormity, though scary, is not a threat.   God is good to humans.  God cares.  God’s overwhelming power is indisputable, but God does not coerce.  God wants certain things, but wants a human agent to do them.  God wants to set the Hebrew slaves free from Pharaoh, but he wants Moses to be the means.  

When Isaiah met God in the temple, God had a message for the people, but he asked, “Whom shall I send?” And then waited for Isaiah to say, “Here am I.   Send me.”  God needed more time to convince Moses, but eventually he does.  (Isaiah 6)

In the dialogue, Moses asks God his or her name.  God famously answers “I am who I am.”  I’m not sure that name explains anything.  

We are back to the question: are we even supposed to know?  Some scholars have suggested that the Hebrew behind that mysterious name could be translated, “I will cause to be what I cause to be.”  But again, God’s way of causing things involves humans.  

Jesus’ God

The stories of these divine encounters and the God they depicted were part of the Jewish tradition that formed Jesus’ concept of God.  God, for Jesus, was good; Jesus pictured God like a father; not a rough disciplinarian, but like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son: one that looked down the road every day for his troubled boy, and ran to meet him with a hug when he returned.  The boy was not scolded, but celebrated, to the chagrin of his older brother.  

Jesus also knew that God’s means of getting things done was through people, and he felt personally called to be God’s agent, God’s means.  

But he did not imagine the task was his alone.  Jesus called other people to follow him; to get on board; to be part of the team to announce the presence of the kingdom of God with all its implications.

God Without Guarantees

And although Jesus understood God as good, he knew that God’s goodness was not a guarantee of safety.  God’s presence would not shield Jesus nor his followers from suffering.  God, for Jesus, was present in his suffering (even though his confidence was shaken, on the cross) but not a magical protection from the pain.  

Embracing a mission that included costs was something Jesus did, and something Jesus called his followers to do as well.  

This did not go down so well, with the likes of Peter.  Peter, like the televangelists today who promise health, wealth and prosperity, wanted a victorious Messiah, not one headed for a cross.  His desire for triumph without trouble earned him the harshest rebuke recorded in the gospel.  Jesus said, 

Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 

God Wants Liberation

It is very human to want to avoid suffering.  But there are times in which suffering must be accepted as the possible price to be paid for going up against forces that are hostile to getting God’s purposes accomplished.  

What does God want to accomplish?  One of God’s most obvious desires is for the people’s liberation.  That is what we learn from the story that started for Moses at the burning bush. God heard the cries of the people who were enslaved.  Being enslaved is an inhuman, unjust condition.  God wanted liberation.  God wanted justice.  

So Jesus knew what God wanted, but recognized that going up agains the Herodian-Roman domination system was going to be dangerous.  

We look back on what Jesus did, when he rode that donkey colt into Jerusalem on that Passover festival and call it his “triumphal entry.”  But nobody knew, on that day, whether or not it would end in bloodshed.  

Jesus was, after all, intentionally mocking Pilate’s grand entry into Jerusalem from the opposite side; Jesus’ peaceful donkey mocking Pilate’s war horse; Jesus’ palm branch waving supporters mocking Pilates’ heavily armed troops.  It could have been a massacre right then and there.  Jesus accepted that possibility.

Jesus took even greater risks than merely that carnivalesque ride.  He went to the temple, in effect, the central bank, and shut it down, at least symbolically, at least for several hours.  

It took the authorities about a week to figure out wether Jesus was leading an armed revolution or was a non-violent opposition leader.   When they determined he was non-violent, they knew they did not need to make their move against his whole support network, but only him alone. 

But they knew, one way or the other, he had to be stopped.  He had a goal, and that was to liberate his people from the oppression of King Herod’s dynasty, under the Roman Empire’s authority.  

His goal was  that the kingdom they would live in would not be Herod’s or Caesar’s, but God’s, in which the last would be first and the first would be last, the hungry would be fed, and in which no one was excluded.  

He knew that confronting the powers that benefited from that oppression would be dangerous, but he did not flinch.  Doing nothing was not an option, even though doing anything involved risks. 

Reading These Texts in our Context

How do we read these texts in our context?  It seems hyperbolic in the extreme to speak of taking up crosses, as if we had to fear execution.  Even if we practiced  the self-denial that Jesus spoke about, in our context it would be a far cry from the risks that Jesus called his followers to take.  

For example, while it is true that people have died protesting white supremacy and racism, but it is quite rare; at least, so far.  This is not 1964, thank God. 

So what should be our take away?  On the most obvious level, we can say that we are called to follow Jesus in the quest for for justice and for libration from oppression.  

In our day, that means being allies for any and all oppressed groups.  Justice work is spiritual work because it is God’s work.  Most likely, the costs to us are going to be social, not physical.   

People may take offense when we march against racism.  They may not think much of us when we advocate on behalf of gay people or trans people, but we accept that price.  We know that God wants justice, and wants people to be the means to achieving it.

Life Worth Living

But let’s go deeper with this text.  The people who resist the notion of suffering are trying to save their lives.  But how far will they go in an effort to keep themselves on easy street?  Jesus, after his rebuke to Peter, asked, 

what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

In the older translations, the question Jesus asked was translated, “what shall a [person] given in exchange for his soul?”  The word soul literally means your entire being; not the soul, as if distinct from the body.  

That older translation gave rise to the expression “selling your soul.”  The idea is that there are people who “sell their soul” cheaply.  

Some sell their soul to their jobs, and ruin their families and their own health.  

Some sell their soul to a political party, and so are incapable of holding people in it accountable, even when what they do is unacceptable.  

Some sell their soul to their nation; they will defend anything the nation does, even when it is obviously oppressive.  We see this going on around us all the time.  

In our day, there are people who refuse to be inconvenienced by  wearing a mask, even if would protect the vulnerable from a life-threatening virus.  Perhaps they have sold their souls to a version of personal freedom, even at the risk of causing death.  

