Pride and Prejudice: A Close Look at a Core Commitment

Sermon on Luke 18:9-14 for October 23, 2016, Pentecost +23 C

Luke 18:9-14screen-shot-2016-10-21-at-7-54-32-pm
[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Most of us have heard this parable and know the ending, which creates a huge problem for us.  The whole point of Jesus’ parable is to call out people who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt,” saying, in effect, “Don’t do that.”

But what do we do?  We see the smug, self-righteous Pharisee, contrasted with the self-effacing, repentant tax-collector, and we identify with the tax-collector.  So our problem is that we feel self-righteous and we regard the Pharisee with contempt.  Well, this parable about people who “regarded others with contempt” ends up putting us in the bull’s eye.   Holding the self-righteous in contempt is self-righteousness.  Holding anyone in contempt is self-righteousness.

Anyway, the whole point of the parable teaches humility before God and other people.  This was a huge theme for Jesus.  Can you ever imagine a situation in which Jesus avoided people or looked down on people because he considered himself above them?  It is unthinkable.   In fact just the opposite.  Jesus had a reputation and was criticized bitterly for hanging out with the very people that others regarded with contempt.

Good Pride

Let me clear the air about one thing first: it is good to feel good about doing good.  It is screen-shot-2016-10-21-at-7-29-00-pmgood to feel good about accomplishments, about good grades, about good performances, about a job well done, a meal well prepared, a kindness that was appreciated.  If you want to use the word “pride” for this, then there is a good side to pride.  We all want to be looked up to and esteemed for doing things well – that is both natural and right.

Christian humility is not about being unwilling to take a sincere compliment with a simple “thank you” and feeling good about it.   In fact receiving gratitude simply with a “thank you” is perfectly legitimate.  I am sure you have noticed that when a person denies a compliment it makes you feel the need to offer it again, which is an awkward loop to get into.

The Goodness of the Pharisee

So, back to the story.  The Pharisee was actually doing a lot of valuable, positive spiritualscreen-shot-2016-10-21-at-8-06-04-pm practices.  He fasts twice a week – I do not know anyone who does that.  He gives a tenth of his income to the temple.  If we all did that we would never have any budget problems.

Nationally, Christians contribute about 2% of their income to all charities combined, church included among them.  Clearly, then, this Pharisee takes his spiritual life seriously, even to the point of being willing to make significant personal sacrifices.  He is also obeying the commandments, which is what I think he means when he thanks God that he is not a “rogue or an adulterer.”  He is a good fella.

He should feel good about being good.  He should feel happy about his disciplined spiritual practices.  That is not where he went wrong.

The Ego and Contempt

The place he went wrong is, as Jesus said, in “regarding others with contempt.” This is exactly what the ego wants to do.  The ego inside us all, wants to not only feel good screen-shot-2016-10-21-at-8-13-45-pmabout being good, it wants to feel superior.  It is not good enough to merely be good, the ego wants to be better.   The ego wants to compare and compete.  The ego loves feeling self-righteous.

Humility, the refusal to regard others with contempt, is not our natural attitude, any more than courage or patience is natural.  It must be taught and learned and practiced over time.  In other words, humility is a virtue.

When we practice humility, our ego feels assaulted.  Listen to this, from “Religion and Ethics”:

“It is well known that “humility” (humilitas in Latin; tapeinos in Greek) was not a virtue in Graeco Roman ethics. In fact, the word meant something like “crushed” or “debased.” It was associated with failure and shame.”  source: “How Christian humility upended the world”

The ego feels crushed and shamed when it is not given permission to regard others with contempt.  But humility is fundamental to Christian ethics.  God, as the source of every human, has created all of us in God’s image (in Greek, icon).  To hold someone in contempt is to have contempt for the icon of God.  Contempt denies what is basic and fundamental to the Christian view of God, the world and all humanity.

Good Regret

Back to the story, the tax collector really does have things to regret.  He should feel bad about the  life he has lived.  As a two-dimensional, cut-out character, he is foil for the Pharisee who tries to live a disciplined, obedient life.  The tax collector is working for the Romans in a system that allows him to aggrandize his material holdings by legalized extortion.  Of course tax collectors were resented and despised.  They caused real suffering.

But somehow this one sees the light.  He has an “ah-ha” moment.  He realizes the harm screen-shot-2016-10-21-at-8-25-53-pmhe has caused.  He rightly feels remorseful.  Remorse and regret are also legitimate emotions.  To have done wrong, and to recognize it, is the beginning of transformation.  Jesus’ original message was not simply that the Kingdom of God had come, but rather, “Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand.”  Repentance, or literally, an about face in thinking and acting, is a necessary first step to entering the kingdom of equals.

As Christians we regret every time we have treated others with contempt.  We regret every harsh word, every condemning judgment, every time we have let our egos take advantage of another person.

We do not wallow in regret and remorse.  We simply admit the truth that we have done something wrong, and set about to right it, to correct it, to stop repeating it.

Jesus’ Incarnational Model

For followers of Jesus, we hold humility as a core commitment.  Central to our faith is the story  of incarnation.  When we tell the story of God, we tell the story of God becoming a human being.  Not a human aristocrat, but a human peasant, born into poverty, born in an inglorious, out of the way, backwater village, on the fringes of the Roman empire.

Our story is of Jesus who lived his life on the margins, loving people whom others held in contempt.  And our story ends with Jesus on the cross, looking at those who had done him wrong, who had repaid good with evil, saying

Father, forgive them.  They do not know what they are doing.”  screen-shot-2016-10-21-at-8-27-56-pm

Humility is not a peripheral virtue, nor is it negligible.  It is central, and it is significant.  The core message of Christianity is that God forgives us.  The core commitment of a Christian is  therefore forgiveness of others.  The only prayer Jesus taught us to pray says,

“forgive us our debts/trespasses/sins as we forgive…

But, forgiveness is direct assault on our egos.  Our egos want the feeling of superiority that we get from being morally superior to others.  It is a death to our egos to let go of the vengeance we think we deserve.

But Christianity is all about the process of resurrection only after a death.  That is the pattern stamped into the universe: death before new life.

Beyond the Personal

Christian humility is so fundamental that it extends far beyond personal relationships.  We not only refuse to hold individuals in contempt, we refuse to hold groups of people in contempt.  This is the temptation to scapegoating we mentioned last week.  To hold Muslims in contempt is to do exactly what that Pharisee in the parable did.  “I thank you, God, that I am not a Muslim!”  Did not God make Muslim humans in his image too?

Scapegoating Muslims or immigrants or any other group is a form of holding them in exactly the kind of contempt that Jesus is warning against.

Last week we spoke of the struggle we live with, as people of faith, in a world like this.  We talked about how Jacob, “the grasper” was  named “The One Who Struggles”, or Israel.  I mentioned that faith causes me a great deal of struggle.

I lived in a part of Europe where the disease of nationalism was all around.  It opened my eyes in a new way to the profound depths of the issue.  How was it that the holocaust took place in Europe which had been “Christian” for nearly two thousand years?

How had the message of Jesus so totally failed to prevent the scapegoating of Jews?  How in the world had it become not only tolerable but absolutely acceptable to hold other humans in contempt?  And yet, masses of people who called themselves Christians in Germany, in Italy, in France, and also in Britain were anti-semitic.

I have struggled a long time with the kind of Christianity that failed on such a massive scale.  And I struggle with the kind of Christianity I see in my day that seems to accept scapegoating today.

