Our Vision, Our Hope

Sermon on Isaiah 2:1-5 and Matthew 24:36-44 for the First Sunday of Advent, Year A, November 27, 2016

Isaiah 2:1-5

“The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.screen-shot-2016-11-26-at-2-39-11-pm
In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house
   shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
   all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
   “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
      to the house of the God of Jacob;
   that he may teach us his ways
      and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
   and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
   and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
   and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob, come,
   let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Matthew 24:36-44

[Jesus said:]
“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

At Thanksgiving we had a lot of family around our table from Michelle’s side.  It was a img_7790great time for all of them to be with her father, whose heath is fragile.  He was able to be at the table with us, maybe for the last time at such a gathering – although who knows the future, right?

After he went to bed there were some conversations about end-of-life issues.  The conversation drifted from considering his end-of-life to our own.  One day we will all be there.

I have some pretty clear ideas about those days, and I’m sure you do too.  Not the specifics, but characteristics.  I know I want to get to those days, knowing that I have loved as best I can, and I want to know that I have been loved.

At the end of my life I also want to be able to say that whatever came of my life, good or bad, successes or failures, I lived authentically; that I was true to myself and my values.  I know I do not want to get to those days with unsettled regrets.

None of that happens by accident.  In order to have those positive elements characterize the end of our days, we intentionally set ourselves to live in certain ways that will produce those outcomes, and to not live in ways that produce opposite outcomes.

Nothing about this is by chance, any more than being in good health or being an accomplished musician happens by chance.  You have heard of the 10,000 hours of practice that it takes to become an expert – the same principle holds for the spiritual life as well.

This is why we believe and teach the importance of the regular practices of a Christian.  Practices like daily prayer and meditation, regular gathering for worship and fellowship, regularly giving of ourselves and our resources for others.  These are the normal and indispensable practices that, over time, produce the outcome of the life we want to have lived.

We just celebrated the American holiday of Thanksgiving.  Giving thanks, being people of gratitude is another intentional, regular practice of a Christian.  We recognize that everything is a gift of God, our Creator.  Every breath, every bite of food, every smile, and hug and expression of love and respect is a gift of God.  We do not take any of them for granted.  We are people of gratitude.

Advent: Waiting and Hope

So, this is the first Sunday in Advent.  Advent is the first Sunday in the Christian year.  Advent means “coming”.  It is the four week season during which we wait for the coming of Christ at Christmas.

The text from the Gospel According to Matthew is about waiting for an event that Jesus called the “coming of the Son of Man.”  In some sense, a Christian community is always a community in waiting.  That means we are always a community of hope.  Hope is a necessary part of waiting.  In fact in Hebrew, the same word is used for both.  To wait is to hope.

But we are not just waiting for the end of our lives to roll around.  We are waiting with a vision of what our lives are, and what to hope for, what to wait for.  This vision, too, is something to give thanks for.  We do not believe in blind fate.  We do not believe we are left alone in the universe to work it our as best we can.  We Christians have a vision of the world as it should be, and we believe that we are called to cooperate with God, who intends a very specific kind of world.

The Hopeful Vision

The vision we have of the world we are hoping for, waiting to see accomplished, and working towards, by means of our daily Christian practices, is given for us in places like the beautiful text we read from Isaiah.  screen-shot-2016-11-26-at-12-54-45-pm

“In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house
   shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
   all the nations shall stream to it.”

Our vision is of a reconciled world in which all the nations come together in common purpose.  We refuse to accept the inevitability of division between peoples.  We notice that this vision is not that all the people will dissolve their differences.  Not at all.  It is that all the nations, with all their differences, will seek a common good.  With all their different languages, customs, cultures, and all their different perspectives, they will all come together in a common quest.

Now, we are not naive children.  We do not take such poetic visions as literal description.  We do not believe in a fantasy world in which Isis and Taliban leaders stream to Israel to learn Jewish Torah.

But we believe in a vision of a world in which Muslims of good will and Christians of good will can live together, sharing a common planet, even sharing a nation and a local community, in a spirit of mutual respect and appreciation.

That vision calls us to live every day in such a way that the end result we wait for, and hope for, becomes more likely instead of less likely.  So, for example, we practice meditation because we know that the long term effect is to open our hearts to people who are different from us.  Our daily Christian practices, in these days of waiting, are helping us to get to the end we imagine; the end that our vision calls us to.

Isaiah’s vision for the future gets even better:screen-shot-2016-11-26-at-1-05-28-pm

“they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.”

This is a vision of the weapons of destruction becoming tools of productivity and fruitfulness.  Instruments meant for killing become implements for growing food; for sustaining life.  Not only will fighting cease, in this vision, even learning the art of war comes to and end.  It would be as archaic as learning to light a fire by striking rocks together.

We live into this vision of peace.  We are on the side of life.  We do not participate in a culture of death.  We believe that every life is sacred, so we live in such a way as to make peace more likely than war.  We refuse to scapegoat people of other nations or other religions.  We reject false binary narratives of either-or, of all or nothing, of “us” versus “them.”  These are the narratives of our ancient human ancestors on the Savannah, with their sharp spears and animal skin clothing, but we do not live in those barbaric days.

This too is something we can be grateful for every day; that we have a positive, hopeful vision of a reconciled peaceful world to live for and work for.  As we wait, in Advent, we wait as people of hope that we can be a part of God’s dream of a world at peace, where war is a distant memory.

Other Visions of Hope

As I started reflecting on this great vision of Isaiah, feeling so thankful that we have this screen-shot-2016-11-26-at-1-09-50-pmgift with which to direct our lives, I began to think of the other parts of the Christian vision we affirm that give us hope and joy, even as we wait.

I immediately thought of our Reformed traditions.  How we have been blessed by those who struggled 500 years ago to free us from the darkness of medieval theology.  We no longer believe that a priest stands between us and God.