There are people who will not be inconvenienced by avoiding plastics or recycling, not to mention supporting a carbon fee, even if it means contributing to climate change which causes warmer oceans which produce larger, stronger hurricanes.  Who could they possibly hurt?  Ask the people in Louisiana and Texas.   

The conclusion that Jesus came to was this:

those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

The self-seeking life is not worth living.  The self-centered life is not worth living.  The self-aggrandizing life is not worth living.  

But the life lived for the things that matter to God is worth living.  The life of service is worth living.  The life of sacrifice is worth living.  

The life of seeking the common good, seeking justice, seeking and end to oppression and discrimination is worth living.  This is the life of love; our highest calling.  Justice is what love looks like in public.  

Blessed are those,” Jesus said, “who hunger and thirst for justice.   For theirs is the kingdom of God.”

The Story of 2020

The Story of 2020

Sermon for August 23, 2020, Pentecost 12A
Video can be found here.

Isaiah 51:1-6

Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness,
   you that seek the Lord.
Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
   and to the quarry from which you were dug.
Look to Abraham your father
   and to Sarah who bore you;
for he was but one when I called him,
   but I blessed him and made him many.
For the Lord will comfort Zion;
   he will comfort all her waste places,
and will make her wilderness like Eden,
   her desert like the garden of the Lord;
joy and gladness will be found in her,
   thanksgiving and the voice of song.

Listen to me, my people,
   and give heed to me, my nation;
for a teaching will go out from me,
   and my justice for a light to the peoples.
I will bring near my deliverance swiftly,
   my salvation has gone out
and my arms will rule the peoples;
   the coastlands wait for me,
   and for my arm they hope.
Lift up your eyes to the heavens,
   and look at the earth beneath;
for the heavens will vanish like smoke,
   the earth will wear out like a garment,
and those who live on it will die like gnats;
   but my salvation will be for ever,
and my deliverance will never be ended.

The stories we tell matter. Someday they will tell the stories of 2020. It will have been the year of the global pandemic, of course, and also the year of an American presidential election. 

It will have been the year of national protests over the way black lives have been treated as if they did not matter, by the institutions whose duty it was to protect them. 

It will, at minimum, have been the year that the first African-American woman was on the ticket of a major party, in the intersection of the one-hundredth anniversary of the attainment of women’s suffrage, and in the national embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement.  

But we are in the middle of 2020 now. We do not know how the story will end. We are living in the days of mask-wearing, curbside pickup, take-out dining, social distancing, and, for many, isolation. 

All of this is new for us; it is inconvenient, and stressful. It creates heavy emotional burdens. People with pre-existing emotional or mental underlying conditions suffer most. 

This is also the year of increased drug-addiction and domestic violence. It is too early to tell if it is also the year of increased suicide rates, but who would be surprised if it were?  

Telling Ourselves Stories

How are you handling this whole thing? To a significant degree, the stories you are telling yourself every day — in fact, every moment — affect how 2020 is going for you. 

We, humans, tell ourselves lots of stories. We have a mental narrator that is framing our experiences, judging them as likable or not, happy or not, helpful or not. So, what is your narrator telling you right now?  

We do have control over our mental narrator, though, in our culture, we are not brought up to know that, or to use that control. Controlling it takes mindfulness, but we are not taught about mindfulness nor about meditation which enables it. 

Most of the time, we simply listen to our mental stories, with all their judgments going on subconsciously, accepting them as true. But the stories we tell ourselves are not true in any deep sense. They are judgments that may or may not be based on reality.  

For example, I have a friend who had a bad experience as a child with a scary dog. Now, even as an adult, dogs make him fearful. His mental narrator tells him they are a danger to him. That is not true, but he feels fear.

An Alternative Story

There is a story we could be telling ourselves in 2020 that could help us, not just survive this year, but actually thrive in it. It is an alternative to the story of us as victims of forces beyond our control. It is a story rooted in something unchangeably true, which has the power to give us hope.

Let us start with another story, which will then take us to our text, the wisdom tradition of the prophet Isaiah, and then bring it home to our day.  

The story starts with people experiencing depression. Just like the way the people of Beirut felt, looking at their city after the explosion, the people of Israel, whose parents had survived the Babylonian invasion of their country 70 years earlier, returned to find the temple and palace in ruins, the walls destroyed, and few resources. 

The story they told themselves was that they were victims. They told themselves that there were forces beyond their control that they were powerless to confront.  

But the prophet Isaiah knew that there was a larger truth that they were living in. There was a deeper identity they could embrace with the power to subvert the victim-status they were wearing. 

It was a specific identity, grounded in a story that included God. Not just God in the abstract, but in a particular way of understanding God. Let us look at the text. To those depressed, discouraged returnees, Isaiah said, 

Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which you were dug.
 Look to Abraham your father
  and to Sarah who bore you;”

The Abraham and Sarah Story

The story of Abraham and Sarah began as a “call narrative;” a story of people who came to understand that God was calling them to set out on a journey to an unknown land. 

God took the initiative.  Not because they were seeking a call, not because they had done anything to earn it, nevertheless, on God’s own initiative, for God’s own reasons, they were called to make that journey into an unknown future. All they did was say “yes” to that call. 

“Look to that story,” Isaiah says. “We are their descendants,” he says; both descendants in the family, and descendants of that particular faith-tradition.  

Abraham and Sarah’s story was not made for Disney. There were successes and failures of faith along the way. But they were never abandoned by God. In fact, the opposite. After failures of nerve, after fathering Ishmael by Hagar, still, God was faithful. And from that one son, Isaac, they had become many; proof of God’s faithfulness. Isaiah points this out:

“for he was but one when I called him,
  but I blessed him and made him many.

Isaiah says, in effect, “Yes the Babylonian invasion was brutal. Yes, the destruction was immense. Yes, the task ahead is difficult, but look at who you are: you are the people God called. You are here today because, after all these years, God has been faithful to bless you. 