Is our faith not entirely centered in the story of a an innocent victim, scapegoated by the people of his day?  Should Christianity not have brought the end of all scapegoating?   screen-shot-2016-10-21-at-8-31-16-pm

It is time for us to identify with the humble, repentant tax collector in this parable.  It is time, now nearly 500 years after the Protestant Reformation to reassess where Christianity has come from and where it has ended up.

The great motto of the Reformation was “ad fontes” or back to the fountain; meaning back to the original sources.  It is time to reclaim that motto.  To return to the fountain of our faith, which is Jesus.  Whatever happened, over the years, that ended up with a faith comfortable with having contempt for others is a long, dark story, but let this be the generation in which that story ends so that a new chapter can begin.   The source we wish to return to is the humble Jesus who is not above coming to people like us, and extending God’s mercy and love.

Another great motto of the Reformation is “The church reformed, always reforming.”  Let us be the church that is always reforming.  We do not have to be in the future what we were in the past.  That is the message of grace and forgiveness that we depend on every day of our lives.  Transformation is possible as we orient our lives around the one “who humbled himself, taking the form of a servant”.

Practical Help

If it is the ego that is at the heart of the problem of our propensity to hold other people in contempt and scapegoat them, then the best practical help towards controlling the ego is contemplative prayer, or meditation.  In meditation, we practice saying “no” to the ego that wants to chatter away in our minds.  In meditation we shut down that voice that wants to compare and compete.  Is it any wonder that Jesus, who was famous for not holding anyone in contempt, spent so much time in regular silent prayer meditation?

When we build into our lives the regular spiritual practice of silent meditation, we begin to get new insight into our own egos.  Meditation teaches us to recognize thoughts, especially judgmental thoughts, for what they are.  They are not the truth of the world; they are merely our own thoughts.  We do not have to live controlled by them.  We can let them go, to be replaced by a deeper insight, that we are all icons of God, made in God’s image.  No one is beyond redemption.  No one is contemptible to God.  The God who can love and forgive us, can love and forgive everyone; and God calls us to do the same.

The Struggle that Defines Us

Sermon on Genesis 32:22-31 and Luke 18:1-8 for Pentecost +22, October 16, 2016

Genesis 32:22-31

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Luke 18:1-8

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'”  And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

What does it mean to be a person of Christian faith in a world like this?  That is a question that will not let me go.  If faith means anything at all, it screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-7-25-18-pmmeans trust.  To have faith is to trust God with your life.  Easier said than done.

There are at least two reasons why it is hard to have faith in a world like this.  One is that you probably should have some idea of what God is like, if you are going to try to trust God.  The other difficulty is that the world is like this.  Lots of bad things happen.  The most recent example is that Hurricane Matthew killed over1,000, most of whom were desperately poor Haitians.   The number will rise much higher, they tell us, if we add deaths from Cholera.

Besides big public events like hurricanes and the holocaust, we all have our own experiences of bad things that have happened to us, or to our families.  So what does it mean to be a person of faith in a world like it is?

What is God, in a World Like This?

That brings us to the God-question.  What is God like?  Specifically, what is God like, given what the world is like?  This question is so difficult that it causes many people to give up believing altogether.

They put it like this: if God is all loving and all powerful, why does evil and suffering exist?  A loving God would not want evil and suffering, and an all-powerful God would be able to stop it.  So either God is not loving or not all-powerful, or simply does not exist.  If God is like Superman, he is standing there with his hands in his pockets instead of intervening.

That argument only works if God is really like a Superman who stands somewhere, separate from the world, watching it with unlimited powers of intervention.  But clearly that cannot be the right way to imagine God.  The suffering of children alone should be enough to immediately show that concept must be mistaken.

Aristotle’s Perfect Godscreen-shot-2016-10-15-at-9-27-49-am

So, how then do we imagine God?  Well you could start with abstract concepts, like perfection.  God must be perfect; God could not be less than perfect, right?  And from perfection you could reason that God must have perfect knowledge, perfect power, perfect control and all kinds of perfections.  This is Aristotle’s version of God.  He ends up being called the “unmoved mover.”  The perfectly self-sufficient being that gets the ball rolling for all the lesser beings of the material world.

Well, as it turns out, Christianity was born in a world in which the dominate thinkers followed Aristotle, so Christian systematic theology ended up have a distinctly Aristotelian flavor.

But Christianity did not start with Aristotle; certainly Jesus didn’t.  In fact, Christianity’s concept of God grows from Jewish soil.  Instead of abstract ideas like perfection, our Jewish ancestors began with stories of encounters with God.  From these stories you cannot get a systematic theology.  In fact Jewish people to this day do not even attempt to write systematic theologies.

Instead of systematic theologies, the stories of God-encounters are what we have.  They are the collected wisdom of the Jewish tradition, and hence, our wisdom tradition as well.

Jacob’s God-Encounterscreen-shot-2016-10-15-at-9-31-13-am

We just read one of the stories of a God-encounter, and it is, admittedly, one of the oddest stories in the bible.  Then we heard a parable of Jesus, and it is odd as well.  But both of them help us as we try to understand what it means to be a person of faith in a world like this.

So, let us look at the Jacob story first.  To refresh your memory, this is the third generation from Abraham.  Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was the father of Jacob.  The cycle of Jacob stories in the bible is rich and multi-layered.

Remember, Jacob was a twin; the one who was born second, who came out of the womb grasping his elder brother Esau’s heel.  According to the biblical story-teller, he was named for that grasping pose.  Famously, he also grasped the blessing of the firstborn that should have gone to his brother.  He got the blessing, but had to flee, fearing his brother’s reprisals.

So, in this story, after a long absence from his homeland, Jacob and his now huge family and all their vast possessions are on the journey back home. Truly, he has been blessed.  The story-teller says that after he secured his family’s camp, he went off by himself to sleep alone.  Why?  We are not told.

Then the biblical story-teller says these few, odd, eerie words:

“Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”

A man?  What man?  What kind of man?  An angel?  A demon?  A visitation of God?  We look for more information.  The story continues,

“When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.”

Whatever this “man” was, all we know is that he was unable to prevail over Jacob, but he had the power to dislocated Jacob’s hip with a mere touch.

The man then asks to be let go, but Jacob, the grasper, is unwilling to let him go without a blessing.  The heel-grasping blessing-steeler now wants a legitimate blessing, even if he has to fight for it.  So he gets his blessing, but then he gets something he did not ask for: a new name.

According to the biblical story, Jacob was the father of the 12 sons who became the 12 tribes of Israel.  Why do we call them Israelites instead of Jacobites?  This story is the reason.  The strange “man” Jacob wrestled with and prevailed over changed his name to Israel.  In the story-world the reason is this:

“the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’”    

“Israel” comes from he verb, “to struggle.”  From this point on, what does it mean to be an Israelite?  It means to be hard-wired to struggle with God.  In the end, Jacob understands that he has seen the face of God, and names the place as such.

Faith and Strugglescreen-shot-2016-10-15-at-9-35-39-am

What does it mean to be a person of faith in a world like this one?  It means we are people who struggle with God.  In a world in which bad things happen and bad people get away with so much, we cannot but struggle with God.  As people whose faith descends from the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we have it in our DNA to struggle with God.

And so did Jesus.  We remember his struggle in prayer in the garden on the night of his arrest.  We remember his struggle on the cross when he cried out,

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  

And here this parable, we hear him teaching his followers to be people who persistently struggle with God.

The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge

How does this work?  Jesus tells a parable, ostensibly about prayer.  He uses some cut-out characters.  There is the widow.  She is at the bottom of the social ladder.  She is poor and powerless, and has been denied justice.  Then there is the judge.  He is the quintessential bad guy.  He admits that he neither fears God nor respects human rights.