We no longer believe that God is angry with us, looking for reasons to smite us, and threatening us with eternal conscious torment in hell.  We no longer believe in an original curse that makes us all guilty and shame-based.

Rather, we believe in an original blessing.  We believe that God is for us, with us, loving us, and luring us to embrace a vision of life at peace with God and with our neighbors.

We rejoice that we can be a part of that great Reformation motto: “the church Reformed, always reforming” always responding to our new contexts with a fresh reading of our ancient scriptures, open to the Spirit of God teaching us things, as Jesus told his disciples, that we could not have previously been able to hear.

The Community and our Vision

We believe that God has given us each other in this community to help us embrace and live into this hopeful vision.  Granted, this vision is an alternative to the dominate narratives of our day, that accept violence and division as inevitable.

Therefore, we need each other to encourage and strengthen our practices of this screen-shot-2016-11-26-at-1-11-18-pmalternative way.  Just as a log burns brightly, as long as it is in the fireplace or the fire pit with the others, but goes out quickly when pulled out, so we need each other in this community to keep this vision’s fire burning.

That is why, as an authentic community, we practice authentic generosity.  That is why we pledge to one another our mutual support.  We resolve to practice the Christian practice of first-fruits giving, not out of our left-overs, but from the top, because we make commitments to ensure that this community can be sustained in its vision and mission.

I am so thankful for this community.  I am so thankful to be a part of this forward-thinking, open-hearted body.  I am so thankful for all of the people who have been faithful in the past to bring us to this day.

And I am so thankful for the many many people that we touch; the ones who are blessed by our open doors, who use our building, from the Christian Service Center to the Gulf Coast Arts Council to the many yoga classes and vegan dinners we host here.  I am so thankful for the music that fills this space when we gather. I am thankful for the challenges we receive as we study and discuss faith and life together.   I am thankful for all of you.

Let us begin this new year for the church on this first Sunday of Advent, with joyful gratitude for the beautiful vision of life that we have been called to live into.

The Concept of Kingship – A Conundrum and a Calling

Sermon on Luke 23:33-43 for Christ the King Sunday C, November 20, 2016

Luke 23:33-43

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the screen-shot-2016-11-18-at-2-47-49-pmcriminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Many of you have been around liturgical churches most of your life, but some others  have not.  It may be news to some that the church has a calendar year all its own, and this is the last Sunday of the church year.  Next week will begin Advent, the beginning of the church year.  Advent simply means “coming”.  It is the four week season of our church year that anticipates the coming of Jesus’ birth which we celebrate at Christmas.

So this is the end of our church year.  In 1915 Pope Pius XI proclaimed that the year should culminate with the celebration of Christ the King.  Here is why.  He said that first, the nations would see that the Church has the right to freedom and immunity from the state.  Second, that the leaders of the nations would see that they are  bound to give respect to Christ.  Third, that the faithful would gain strength and courage from the celebration, remembering that Christ must reign in our hearts, mind, wills and bodies. (source – see Pulpit Fiction)

Those are lofty and admirable goals.  As they say, what good are low hopes?

Monarchical Awkwardness

There were more kings and queens in the world in 1915 than there are now.  Today the idea of a monarchy seems partly quaint and archaic, like England’s version, and partly abhorrent; an authoritarian alternative to democracy.  So that makes speaking of Christ as king a bit awkward.

There is something else that makes speaking of Christ as king awkward.  Jesus went around proclaiming the kingdom of God, but when people tried to make him king, he rejected the offer.  The inscription that the Roman governor, Pilate put on his cross, calling Jesus the king of the Jews was meant to mock him.

Pilate, by that time, knew that Jesus had no army and was not trying to become a replacement to king Herod, but whatever kind of kingdom he was proclaiming, he was dangerous. Claiming to be a part of a kingdom other than the Roman kingdom was openly treasonous.  Leading a march of peasants to the capital city during their independence day festival, as Jesus did on what we call Palm Sunday, even if a non-violent demonstration, was a threat Rome would not tolerate. And, shutting down the temple, like he did, was disruptive, to say the least, if not a direct confrontation with the powers that be.  And So Pilate, in collusion with the local elites, had him executed by crucifixion.

The text we read from Luke is normally a Good Friday text, so it is surprising to read it here, one week before we start the Advent season, anticipating Christmas.

Christianity’s Climactic Momentscreen-shot-2016-11-18-at-2-53-47-pm

And yet, it is completely fitting and even crucially important that if we are to have a church year, it should come to exactly this kind of climax.   On Christ the King Sunday, to sum up Jesus’ entire ministry, to burn into our hearts and minds the central image we should carry in our consciousness, we focus our attention on the moment of Jesus execution.

This is the opposite of a typical coronation.  There are no flags, no banners, no trumpets, no horses, no procession through a triumphal arch or even a city gate.  This is “not a victory march,” as the late Leonard Cohen might say.  But it is the emblem of Jesus’ central message of love, enacted in the flesh and blood of a real person.

So let us picture the scene.  Jesus was arrested by Roman soldiers the night before.  He was then subjected to all the horrible things they did back then, which today we would simply call torture, which our country has declared, is illegal.  Then, after a trial by mob hysteria, most closely akin to the mock “justice” of a lynching, even though Pilate knows the charge of armed sedition is false, he gives the order.  Jesus, along with others, is crucified because that is the worst kind of death the Romans could come up with.  It is long, it is slow, and it is public.  It is meant to be both humiliating and lethal.

In this moment, the entire ministry of Jesus comes to a climax, as, in Luke’s version of the story, Jesus, from the cross, says,

“Father, forgive them”.  

Without vengeance, without a prayer for vindication by violence in response to violence, Jesus simply prays

“Father, forgive them”.

This is the culminating moment for the one who taught us to pray,

“forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” – or our trespasses, or our sins, or however you translate it.

Forgiveness is at the heart of Jesus’ message.  Even up to, and including forgiveness of enemies.