Look at that, and stop telling yourself the victim-story. You are the blessed people of God; start wearing that identity. Make t-shirts that say it, if that will help.  Wearing that identity, telling the story that way will then become the basis of hope.” Isaiah says:

For the Lord will comfort Zion;
  he will comfort all her waste places,
 and will make her wilderness like Eden,
  her desert like the garden of the Lord;
 joy and gladness will be found in her,
  thanksgiving and the voice of song.

Comfort” here means restoration. There is hope for the future. There will be an end to depression. There will be joy, thanksgiving, and the voice of song.  

The God of the Light of Justice

The hope is not just a facile happy-wish, as if you could just think positive thoughts and your troubles would go away. The hope is based on the kind of God that Abraham and Sarah learned that the God of Israel is. This God is a God of justice. Isaiah said, 

Listen to me, my people,
  and give heed to me, my nation;
 for a teaching will go out from me,
  and my justice for a light to the peoples.

Let us unpack that. God’s teaching, or instruction, is going to be a light to the peoples, meaning a new way of seeing. In what way new? Seeing with eyes open to justice; eyes that see injustice and see what needs to be done to set things right.  

Hagar’s Rescue: God is Just

According to the story in our tradition, Abraham and Sarah learned that God was both faithful and just. 

Remember the part of the story in which Sarah got jealous of Hagar after she gave birth to Ishmael. Sarah demanded that Abraham send her and her son away. Abraham did. 

In the story, they would have died out in the wilderness without water, but God intervened and provided from them. God looked at people who were suffering unjustly, and provided for them. God’s concern was for compassionate justice. 

That is the lesson to learn. Isaiah says, look to Abraham and Sarah’s story. Let it help form your concept of God. God seeks justice. Let the lesson broaden out from a personal context to the political horizon. When nations champion justice, the light can shine into places that were dark.  

Our 2020 Alternative Story

So, let us bring it back to our context. Yes, the stories of 2020 will be stories of the pandemic, disruption, protest, and politics, but that is not all. The identities we embrace can go beyond seeing ourselves as victim to forces beyond our control, to people who are part of a larger story. 

We are characters in the Great Story of what God is doing in the world. In this story, like Abraham and Sarah, we too have been called by God. God took the initiative with us. God loved us before we could even say the word, God. God created us, just as we are, for a purpose bigger than ourselves. God called us, like Abraham and Sarah, to a journey into an unknowable future. 

Our story with God will not be one of unmitigated success after success. We too will have a failure of nerve at times, but God will remain faithful; God will not abandon us, no matter what.  

We may not know the specifics, but we know that the mission God has called us to is to spread the light of justice. We turn on the lights and see where injustice has caused suffering, and we become activists for justice. 

This means we educate ourselves. We read important books. We join reading groups like the Monday Morning Seekers or Bridges so we can understand issues in-depth, not just the level of the evening news, but at the level of lived experience. We watch documentaries, we listen to podcasts where experts are called in to teach us things we did not know about our country’s history, about the role race has played in determining who has access to power and who is able to accumulate wealth.  

We learn how lucky we white people have been, how many doors swing open to us that are locked for others. We learn how much we have taken all of this for granted, and expect to have an open door, a seat at the table, a voice and a vote. 

We listen to the stories of people of color, with openness and empathy, and learn that our experience of life in this country has been quite different from theirs.

 What stories are we telling ourselves? Let our story be the one Jesus told. It was about the God of Abraham and Sarah who is still active, even in circumstances of oppression and injustice, like the Roman occupation of Palestine. 

His was a story of answering God’s call that, for him, meant proclaiming that beneath the surface of the story of the Roman Empire was the deeper story of God’s kingdom, present within and among everyone who was willing to respond. 

It was a story of a God of faithfulness and justice, providing for the hungry, ministering to the sick, crossing all boundaries of race, gender, class, and identity to show compassion. 

Let that be the story we embrace in 2020. Let that be the identity we wear under our virus-prevention masks. Then, when we look back on this year, we will be able to tell a story of God’s faithful presence to us, his children. It will be the story of how God used us, to bring the light of justice and compassion to our world in our time.  

Yet, She Persisted

Yet, She Persisted

Sermon for Aug. 16, 2020. Pentecost 11A

Video is here.

Matthew 15:10-28 

Then [Jesus] called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?”

But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from thier masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Did Jesus exist as a historical figure, or was he just a fictional character in a story? Usually the church does not spend time on that question: we tend to assume that Jesus existed historically. As it turns out, most scholars agree that he did.  

There are two primary arguments that scholars have adduced. One comes from evidence external to the stories of Jesus in the Bible, the other from internal evidence. 

Externally, ancient historians Josephus and Tacitus both discuss Christ, who is identified as Jesus, and both say that he led a movement that continued to persist in their day, though he was executed by Governor Pilate. That is the external evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

The internal evidence is what I find interesting, as we look at the text before us today. The gospels tell the story of Jesus, as a radically non-violent person, who was even against rhetorical violence; the violence of words. Jesus said, for example,  

But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

Luke 6:27-28

The Tradition Developed

But most people, then and now, do not like non-violence; it’s just too radical. And so, as the story of Jesus developed over time, Jesus himself is described as sometimes being rhetorically violent. 

In Luke, he pronounces “woes” to the Scribes and Pharisees — which is essentially a curse.  So, in one place Jesus says, “bless and do not curse” and in another place, he curses.  What’s happening here?

Here is where the internal evidence for the historical Jesus presents itself. Let’s say the stories of Jesus are fictional.  You might make up a story of Jesus who was comfortable with cursing the bad guys, but why would you include in your story his condemnation of that kind of cursing — unless it was part of the historical memory that you couldn’t ignore?  

So, what we find in the growing stories of Jesus, which scholars call the “Jesus tradition” an increasing softening of his radical positions. 

By the time, many decades after Jesus, the book of Revelation was written, instead of riding a harmless donkey colt, as he did entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Jesus is pictured returning to earth, riding a warhorse, slaying his enemies. That is a completely different Jesus. 