The story, according to scholars, is meant to be somewhat comic.  The judge stands for God.  Of course he is about as opposite to God as he can get.  Even when he grants the poor widow justice, it is not because he decides to do good, but only that he is sick and tired of being pestered by her.  His motives are self-serving to the  end.

So, is this, then, a charming story about how we should be like the widow and keep banging on the door of heaven with our prayers until God finally answers?

No, it cannot be that charming story, because that story is a false one.  Its falseness is screen-shot-2016-10-15-at-9-40-09-amhighlighted by the story itself.  It takes a long time for the widow to finally get anything out of the judge; the passage of time is an important part of the plot. He does not act quickly.  And anyone who has ever prayed knows it can be like that, more often than not.

But listen to Jesus’ conclusion to the parable:

“And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”

If God did act quickly, the whole point of the story of the widow’s dogged persistence is subverted.

Unless, that is, God’s actions towards justice are as unlike the the command-response power of the judge in the parable as the character of the judge is unlike God.   In other words, just as God’s character is the opposite the judge, in this story, so God’s way of acting in the world is different.

We do not believe in the Superman kind of God who intervenes in a controlling manner.  Rather we conceive of  God as the ground of all being, the depth dimension in all of our experience.  We understand that God’s power in the world is not coercive but persuasive.  How?  We understand that God is at work in every moment, luring us towards the good, towards the beautiful, and towards the truth.

What evidence do we give for such a faith?  Only that there is, within all of us, in spite of screen-shot-2016-10-15-at-9-45-01-amthe way the world is, a longing for better.  We long for justice, in spite of all the injustice around us.  We long for peace.  We long for good to triumph over evil.  We long for equality.

And we have a deep sense that the way the world so often is, is broken.  It is our feeling of not-at-home-ness in this world, which we experience as glimpses of transcendence, that give us hope that there is more to this world than meets the eye.

In fact, we are not okay with the way the world is, just at the widow in the parable was not okay with her situation.  We are not okay with the injustice, the oppression and the violence.  We are not okay with how women are treated.  We are not okay with economic systems that only widen the gap between super-rich and poor.  We are not okay with mass incarceration.  We are not okay with discrimination of any kind.  We are not okay with scapegoating immigrants or Muslims.  Just like the widow, we will not rest until the way things are, becomes the way things should be.

The Struggle and Prayer

As this parable sits in Luke’s gospel, it is supposed to be about prayer, and how we ought to keep praying and not give up.  We do not pray to Superman to magically change things.

Rather, in prayer, we pour out our hearts and souls to the God who gives us our sense of justice, our understanding of goodness, and our hope for change.  In prayer, we center ourselves in that source of being who is also personal, who lives in us and works through us to be a part of what scholars call God’s great clean up of the world (John Crossan).  It is meant to be a collaborative clean-up.

In prayer, like Jacob, we struggle with God.  We struggle because of the way the world is.  And we struggle because, like the mysterious man in the dark, there are more things about God, and how God works in the world, that we do not understand than that we do understand.

We accept that.  We are finite.  But struggle is in our Judeo-Christian DNA.  And in that struggle, like Jacob, we perceive the face of God, even as we cry out for justice.

Following Jesus into Uncharted Territory

Sermon on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 & Luke 17:11-19 for Pentecost +21, October 9, 2016

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

One of my favorite melodies, probably because it combines beauty and sadness together, isscreen-shot-2016-10-08-at-2-48-55-pm a musical setting of Psalm 137 entitled “By the Rivers of Babylon” by the band called Lamb.  Its sadness comes from its setting.  “By the rivers of Babylon,” it says, “we sat and wept for Zion.

The speaker is one of the exiles.  A Jewish person torn from his home and  homeland by the world-class Empire of Babylon.  He has been ripped out of his context to try to survive where nothing is familiar, nothing feels “normal” and where everything he thought was going to be true about his future and the future of his family and his people has been foreclosed.

Somehow, the experience of living away from home, of living in exile in a foreign land is deeply human.  Perhaps it is part of the human condition.  Life has a way of never being the way we thought it was going to be.

Is your life now like you expected?   Is the world now what you thought it would be?  We keep encountering the unfamiliar and unexpected.  Who knew the world would turn out like this?  Who knew we would be living this life in this way?  Who knew we would have to have gone through all of that to get here?

Some of us have a sense of nostalgia for the safe, secure homes we left as we grew into adulthood.  Others fled from homes of chaos and suffering, and now long to make a new home under radically different conditions.

I do not often take the time to look at both texts that we read each Sunday, but today we will.  Both of them are all about the space we inhabit, and what it means to be there.  If the space we all inhabit is some form of exile from home, how do we live here?  The God question is particularly poignant: If I am in exile, where is God?  How do I live?

God, in Exile

So, back to the rivers of Babylon with the Jewish exiles.  How do they feel in exile?  I am sure  they feel completely abandoned by God in that context.  Why did God allow the calamity of the Babylonian invasion?  Why did God not protect even God’s own temple or priests, let alone the king and his whole family?  Everything familiar is gone.  What happened to the promise God made to Abraham to give them land and to bless them?  Now the land belongs to Babylon, and there is no blessing to be found.   Perhaps you too have gone through times when those questions sounded like your questions.

The text we read is from the prophet Jeremiah.  It is his letter to the surviving Jewish leadership in exile, some of whom are among those sitting by the river of Babylon, weeping for Zion.  Grief over loss is normal.  It is grief over a lost future you had counted on.

But Jeremiah asserts that grief over loss must not become crippling nostalgia.  The quest the prophet calls the people to is not to a recovery of a past glory.  The challenge to exiles is to live life today, in a new, strange, unfamiliar context, counting on God to be there with you in that context.

And what does God want for you in that foreign context?  He wants your “welfare” our English version says.  The Hebrew word is “shalom”.  It means your wholeness, your well-being in every sense.  How will you experience God’s shalom?  Listen to the prophet’s call to the exiles:

“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and screen-shot-2016-10-08-at-2-51-34-pmhave sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare (shalom) you will find your welfare (shalom).”

Do not become a community of grief-stricken nostalgia.  Do not become a community of isolation, uncontaminated by Babylonian culture and custom.  Rather, get involved.  Participate.  Live!  Be fruitful and multiply because the original blessing of creation is still in effect.

Especially, “seek the shalom of the city…and pray to the Lord on its behalf”  – What?  pray for the well-being of our enemies?  Yes.  Why?  Because the deep spiritual truth that God has hard-wired into the universe is this:  “in it’s shalom, you will find your shalom.”  In it’s wholeness and well-being, you will find your wholeness and well-being.”

How is this possible?  Because God is with you there in that strange context, luring you, coaxing you, persuading you to new possibilities of hope.  God is there offering you the opportunity to live into what is good, what is beautiful and what is true, even there in exile.  And as you seek the shalom of the people and conditions of your exile, in their shalom, you will find your shalom, because God is there.

Jesus’ Context

How could this not have been part of the mental furniture in Jesus’ mind, in his context?  His context was not the exile of Babylon, but another kind of exile.  At home in the promised land, the empire of Rome claimed authority and dictated the terms of public life.  Economically, it was devastating for most people.

So what do you do in that context?  What happens to the promise of God to bless the descendants of Abraham?  Luke tells this story with the artistry of a fine brush.  Notice where it takes place:

the region between Samaria and Galileescreen-shot-2016-10-08-at-2-42-33-pm

In other words, home to no one.  It is no-man’s-land.  It is between places.  That is a form of homeless exile.