What does it mean to honor Christ as king? It means that we celebrate the triumph of mercy over judgement.  This is our high and holy calling; to be a community of reconciliation.

The Weirdness of Historyscreen-shot-2016-11-18-at-2-55-32-pm

It is bizarre and, I am going to say, ridiculous, to imagine how we go from this moment of Jesus proclaiming, in word, and in his own body, the triumph of forgiveness of enemies, to Constantine’s use of the cross as a symbol by which the Roman armies crushed their enemies.  History is full of the bizarre and ridiculous.

It is also and absurdity of history that the victorious Constantine, after becoming the Roman emperor, would be the one to make the Christian church the chaplaincy to the empire, blessing its battles and accepting its power.  On the other hand, it is not surprising that the church would play nice; after all, Constantine started paying the bishop’s salaries and building them beautiful basilicas to preside over.

Return to the Source

As we embark on this year-long countdown to the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, you are going to hear me say frequently that the clarion call of the Reformers was “ad fontes” meaning back to the fountain, back to the source of our faith.  We are painfully aware of how far away from that source the medieval church had gone by the 16th century Reformation.  screen-shot-2016-11-19-at-7-45-52-pm

Now, 500 years after that Reformation, we continue to seek our identity as the church in our source: in the life and ministry of Jesus.  We are painfully aware that the church, that became beholden to the wealth and power of the empire in the 4th century, had lost its way.

So our desire to return to the source is a quest to go back to our sources for the life of Jesus, the gospels, and to take a fresh look.  Jesus preached the kingdom of God.  In other words, the world as it would look and function if God instead of Caesar were king.   What would that world look like?

When God is King

It would look like the kind of world Jesus created around himself.  It would look like communities of people who knew that their deepest identity is that they are daughters and sons of God – people who can pray, and meant it when they pray – “our Father or Mother in heaven” – recognizing that God is not just a big man in the sky.   But either way, to call God Mother or Father is to affirm that we are God’s children; loved, embraced, forgiven, accepted, and cared for.

If a community lives believing that God is on the throne, praying to  have God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven, then those communities gather without regard to any status markers: women and men, slaves and citizens, people from different races and languages all sharing food from one common table.  It means radical inclusivity that rejected every from of discrimination.

If God is on the throne having God’s will done, it must mean that the hungry are fed, just as the stories of Jesus feeding the multitudes teach.  It must mean that proper care gets to people who are sick or lame or blind, or elderly, which we would call health care.  In short, it means the same things that the Psalms of ancient Israel proclaim: that “righteous and justice are the foundation of God’s throne.” (Psalm 89:14 and 97:2)

So, Jesus went around establishing communities that would live according to this vision of God as King.  On the cross, we reach the culmination of that vision in which Jesus looks in the eyes of those who had done all they could to end his vision of the kingdom, saying

“Father, forgive them.”

The Community in our Contextscreen-shot-2016-11-19-at-7-48-09-pm

Now, all these years later, and in an entirely different context, we are seeking to live that vision.  This is a community that gathers around a common table, men and women, without discrimination of any kind, celebrating the forgiveness we experience by God, and extending forgiveness to each other and to our enemies.

This is not the way the world works.  We are an alternative community.  Therefore, we need each other.  We need to gather together to renew our vision and to encourage each other to live in this way, by these, frankly, upside down values.  We need the strength we get from each other to know that we are not alone in our vision of a just and reconciled humanity.

We value this community.  That is why we are not ashamed, once a year, to ask all of us to be a part of supporting this community.  We believe that being an authentic community of Jesus followers means being authentically generous in our support.  We believe that it is part of practicing the spirituality that Jesus taught us to be people who give as they are able.

Next week will be our Dedication Sunday.  We will bring our pledge cards and we will sign up to indicate where we will give of our time and our creativity, as we commit to be there for each other in practical, concrete ways.  In this way we show that we truly believe that Christ is king for us.   And this is how we will begin to live a new year together as a called, beloved community.

60th Anniversary Reflections

Sixty years ago when this congregation was born, Dwight Eisenhower was president. No screen-shot-2016-11-17-at-11-17-11-amone could possibly imagine what was coming: the assassination of President Kennedy, the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the resignation of President Nixon. Social movement of change were just over the horizon of the future in 1956: the civil rights movement, and the women’s movement. Changes in how we live everyday brought about by personal computers, the internet and cell phones were coming, but were, as yet, undreamed of.

We cannot imagine the changes the next 60 years will bring; all the presidents that will have come and gone, all the ways the world will be different. We only know that it will be different. Everything changes. We cannot possibly predict what this congregation will be like 60 years from now. But we know that we are living at the end of one era and the beginning of another.

This year marks not only our 60th anniversary, but also the beginning of the year-long countdown to the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses onto the door of the castle in Wittenberg, hoping to start a theological debate. The church, in those days, had no stomach for debate. It chose resistance to change instead of embracing reform.

Ad Fontesscreen-shot-2016-11-17-at-11-18-39-am

We are the heirs to the Protestant Reformation. The call of the reformers was “ad fontes” – meaning, back to the fountain, back to the original sources. They wanted to get back to the foundation of the church, before all the layers of medieval magical thinking were added.

The churches that embraced this moment that we descend from were called Reformed churches. They adopted a motto:

the church, Reformed, is always reforming.”

We are living at the beginning of a new movement of reform. This, we believe, is a movement of God’s Spirit, and we are blessed to be the generation that gets to watch it unfold. Never before, that I know of, has there been such a widespread consensus that the cry “ad fontes” must be sounded again. We must return in a new and fresh way, back to the source, the fountainhead of our faith.

Only this time, instead of returning to the version of our faith that was given by 4th century theologian St. Augustine, this time the cry is to go all the way back to Jesus himself.