And, as a side note, maybe that is why the Left Behind series of novels, based loosely on Revelation, was so popular with so many Evangelicals, who also support aggressive militarism today.  

Anyway, I want you all to be aware that the Jesus-tradition developed. It contains both memories of the historical Jesus and expansions to those memories by the early Christians. 

I believe that is helpful to keep in mind when we encounter a story in which Jesus seemingly ignores a woman’s plea for help, then puts her in an excluded ethnic category, and finally insults her by obliquely calling her a dog.  

I do not believe that the historical Jesus, who told us to love our enemies, to bless and not to curse them, to forgive those who trespass against us, and to give alms to the poor without expecting anything in return, would do that.  

Nevertheless, this story is of great significance, and probably does contain historical memory as well.

 It is also radical in its implications. So we will look at this story. But before we do, let us notice briefly the scene that comes right before this story.  

Jesus, Purity Laws, and Food

Jesus has been in conversation with the religious leaders of the day. They have come to him, according to the story, complaining that the disciples of Jesus eat with unwashed hands. 

This is not about germs. They had no idea about germs. This was about ritual purity. 

Many laws in the Hebrew Bible describe what was pure, and therefore, okay to touch, and what was impure, and which defiled the person who touched them. You cannot raise animals without becoming defiled by touch, so ritual washing was required to remove the defilement.  

Defiling touch was the concern of the two people who passed by the robbers’ victim, in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. If they touched blood, or if he was dead and they touched him, the priest and the Levite who both worked at the temple, would have become defiled. 

Jesus thought that was a terrible reason not to help someone in need, so he made up a story about it. 

In other words, Jesus radically subverted the purity system. God, it seems, had larger concerns.  

So, for the same reason, Jesus takes advantage of this criticism of his followers’ impure eating habits to again undermine the hole purity agenda. He said it this time as clearly as you could: 

“it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”  

When Mark told this story, he made the implication clear to his readers, saying

Thus he declared all foods clean.”

Mark 7:19

Now, this is radical indeed! The Law of Moses in the Hebrew Bible contains page after page of foods that are forbidden. Today we call these Kosher laws. That is why Jewish people do not eat pork, shrimp, or lobster. They are unclean; impure. 

But Jesus said that the impurity that matters to God is a matter of your heart, not of what you put in your mouth.  

Jesus, Purity Laws, and Outsiders

So, to make the same point, Matthew then includes this partly historical memory, and partly expanded story, of Jesus and the Canaanite woman with the sick daughter. 

This time the central purity-concern is not food, but ethnicity. She was not Jewish, and Jews considered foreigners impure.  

Why do I think that this story contains historical memory? Because it includes a description of things that Jesus did that many people of his culture would not find acceptable: namely the fact that the entire setting of the story is outside Jewish geography. 

Jesus intentionally left the Jewish territory of Galilee and took his disciples on a mission trip to Tyre and Sidon, two Gentile cities. 

Jesus intentionally broke down the purity barrier between insider-Jewish people and outsider-Gentile people. This is going beyond healing a Roman Soldier’s servant, back home in Galilee, or talking to a Samaritan woman at the well, as you go through their land on route to your destination in Israel. This is a move specifically to outsiders; into their space.  

So, as the story goes, this woman calls out to Jesus for help. She is identified as Gentile. She is a “Canaanite woman,” Matthew tells us. 

In this telling of the story, Jesus at first ignores her, yet she persisted. When the disciples beg him to send her away, which is ironic, given that she is in her homeland and they are not, Matthew says Jesus said, 

I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  

That sentence is impossible to imagine the historical Jesus saying, in my view, precisely because he has gone into the territory where there are few if any “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Why was he there, if not for them? But that is how the tradition developed.  

So she continues to persist, not taking silence for an answer. The Canaanite woman breaks protocol, for a woman in her culture, and challenges the man, Jesus. She takes him on. It says,

This is where Jesus, in this story, insults her. Matthew says he replied, 

It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 

If Jews are the “children,” then Canaanites are the “dogs.“ And, we know that in the ancient world, dogs were garbage-eating scavengers, not cute house pets. And yet she persisted, even after this affront. The story continues:

She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

There are only two people, according to the gospels, whom Jesus says have “great faith.” That highest of praise goes to this persistent Canaanite woman, and the Roman Centurion who came to Jesus on behalf of his sick servant. Both were foreigners; Gentiles.  Neither one of them converted to Judaism, according to the stories.

The Point: Radical Inclusion

Even though, as Matthew tells it, Jesus was reluctant at first, nevertheless, this story is about Jesus’ radical refusal to exclude people. Even though the exclusion of Gentiles was demanded in parts of the Hebrew Bible, Jesus took a different view.  

He abandoned the purity trajectory in favor of the trajectory towards inclusion, justice, and love. He did so because he conceived God as a God of inclusion, justice, and love, not judgment, exclusion, and punishment.  

What does this odd story teach us?  As followers of Jesus, it is not possible to be racists. It is not possible to despise people of color. 

It is is not possible to think brown or black bodies matter less than white bodies. It is not possible to be in favor of exclusion of any kind. 

We take this same inclusive perspective and apply it to all people who have been called “dogs” in our society, and discriminated against. 

Today, we believe this includes people who are not like the majority of us, in every category: race, gender identity, sexual orientation, and mental or physical disability.  It includes homeless people that get pushed out to the margins so that we don’t have to look at them and formerly incarcerated people.  

As followers of Jesus, we are called not to be silent about excluded people but to persist in demanding that they are seen, heard, and loved. 

This is not only about personal behavior, although it starts there. We are also called to dismantle systems of racism and oppression instead of ignoring them. We are called to change laws if need be, to hold our leaders accountable, and to work for change.  

Let us look at some specific, local examples. Right now, in Fort Smith, there is no safe homeless shelter for trans-individuals. 