Who does Jesus meet there?  Exiles of another kind.  Lepers.  People who are forcibly exiled from the community because of a condition they did not ask for but cannot escape.  Notice, they have internalized their ostracism.   Luke tells us,

“they were keeping their distance”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer likes to refer to Jesus as “the man for others,” and that is exactly what he is in this scene.  He does not live into the normal narrative of exclusion.  Once, we read, he touched a leper.  We do not know what he did this time; only that he told them what to do next.  Lepers could not be received back into the community in those days until a priest signed off on their healing.  So Jesus told them to go show themselves as clean people to the priest.

For Jesus, no one is excluded from the community.  Jesus was a person whose whole life screen-shot-2016-10-08-at-3-00-12-pmwas lived with compassion for others, especially for the weak, the vulnerable, the marginalized and the excluded.   Instinctively, he did not move away from the lepers, but towards them, with the mercy they were seeking.

Jesus shows us what God does; that is our theology.  God’s mercy is always coming to us, finding us, including us, healing us.  As Jesus is compassionate, so God is compassionate.   Especially to exiles.

Luke tells us that there were ten lepers.  Why ten?  No explanation.  In later Judaism, ten were required to form a prayer assembly, in other words, a community.  So there were enough formerly excluded lepers to form a community in that nether land region between Samaria and Galilee.

In exile, where Jesus met them, they could together, seek, and find shalom, welfare, well being.  God had not abandoned them there.

Epilogue Surprise

In the epilogue to the healing story a new wrinkle appears.  One of them returns with gratitude for the miracle of the mercy of his restoration to the community.  And this one, we learn, was a Samaritan.  So now, Luke has revealed to us that at least one of the lepers had yet another layer of reasons for being marginalized by the people who claimed direct access to the promise of God to Abraham.  He was not purely Jewish.  So now we see a deeper level of God’s compassion.

Being In the Story screen-shot-2016-10-08-at-3-04-52-pm

Where do we place ourselves in this story?  We could be part of the 12 followers of Jesus, simply witnessing this amazing story.  We see Jesus with compassion, reaching out to the most hurting, suffering people, and bringing God’s mercy to them.

Or, we could see ourselves as one of those lepers, living in a context that feels so alien to the life we had imagined for ourselves, in a kind of exile, wondering what God is doing.  If so, if we are one of them, we can seek the shalom of the context we find ourselves in, because God has not abandoned us there.   There is a community of people just like us, ready to welcome us, to share life with us, and to follow Jesus with.

Perhaps we can most identify with the one leper, the Samaritan, who returned with great gratitude for the mercy he received.  That is what we gather to do together.  That is what Eucharist means: thanksgiving.  We are a community of thanksgiving, of deep gratitude because God has found us in our exile, and restored us to his community.

Whomever we identify with in this story, we are transformed by it.  We see the model of compassion in Jesus, and we feel the luring of God to be people of compassion.  When we feel the love of God for us, in spite of our context, in spite of our condition, we feel the lure towards goodness and mercy for the others around us.  When our hearts overflow with gratitude for God’s great mercy and healing, we want nothing better than to extend his welcome to everyone.  For in their shalom, we find our shalom.

So how do we seek the shalom, the well-being of our context?  Simply by asking, who is excluded from the blessing?  We could be methodical about the question, by asking, “Who is experiencing the most advantages and the biggest rewards here in this context?”  Then you may ask, what benefits and advantages should be denied the others?

So, in our context, it seems clear that healthy, Caucasian, heterosexual males from strong, supportive families, who had good educations have the greatest advantages.  In other words, people like me.  So, which of their advantages should be denied women, or people of color, or gay people, or people born into cycles of poverty with dysfunctional family patterns and poor educations?

We ask, what systems are in place in our context that perpetuate the status quo?  What is the role of the justice system in this context?  What about the health care system and educational systems, as well as economic systems?  How do we address those, as a shalom-seeking community?

Change towards increasing shalom for everyone, especially the ones Jesus went out of his way to bless, is a large task.  In the mean time, we can be the community for all of them.  We can be the place where people can find the 10 healed lepers and find community.  We can be the community of great gratitude for finding God active in our lives, even in our specific exiles.  And we can be the community for others, as Jesus was “the man for others”, extending God’s healing shalom to all the people God loves – to everyone.

Jesus on What God Want

Sermon on Deuteronomy 15:1, 7-11 and Luke 16:19-31 for Pentecost +19, September 25, 2016

Deuteronomy 15:1, 7-11

Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts.  
    If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor.  You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. screen-shot-2016-09-25-at-8-41-59-pm
Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt.  Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.  Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”

Luke 16:19-31

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’

“But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’

“He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house–for I have five brothers–that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”

Everyone wants to know what will happen after death.  What will the afterlife be like?  screen-shot-2016-09-24-at-11-40-05-amUnfortunately, this parable of the rich man and Lazarus will not help us at all.  The setting is in the afterlife, that is true.  But none of the details are right.  The truth is that the bible is really spare on details about the afterlife, leaving us with more questions than answers.

Whatever the afterlife is like, it is not like two places within sight of each other, in which people can see what the other folks are doing.  The place where the rich man goes is not called hell, but Hades.  That is a Greek word for the realm of the dead.  In some Greek texts, it is a place of suffering for really bad people.  Obviously Greek mythology is not a good starting point for Christian theology.

We are not told that the rich man did anything bad, but there he is, suffering.  So it makes the reader curious.

Jesus did not tell us this parable to give us insight into the afterlife.  In fact, Jesus did not make up this parable from scratch.  It is based on a story that scholars trace back to ancient Egypt.  It follows a common trope about the reversal of fortunes in the afterlife.

Justice as Reversal of Fortunes

The reversal of fortunes story line is an attempt at an answer to a problem.  The problem is that life is unfair; in fact grossly unfair.  Throughout most of history, most people were poor peasants who suffered, while an aristocratic elite lived sumptuously.   
That is how they lived, and that is how they died. And yet we all have this sense that justice ought to be done.  Slaves know that slavery is not right.  Oppressed people long for freedom.  Hungry people want to be fed, and they want their children to be fed.  People need homes to live in.  We need medical attention.  And when we see that some people have more than they can use of everything, and others suffer deprivation, we call it unfair.

But that’s how life is; life is not fair.  So if there is such a thing as justice, if fairness is ever going to happen, perhaps it happens in the afterlife.  If so, then the afterlife is full of reversals of fortune.  The rich suffer while the poor are finally satisfied.  I think that fairness impulse is what motivates these stories of reversals of fortune in the afterlife.  That does not make them true, but the impulse is understandable.

So, why did Jesus uses this kind of a story?  What was he getting at?  I believe that Jesus was teaching something profoundly important that we need to learn, and it is all about what God wants from us.  So let us dive into the story.

The Characters

First, the characters.  This is the only parable in which one of the characters is named.  screen-shot-2016-09-24-at-11-48-17-amLazarus, a Greek name. In Hebrew, Lazarus is Eliezer.  We remember him from the Hebrew bible; he was Abraham’s servant.   Eliezer also shows up in tales the Rabbis told.  He would walk in disguise on the earth and report back to Abraham on how his children are observing the Torah’s laws about the treatment of the widow, the orphan, and the poor.  His name literally means “God helps.”  In this parable, God’s help comes only in the afterlife for poor Lazarus.

What do we know about Lazarus?  Only that he is desperately poor and sick.  He would sit at the gate of the rich man, longing, Jesus says,  “to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table.”  His situation is completely miserable.  The dogs, unclean as they were, would come and lick his wounds.  Finally he died.

What do we know about the rich man?  Initially only that he is extremely rich.  From his purple linen dress, the clothing of the super-rich in those days, to the fact that he ate sumptuously, not on banquet occasions, but every day, he like a king.  Even the word for gate indicates the gate of an estate.  But he dies too.