Augustine was a brilliant scholar and humble, sincere believer who did his best to frame our faith and to fight off what he saw as heretics. But Augustine was a man with a checkered past, before his conversion to Christianity. It left him full of remorse and guilt. It left him ashamed. And so his orientation to Christianity started with sin and guilt, and a quest for salvation from God’s judgment. It was Augustine who gave us the term “original sin.”

But Jesus never used the term “original sin.” And Jesus did not teach his followers to fear God’s punishment. If this is the time to cry, “ad fontes”, back to the source, then this is the time to go back beyond Augustin and have a fresh look at the faith of Jesus.

This is exactly what is happening now. Groups of Christians are springing up both here and around the world that are seeking a new, Jesus-shaped vision for our faith. Calling themselves Red Letter Christians, or the Emergent church, or Convergence Christianity or simply Progressive Christians, they are all seeking to recover an approach to God and to faith that looks more like the faith lived in the catacombs than in the cathedrals.

The Shape of this Visionchurch-out-rnd

What is the shape of this new vision? Like Jesus’ approach to God, first and foremost it is radically positive. God is a mystery, beyond human comprehension, but if we mortals are to imagine God with metaphors, then Jesus’ preferred image of God as loving Father, or parent, is massively different from God as a hypersensitive medieval king with an active torture chamber below the throne room.

Like Jesus, this new vision is radically inclusive. It crosses every border in sight. It is thrilled with diversity. Just as Jesus started the practice of mixed and open table fellowship, so these new communities welcome everyone to the table without discrimination. This radical openness encourages conversations and dialogue. The old exclusivism has given way to a new openness to learning from the insights of people of other denominations and other faiths, as we realize that Jesus asked no one to convert before he fed or healed them, not even Romans, nor Samaritans nor Canaanites.

Like Jesus, these new communities are not content with a faith that is expressed in the NeoPlatonic categories of thought that have been captured in the creeds of the 4th century after Jesus’ time and beyond, as if they had a corner on theological concepts. People are waking up and noticing that Jesus himself did not have a creed. He never tried to get his people to memorize and set in stone one set of doctrines. Rather, his faith was a living, dynamic relationship with a God whom he encountered in the fray of everyday life and in the mysticism of long nights of contemplative prayer.

Like Jesus, these new communities want to be involved in meeting human need. From feeding and providing health care, to housing and advocacy, the action is outside the walls, out where people live. The term “missional” has been used quite often. Some have said, it is not that God’s church has a mission, but that God’s mission has a church which exists to be in mission to the world God loves.

So we cannot imagine what the next 60 years will bring, but we do know that change is coming. We will not fight it. We will embrace the new thing that God is doing as a new movement of God’s Spirit. And true to our heritage, we will be the Church Reformed, Always Reforming. Let us rejoice that we get to be the generation that sees it unfolding. May God bless us as we begin the next 60 years.

Our Hope and Vision

Sermon on Isaiah 65:17-25 and 2 Corinthians 8-9 selected verses for November 13, 2016, Pentecost +26, Stewardship #2

Isaiah 65:17-25

For I am about to create new heavens
   and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
   or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice for ever
   in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
   and its people as a delight.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
   and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
   or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it
   an infant that lives but a few days,
   or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
   and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
   they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
   they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
   and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain,
   or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord-
   and their descendants as well.
Before they call I will answer,
   while they are yet speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
   the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
   but the serpent-its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
   on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.screen-shot-2016-11-12-at-10-27-09-am

Doom and gloom seem to be a national past time.  Half of the people in our country were telling and believing stories of doom and gloom before the election.  The other half are telling and believing stories of doom and gloom now.

As people of faith we do not live into narratives of doom and gloom.  We live into narratives of hope.  This is not because we are naive.  This is not because we are fuzzy headed optimists.  This is not because we are blind to the really bad outcomes and  harm that political leaders can do to the common good.
Rather we live into narratives of hope because we believe that there is more going on in the world than the eye can see.  We believe that what is unseen is, in fact, more important than what is seen.  So, we believe in unseen things like love, like justice, like goodness, truth and beauty.  We believe that our lives have meaning and purpose.  We believe in things like responsibility and community.  We believe in God.

We do not believe in the old Superman concept of God, what Aristotle called the god of Omnipotence who stands in the heavens somewhere looking at the world, sometimes tinkering with it, but most times just watching idly.  That Greek God is not the God of the narratives of the Hebrew bible, nor the God of the prophets, nor the God Jesus believed in.

Rather we believe that God is present everywhere in the created world.  We believe that God is the source and substance of the entire universe, and also the “more” that we call Spirit.

What is God’s relationship to the world then?  God is entirely related to the world at every level and in every moment.  That includes the moments of goodness as well as the moments of pain.  So, God shares our joy, and God also suffers with us.  In every moment, it is God whose power is expressed by luring us, not in a controlling way, but in a persuasive way, towards goodness, towards, justice, and ultimately towards love.

We receive this hopeful vision from our wisdom tradition, our scriptures. The bible is full of narratives of hope, like the story of slaves being set free from Egypt.  Think of all the  stories of unlikely births, of babies born to old or barren couples.  There are stories of hard times in the wilderness, but also stories of crossing the Jordan into the promised land.  There are stories of the pain of exile, but also of return from exile.

Isaiah’s Hope

Our text, from the prophet Isaiah, of a new thing that God would do, was not given after an election in which the “right” candidate won and everyone was feeling hopeful.  This text from Isaiah came from days of discouragement.  The people had endured the war-loss to Babylon, the destruction of their temple, the execution of their king, a whole generation of exile in a foreign land.

At the time of this impossibly hopeful vision, they had returned to their land, but just like people coming back home after the hurricane or the flood, all they could see was a discouraging future and a lack of resources.

But the prophet could see beyond the rubble of the buildings of the past, towards a future of hope and promise.  The fact that they were back in the land might be a hint that God was still with them, in their struggle, in their discouragement, willing them on to re-build, to re-create the community that had been dismantled.  God had a future, if they would only believe it, and live into that hopeful narrative.