Another example: the city is trying to get Next Step Homeless services to move out of the historic downtown district, but offers no funds and no location for such a move. 

Third: people are getting eviction notices, even though they should be suspended in this pandemic, and St. Anne’s is out of money to help with rent.  

We are the people who turn the lights on to expose all of these injustices, because we are followers of Jesus.

The bottom line for us is the core belief that God is love. We believe that we are all beloved by God — all people are, without exception.  We believe that God is just, and seeks justice for all. 

We take our cues from Jesus who excluded no one, but who crossed boundaries to spread God’s healing love. We are here for a purpose, we believe; one that is larger than ourselves.  

We are how God gets love, justice, and inclusion done in the world. We are committed to not being silent, but like the Canaanite woman, in being persistent. That is the only way that love will win. And love must win.

The Call to Risk

The Call to Risk

Video can be found here.

Matthew 14:22-33

Immediately [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, “Truly you are Son of God.”

One of the riskiest acts you can ever do is leave home. While at home, for most of us, everything we needed was provided; food, clothing, shelter, and all the rest. 

But we all gave all of that up, taking the risk that we would be able to meet all of our needs independently. Of course, we did. No one can become a mature adult without taking that great risk.  

We keep taking risks throughout our lives. Every intimate relationship involves great risks. The person we partner with is going to be the biggest influence on our lives for as long as the relationship lasts, so who that person is, and how they change over time, matters. 

But who can ever know a person deeply enough at the start of the relationship, or predict how they may change? And yet, there is no such thing as love without taking that risk; so we do.  

All financial investments entail risk, The higher the risk, the greater the chance of return. But also the greater the risk of loss. 

Financial advisors tell us that the older we get, the more risk-averse we should become because if the risky investment turns out badly, we have less time to recover.  

Risk Aversion as a Life Strategy

This strategy of increasingly avoiding risks is the strategy for life that most of us employ. As soon as we have acquired something we value, whether it be a relationship or a home, we want to protect it. 

We seek security. Who has never suffered setbacks and loss? Those are painful and often scary. So, we are highly motivated to keep safe and avoid risks.  

I wanted to start with the idea of risks because I believe this famous parable of Jesus challenges us — if we allow it to — to think deeply about the continued role of risk-taking in our lives. 

I believe that to the degree we are risk-averse, we are in danger of stunting our spiritual growth. This is because faith itself is a risk; not just a one-time risk, but a continual risk. The return, however, can be enormous if we are willing to risk the investment.  

Jesus’ Risks

This story can be read as a parable about risk-taking. So let us “dive into it,” so to speak. 

The first risk is the one Jesus took. Actually the ones (plural) that Jesus took. Jesus’ first risk is betting his life that there is an unseen Divine Presence, a depth dimension to life, and that that Presence is personal and good. 

So, Jesus had a set of spiritual practices to nurture his relationship with that good, personal Presence.  

By the way, you may notice that I am avoiding saying the word “God” in this context because that word comes with a lot of freight that I do not want to pull right now. 

I believe that Jesus’ concept of the Divine Presence was quite different than the way God has been conceived of these days, as a narrow-minded, exclusionary, judgmental autocrat. 

For Jesus, the best metaphor for the Divine Presence was a loving, welcoming, forgiving Father, or Abba. So with that in mind, let us continue the story.

So, Jesus risks his life that the Divine Presence is real, and is relational, so he spent time nurturing that relationship. Matthew tells us,

after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray.” 

I believe Jesus practiced what we call contemplative prayer, or meditation, as other Jewish mystics of his day did. Regularly, he spent long periods alone in silent prayer. 

I believe this story is told this way to show us the basis for Jesus’ capacity to calmly walk through life, when other people were franticly panicking. He took the risk that the Divine Presence would uphold him, and it did.  

The disciples, meanwhile, have apparently not spent time in meditation. It is not that they have not taken risks: they have. They are, after all, in the boat, meaning they have taken the risk to become followers of Jesus. 

They have taken the risk of venturing out onto the water to “cross over to the other side,” at his behest. They are doing their best. 

But it is hard. It is nighttime, the sea is rough, the boat is “battered by the waves” and “for the wind was against them.” It is literally life-threatening. For all their efforts to be followers of Jesus, there they are, without him.  

The Disciple’s Risk Scene

The next scene is where this simple story starts to become other-worldly. The disciples see Jesus nonchalantly walking towards them on the sea. 

They are terrified, think they are seeing a ghost, until he says to them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” In Jesus’ presence, people felt the presence of the Divine.  

When early Christians thought about Jesus, they tried to work out two confusing problems. One: if Jesus is Messiah, God’s anointed one, how is it that he suffered political execution, instead of leading a successful war of independence, as many expected Messiah to do? 

Two: how is Jesus related to the Divine? Jesus was intimate with the Divine, Jesus’ presence was a healing presence, so clearly he operated in the spirit and power of the Divine, and Jesus helped others encounter the Divine.  

However you answer those questions, this story shows us the extent to which Jesus’ spirituality was manifested in his life. He believed that no matter what storms were going on around him, that he was upheld by the Presence of the Divine.  

Jesus’ next risk was that this little band of disciples could learn, and transmit his message to the world.  But on with the story.

Matthew received this story from Mark, and adds this next scene about Peter uniquely. In the gospels, Peter is often the spokesperson for the disciples, and so represents them. 

He wants to be like Jesus; he too wants faith strong enough to be upheld, even in a storm, even out on the water itself. He takes the ultimate risk. He gets out of the boat and starts walking on the water. 

There is no effort to make this realistic. Imagine if the waves were solid; to walk on a stormy sea would be like snow-skiing down a course of moving moguls, but never mind. The point is the risk. He knew the risk, but he took it.  

You know the rest of the story. He took the risk, but then started re-calculating, and lost his nerve. He cried out, using words written many years ago in Psalm 69 where the poet said to the Divine,

Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.”