Their fortunes are reversed in the afterlife. Lazarus is taken to “Abraham’s blossom”.  In those days, tables were low to the ground.  At supper, people reclined on one side, heads towards the table.  If  you were at a place of honor next to Abraham who would have been at the head, you could reline back against his chest.  So Lazarus is honored next to Abraham, finally getting the feast he has longed for.

The rich man is in Hades, being tormented.  The Greeks came up with this idea as a way of getting justice done after a life of being bad.

Guilty for What?

But what had the rich man done that was so bad?  This is where it gets a bit complicated.  You see, in the ancient biblical tradition there is a strong line of teaching that says, if you are righteous, you will be blessed by God.  Prosperity was a blessing the righteous were supposed to enjoy.  Abraham himself was a prime example.  He was righteous and blessed.  He was rich.

But there is a counter-tradition as well.  As the Israelite monarchy developed and wealth was concentrated in the ruling elite, the majority of the people became poor.  There was even debt-slavery.  Imagine how much like being back in Pharaoh’s Egypt that must have felt like.

And poor people tend to do what is available for them: they cry to the Lord for mercy and for justice, just as the Israelites did in Egypt.

So the tradition developed that God was often on the side of the poor against their rich oppressors.  It was not that the rich man was bad just because he was rich, it had to do with how he got rich, and his relationship with the poor.

The Biblical Responsibility Theme: Moses and the Prophetsscreen-shot-2016-09-24-at-12-06-31-pm

Throughout the bible there is a constant theme that we are connected to each other by bonds of responsibility.  Those with means are responsible to care for the needs of the vulnerable, specifically, the widow, the orphan and the resident non-citizen, or alien.

Moses’ law, as we heard this morning, required that every seven years, all debts had to be forgiven and all debt slaves set free.  If the law of Moses was followed, there could never be a permanent poor class in Israel.  There are frequent reminders and requirements in the Law of Moses to care for the widow, the orphan and the alien, or non-citizen.  Moses’ law is all about responsibility for each other, in  other words, the common good.

The prophets likewise, were constantly reminding the people that God puts justice above religious practice in importance.  Micah, for example, asks what God wants from people?  He suggests all the things you bring with your sacrifice to the temple: burnt offerings of calves or rams or oil.  He asks, is that what God really wants from us?  He answers  his own question:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

Moses and the prophets agree about the requirement of responsibility for the common good.  It is the bedrock of Jewish ethics, and therefore of Christian ethics.  This is why, at the end of the parable, when the nameless rich man asks Abraham to send someone to warn his rich brothers to start living differently, Abraham refuses.  He says flat out that they already know what to do.  Why?

“‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’”

The Rich Man Betrays Himself

The conversation between Abraham and the rich man shows where the problem lies.  Did you notice that the rich man asked Abraham to tell Lazarus,

“to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue;”

This tells us a number of important facts.  First, the rich man knew Lazarus and knew him by name.  He cannot claim ignorance  of his existence nor of his condition.  He simply did not care.  He did not do anything about the suffering right in front of him; he knew his name, and ignored his need.  This is so much worse than the victim in the parable of the Good Samaritan who is a stranger to those who pass by.  This is willful neglect.

Second, even in the afterlife, the rich man treats Lazarus like a second-class servant.  He can be called upon to fetch water.  The rich man assumes that he is superior and that Lazarus is inferior.  Perhaps he thinks that Lazarus deserves his fate.  Maybe he is being punished by God for sins he committed.  In any case, the rich man assumes he is in charge and can treat Lazarus like a servant.  When you are superior, you do not feel the need to care for the common good of inferiors.


I have never lived in a place in which there were not groups of people who felt superior to others.  I have lived, for a summer in Kenya, Africa, where the Luo and the Kikuyu despise one another.  We all know about the Hutus and Tootsies of Rwanda.

But this is not an exclusively African problem.  How about the caucasian Serbs and Croats.  I can show you mass graves they made for each other.  How about the way Europe tore itself apart not that long ago when it was Germans hating French and English, and receiving it in return?

Sowing the Wind, Reaping the Whirlwind

In the bible there is a line that says people have “sown the wind and are reaping the whirlwind.” (Hos 8:7) Now, we are reaping the multi-generational whirlwind of sowing animosity between blacks and whites in our country.   I have worked in the inner city, so I have seen the conditions there up close and personal.  It is horrible.  Not a single one of us would ever imagine raising our children in those terrible conditions.

If this parable teaches us anything it must teach that we are responsible for the common good, and that it matters to God.  God looks at Lazarus and the rich man, and sees no basis for one to feel superior to the other.  God wants us to look at people as God does. We are superior to no one; not to blacks, not to hispanics, not to Muslims or native Americans, not to the disabled or challenged, nor anyone.

Finding Solutions: beginning with us

So what is the solution?  We did not get here overnight, and now the problems we have are deep.  Solving them will require a massive commitment to the common good.

But it starts here: we recognize that material conditions of human beings is a spiritual matter.  It mattered to Jesus.  It matters to God.

So, if it matters to God, it must matter to us.  And that means that we start by saying: I am not OK with the current reality.  Things must change.  It must begin with me.

Any form of racism or discrimination is an affront to God, the creator of all humans.

And any set of conditions that keeps producing poor people who have no way out is also an affront to God.  I am not OK with the fact that this rich nation cannot solve the problem of poverty.  I am especially not OK with the fact that many do not even think it is a project that matters.  Well, it matters to God.

It is not wrong to have money.  But it is wrong to not care for the real needs of human beings.  The sin of the rich man in this parable was his neglect of his human responsibility.  The theology behind it is that all humans matter to God, our Creator.

So, as people of faith, and as followers of Jesus, we hear a resounding call to take up the spiritual work of the common good.  The question we all are called to reflect on today is this: Where will God lead you to address his work for the common good in our context?

Let us begin each day with the spiritual practice of gratitude.  We reflect on all the things we have that are gifts of God.  From clean drinking water to safe and secure homes, from good health care to excellent food, we are so blessed.  Let us begin by gratitude to God for our blessings.

Then, we turn our grateful attention to those in need and respond as God calls us to respond.


Come Home to Love

Sermon on Exodus 19:1, 16-25 and mainly Luke 15:11-32 for Pentecost +18, September 18, 2016

Exodus 19:1, 16-25

Luke 15:11-32

  Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons.   The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.  A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.  When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.  So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs.  He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.  But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!  I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’  So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.  Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’   But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate;  for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

  “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.  He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.  He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’  Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him.  But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’  Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.  But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

Just about everyone loves the story of the Prodigal Son.  It is one of Jesus’ most famous parables.  Most of us can see ourselves in it.  We see ourselves in the son who got himself into trouble by problems of his own making.  We have felt regret, maybe even shame.

We can see ourselves in the older brother who feels like life is unfair; he has done the right thing and gets no credit for it. We have all felt self-righteous and judgmental.  screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-8-11-37-pm

I think we also all love this parable because of  the picture of God as the father who embraces the prodigal son, after all he has done, and welcomes him back home.

This parable, so familiar to us, is not just home-spun truisms.  This is game-changing.  I think we need this today every bit as much as Jesus’ original audience needed its message. What I hope we will see today is how completely revolutionary this parable is.

So I want to start with two thoughts that frame this parable.  The first is, what is in the heads of the people who heard it – specifically, about God.  The second is what is the literary context of this parable in Luke that gives it so much power?

What Were They Thinking?

First, what was in the heads of Jesus’ audience?  What were they thinking?  When someone said the word “God” what images would they have had?

That is why we read the text from Exodus 19.  It is the famous scene at Mt. Sinai.  As the screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-8-26-21-pmstory goes, the people of Israel had just escaped from being slaves under Pharaoh’s empire in Egypt.  Moses leads them to Mt. Sinai, where he meets God, receives the 10 Commandments and other laws.

This story is, for Jewish people, as important as the story we all hear in school of Columbus “discovering” America.  Everybody knows it.  It is our “founding story.”   Or “origin myth”.  Sinai is where Israel is transformed from a mob of former slaves into a community bound together by God’s covenant.  So everyone knows this story by heart.

So what ideas about God, and how God relates to people, are formed by this origin story?  What kind of God is God?  Moses met God personally, as the story of the burning bush described, but this is where the people as a whole encounter God.

In a word, God terrified them.  There was the thick smoke, the fire on the mountain, the quaking, the loud sound; it says the people trembled.  They were also warned off; no one was to get too close, on pain of death.

So what do they think of God?  On one hand, God is a liberator, who heard their cries, sent them a deliverer and set them free, but on the other hand, God is terrifyingly powerful; even dangerous.

This is the picture of God people still have in their heads when they speak of “acts of God” like massive flooding or hurricanes and tornadoes.  This is the kind of God people fear.

This is the kind of God people are thinking of when bad things happen, and they wonder if they are being punished.

This is the picture of God that Jesus is completely overturning.  This is revolutionary.  Jesus is taking their origin story’s dominant idea, and utterly transforming it.  Instead of a life-threatening volcano, Jesus presents God as a loving father.

Literary Context: the 3rd of 3

Just before we get into the story, one more thought; this one about where this parable screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-8-37-39-pmcomes in Luke’s version of the Jesus story.  This is the third parable in a series of three.  Whenever you have a series of three, it seems that the first two are there to set up the third.  The climax is the third.  So this is the climax.

The first two we heard about last week: the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin.  The Good Shepherd left the ninety-nine sheep alone to go searching for the lost sheep.

Bob pointed out that this is one of those fantastic elements that parables often have: it would be absurd to leave all your sheep vulnerable to predatory wolves or thieves and go out searching for one.  Any normal shepherd would simply consider it a business loss, write it off, and be done with it.

So this is not just a parable about lostness and being found, it is also a parable of extravagance.  If God is the Good Shepherd and we are the lost sheep, God’s love for us is extravagant to the point of being absurd.

Anyway, it ends with great rejoicing.  Lostness, found-ness, and rejoicing is the sequence.  The point, Jesus says, is that when a single sinner repents, there is great rejoicing in heaven.  What was lost, has been found.

The second of the three parables is about the lady with ten silver coins, who looses one.  She lights a lamp gets out a broom, and searches the whole house until she finds it.  When she does, she rejoices and throws a party.  The sequence is the same: lostness, found-ness, and rejoicing.  The point is the same: joy in heaven over a sinner who repents.  What was lost, has been found.

Of course the odd thing about both of these is that there is no repenting in these two parables.  Sheep do not know how to repent, and coins do not do anything at all.  This brings all the more attention to the third story in which the son formulates and rehearses an elaborate repentance speech:

“I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; …”’

The Climactic Third Parable

Now we come to the third parable, the climax.  Now we are ready to hear the same sequence: lostness, found-ness, and rejoicing over repentance.

It starts with another one of those absurd exaggerations you find in parables.  The idea screen-shot-2016-09-17-at-5-11-58-pmthat the younger son would ask his father for his inheritance is bizarre; as bad as it sounds in our culture, think of how much worse it sounded in Jesus’ culture of family honor and shame!  The son shames the father to whom he owes honor by basically wishing him dead already.

In another absurd move, the father grants his request.  This son is already more lost than the sheep or the coin, but it gets worse.  After receiving the death-money, he blows it.  Not just on feasting and personal indulgence, but on “dissolute living.”  You can fill in the blank of whatever “dissolute” means – but it is definitely an R rated story.  His older brother assumes it involves prostitutes.

Not only that, but he is doing it all in a “distant country”.  He has left the purity of his promised land for the impure pagan lands abroad.

Finally, his lostness reaches its most completely absurd depths when he ends up penniless and among pigs – which for Jewish people, is a completely unclean, impure situation.

From there, as lost as a person can get, he comes to his senses and composes a repentance speech.  In it, he admits his sinfulness, announces his unworthiness, and plans a future, not as an honorable son, but as a shamed hired hand.

If the story was that he returned as planned, and was able to make his planned speech, and after hearing it, his father took him back as a hired hand, that would already be absurd.  No father, having been shamed so much – in fact, the whole family was shamed – would ever take back the guilty son, even as a worker.

But that is not how the story goes.  It is not just that the son shows up one day unannounced at the door.  Rather, apparently the father was looking down the road for him – probably every day.  And when he saw him, instead of waiting with dignity and sternness, as would be expected, the opposite happens:screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-8-07-04-pm

“But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”

The father did not even notice, nor let him finish his repentance speech.  So, in all three parables about lostness, found-ness and rejoicing, there is no successful repentance.  Apparently the idea that repentance is the necessary condition for rejoicing in heaven was just a literary ploy.  It turns out, it is not the condition.

The Volcano vs. the Father

This then is a revolutionary understanding of God.  Contrast this shame-less, compassionate, rejoicing father with the smoking, quaking, threatening God of Mt. Sinai.  The fear has been completely removed.  Even fear of justified, rational consequences is gone.

Many of us have had the joy of the experience of coming to understand ourselves as loved and forgiven by God after periods of lostness.  We can bear witness to the power of forgiveness and reconciliation we have experienced.  We can tell our own story of being the prodigal son or daughter who returned home to find love instead of condemnation.

The Older Brother

If the story stopped here, it would be one of Jesus’ best parables ever.  But it gets deeper.  There is another brother; the older one who stayed home doing the right thing.  For people who grew up with the threatening God of Mt. Sinai, this one was the wise one.  He obeyed the commandments that came from Sinai.  He honored his father and mother.  He did not covet his neighbor’s possessions, but stayed home working for the family.

In the first parable the shepherd who found his lost sheep calls his friends and neighbors to rejoice with him.  So did the woman who found her lost coin.  In this climax, the way it should go is that the older son comes home and shares the joy of his father who got his son back from the dead, in his perspective.  He was lost, but now he has been found.

The older son, however, is angry.  He deserves better.  He is offended.  He never got a party, for all his years of loyal labor.

Let us pause here.  There is something powerful, but subtle, going on in this story.  It is clear and amazing that the whole paradigm of God has been transformed.  The fear of the God of Sinai has been replaced by the loving embrace of the extravagant father.  But there is another transformation that has happened as well.

What was the condition of the prodigal son with his lifestyle of dissolute living in a foreign land?  We would have expected to define him as sinner, as impure, as contemptible.  But Jesus has defined him merely as lost.  There is a huge difference.

If his older brother could have seen him as lost, instead of contemptible, perhaps he could have had compassion on him too.

These three parables are all about lostness: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son.  This is our condition.

Being Lost

I do not believe that lostness is a past experience that we can be finished and done with screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-8-42-22-pmpermanently.  While there may have been exceptionally bad periods of lostness in our lives which we have come through, from which God’s compassion has found us, which we rejoice about, nevertheless, I do not think we get to leave the condition of lostness behind in any final sense.

There are all kinds of ways to be lost.  When we consider our own finitude, our mortality, the fact that our lives on this earth will end, we struggle with a sense of lostness.  What was it all about, if we must leave it all behind?

We feel a sense of lostness when we consider the problem of meaning.  Clearly life is not only about producing things, or consuming things, or accumulating things.  It cannot be meaningful in any large sense if it is simply about our own personal happiness.

We feel a sense of lostness when we look at the world and wonder where it is going.  We look at politics, we look at climate change, we look at terrorism and war, and wonder what kind of world is coming.

The revolution that Jesus brings with these subversive parables helps us discover that in all our lostness, there is a Divine Presence who is there for us.  God is not there to bring condemnation; God is not to be feared.  God is there as the compassionate presence, luring us home, luring us to accept that we are accepted.  God is there, cutting short our pretentious repentance speeches, with a ring and a robe, and a kiss and a party.

In whichever way you are lost, come  home to love.  Accept that you are accepted by Love, the very ground of being itself.  Come home to love.

And then look around at everybody else.  We are all lost. We have all been found.   We are all in this together. So have compassion on other people who are at different places on their journey.  Open the door, join the party, and keep the door open for everyone.  Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate, until everyone comes home to love.  Until every lost one is found.

“…and you will be blessed…”

Sermon on Luke 14:1, 7-14 for Pentecost +15, Aug 28, 2016

Luke 14:1, 7-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place’, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Miss Manners was not a revolutionary.  I think we can all agree about that.  I was thinking Screen Shot 2016-08-27 at 6.32.18 PMof words to describe discussions of rules for politeness and social protocol: I came up with boring, pedestrian, banal, and arbitrary.

So is this text about Jesus being Miss Manners?  Or is it revolutionary?  I believe it is revolutionary.  Here is why.

The Magic of Meals

What happens when we eat food?  We take something living – a plant, or fish or animal (most people), and it becomes part of us.  The nutrients enter our bloodstreams, feed our cells, and sustain our lives.  In other words, we take a life-source and it becomes part of us. Screen Shot 2016-08-27 at 6.36.50 PM

So what happens when we eat a common meal with others?  Whoever is at the table is sharing a life source together.  That single source, that loaf of bread or that lettuce or that meat becomes a source a life to everyone at the table.

This is part of the logic, in the ancient world, of animal sacrifice.   Most sacrifices were not completely consumed in the fire, rather they were cooked.  Some of the  sacrificial animal became smoke which rises upwards.  In antiquity, with its three-story concept of the world, God, or the gods are up in heaven.  The gods consume sacrifices by ingesting the smoke.  The aroma is “pleasing” not just because it smells good, but the ancient gods were sustained by it.  Literally, it fed them.

The part of the animal that did not become smoke was eaten by the worshippers and the priest in many cases.  In other words, they shared a common life-source with each other and the gods, or in Israel’s case, the one God.

Think of all the times in the bible in which God gets involved in meals.   There is a very odd, numinous scene in Exodus at Mt. Sinai in which God invites Moses, along with 70 elders, to come up onto the mountain, covered in the mysterious cloud, and it says,

“they beheld God, and they ate and drank.” (Exod. 24:11).

They encountered God in a shared meal.

A banquet table with rich food and aged wines is how Isaiah imagines the future feast God will make for all nations, when the common enemy of death has been defeated.  (Isaiah 25) So, everything culminates in a banquet.

The Anthropology of EatingScreen Shot 2016-08-27 at 6.47.23 PM

Sharing a common meal is universally significant for humans on all kinds of levels.  Anthropologists tell us that implicit in shared meals is obligation to give and receive, and repay.

“Eating is a behavior which symbolizes feelings and relationships, mediates social status and power, and expresses the boundaries of group identity.”

“In all societies, both simple and complex, eating is the primary way of initiating and maintaining human relationships…. Once the anthropologist finds out where, when, and with whom the food is eaten, just about everything else can be inferred about the relations among the society’s members…. To know what, where, how, when, and with whom people eat is to know the character of their society.”

Crossan, John Dominic. Jesus (p. 77). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition, cites Peter Farb and George Armelagos, Consuming Passions: The Anthropology of Eating (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980), pages 4 and 211.

Jesus: Revolutionary Dining

So, Luke’s gospel has this scene in which Jesus is at a meal of a prominent person, and he has two issues to raise.Screen Shot 2016-08-27 at 7.12.32 PM

The first is with the guests.  In an honor-shame based culture, seating placement had everything to do with status, and therefore honor.  One of two things is true about this text.  Either Jesus is offering a “Miss Manners” kind of advice about how not to get yourself publicly shamed by an honor over-reach, or he is undermining the very structure of valuing persons on the basis of honor.

His concluding aphorism is a revolutionary attack on that whole system of values:

“all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

The very structure of valuing persons on the basis of honor has been overturned.  This is revolutionary.

Who is at the table?

Jesus then turns to the host to raise another issue.  It is not just about who gets to sit where at the table; it is also about who gets a place at the table at all.   Going directly against the socially accepted, historically validated, intuitively obvious way of choosing with whom you eat, Jesus says, instead,

“when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind”

In other words, invite the people without honor, without status, the people in whose presence you do not get any cool points.

In Jesus’ day, society was organized by a patronage system.  Wealthy landowners were the patrons.  The people who worked for them were clients.  Brokers were the middle men.  Poor clients were often dependent on the wealthy patrons for all kinds of things, from work, and therefore income, to protection.  (see Crossan, Jesus p. 107).

The patrons got to decide who was at the table, and who was out back, rummaging for scraps in the trash dump with the dogs, or begging for alms in the streets.  What Jesus is saying is that there never should be anyone out there with the dogs, or on the streets.  The people who are normally there, the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, should be treated with dignity and respect by having a place inside the house, at the banquet table.  That, is revolutionary.

Thinking Theologically

This revolution is necessary for people who believe what we believe about God.  Most of the time, because we are more at home with metaphors than with abstractions, we speak of God as a separate being.  We call God “Father” for example.Screen Shot 2016-08-27 at 7.18.04 PM

But when we think deeply about God, we are forced to use words like mystery.  We know that it is inadequate to conceive of God simply as a Super-being, “out there”, but rather we believe that God is the ground of all being.  God is Ultimate Reality.  God is the depth dimension of life that we all experience; that which gives us purpose and meaning.

God, as the ground of our being is not simply an abstract power, but rather God is personal.  God must be more than what we conceive of as personal, but certainly, not less.  This means that ultimate reality is personal, which is why we get closest to encountering ultimate reality in the depths of personal relationships.

We go so far as to say that the best way to understand this personal ultimate reality is to say that God is Love.  This is why, when we trust God with our lives, we are aware that we have been entirely accepted by love.  We have been invited to the banquet table.  We are valued, respected, and affirmed.  Our lives matter.  Our lives have meaning.   Our stories, our history is part of a larger history.  In other words, we have hope.

This is exactly what gave the prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah the ability to look at their times, times when there was great poverty, injustice, oppression and abuse, and imagine a different future.  They were people of hope because they trusted that God, Ultimate Reality, is Love.

God shows up in the world in every action motivated by love.  God is present where compassion is present.  God is present where people work for justice.  God is found where people are helping to get “the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind” a place at the table.

We see God in Jesus, as he sets forth this vision, which he called the kingdom of God.  An open table that excludes no one.  An open table that serves everyone.  A meal shared equally, without any external value judgments.

The Blessed Life

Jesus said, Screen Shot 2016-08-27 at 7.29.20 PM

“when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed”

What is the path to the blessed life?  It is the path of compassion, the path of love.  When we come home to Love, when we find ourselves accepted and invited to the banquet table, we feel blessed.  And when we join in God’s quest for the world, to keep spreading that love in ever widening circles, we are even more blessed.

This means that we are committed to the task of continually asking,

“Who is not at the table?”