Enter Jesusscreen-shot-2016-11-12-at-11-11-08-am

But was it true?  Or was it an overly optimistic wish?  The answer is not simple.  By the time of Jesus, that hopeful vision of restoration had not happened – and it had been a long time.  By the time of Jesus, Israel was just one of the many kingdoms that the Roman empire had swallowed up.  The local elites, whose power came from the Romans with whom they collaborated, were making life miserable for most people.

The story of Jesus is a story of a game-changing revolution.  Up to this time, people explained their suffering, their exile, their oppression, on one thing: they were being punished by God.  Some people still tell and believe this story.  Jesus didn’t!

When everyone believed that an angry God demanded blood sacrifice in order to forgive sinners, Jesus had nothing to do with the whole temple system, until the day he went to it and shut it down – at least symbolically, at least for a couple of hours.  This is the story we tell.

And what did Jesus replace the angry God of temple and sacrifice with?  A God who cared for his people as much, if not more, than he cared for the lilies of the fields and the birds of the air.  A God who, when people got off track, was not out for a sacrifice, but, like the father of the prodigal son, was waiting expectantly for his return, in order to greet him with a hug and a robe and a party.

Jesus’ Vision

So what was Jesus’ project?  To go throughout the land, among the people, sharing this vision of God, and telling them that this was in fact what they  had been longing for all along; this was in fact what the kingdom of God was supposed to be.  It was what the world was supposed to look like if God were king, instead of Caesar or Herod or whomever.

Jesus’ vision had completely practical consequences.  Everywhere he went he created communities of open table fellowship.  For the first time, men and women together, slaves and citizens together, Jews and non-Jews together would share food together, love each other, forgive each other, and be there for each other.   At least, that is what he modeled, and what he wanted.

Paul’s Vision and Contextscreen-shot-2016-11-12-at-11-14-25-am

In our New Testament reading we see Paul attempting to enact this vision in his radically different context, way outside the confines of rural Jewish Palestine where Jesus lived, out into the Hellenized urban world of the Roman cities.

Paul went around establishing groups of people, meeting in houses, who embraced this vision of a new humanity, in which the old divisions between people were now meaningless.  In Christ, Paul famously said, there is “no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female.”  Those “dividing walls” had been dismantled.  One new humanity was possible.  That is the vision.

Making the Connection Practical

In our  New Testament text we find Paul telling his non-Jewish communities that they were connected with the Jewish communities because they were all one; there is only one “body of Christ.”  So if one part is in need, the other parts spring into action to meet the need.

It so happened that there was significant poverty among the Christians in Israel, and the apostles had asked Paul to remember their poor.  So he did.  In a dramatic demonstration of their connection across lines of language and ethnicity, Paul spent two years organizing a massive collection from his gentile congregations to take back to Israel.

In Second Corinthians he is giving guidance about this collection, so that when he arrives, it will all be ready for delivery by Titus and his crew.  Paul seems a bit reluctant to talk about money.  I fully sympathize.  So, instead of calling it a money collection, he calls it a “ministry to the saints.”  He called the Jerusalem Christians, “the saints”.  He also calls the collection of money a “generous undertaking”.    So listen to how he describes the plan, as he asks the Corinthian Christians to be as generous as the Macedonian Christians had been:

“We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.  For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means,  begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints— and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us,  so that we might urge Titus that, as he had already made a beginning, so he should also complete this generous undertaking among you.  Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.”

Apparently, even though the Macedonians were poor – Paul says they gave out of their “extreme poverty” – nevertheless, they felt so connected to the even poorer Jewish Christians, they dug deep and generously, Paul calls it a “wealth of generosity”.

Paul goes on to organize the campaign and to provide a rationale for it:

“So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you, and arrange in advance for this bountiful gift that you have promised, so that it may be ready as a voluntary gift and not as an extortion.
    “The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.  Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.  And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.”

This collection has become the model for us as a Jesus-following community.  We believe that we are connected with each other.  There is no rule, like the 10% rule of giving that the Israelites received from the Law of Moses.  Rather it was a question of voluntary giving and authentic generosity.

The Kingdom in Practicescreen-shot-2016-11-12-at-11-26-53-am

This is what the kingdom of God looks like in practice.  We have hope that there a more going on in life than meets the eye.  We believe that love is real, that community is vital, and that we are all connected.  We believe in a “with-us God” whose vision of a restored humanity includes each one doing his and her part.

This is how our community is sustained, and this is how we join our resources together to show our solidarity and connection with people who are suffering.   This is why Christians around the world have not only built churches, but also schools and clinics and hospitals.  We dig wells, we send dental teams to rural areas.  We have run millions of food banks and homeless shelters around the world.   We have sponsored and run innumerable literacy projects.  What started as a “generous undertaking” by Paul has become part of our Christian DNA.

Paul tells the Corinthians that the rendering of this ministry, which is another way of saying, financial contribution, has spiritual benefits:

“You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us;  for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.”

Paul hoped and assumed that when Gentiles gave generously to poor Jews, this would demonstrate the seamless connection they had.  That is a hopeful vision.  Whether or not their gifts accomplished that vision (a story for another day) nevertheless, it was the right vision.  And I believe that blessing follows faithfulness.  There is something uncanny in a spiritual way about giving money away.  It makes us feel good.  I am glad that happens.  Goodness is its own reward.

So, whether your candidate won or lost, our message is not doom and gloom.  Our message is that we are people of hope, even in difficult times.  We commit ourselves to work towards that hopeful vision in our inclusive community, in our generation, doing our part, practicing authentic generosity.

The Kingdom in Practice

Sermon on Luke 8:1-3 for November 6, 2016, Pentecost +25, Stewardship 1

Luke 8:1-3
Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

I have been thinking abut two words this past week: derivative and authentic.  I heard an screen-shot-2016-11-05-at-2-40-31-pmartist discussing a painting we were looking at which neither one of us particularly liked.  His comment was, “It is derivative.