Faith Takes Risks

Matthew tells us, “Jesus reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”” 

By telling the story this way, Matthew focuses on faith that is strong enough to take the risk; faith stronger than doubt. 

Faith simply means trust. It is not about believing creeds. It is about saying, “Yes, it’s a risk; no, there is no certainty on offer here, but the risk is worth it. I will go all in. I will risk having faith that the Jesus-path is the one on which I will be upheld. The waves may batter me, the wind may be against me, but I’m going to make it.”

Now, Matthew is not suggesting that complete security is on offer here. Some sailors die at sea. But rather, having confidence in the Presence of the Divine is what helps us endure any and every storm, even the last one, as Jesus did, for we are all mortal.  

Why Tell a Risk Story?

So, let’s stand back and look at the story as a whole. Why tell a story about risk-taking? What is it about following Jesus that is like Peter getting out of the boat in a storm? 

The answer is that following Jesus has always required risk. The Jesus-path may not be the easiest, most comfortable path to take. 

Let us offer some specifics. It is risky to forgive; what if forgiving someone just gives them the idea they can hurt us again? 

It is risky to be the good Samaritan that stops to help the victim: what if the robbers are lying in wait for another victim? 

It is risky to hang out with the “wrong” crowd; you can get a reputation (as Jesus did). 

It is risky to open your heart to ideas that most of “your kind of people” disagree with.  

The Risk of Facing Up to American Racism

Let’s apply this to our present moment. There is a huge movement in our country right now to face facts about our country that are not pretty. 

Facts about racism. Facts about slavery, and how post-emancipation reconstruction was systematically un-done, state by state. 

Facts about Jim Crow and Black Codes. Facts about lynchings. Facts about how long it has taken for black people to even be allowed to vote, let alone hold office in some of our states. 

Facts about our criminal justice system, from policing, to sentencing, to post-confinement permanent disenfranchisement. 

None of this is pretty to look at. Many people will despise you for agreeing that Black Lives Matter. They will question your patriotism if you oppose monuments built to honor the fight for the right to enslave black bodies called the Confederacy.  

But I believe we are called to take the risk, and that we will be upheld in whatever stormy backlash comes as a result of standing up for justice, standing up for equity, and standing up for our central core value, which is love. 

Love calls us to take the risk that the disciples in Matthew’s story took: to “cross over” to the people on the other side, whose experience of life in this country has been so different from ours. 

The side that has to fear every traffic stop. 

The side that knows that

In the North, they don’t mind how high you rise, as long as you don’t get too close, and in the South, they don’t mind how close you get, as long as you don’t get too high.” 

The side that watched the country get upset about racism in Mississippi in 1964, only after it was white bodies that got killed. 

The side that watches the killers of black bodies today walk away without convictions, some without even standing trial.  

We will take the risk of believing that, as Dr. King said,

“the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” 

We will take the risk of being engaged as part of that quest for justice, equality, and love. 

We will not focus our gaze on the storm, no matter how rough it gets, but on Jesus, who molded a spirituality of equanimity, and who was upheld, until the wind ceased, and justice rolled down like water.  

Jesus and Resistance

Jesus and Resistance

Sermon for Aug. 2, 2020, Pentecost 9A

Video can be found here.

Matthew 14:13-21

When Jesus received the news of John the Baptist’s death, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children

Since the nineteenth century, the British colonialists in India had made local salt production illegal, to force people to buy expensive British salt. Salt is necessary for the diet of people who live in extremely warm climates, like India, so this basic human need was instrumentalized into a basis for oppression. 

So, when Gandhi led a crowd down to the sea to take salt from it, he was conducting an act of resistance.  

When the late John Lewis and Bernard Lafayette, took their seats at the front of a Greyhound bus in 1960, they were conducting a risky act of resistance to racism.  

Seemingly insignificant acts, like harvesting salt from the beach, or taking a seat on a bus, are bold acts of resistance when they represent a “no” to the oppressive status quo. 

Jesus’ Resistance

Serving bread and fish to a group of Galilean peasants was also an act of resistance. When most people are sharecroppers or day-laborers, working for the landed aristocracy, indebted to them and dependent on them, providing bread self-sufficiently was as an act of resistance. 

When fish production was taxed, which it recently had been after Tiberius had commercialized the lake, then providing tax-free fish would be seen as an act of resistance. Jesus was getting political.

Are we right to read this story politically? Matthew requires it. The way he tells the story, the setting is a political assassination. Jesus had just learned that his cousin, his mentor, the one who had baptized him and whose group he had been a part of, was rounded up, and killed. John had been publicly critical of the government. 

Matthew tells us that Herod was superstitious enough to wonder if Jesus himself might be John, come back from the dead. So, Jesus was in clear and present danger of ending up like John.  

So, Matthew tells us,

When Jesus received the news of John the Baptist’s death, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” 

Deserted places are at the margins. They are not worth anything to the elite, but they provide refuge for people who are living at the margins. 

It reminds us of the place the recently freed slaves of the Egyptian empire went that Passover night, long ago.

I want to be clear that I do not believe Matthew is telling a literal story, but a parable. Timing, setting, words, and actions are all given to convey Matthew’s themes as he re-tells the Jesus-story. 

It is important to remember that Matthew (so traditionally named) was living in the Roman empire, not too long after the failed Jewish revolt which ended in the year 70. 

The rebellious Jewish state was crushed by the Romans. So, telling a story with a Jewish hero, especially one with a large following who was talking about a kingdom that was not named Rome, was dangerous. So, Matthew has to be subtle. He is subtle, but also, clear.  

Spirituality and Politics

So, Jesus, in this parable, goes to a deserted place to be safe and alone. For Jesus, it was a chance to pray. Jesus’ whole mission was fueled by his deep spirituality. He was political, in the sense that he was committed to changing the status quo by acts of resistance, but he was not only political. 

His politics were the politics of the Jewish prophets before him who announced God’s will that no one is hungry.  Prophets like Ezekiel imagined a time when justice would be done,

so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land

(Ezk 34:6). 

Hunger is a concern of God’s, so addressing hunger is a spiritual concern. Jesus’ politics were the politics of a compassionate God who cares about human suffering. They were the politics of compassion.

The Crowds and their Hunger

So Jesus is alone, nurturing his spiritual life, but then is found by the crowds. Crowds can be protective shields, as the “Wall of Moms” is trying to be in Portland. John the Baptist himself was protected for a while by the crowds whose numbers made Herod initially hesitant to move against him, as Matthew tells us.  

When Jesus sees the crowd, just like the God of compassion who inspired his ministry,

he had compassion for them and cured their sick.” 

Jesus’ ministry of announcing the presence of the kingdom of God with its alternative values and its description of a God of love, was deeply healing for people — then and now.  

But healing though it was, the people were still literally hungry. And the hour was late. Nighttime brings danger. People get rounded up and arrested at night — that will soon be Jesus’ fate.  Nighttime signals that time is almost up. Things are coming to a head. Action is overdue.  

So, time to do something. Jesus hands the problem back to the disciples. Figure out how to feed them, he tells them. It is not a question of identifying the need: everyone sees the need. And no one is questioning whether the right thing to do is to feed them; of course, it is. “God does not want people to be hungry,” the disciples are thinking, “and we are here, so of course, we should feed them. “

But all the disciples can see is scarcity. Five loaves and two fish. Matthew’s readers do the math; 5 + 2 = 7, and seven is the perfect number, the number of completion, of fullness, of abundance, so perhaps there is an alternative way to look at the situation.  

Scarcity or Abundance?

What can you do with so little? Well, consider: how much money did it take for Gandhi to make salt? How much did it cost for John Lewis to buy that bus ticket? Neither of those men, nor any of the ones who followed their movements were wealthy. And yet, when they used what little they had, they made huge changes. Yes, they put themselves on the line, took risks, faced brutal treatment, and even death, just as Jesus did, but the result was world-changing.  

So Matthew tells us that Jesus,

Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled;

Matthew is consciously telling a parable about the Eucharist. Using the four verbs of the Last Supper, “took, blessed (or gave thanks), broke and gave,” and having the disciples, who represent the church, distribute the food, the result is that everyone eats and is satisfied. 

When the church comes together around a common table where everyone is welcomed, and where they intentionally remember Jesus’ life, his ministry, his words, and his actions, we are fed spiritually. 

And when we have remembered Jesus, we are inspired to follow Jesus. We are inspired by his spiritually-inspired compassion to be people of spirituality and compassion. And when compassion meets hunger, it gets political. The politics of compassion are the politics of a kingdom that values every hungry person, regardless of how marginalized they are.  

Our Hunger

 So, what are people in our time and place hungry for?  We were reminded at John Lewis’ funeral that, emulating Gandhi, Lewis insisted on the truth. If you are like me, you find yourself hungry right now for leaders who insist on the truth. 

In the meantime, we citizens must insist on the truth that every single person, black, white, brown, citizen, immigrant, gay, straight, rich, or poor has been created by God, is loved by God, and deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.  

The hunger in our time is for justice. We must insist on the truth that there has been racial oppression since the very founding of our country.  The truth is that even the documents which proclaim our highest ideals and self-evident truths were written by wealthy slave-owning people, who had no intention of including women, native Americans, and certainly not black people. The truth is that racism is America’s original sin.

We must insist on the truth that the documents written by the Confederate states who seceded from the union proclaimed slavery as their right, again and again, and condemned the concept of the equality of all people. 

Mississippi was probably the clearest, stating

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world.”

A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union.

And, complaining in that document, that hostility to the institution of slavery in the North is so strong that it

advocates negro equality, socially and politically.

Imagine, advocating equality!  

There is so much left to be done. It includes, but goes way beyond proper policing. We remain hungry for the bread of justice and equality, and hungry that it be available for everyone.  

There is enough. But the baskets full of bounty are not equally available. Therefore, resistance born out of compassion is necessary. It feels like night time; that time is running out; that something has to change.  

May the right changes come; not the changes like the gutting of the voting rights act; not changes like unlimited dark money in the political system, but changes like salt-making and bus riding. 

Changes like ending cash bail and permanent disenfranchisement after incarceration. 

Changes like an end to political gerrymandering of districts. 

And maybe the biggest change of all, a change from the politics of triumphalism and nostalgia, to the politics of compassion; from hunger and scarcity to satisfaction and abundance.

Who Should Go to Hell?

Who Should Go to Hell?

Sermon for July 19, 2020, Pentecost 7A

Video is here.

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 

He [Jesus] put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!”

Who should go to hell? When we read the parable of the wheat and weeds, or wheat and tares, as it used to be called, we read that on judgment day, the weeds, which stand for evil people, will be gathered up and the angels “will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” That “furnace of fire” is what we call hell.

The Jewish Perspective on Hell

So, who are the evil people who should go to hell? First, let’s ask the Jews since the first part of our bible came from them. 

How can we ask them? By looking at the Hebrew Bible. What does it say about hell? Well, that’s problem number one. It says nothing at all about hell. There is no place of punishment after death in the Hebrew Bible. 

So, what happens when you die? There are several ways the Hebrew Bible describes what happens after death. It is called the “dust of death,” or “the grave” — a place you go to join your deceased ancestors in the family tomb (see e.g. Psalm 49). 

Many times it is called Sheol, but that is not a place of punishment; it is just the place of the dead. Death is described as a kind of long term sleep. In the majority of the Hebrew Bible, the view of death was an existence of neither bliss nor suffering. As Job said, 

“so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep.”

(Job 14:12)

Interestingly, when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek in the third century before Christ, they translated “Sheol” as “Hades.” People often think that Hades is the same as hell, but it is not. 

For Greek people, Hades, like the Jewish Sheol, was simply the place of the dead, without bliss, and without punishment. Hades actually began as the name of the god, who was given governorship of the underworld where the dead go. Eventually they called the underworld that Hades governed by his name.  

Greek Mythology and the Afterlife

So, where did the idea that there is a place after death in which evil is punished come from? Not Hades, but another place in Greek mythology. It is called Tartarus. 

Tartarus was deep pit on the outskirts of hades, where the Titan god Cronus imprisoned the Cyclops. 

Later, the victorious Olympic gods, like Zeus confined their predecessors, the Titans, including also Cronus to the same place. Tartarus was a place of punishment, but not just for gods. The gods also sorted out the good people’s souls, after death, from the evil ones. Evil people’s souls were sent to the place of torment, while the good people’s souls were spared that fate. 

Did these mythological Greek ideas of what happens after death creep into the worldview of the entire Hellenistic world, including Judea and Galilee? Yes, of course. This is far too complex an issue to unwind here; there are many excellent books on the subject. But because this text from the gospel imagines evil people being gathered up like weeds and thrown into a furnace of fire, we have to talk about it.  

What Do We Believe?

So, I’ve tried to cast a shadow on the whole idea by briefly tracing its origins in Greek mythology, as contrasted with the Hebrew Bible. Now I want to add one more thought problem. Can this idea of a place of torment after death be reconciled with the fundamental theological concepts that our whole faith rests upon? Let’s look at two. 

First, the doctrine of a good creation. We receive from our Hebrew Bible the understanding that the source of everything is God, who created a physical world and repeatedly, according to our Creation myth, pronounced it “good.” 

Can you imagine that on one of the six days of creation, good took a break from creating good things, and turned to create a torture chamber where evil would exist forever, unredeemed, and suffering would be infinite? Is that even conceivable? Not to me.  

Second, the very character of God is called into question by the idea of a place of torment after death. Our bedrock, most elegantly simple and profound concept of the character of God, is Love. The Bible says it that clearly: “God is love.” 

The Hebrew Bible is filled with examples of God forgiving the evil deeds of people. It has a lot of smiting, plagues, and violence, but it also has a lot of relenting and redeeming as well. 

And by the time we get to Jesus, we hear a voice calling us to understand God as our Abba, our Good Shepherd, our source of daily bread and of forgiveness.  The idea that a God who created all humans in God’s image would be content to send them to a place of torment seems implausibly sadistic.  

Where, then, is justice?

I must admit that if there is no hell, there is a dangling problem that is left unsolved: what becomes of justice? What happens to evil people, murderers, rapists, child molesters, war lords, and slave traders, to name only the most obvious?  

What becomes of people whose laws and policies oppresses masses of people by the stroke of a pen? The list could go on and on. Where is final justice if the evil doers die peacefully in their beds after a long life?  

This too is a huge topic, but this one thought may help: if we cannot rest on the hope that justice will be done beyond the grave, does not that make the mandate to to justice now all the stronger? 

We must not rest, thinking that the evil done to people will be made right after death. We must work to end oppression, discrimination, unjust laws and systems while we and the people they affect are alive.  

This Text, and Jesus

So, back to the text. We see that the early Christian communities struggled with questions of ultimate justice, and, living in the Hellenized world, they accepted the notion of a “furnace of fire” for the evil ones. 

But that idea, in my opinion, following New Testament scholars, is a belief that practically stands Jesus’ perspective on its head.  Jesus had no time for a doctrine of retribution against the wicked. God’s rain and sun are provided for the wicked and the good, he said. Who sinned that this man was born blind, he was asked? Neither, he answered. 

What is the whole point of the parable of the wheat and the weeds, growing up together in the field? The point is: leave them both alone. The punch line is that the sorting out is not our business. 

In Jesus’ perspective, there were not “evil” people so much as “lost” people that needed to be found by love; people who had left home who needed to be welcomed back with open arms, not punished with torments.  

The Right Questions, the Right Answers

So we started with the question, “Who should go to hell?” First we called into question the whole idea of hell. Then we challenged the idea that we have the right to say who is going there. 

It is hard to tell the weeds from the wheat. Especially if we believe in forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation. 

And what kind of followers of Jesus would we be if we did not believe that no one is a hopeless case, no one is a lost cause, no one is unredeemable?  

So, we do no believe in being people of judgment.  But there is a difference between judgment and discernment.  

Evil is real. Evil destroys people. Some people do evil. We are not pollyanna about that.  The call to do justice is also the call to fight injustice. The call to racial harmony is simultaneously a call to dismantle systemic discrimination. 

But our goal is not vengeance. Our motive is not resentment. Our hope is not for angry recrimination but for joyous redemption. 

It was, after all, a slave trader named John Newton, who, after his spiritual awakening, would write the words, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind but now I see.”  

We just had an amazing Third Thursday program by zoom this week, in which we heard the personal stories of five people of color from our community. Most of them told about their first experience being called the N word —  several of them were too young to even know what it meant, but they understood full well that it was a bitter term of derision, and they felt the sting.  

They told us story after story of discrimination: of walking for miles past the white school to go to the two-room school for the black kids, that had to accommodate grades 1-12; of being jeered at by the white kids on the bus taking them to that new school, as they were walking to their clapboard alternative. 

They talked about personal racism, like being the last table served in the restaurant, and structural, systemic racism, like how much collateral was required for a home loan and the unlikeness of getting a business loan. Their stories broke our hearts.  

The power of evil is strong and the suffering it causes is great. But in the mean time, some laws have been changed. We have the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and we have Title IX as part of the Education Amendments of 1972. 

And in the mean time, some people have become awakened to their own implicit biases and have worked to think differently. 

The job of establishing justice and hence fighting the evil of injustice is far from complete. Laws that were passed in one decade can be, and are being undermined in subsequent years, as is happening in our time. 

New forms of discrimination crop up; new walls are built, new restrictions are invented, which require constant vigilance and dedicated action.  

We are called to be engaged in that action, motivated by discernment and love, inspired by the God of love, who longs, not for the judgment, but for the good of all creation.