And then,

“What can we do to help get them to the table?”

We do not need advice from Miss Manners, but we do need a revolution today.  We need a newly inspired army of people who are grounded in the ultimate reality we call love, and whom we know as God.   An army of people so grounded in love, so at home, that they can be people for others, as Jesus was.

People who value other people the way God, their Creator values them: not for their status or power, not for their race or even their religion, but for their common humanity.

Their lives do matter to us!  And, the more their lives have not mattered to others, because they are poor, crippled, blind, lame, or of a different race than we, or a different faith, then the more we single them out for mattering, just as Jesus did with those who were shut out of the table in his day.

The people at the table are the people with privilege.  We, as mostly middle class Caucasians, in this church, and we, as followers of Jesus, are therefore open to looking at our our own privilege.  Almost all of us were handed a seat at the table as a birthright.  This is simply, honestly called white privilege.  We do not have any interest in denying this most obvious fact.

But, grounded in the ultimate reality of Love, we have the vision of the truly blessed life, which is the life of a shared table; an ever-growing table, a table of diversity and humility without any honor-seats or empty seats.

With and So

Sermon on Jeremiah 1:4-10 and Matthew 28.16-20 for Pentecost +14 C August 21, 2016

Jeremiah 1:4-10

 Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”

But the Lord said to me,
“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you,
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”

Matthew 28.16-20

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.   When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.   And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.   Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

We are a science-friendly church.  Today is the Sunday before our children and youth go back to school where they will learn to understand the world scientifically.  Eventually some of them, like my son, may even become science majors in college.Screen Shot 2016-08-20 at 6.24.32 PM

We all benefit in many ways from the long, sustained, dedicated work of scientists who have studied the human body, diseases, medicines, and the technology that keeps saving and prolonging our lives.  We are thankful for science.  We do not live, anymore, in a world that fears that diseases and accidents are caused by curses or malevolent invisible spirits or evil eyes.

On the other hand, we do not believe that science can account for all of the experience of our lives.  We do not believe in a purely mechanical universe of complete randomness and chance.

Meaning and Purpose

Almost all people believe that their lives mean something; that there is a purpose to life.  I Screen Shot 2016-08-20 at 6.29.50 PMhave watched cattle out in the field grazing grass, or just standing there looking vacantly into the distance.  We cannot live that way.  Even though our lives are busy with mundane details, from shopping to doctor visits, from school work to jobs and even recreation, we believe that our lives are not only about those activities.  Life is about more than that.

We believe that there is a depth dimension to life.  Science does not have the tools to investigate this dimension.  It is part of the human spirit.  There is a ground of being that supports us and sustains us, as scripture says, one “in whom we live and move and have our being.” (see Huston Smith, Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief)

We encounter this depth dimension of life in our sense that our lives do have meaning and purpose which a purely mechanical universe cannot provide.  We also encounter this depth dimension especially as that mysterious connection we feel with other persons.  In fact, we experience this depth dimension itself as personal.  Probably more than what we mean by personal, but certainly, not less.Screen Shot 2016-08-20 at 6.33.15 PM

So, we believe that personality is of ultimate significance in the constitution of the universe which we touch, uniquely, in personal relationships.

So, when we go out and look at the silent stars at night, or gaze up into he infinite blue above us, we believe that we are being encountered by that ultimate reality that is a personal ultimacy.

Our belief, moreover, is that this ultimate personal ground of our being is best defined by love.  In biblical language, “God is love.”

As one author as put it,

“Love is the ground of our being to which we ultimately ‘come home.’”  (J.A.T. Robinson, Screen Shot 2016-08-20 at 6.37.39 PMHonest to God, p. 49)

We “come home” to Love, when we come to embrace, by faith, that we have been called by God.  We have been accepted, in spite of our condition of lostness and alienation.

Jeremiah’s Call and Doubt

Today we are looking at two texts that lead us to this understanding.  The first is from the prophet Jeremiah.

We are not prophets, and many aspects of Jeremiah’s sense of being called were unique to him.  Nevertheless, we share with Jeremiah this profound sense that we are known and accepted, and even called into life with a purpose.

Jeremiah’s language about his sense of calling and purpose is poetic, filled with fantastic imagery.  He imagines that even before birth he had a life purpose (which could not be literally true, unless you believed in the pre-existence of the soul, which we do not).

His sense of call came with a deep confidence, but also with doubt.  Was he up to it?  He says,

“I am only a boy”

To which he hears the reply,

“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;Screen Shot 2016-08-20 at 6.40.12 PM
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you,
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you”

Throughout the stories in the scriptures, from beginning to end we hear that word “with”.  From the creation myth of the Garden of Eden where God meets with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening breeze, to the mysterious encounter Moses had with the God of the dark fire, who showed him a glimpse of his glory, the with-ness of God is a constant theme.

So, we need not fear.  The God who grounds our lives in love, who is the very love behind all specific personal loves, is with us.  Even if we are but boys, or girls.  Even if we are but mortals, standing at the abyss of our finite lives.  In the classroom and in the waiting room, God is with us as love, calling us to know that we are accepted in love; calling us to trust; calling us to courage, enough to walk forward into whatever life has for us.

Jesus’ Call and Promise

Abstractions are difficult, but for us, we have a concrete example of one who showed us Screen Shot 2016-08-20 at 6.44.34 PMhow to live completely grounded in love; Jesus, the Christ.  In Jesus we see one whose trust was so deep that he could live life entirely for others.  In Jesus we see one who emptied himself of self, to the point of death.

This brings us to the gospel story.  Matthew depicts Jesus after his resurrection on the mountain with his eleven remaining disciples.  Matthew includes the reference to eleven, not twelve, to keep our minds on the fact that discipleship is hard, not easy.  Even one of Jesus’ disciples decided Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God was not for him.

Doubt is even present there.  Our version of Matthew says,

“When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”

Actually, the word “some” is not in the original.  It was supplied by translators who seem not to have been able to understand that you can worship and doubt at the same time.  Literally Matthew wrote,

they worshiped him and they doubted”. (cf. Mark Allen Powell, Loving Jesus, in Stoffregen’s

So the eleven meet with Jesus, and in this story, they hear him voice the call that calls all of us.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you”

It is a call to a mission; a purpose.  We, who have encountered the transcendent God, in Jesus, the person who lived his life completely for others, are called to be people who go into the world with that message.

We are called to commit ourselves to a life for others.  We are called to go out and be communities of people who enact that drama of death and rebirth, which is what baptism does; death to a life lived for self alone, and rebirth into Christ’s life; a life for others, a life grounded in the ultimate reality of love.

But who has the courage to live that way?  Who has enough faith that love will win, to trust, in the face of life’s challenges?  Who can live without being overwhelmed by doubt?

We need help, and so again, we hear the promise, this time on the lips of the risen Christ, saying to all of us:

“remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age”

What does this mean?  It means that God is with us; always with us.  With us at the joyful prospect of a fresh new year of school, and with us in the painful process of walking through “the valley of the shadow of death.”  With us, giving us the courage to trust, so that, grounded in love, we can live our lives for others.

This is what he means when he calls his disciples to teach fellow disciples, as he says “to obey everything that I have commanded.”   That is, to love our neighbors as ourselves.  To turn the other cheek.  To go the second mile.   To forgive when someone sins against us.  To forgive even 70 x 7 times.

It means to learn the lessons of the beatitudes, that it is the poor who are blessed with the kingdom.  The peacemakers are the children of God.  The ones who hunger and thirst for justice are the ones who will be filled.  That the meek are the ones to inherit the earth.

Who can commit to such a life?  Those who hear these words:

“remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”


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