Of course in one sense every piece of art is derivative, as is every song, every book, every film; everything we do comes out of a tradition, even if it comes out as a reaction to that tradition.  So everything is derived from sources that preceded it.

And yet, I felt that he was right.  There are some works of art, in every form,  that borrow too heavily from what has come before.   They lack the authenticity of originality.

So that brings me to the word authentic.  An authentic work of art is not simply derived, it comes from a fresh, personal experience of the artist, or the writer, or the musician.  It is genuine.  It is real.  You can sense that it lives on its own, rather than merely referring to its predecessors.

I think about the life of faith in terms of the words derivative and authentic.  Our quest is to have authentic faith.  Yes, in one sense, our faith is derivative.  We may have grown up in a family that practiced it.  We are in a majority Christian nation.

We stand in a Christian tradition that traces its roots to the Protestant Reformation of which, last week we began the year-long countdown to the 500th anniversary.  We stand in the tradition of this congregation that is celebrating our 60th anniversary next Sunday.

But we are not at all content to have a faith that is merely derived or inherited.  In fact, one of the mottos of the Reformation itself was “The church, reformed, always reforming.”   The reformers recognized that an authentic faith would be one that grew and changed as the world unfolded.

How do we keep our faith authentic?  By following the core motivation that was at the heart of the Reformation: ad fontes.  Back to the fountainhead, the source.  Our source of authentic faith is the life and teachings of Jesus.  So that is what we return to every week as we seek to gather as an authentic community of living faith.

Luke’s Snapshot of an Authentic Community

The text we read from Luke’s version of the story of Jesus is like a snapshot.  It is a picture of a group in motion, but like all snapshots, it freezes the action so that we can look at each detail.  As we do, we see, in one moment, the seeds of this movement that Jesus was forming into an authentic community.  This will be the rich source from which we gather our vision of how we too can be an authentic community of followers of Jesus.

Luke sets up the story with this broad brush.  What was Jesus doing?

“proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God.”

The Alternative Kingdom

The central message of Jesus is the kingdom of God.  It is present; it is real.  It is among us, it is within us; it is the living reality of God, for all who have ears to hear and hearts open to all it means.screen-shot-2016-11-05-at-3-11-03-pm

The primary metaphor Jesus chose to use to proclaim his message was not the “family of God,” or  “the community of God,” but “the kingdom of God.”  At a time when Herod was the local king and when, especially in the East, Rome referred to itself as the “Roman kingdom,” calling his movement the kingdom of God sounds like a challenge.  It was meant to.

From the beginning, the kingdom of God was a challenge to the politics of the day.  Remember, it was the Roman political leaders and the local elites whose positions and power were derived from them, that conspired to kill Jesus, after what he did in Jerusalem.  But Jesus opposed the domination systems of his day.  The political power-brokers knew a challenge when the saw it, and dealt with it with their preferred method: brutal violence.

But Jesus proclaimed the alternative kingdom of God, and called it “good news.”  It was good news on all kinds of levels, the political as well as the personal.  As people received the message of the kingdom and came to understand that God was with them and for them, loving them, forgiving them, embracing them, and luring them towards goodness and truth and beauty, it was healing and transformative.  In other words, authentic.

So Luke tells us that this is what Jesus was about.  And this kind of proclamation created an authentic community of followers of Jesus.  We know most about the twelve, most of them who walked away from their jobs as fishermen to follow Jesus.  But Luke show us, in this snapshot, that there were many others as well.

Itinerant Healing Ministry – and Why

There were people who were healed by Jesus.  Jesus was a person through whom God’s screen-shot-2016-11-05-at-3-18-39-pmpower flowed.  People came to him for healing, and were actually healed.  Luke names some of them here.  Jesus was a person so alive to God, so in touch with the Spirit, that his touch, his words, his presence was healing.  A healed person does not have a derivative faith, but an authentic, personal faith.

Many of us have experienced healing in different ways, as we have come to understand ourselves as loved and accepted by God, and called to be conduits of God’s love to our worlds.  That is what an authentic faith is about.

Luke shows us that Jesus’ ministry was itinerant.  He kept moving from town to town, making his way slowly to the capital, Jerusalem.  This is also significant.  As a healer, his family, in that culture, would have expected him to stay home and set up a healing ministry from which they could all benefit.  People would come for healing and give gifts of gratitude, which could provide for the entire extended family.

We have all seen modern healing ministries that somehow always end up making the healer rich.  We see the opposite from Jesus.  We take note.

So Jesus, much to the chagrin of his family, kept moving.  This was part of his vision of the kingdom. It was like yeast in bread dough, or like seeds that must be scattered widely.  The kingdom kept pushing boundaries, going out to where the people lived, encountering them in their context, not waiting for them to come to him.

Women in the Community

So, in this snapshot, Luke shows us that there were many women that followed Jesus, screen-shot-2016-11-05-at-3-21-03-pmalong with the twelve men.  Some were women with a past.  Jesus’ acceptance of them shows us how God accepts us, even with our past, whatever that includes.  That kind of gracious acceptance and love is healing.  It is transformative.  It is authentic.

From Jesus we see inclusion that is open to men and women.  We notice that women were not among the central twelve leaders at the beginning; patriarchy was not dismantled in one step.  But the women are included here as part of that authentic group of followers.

Luke tells us that it is the women who will stick with Jesus up to the crucifixion.  It is the women who will be the first witnesses of the resurrection as the men cower in fear.  Gender inclusion is an important part of what it means to be an authentic community of followers of Jesus.

Status in the Community

Did you notice how these women are identified and the order in which Luke lists them?  This too is significant.  Some, like Mary Magdalene had a dark past.  Others were quite prominent, like Joanna, the wife of king Herod’s steward Chuza.  The steward of the king was an inner-circle position.  It came with wealth.

In Luke’s culture, it was normal, when listing people, to do so in the order of their socio-economic status.  This is why, for example, in Acts, when Luke speaks of the couple Priscilla and Aquila, the wife is named first; most likely she was of higher social rank than Aqila.

But here, he breaks that rule and lists Mary ahead of Joanna, the wealthy wife of the kings’s steward.  That is another part of the authenticity of the Jesus way of living, of the kingdom; wealth and status do not determine a person’s worth.

Everyone is valued for who they are.  And all are together. They eat together at a common table – which was another huge innovation of Jesus.  Rich and poor, men and women, people with a dark past and people of privilege and education together.

Support for the Community

How did that community live?  We know that the fishermen walked away from their means of livelihood to follow Jesus.

Jesus himself walked away from the  family carpentry business to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God.  How did they live?   Even if you take the feeding miracles literally (which, I do not believe the writers intended) they were notable exceptions, not common events.

Well, here Luke shows how an authentic community lives: those who had resources screen-shot-2016-11-05-at-2-35-03-pmprovided out of their means for the others.  An authentic community practices authentic generosity.  Everyone participates, each in proportion to what she is able.

It takes a village, with everyone doing what they can.  Some, like Joanna had lots of wealth, and she was generous in giving.  Others, like Mary Magdalene, probably had little if any money.  But she was there.  Probably she was part of the fellowship crew that got the meals cooked and served after a long day of healing and teaching.  That too is authentic generosity: generously giving time and energy, using whatever gifts God has given in the service of the community.

This is what we believe; as authentic followers of Jesus who have a living faith, not merely a derived faith, we practice authentic generosity.  We do not sit passively on the sidelines, we participate.

Just as Jesus’ original community could not have functioned without generous support, so our community depends on all of us for support.  Everyone participates.  That is part of being authentic.  We all give what we can.  Some have lots of resources, others much less, but we all do what we can because we are authentically a part of this community.

We do not wait to the end of the month and support our community out of the leftovers.  We believe in the principle of firstfruits; that we decide in advance what we want to give, and make sure it is a priority.

Talking about it

Luke was not at all embarrassed about discussing money in practical terms as some are today.  For some people, money is not spiritual.  But for Jesus, money has everything to do with where our hearts are, and for that reason is quite spiritual.  Our spending is like a spiritual thermometer that shows the inside condition of our hearts.  Authentic spirituality includes authentic generosity.

So we are not embarrassed either, to discuss money in this community.  It is simply the practical truth that just like Jesus’ community needed support, so does ours.

We have developed practices that help us as a community.  We use the pledge system so that we can try to get an idea of how much we can budget.  The pledge is not a legal contract, but a serious statement of how much we commit ourselves to give in support of our community.

We encourage everyone to fill out a pledge card after prscreen-shot-2016-11-05-at-2-38-08-pmayerful consideration of how you want to be a part of that support.  If your circumstances change during the year, you can always change your pledge.

Although we are not embarrassed to talk about money, I admit, I do not like to.  I am so aware of all the ways religion has been used cynically to pick people’s pockets.

But look around: nobody here is rich, our building is beautiful but far from lavish.  We make every effort to be responsible and thrifty with the resources that God entrusts to us through you.  So, although I would hate it if this were your first time here and you come away thinking that we always talk about money, the truth is that it is only in this fall stewardship season that we do.

But here we are.  We want to be a healthy, strong community.  We want to be an authentic community. We take our vision of what that means from our source, from Jesus.  The kingdom of God in practice, practices authentic generosity.  This is part of our spiritual practice.

Countdown to a New Reformation

Sermon on Luke 19:1-10 for All Saints Day, October 30, 2016

Luke 19:1-10

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycomore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

My family lived in Croatia for a decade. During most of that time, because of the war, it screen-shot-2016-10-29-at-5-46-44-pmwas impossible to drive south through Bosnia. That was a real pity because that was the short cut to the southern coast of Croatia. But towards the end of our time there, it became possible to take that route.

I will never forget the time we loaded up the family and crossed the boarder. It was a difficult trip. There were roads that were not on the map, and roads that were not named, and a turn we should not have taken. The further we went down that road, the more I began to suspect we were on the wrong path. The paved surface gave way to a gravel road, which terminated in a rock quarry.

If you are off the right path, the further you go, the worse it gets. That was the overwhelming consensus of opinion of the reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin in the 16th century. To them, the church had gotten off on the wrong path, and over the centuries, had ended up in a bad place.

The 500th Anniversary: 1 Year Away

Today we begin the one year countdown to the 500th anniversary of the Protestant screen-shot-2016-10-29-at-5-42-36-pmReformation. On October 31, 1517, the young professor, monk, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg castle door, which is what you did when you wanted to organize a theological debate.

The short version of events is that the institutional church in those days had no stomach for the debate. By that time, the church had been on the wrong path for so long that its errors had fossilized. The church, as an institution, had become so institutionalized in practices and beliefs that it bore almost no resemblance to the vision Jesus had of the kingdom of God on earth. It looked like a kingdom alright, but God had left the building.

So the clarion call of the reformers was “ad fontes”, or back to the fountain; back to the fountainhead, or the source. Let us return, they said, to the place we got off the right road, because that is the only solution when you find that the road you have been on has left you at a dead end at the bottom of a quarry.

That is our quest as well; to return to the source of our faith, which is the life and teachings of Jesus. This story we read today, unique to Luke’s gospel, will help us.

The “wee little man” Story

This story is a favorite of children; those of us who grew up in Sunday School know the screen-shot-2016-10-29-at-6-03-45-pmsong about Zacchaeus the “wee little man” who claimed up the Sycamore tree to see Jesus. Children relate to the small man who has difficulty seeing what’s going on.
Zacchaeus may have been short, but he was powerful. He was not just a tax collector which alone would have made him wealthy, he was the chief tax collector, Luke tells us. He had a management position. In case we miss the point, Luke says explicitly,

“and he was rich.”

Why mention that detail? Because Luke is telling a long story, and this is just one episode. The very last thing that happened before this story was the episode about Jesus healing a blind beggar.

So these two people, the blind beggar and the rich chief tax collector are at opposite ends of the economic and social ladder. Jesus has reached out to the poor man; what about the rich man?

To make the story even more interesting, before the blind beggar story, Luke has told the story of the rich man who asked Jesus what he needed to do, and Jesus has told him to sell everything and give the money to the poor (Lk 18:22).

To Jesus, money was a spiritual issue about which he had a lot to say. He was tough on people who had lots of money. But his attitude towards them was complex, not simple, as the Zacchaeus story shows.

By the way, many of Luther’s 95 theses were about the ways the church in his day was exploiting the poor by selling indulgences by which you could supposedly shorten someones’s suffering in the afterlife. In other words, the church was abusing the poor. Economic justice was an issue for the Reformation from the start.

Luke’s Gaps

Luke’s telling of this story is short. There are huge gaps in it. We wonder what conversation Jesus and Zacchaeus had? We wonder what Zacchaeus had already heard about Jesus that attracted him, that made him want to climb a tree that day? Had he heard the story of the rich man?

Had he heard of Jesus’ first sermon in which he said he had come to bring good news to the poor (Lk 4:18)? Maybe he had heard of Levi the tax collector. Perhaps Levi worked for him, and he knew the story – that Jesus went to his house because, he said, he had come like a doctor, not to the healthy but to the sick.

Maybe Zacchaeus, in spite of his wealth and power understood that he too was sick and needed healing; that he was lost and needed to be found. That his small self, his economic status, his power, his position, had left him as unable to see what he was looking for as the blind beggar. And he needed more than a tree. He needed a personal encounter with Jesus.

The Initiative of Grace

One of the huge themes of the Reformation was “sola gratia” (they had to have a Latin screen-shot-2016-10-29-at-6-24-58-pmphrase for everything) or “grace alone.” In other words, God always makes the first move. God is gracious. God is not waiting on our performance, or even our promises. God graciously accepts us and invites us to know ourselves as loved, as forgiven, as called on the journey of faith.

So, not waiting for anything from Zacchaeus, Jesus takes the initiative, just as God does with us, and invites himself over. Probably Luke thinks he has told us already so much about Jesus’ call for economic justice that he does not need to repeat it here. All we see is the conclusion. Zacchaeus announces,

“Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”

Jesus calls this “salvation,” saying,

“Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Jesus shows us God – that is our Christian theology. Jesus shows us that God is not hooked by social constructs, in either direction. In Jesus’ ministry to the blind beggar we see God reaching out to the marginalized poor, and in Jesus’ ministry to the wealthy chief tax collector, refusing to hold him in contempt, we see God extending grace to the rich.

The blind beggar can now see, and he is invited to follow Jesus. Zacchaeus is not lost in his materialism anymore, and becomes a person of generous concern for the common good.

The Crowd as Obstacle

Luke added an interesting detail in this story. Zacchaeus’ difficulty seeing Jesus was not just because of his size. Luke says,screen-shot-2016-10-29-at-6-28-18-pm

He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, he could not, because he was short in stature.

The crowd was keeping him from seeing Jesus. So he had two problems, not one. His small self, all wrapped up in material prosperity was an issue, and the crowd, the people of his culture were also in the way.

Sometimes, the crowd is part of the problem. What everyone accepts as normal and true is simply an aberration. Just because most people are used to it and do not question it does not make it true. A bad idea that has lasted a long time is still a bad idea.

A wrong path, the longer you are on it, only leads further away from your destination. Traveling the wrong road for a long time does not make it the right road.

For the reformers of the 16th century, like Luther and Calvin, the fact that the church had become fossilized in its practices and beliefs over many years was not an argument for keeping things as they were.

Today: a New Reformation Underway

Today, one year short of the 500th anniversary of the start of that reformation movement, the church stands at another moment in which great changes are underway. We are living in extraordinary times.screen-shot-2016-10-29-at-6-33-35-pm

Many people have concluded that our Protestant Reformation that started with a call to return to the fountainhead has, itself, gone down paths that have led to dead ends. The movement that began with a call for debate has become institutionalized.

But an amazing thing is happening in our times. Just as Jesus brought a new vision and and an entirely new way of living to Zacchaeus, a man whose life had been totally tied up in his culture’s values, so Jesus is bringing new life into institutionalized, even fossilized communities.

Jesus, the source, is again being listened to and heeded today. The reformer’s quest to return to the sources is the quest of many today who are returning to the life and teachings of Jesus for our direction.

This has led to all kinds of movements of change that we are now a part of.

Seeking our source in Jesus has led us to a new openness to women, a new attention to the poor, and a new perspective on economic justice.

Seeking our source in Jesus has led us to a new openness to mysticism and contemplative prayer, just as Jesus practiced.

Seeking our source in Jesus has led us to a radical hospitality that opens our table of fellowship to everyone, especially to people to whom the door has been shut in the past as it has been, to LGBTQ people.

Seeking our source in Jesus has led us to a new commitment to our planet as we see ourselves as connected by our creator to the birds of the sky and the fish of the sea that Jesus drew inspiration from.

Seeking our source in Jesus has led us to a new openness to people of other faiths, just as Jesus was not put off by heretic Samaritans nor even by pagan Romans, but rather extended God’s compassion to them, without requiring them to first sign off on a creed.

Seeking our source in Jesus has led us to a new understanding that our small self, our reputations, our identities in nation, in language, in religion, is not our true self, but rather our true self, and everyone else’s true self, is our identity as children of a gracious God, who is best defined by Love.

So, in this start of a year long countdown to the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we find ourselves in a new reformation.

The Spirit is active today, luring us, coaxing us, persuading us to find goodness, truth and beauty in this amazing world, and to seek the common good until everyone benefits as we have from its blessings.

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.

%d bloggers like this: