Beyond Binaries

Sermon on Luke 10:38-42 for Pentecost +9, July 17, 2016

Luke 10:38-42

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

The story of Mary and Martha gives us a perfect moment in which to discuss a hugely Screen Shot 2016-07-16 at 12.38.14 PMimportant issue in our day.  That is the natural human tendency to think in binary categories.  We tend to think in terms of black and white, good or bad, us or them, friend or foe, all or nothing.  We learn to think in these ways because they seem to work; they help explain the world.  You are either alive or dead.  You are part of my family, a relative, or you are not.

We will have an election this November, and one will be the winner, the other the looser.  There are a lot of binaries that explain the world of our everyday experience.

The Gender Binary

Another binary we use is gender: there are men and women.  In every culture, including Jesus’ culture and our culture, there are gender-specific roles.  Men do some kinds of things, women do others.

What we are going to see is that Jesus frequently rejects binaries.  They are simply inadequate.  He does this a lot.  And he does it in a double sense in this story we read.

Jesus and his followers go to the home of two sisters, Mary and Martha.  There is no man mentioned, and no explanation for why not, so we will suspend speculation and just run with the story as it has been given by Luke.Screen Shot 2016-07-16 at 12.46.51 PM

Martha does the culturally-expected thing to do: she provides hospitality to them.  With no word about what an enormous burden it must have been to suddenly host a dozen or so guests, she welcomes them in.

In her culture, she expects to do what women should do: the kitchen work.  But in this story, we see that Jesus rejects that binary gender-role tradition.  When Martha asks Jesus to help him get Mary back into the kitchen where she belongs, Jesus refuses.

He does so gently.  He knows that binary categories are deeply entrenched.  If it is hard to feel normal about driving on the left when you visit London, it is all the more difficult to feel good about overturning the habit of thousands of years of human social structuring.  So Jesus says, with compassion,

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;  there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Mary as a Disciple

Notice that there is another level of binary gender-roles that Jesus is rejecting here also.  It is not just that Mary does not have to stay in the kitchen, what is more, Mary can take her place with the men as a learner, a disciple, sitting at Jesus’ feet, the way students sat at the feet of their teacher.  Mary is being respected, intellectually, on the level of men.

So, not only did Jesus take time for women, not only did he heal sick women, not only did he reach out to excluded women (like the woman at the well), Jesus went further.  Jesus invited women into the inner-circle of disciples.

It took us many years, after Jesus, to open the door to women in ordained ministry, but finally we did.  The fact that it is still difficult for women to receive a call as pastor shows how pernicious binary thinking is.

Physical-Spiritual Binary

There is yet another level of binary thinking that this story dismantles: the binary distinction between the material and spiritual.  Jesus had to eat.  So did the others.  So, someone had to be in the kitchen.   But it is also important to feed the spirit.  It is important to take time out to fill your soul.

For years this story of Mary and Martha has been read as a story about practical work and the contemplative life, as if Jesus were holding up one above the other.  But the fact is, they came to the house for food and shelter.  People do not live by bread alone; neither do we live long without it.  The binary of physical versus spiritual work is a false dichotomy.

Both sisters were doing good work; but Mary had the priorities right.  Nurture the soul by attending to Jesus first.  Then you will have the motivation to go out and serve.  Then you will know how to direct your efforts according to Jesus’ agenda.

Jesus: Rejecting BinariesScreen Shot 2016-07-16 at 8.39.16 PM

Now let us take a step back from this story and look at the wider question of Jesus and binary thinking.  It is clear that Jesus rejected all kinds of binaries, not just gender, male-female binaries.

Jesus also rejected the pure-impure binary.  He touched impure lepers and allowed himself to be touched by sick people.

Jesus rejected the good-person, bad-person binary.  He ate at table with known “sinners.”  He kept company with hookers and notoriously not-good people.

Jesus rejected the binary of blessed or cursed people.  He did not believe that blindness or premature death was evidence of God’s punishment.  He made the categorial statement that God causes his sun to shine and rain to fall on the fields of the evil and the good, without distinction.

Jesus even rejected the us-them binary of Jew vs. Gentile, which entails a rejection of friend vs. enemy.  He even went so far as to tell his followers to love their enemies.  He traveled to Gentile places intentionally.  He healed Gentiles.  Even a Roman soldier’s servant.  He fed them.  He told parables in which non-Jews were the heroes and Israelites, even priests were the anti-heroes (remember the Good Samaritan).   And he demanded that his followers put away their swords instead of taking up arms against their enemies.  From the cross, he said, “Father, forgive them.”

The Inadequacy of Binaries

The problem with binary categories is that they simply do not account for real life.  Binary categories work great for us when we are children, but we are called as adults to put away childish ways.

Think, for example, about how fuzzy the border is between who is a part of your family and who is not.  There are half-brothers and sisters, 2nd, 3rd and 4th cousins, great aunts and uncles, and eventually we stop having names for people in our family tree, but the idea that there is a fixed line between family and not family is clearly a device of convenience, not a concrete reality.

Today, we know that there are many binaries that are simply inadequate to accept for real life.  Let us start with the central binary of the Mary and Martha story: male and female.

We now know that between one in 1500 and 2000 babies are born in which gender Screen Shot 2016-07-16 at 12.48.39 PMdifferentiation at birth is so ambiguous that a specialist is called in.  And physical manifestation of gender ambiguity is just the tip of the iceberg.  (see http://www.isna.org/faq/frequency)

We know that chromosomal ambiguity, in other words, not XX or YY occurs in one in 1600 births.  There are XXY chromosomes in one is 1,000 births, according to a Brown University study.

The list of medically defined non-standard conditions is long.  The male-female binary simply does not adequately account for reality.  It is a conventional way of looking at the world, but an inadequate one.

I had a philosophy professor in college who pointed out to us that everything in the world is either a chair, or it is not a chair.  That is true, but completely unhelpful.   That is how binaries work.  They are totally inadequate.

Romance: Binaries are Inadequate

We now are aware also that the binary category of romantic attraction is grossly inadequate to account for human experience (I am intentionally using family-friendly language, appropriate for a mixed group).  It is not just that the world is comprised of straight or gay people.   There is a huge variety of ways people are attracted to each other.

I know this is unsettling for some of us, but if we are to think clearly about gender and orientation issues, we must think like adults; adults who are willing to look at all the data we can find.

Other Inadequate BinariesScreen Shot 2016-07-16 at 1.32.35 PM

We live in difficult and complex times.  We live in a world in which so many people think that shooting other persons is allowable that we have a terrible problem in our nation.  Think of how profound the binary categories that are at work in our discussions: black and white people, us and them, the right to bear arms in the 2nd amendment vs. human lives.

It is precisely that kind of either-or thinking that has led, on the one hand, to racial discrimination, inner cities of poverty and despair, and on the other hand hair-trigger fear.  Binary thinking shuts down conversation and rules out compromise.  It makes finding solutions impossible.

On a world scale, we have grown comfortable with religious binaries of Muslim and Christian.  Some lump all Muslims into one group, as if that binary thinking could possibly reflect reality.   To live as if that binary was adequate is simply to have a child’s level of awareness of the world.  We are called to be adults.

Let us go even further, since Jesus himself calls us to go to this next step: as followers of Jesus we are called to reject the binary of friend vs. enemy.  This is as hard as it gets.  When people blow up other people or drive trucks through crowds of families to inflict death by scores at a time, everything in us wants to react with equivalent violent force against them.

Our Calling

So then, what does it mean for us that Jesus called us to love our enemies and to pray for Screen Shot 2016-07-16 at 12.42.37 PMthose who persecute us?   We start by rejecting the binary of friend vs. enemy.  We pray for the redemption of all who follow the path of hatred and violence.  We are aware that the biggest recruiting tool the terrorists have is the propaganda value of deaths by collateral damage that happens as we respond with violence to their violence.

It was not just at Mary and Martha’s house that Jesus rejected binary categories.  Jesus practiced what is called “non-dual thinking.”  Non-dual thinking means being open to mystery, which often entails being open to paradox.

Mystics from many traditions, not just Jesus in the Jewish tradition, have arrived at the same conclusion: that either-or thinking is inadequate.  Mysticism itself, including practices like meditation, contemplative prayer, and other mindfulness practices open the door of our hearts to non-dual ways of thinking.

Perhaps it was those frequent times when Jesus would break away from the crowds and spend time in meditation and silence that opened his heart to women, to the impure, to notorious sinners and to foreigners.

And once his heart was open, he could be a source of healing for them.  He could communicate God’s loving embrace of them by his loving embrace.

This is our calling today: to be followers of Jesus.  To be people who practice the practices of a Christian, including daily prayer and meditation, and who bear the fruit of the Spirit of love and compassion.  The world needs us to be these kinds of people now more than ever!


The One and the Many

Sermon on 2 Kings 5:1-16 & uke 4:16-30 for Pentecost +7, July 3, 2016
2 Kings 5:1-16
[unless you know the story already, it’d be a good idea to follow the link and read it first]

Luke 4:16-30

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read,  17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
     “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
        because he has anointed me
            to bring good news to the poor.
    He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
        and recovery of sight to the blind,
            to let the oppressed go free,
     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

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

I predicted the “Brexit” vote – the vote on whether Britan should exit from the European Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 5.57.53 PMUnion, only, I predicted that Britain would not vote to leave the union.  I was wrong.  It just seemed impossible to me.  After the horrors of World Wars I and II, and after all these decades of peace and prosperity, why would anyone want to risk a return to the bad old days?

I guess they have their reasons, but it strikes me that it is always easier to undo unity than it is to create and maintain it.  It is far easier to take you ball and go home than to hang in there, and struggle for a compromise over the rules; ask any 10 year old.

Tomorrow is the fourth of July, the celebration of our nation’s independence.  I guess you could call it our original Brexit – we were exiting from the British crown.  We had our reasons that we all know well.

And we all know how difficult it was for us to create a new union out of those 13 original Screen Shot 2016-07-02 at 11.43.11 AMcolonies.  But we did.  We put the motto on our coins, e pluribus unum; out of the many, one.   It is a fragile unity.  We almost came apart.  We had a terrible civil war.  But our unity survived.  At least, so far.

The American Experiment

Some have spoken of our country as the American Experiment.  In many ways, we are an experiment.  The nations of Europe are ethnic-majority nations.  Spain is majority Spanish.  Germany is majority German.  America, by contrast has been, from the beginning, a voluntary amalgam of different ethnicities.  Unlike the forced unions of empires, who gobbled up their neighbors and colonies, merely to exploit them, we came together based on a common vision of our common good.

Wave after wave of immigrants have come to our country over the years.  The Irish came, Screen Shot 2016-07-02 at 11.48.30 AMthe Italians, the Poles, the Chinese.  Each wave was met with both welcome, by some, and resistance by others.  Plenty of resistance.  There were riots and violence.  People got killed.

Now, however, we hardly remember many of the struggles of the past.  Most of us have so many ethnicities in our bloodlines we have no sense of ethnic “purity.”  Most of us also have enough education to know that speaking of “bloodlines” is simply a metaphor; a fiction; a social construct.  In the hospitals, blood is blood; type matters, not race nor ethnicity.

The American impulse has been to keep adding, and stirring, and mixing different ingredients into this one gumbo unity.  We are all free to celebrate our ethnic origins, if they  are still important to us. No one minds a Scottish bagpipe parade or a Greek festival.  We feel obliged to respect each others’ heritages.  But the impulse we share is to participate in this common union, this American experiment.

Where does this impulse towards unity in diversity come from?  Any number of sources, surely, but we, in this faith community, receive added energy for this impulse from our theological tradition.  We begin with a singularity: God, as the common Source of everything.  And from that monotheistic foundation, we build narratives that work it out in flesh and blood.

Elijah and a Trans-national God

That is what we have in the Elijah story we read.  On the surface level, it is a healing story. Screen Shot 2016-07-02 at 11.52.00 AM Naaman has leprosy; he is healed by doing what the prophet Elijah tells him to do; dip in the Jordan River.  But of course, to say only that is to miss major motifs in the narrative.

Naaman is not an Israelite.  He is a Syrian, in fact a Syrian commander.  He has conducted raids on Israelite territory.  So, he is an enemy.  He has captured and taken slaves.  He is an outsider to Israel in almost every sense imaginable.  Foreign, enemy, and diseased in a particular way, such that Israel’s law considers him impure; he is a leper.

So, when the captured Israelite slave girl suggests to her mistress that there is a prophet in Israel who has access to God’s power, a significant theological claim is being made. Israel’s God is not a local deity; not Israel’s pet.  Israel’s God is the world’s God, and so has the power to act outside the bounds of ethnic Israel.

Another profound theological claim is made by the very assumption that Israel’s God is approachable in the interests of healing.  Israel’s God, as every Israelite knows, characteristically “hears the cries of his people” and heals them, liberates them, sets them free; in other words, cares for them, loves them – and not only them, but also the stranger, the resident alien in their midst.  What about non-Israelites outside the borders?  This story answers that question.

So Naaman goes to see if it is true.  He takes with him an enormous amount of money.  In the ancient world, gods could be helpful and they could answer our pleas and prayers, but maybe not.  You never knew.  They could be coaxed, if not coerced, by providing what they wanted – which was primarily sacrifices – food for the gods.  The cash Naaman brought could provide a life-time’s supply.

But, when the offer is made, Elijah rejects the cash.  Another theological claim is being made.  Yahweh, Israel’s God is radically free.  Yahweh cannot be coerced.  There is no one rich or poor who has an advantage or disadvantage, except that God does tend to be on the side of the poor, as God is always against oppression.

The Letter Scene: Prophets and Kings

In the middle of the story is the almost comical scene in which the king of Israel  receives the letter from Naaman’s king, along with the money and gifts of clothing, asking the king to heal Naaman of his leprosy.  Why he got confused about who was supposed to have the power to heal, the king or the prophet, we do not know.

But this letter and its request terrifies the King of Israel.  He cannot heal anyone, but to refuse would be to risk giving offense, possibly leading to armed conflict.  So he tears his royal clothing, in an act of humility, and says the famous words:

“Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?”

Again another powerful theological claim is being made in bold letters.  The prophets of Israel are far superior to the kings of Israel because they speak not from political or military power, but from God.  In contests between prophets and kings, and there are many conflicts, lots of prophets suffer and die.  But in the end, their words prevail.  Political power is never the last word.

By the way, whoever wrote this story and the others with it concluded with the story of the king of rump Israel (Judah) being killed in Babylon, as the prophets  had warned.

So, in this story, it is the foreigner, Naaman, the enemy, the impure diseased one who gets to announce the narrator’s primary theological point (albeit in a slant way, appropriate to his theologically foreign perspective).  After he sees that he is cured of his leprosy he says:

“Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel”

Jesus and the Naaman & Elijah Story

This story is important for us.  It is one of the two stories that Jesus references in his Screen Shot 2016-07-02 at 12.24.47 PMinaugural sermon in Nazareth, according to Luke 4.  After reading from the prophet Isaiah at the synagogue gathering, Jesus said that today, they were witnessing the fulfillment of the hope Isaiah had given them: that Israel’s God would once again work for the liberation of his people.

God would announce the good news of Jubilee, the forgiveness of [monetary] debts, the restoration of land, sight to the blind, and freedom from oppression.  The Spirit of the Lord was anointing Jesus, so this would be good news to the poor.

And then, after that wonderful and welcomed news, Jesus said something that spoiled the party and made them all angry.  He referenced two stories, one of them was the one about the healing of Naaman, the Syrian leper. Jesus implicitly asks the question: why did God heal that man; a foreigner?

“There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

In other words, Israelites do not have an exclusive claim on God’s grace and goodness.  God is not Israel’s pet.  It is not the healing and the common good of Israel alone that God is concerned with, but humanity’s healing and common good.

So, expect God’s project not to be identical with a nationalist project.  God’s project is much bigger.  In fact it is global.  From God’s perspective, humanity is one.

Well, for people whose project really is national and no more, this is the rhetoric of treason.  And traitors must die.  In this bizarre little story we read that after Jesus said that,

“When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.  They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”

How Jesus escapes getting killed, before he barely had a chance to begin is a mystery, not explained.  This text is probably a Lucan creation, but it has been created to make theological claims that matter.

Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom of God is good news only to those who want the kind of kingdom that Jesus believes God runs: a world-wide kingdom.  The God who wills healing and liberation for people is the Creator-God of all people.  The God who wills the common good wills the common good for all.  From God’s perspective, humanity is one.  Not knowing that is part of the sickness he can heal.

The Oneness Goal: God’s Endgame

Oneness is not only the original condition of creation, it is also the biblical vision of the Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 6.06.13 PMultimate goal of creation.   From the admittedly parochial Jewish perspective of the first century, there could be no greater disunity than that between Jews and  Gentiles.  And that is what Paul says is completely overcome by God’s messiah, the Christ.  In Christ, the dividing wall of hostility has been demolished, according to Ephesians (2:14).

In fact, the end vision, God’s endgame, let’s say, is a final complete and universal  unity in which God will:

“gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth.” (Eph 1:10)

How can we not hear, in that vision, a call to work towards that end?  Our vision must be of a reconciled humanity in which the enmity has been erased.  It is not at all that Jews have become Greeks nor that Greeks have become Jews, but that the wall of hostility has been eliminated.  Jews and Greeks stand for all such animosities.

Celebrate the 4th

What does that mean for us?  Tomorrow, on the forth of July, let us celebrate this American experiment.  Let us celebrate that from the many, one nation has emerged, large-hearted enough to embrace great diversity.

And let us have eyes wide open to the struggles of our days, that mirror the struggles of former generations of Americans, to live fully into that vision of openness to strangers.  The work is not finished.

In every conversation about “people coming into our country” let us stand up for the newcomers who are different so that we do not replay the hostilities that put an ugly blotch on the record of our past.

Let us rather be people who live into the vision of Torah, that God’s healing is for all people.  Let us live into the vision of Jesus whose work extended beyond the borders of ethnic Israel, and whose kingdom knows no walls of hostility.

The theological and very personal question to reflect on this weekend is this: if our source and our final destination is union, then what kind of way of relating to others am I called to – both as an individual person, and as a part of this American experiment?


The Impulse Control of the Kingdom

Sermon on Luke 9:51-62 for Pentecost +6, June 26, 2016

Luke 9:51-62

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

You can go to the store for fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy food, because to you plan to Screen Shot 2016-06-25 at 3.01.17 PMeat right, and then you come to the check-out line.  There they are, all the tempting candy bars, right there at eye level, within easy reach.  You feel the impulse to make an exception, just this once.

Even at one of my favorite fruit and vegetable markets they put chocolate turtle candies right there at the register. The store manager knows you have that impulse.  They call the little items they put near the cash register, “impulse items.”  Impulses are powerful.  Impulse control is hard.

We have to teach our children impulse control; it is not natural.  It can be learned, but not without discipline.  Impulses feel so natural, and therefore, so right.  We hear ourselves making up excuses why indulging our impulses will be OK, for us, since we are exceptions to the rule.

But impulses can lead to very bad, destructive outcomes.  It is not just a matter of diet.  We have all kinds of impulses: from verbal impulses to self-asserting actions.  And impulses that we act on can lead to everything from poor health to ruined relationships.

Learned Impulses

Some impulses are natural, like the desire to eat something sweet, or salty.  It is just an appetite.  Other impulses are learned.  We grow up in a culture with its own values and perspectives which we absorb through the process of socialization.   The values and perspectives that we are socialized to accept become completely internalized to the point that they feel unquestionably natural.

For example, we feel a sense of respect for our flag.  A flag is just a multi-colored cloth. Screen Shot 2016-06-25 at 3.06.00 PM But a flag is, for us, a symbol of our nation, our people, our history.  When we see it, we feel something deep.  We feel loyalty and identity, perhaps gratitude.  It feels completely natural.  And, we do not feel that for anyone elses flag.  Our natural feeling is not at all natural, like breathing is natural.  We learned it.

Learning in Families

I want us to focus on a specific set of impulses today, and the implications of acting on them as people of faith.  They are the impulses we learn as we grow up in our families and the cultures that our families live in.

The texts that we read from Luke’s gospel are going to challenge us to examine our impulses and ask which of them are helpful, and which do we, as people who seek to follow Jesus, need to find the strength to have impulse control to resist.

Families are important to us today, but they are different from families in Jesus’ day.  We Screen Shot 2016-06-25 at 3.08.56 PMfeel natural in a home with just parents and children.  That would have seemed odd, if not morally bad in Jesus’ day, unless perhaps your parents had died.  The extended, multi-generational family was the expected norm.

And although we get a strong sense of identity from our families, nevertheless, we feel totally free to have careers different from our fathers’, to move away from where our parents raised us, to marry whom we choose.  We do not carry around a multi-generational family reputation anymore.  All of that was different in Jesus day.

Radical Demands

So, when Jesus says things that are critical of the family, things that relativize its central role, or that minimize obligations to family, they sounded even more radical in his day than they do in ours.   But they do indeed sound radical in ours.

A man wants to follow Jesus, but wants first to be there for his aging parents, until they die – and Jesus has a problem with that?  What’s up with that?

It is hard not to hear rudeness in his voice when he says to the poor guy:

“Let the dead bury their own dead”

Why would he say that?  I love Marcus Borg’s comment.  Jesus was saying that:

“there is a way of living that amounts to living in the land of the dead. [but] it is possible to leave the land of the dead.”  

Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (p. 197).

Are there ways of living that I have assumed are natural but that are actually deadening me to something important?  Are there ways of looking at the world and being in the world that I inherited from my family and the culture we live in that have produced impulses that are life-taking rather than life affirming?

If there are, then, because of socialization, they are going to feel 100% natural and normal.  Am I willing to be open and vulnerable to having them critiqued?  This is where it can get hard to follow Jesus.  But also where it is crucial.

The Tough Part of Following Jesus

There are some things about learning to follow Jesus that feel instantly wonderful.  Learning Jesus’ way of knowing God, as loving and forgiving, like the perfect Father who sets you free from guilt and shame and loves you into the family, even after you have been the prodigal child – that is liberating.  It feels great.

But, following Jesus has a non-nonsense tough side.  There are commitments that may Screen Shot 2016-06-25 at 2.57.23 PMprove uncomfortable.  It is like the third lap in a four lap race; there are times when it is hard.  It is like not having anyplace to get a good night’s rest.  Jesus is does not back down from the hard part:

“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”  

But come, follow anyway.  Yes it will get difficult, but you do not get to enjoy the harvest without getting out there in the dirt, in the sun, with a plow in your hand for hours at a time.

“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

And again, this was his response to someone who wanted to go back home for some goodbyes to the family.  But maybe the family was pulling in a direction away from the kingdom of God.  Can families do that?  How could family ties keep a person tied down to a place that would prevent them from following Jesus on the road of the kingdom of God?

The People We Feel Free to Hate

Now we come to the story about the journey through the Samaritan village.  Jesus sent some disciples ahead to make arrangements – maybe for lodging or meals – and they got resistance.  Samaritans did not want to have Jews around.  The disciples get offended:

“they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”

Here it is in plain sight, like a day-old dead armadillo in the middle of the road.  The ugly specter of ethnic animosity is sitting there without any sense of sheepishness.  Samaritans hated Jews, and Jews are ready to return the favor.

They wanted to call down curses!  Can you imagine suggesting that to Jesus?  What were they thinking?  It would be like asking Gandhi to shoot someone.  Asking the one who said, “turn the other cheek” and “blessed are the meek” and “forgive us as we forgive” – to get into the cursing business?!

This suggestion produced one of the strongest responses Jesus ever made:

“But he turned and rebuked them.”

They simply found another village to go to.

Why So Ready to Despise?

Let us ask ourselves the question: why were James and John not embarrassed by their own angry, vengeful, violent impulses?  Why were they not ashamed to actually suggest a violent response to Jesus?

I suggest it is because it felt so natural.  It felt unquestionable.  They absorbed it growing up.  It came with mother’s milk.  It came from their families.  You can just hear their thinking:

“Of course Jews hate Samaritans!  They are ethnically contaminated.  They are religiously heretical.  They are in our space, on our land.  They are dirty and uneducated.  What planet are you from that you don’t get it?”

The impulse to despise people who are different from us, feels natural.  It feels normal.  It feels completely justified.  And it is completely wrong.

An Example

This is no small matter.  In Croatia, I lived within a half an hour’s drive, in more than one Screen Shot 2016-06-25 at 3.18.00 PMdirection, from mass graves, dug by people who called themselves Christians, filled with the bodies of other people who called themselves Christians.  Why?  Because some were Serbs and others were Croats.

There is no toddler who can distinguish between Serbs and Croats.  There are some minor language differences.  There are denominational differences between Orthodox and Catholic Christians, but they too are minor, but children do not know or care about those.

But by the time the children are in high school, they know whom to hate.  They have been taught.  And it feels normal.  And it was taught at the breakfast table and reinforced by the conversations at the dinner table.  In other words, it came from their own dear families.

“there is a way of living that amounts to living in the land of the dead. [but] it is possible to leave the land of the dead.”  — Borg, again. (p. 197).

Disgust

We all know what the feeling of disgust is.  We all have things that disgust us.  Some smells are automatically disgusting.  Some sights are disgusting.  Seeing some behaviors disgusts us.  Some of these disgust emotions are actually natural.  Others have been taught to us by our cultures, by our families.

We feel disgust impulsively.  Just the way Jews do when they see Samaritans.  Just they way Serbs and Croats were taught to feel towards each other in many families (not all!  thank God!).

I’m using Serbs and Croats as an illustration, partly because they are neutral for us, so we do not get our defenses up thinking about their conflict, and partly because, as you know, I lived in the war zone that was the aftermath of their civil war.

But neither Serbs nor Croats produce a disgust response in us.  We have no impulses to despise them.

But let us ask the question today: who are the people we find disgusting?  Who are the people that we feel the impulse to despise?

Muslims?  Arabs?  Hispanics?  African Americans?  Gay people?

Uncomfortable Conversations

It is totally uncomfortable talking about this, is it not?  And we get tired of talking about it.  I hear people say that they are tired of talking about racial tensions.  Haven’t we beaten that issue to a pulp?

Bringing it up again is like being exhausted with no place to lay your head and get some sleep.  It is a fun as being out in the field, in the sun, with a plow in your hand.  Well, foxes have holes, but that solves nothing.  We need to keep our hands to the hot, dirty, difficult summer plow.

Yes, it is hard to keep the conversation about these issues going.  But the only ones calling for them to stop are the ones in the positions of power.  Black people do not think the race issue is settled in America.  Muslim Americans do not feel accepted by large segments of our people.   And how should Hispanics feel in this present climate?

This is serious.  Jesus’ strongest rebuke came from people who felt totally natural and justified in their animosity.  But the road forks right here.  One direction is following Jesus.  The other direction is to go back to the way the family always did things.  One way leads to life.  The other way is the land of the dead.  It is a fork in the road: we have to choose.

The Way of Life

The good news here is that Jesus’ way does really lead to life.  It is the path of warm Screen Shot 2016-06-25 at 2.58.15 PMwelcome and embrace of the other, the stranger, the one who is different.  Jesus’ path leads to a table where people from East and West and North and South sit together, enjoying the rich banquet food of the kingdom.  Does it take a huge leap of faith to believe that?  Then the invitation “follow me” is an invitation to take that leap.

It will be, perhaps, uncomfortable, at least at first.  It will feel awkward.  It will feel like it goes against tradition, and against family.  It may be exhausting before it feels rewarding.  Can we keep our hands to the plow anyway?

So, the questions we have before us, are simply these?

Who are the people that I find the impulse in me to despise?  Who are the ones who disgust me?

And, as a follower of Jesus, what do I fell called to do about that?


Silence Matters

Sermon on 1 Kings 19:1-4, 8-15a and Luke 5:15-16 for Pentecost +5, Father’s Day, June 19, 2016

1 Kings 19:1-4, 8-15a

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 7.18.56 PMsword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”

He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food for forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus….”

Luke 5:15-16

But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases.  16 But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.

It is always complicated when times of celebration and sorrow come together.  We want to Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 11.56.37 AMcelebrate Father’s Day with full hearts today, and yet our whole country is in the middle of grief over the worst mass shooting in our history.

We grieve with the families and loved ones of the people of Orlando, especially today for the fathers who have lost sons.

We grieve for the gay community that once again has been targeted for harm.

We grieve that after all this time, humans still practice scapegoating victims, as we have done since the days we wore animal skins and bones in our noses.

We grieve that religion, again, has been invoked as a justification for violence – even if, in this recent case, it was evidently invoked cynically, for publicity by a deeply disturbed man.

I grieve for the fact that it is so easy for just about anyone to get guns, especially guns that were designed for the battle field.

I grieve that there are people who believe conspiracy theories, like that the government wants to take away everyone’s guns, and on the basis of that baseless belief, will never consent to any sensible restraints.  I grieve over the number of people who have lost their lives as a result.

It was quite heartening, on the other hand, to see the news that Muslim leaders here in America publicly condemned the violence, saying that nothing in Islam could be used to justify it.

Religion and Violence

Now, thinking people may, at this point object, and say that Islam is inherently violent.  Is Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.20.20 PMnot ISIS a prime example, not to mention the Taliban and Al Qaeda?

But, as thinking people, we ask ourselves: is there any religion on the planet that has not been invoked to justify violence?  People who believe in violence will always find ways to use their religion to justify killing.  They always have; they always will, whether they are Jews, Christians, Muslims – even Buddhists!  If you are going to kill and risk being killed, it always helps to have God or the Gods or Karma or whatever backing you up.

As Christians whose faith grew up in soil of Judaism, we must confess the violence in our tradition.  What we are going to see today is that although there is violence in the heart of our tradition, there is more.

That “more” begins as a seed that grows into a beautiful flower.  There is a movement away from violence to an embrace of peace, which calls us to be people of peace.

The Elijah Story’s Seed

The texts for today from our wisdom tradition, beginning with the Hebrew Bible, will help us to see how this trajectory from violence to peace works.

First, we begin with terrible violence.  We read from the story of the prophet Elijah.  It began,

“Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword.”

King Ahab had told Queen Jezebel about the previous episode.  It was that famous story of the contest on Mt. Carmel.  All the 450 prophets of Baal were there.  They built alters to their god, and called for fire to come down from heaven and burn up their sacrifices.  Nothing happened.

Then, in the story, Elijah builds an alter to Yahweh, Israel’s God, places the sacrifice on it, and even douses it with gallons of water.  He prays for God to send fire from heaven to ignite the sacrifice, which God does.

All the people watching are instantly persuaded that Elijah’s God, Yahweh is the true God, so Elijah tells them all to grab their swords and slaughter all the prophets  of Baal so that none of them escapes alive.

This is what king Ahab told Queen Jezebel, a follower of Baal, about, which is why she promised to kill Elijah, which is why he ran away to the mountain, where our text begins.

So, our wisdom tradition, our scriptures, have divinely sanctioned violence, which no one can deny.  And this is only a single incident.  A couple of  years ago we all read the bible in 90 days .   Some of you were astounded by the frequency and brutality of the violence in its pages.

Let us admit that yes, these texts from the Iron Age reflect the values and ethics of those violent times.  Just like they reflected misogyny and patriarchal hierarchies, just like they reflected homophobia, just like they had blood taboos and many practices that we have left behind.

But even in the context of those rough times, there are seeds planted, that can, and do, grow in to a beautiful alternative.

The Prophet’s Vision of Peace

We see those early seeds planted, for example, in the vision of the prophets.  Elijah was Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.24.01 PMnot a writing prophet, but others left us a record.  Even from as distant as the eighth century before the time of Christ, we read of a vision of a future day when, as Micah said, when:

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

The prophet Isaiah held out the vision of the peaceable kingdom with these famous words:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. (Isa 11:6-9)

These visions of the peaceful future are the seeds, planted even in that violent soil of the Iron Age, that take centuries to germinate, but finally come to flower in the life and teachings of Jesus.  As followers of Jesus, we are called to be people of peace.

“Blessed are the peacemakers” Jesus said, in the Sermon on the Mount, “for theirs is the kingdom of God.”

We follow Jesus who did not allow his followers to use violence to protect him, even to protect him from certain death.  When the soldiers came with swords to arrest him and Peter tried to defend him Jesus said,

“Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”  (Matthew 26:52)

Scholars of the historical Jesus have pointed out that the proof that Jesus’ movement was non-violent was that when Rome was convinced that he was a threat to their order, Jesus alone was killed, and not his disciples also.

Violent movements were suppressed, in the Roman empire, by slaughtering all the supporters.  Non-violent movements, like Jesus’ or like his predecessor John’s were put down by simply removing the leader.

Imitating God

We have been studying the the topic “What Was Jesus Thinking?” these past few Friday evenings.  We have seen that the ethical framework, the paradigm or the pattern for our morality is, and has been since the Hebrew Bible, the imitation of God.   We are to be as God is, to each other.

This brings up a difficult challenge – how do we know what God is like? In the ancient times, people conceived of God as a king, only greater than the greatest human king.   As king, God could, and did, use violence just as human kings did.  It was normal and accepted.

The way the biblical story goes, God manifested God’s presence in violent images: think of Moses on Mt. Sinai, a volcanic mountain, billowing black smoke, thundering and lightening, quaking, producing awe,  if not sheer panic.  (see Exod. 19)

Alternative Images of God

But even in those times, there are other, alternative images of God that, like the seeds of the prophet’s visions, take time to grow.Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.26.28 PM

We read in our text today about one of those seeds.  How does God become manifest to Elijah?  The story tells us that in his flight from angry queen Jezebel he goes to the same mountain on which Moses met God, Mt. Sinai, (in Kings they call it Mt. Horeb).

Elijah’s encounter with God begins with strong, violent images that echo Moses’ experience.  It says:

“Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake;  and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire;”

The odd and surprising element here is that God is not best known by any of these violent images.  The Lord is not in the wind that breaks the rocks, not in the earthquake, and not in the fire.  How will God be manifest to Elijah?

“and after the fire, a sound of sheer silence.”

Here we have an entirely new and different way of understanding the Divine.  God can be encountered as the sound of sheer silence.  Of course it is a mystery.  It is an oxymoron: silence makes no sound.  A paradox.

Mystics of many traditions, speak of dual consciousness which is the way most of us think.  But, they tell us, the contemplative is able to think beyond the binary, either-or categories of the dual consciousness.  Non-dual thinking is able to accept that paradox is  often a path to truth.  How do we listen for God?  We listen for sheer silence.

Silence is completely non-coercive.  God is non-coercive.  The God of sheer silence lures us and draws us, in every situation, toward the good, the beautiful, and the true: towards peace.

Jesus himself practiced contemplative, silent wordless prayer.  In other words, he meditated.  We read in Luke about his pattern of spiritual practice:

“he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.”

He would withdraw” it says, indicating his lifestyle, his regular practice.  Jesus encountered God in silence.  So we, as followers of Jesus, make space in our lives for silence.  And in that silence, without the ego voice in our heads, with all of its judgments, its anger, its dualistic preferences, we become people of peace.

The fruit of the practice of silent meditation is a life that is less dualistic; what does that Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 11.54.19 AMmean in daily life? We begin to think in far broader categories than binaries of friend or foe, good person or bad person, us or them.  We can begin to see that those old categories simply do not work any more.  They are wildly inadequate.

The contemplative mind does not have to have enemies to fight.  The fruit of the practice of silent meditation, in other words, is peace inside ourselves, and peacefulness and peacemaking with others.

So we can look at Muslims without either-or categories of friend or foe.  We can understand that the God who is known in sheer silence is a mystery far beyond our categories, even our religious ones.  We can open our hearts to the fact that there are millions of peaceful Muslims who hate violence, who reject ISIS, who simply want to raise their families in safety, just like us.

Let us be people, then, in whom those seeds grow and flourish.  People who regularly make space for silence, so that we can embrace the mystery of the God of sheer silence.  People who are at peace; people who make peace.


Naboth’s Vineyard

Sermon on 1 Kings 21:1-21a and Matthew 6:24-33 for Pentecost +4C, June 12, 2016

1 Kings 21:1-21a

Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside Screen Shot 2016-06-11 at 2.29.22 PMthe palace of King Ahab of Samaria. And Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.” But Naboth said to Ahab, “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inhritance.” Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him; for he had said, “I will not give you my ancestral inheritance.” He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.

His wife Jezebel came to him and said, “Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?” He said to her, “Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, ‘Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it’; but he answered, ‘I will not give you my vineyard.'” His wife Jezebel said to him, “Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.”

So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. She wrote in the letters, “Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, ‘You have cursed God and the king.’ Then take him out, and stone him to death.” The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. Just as it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, “Naboth cursed God and the king.” So they took him outside the city, and stoned him to death. Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, “Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.”

As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, “Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead.” As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.

Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. You shall say to him, “Thus says the Lord: Have you killed, and also taken possession?” You shall say to him, “Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.”

Ahab said to Elijah, “Have you found me, O my enemy?” He answered, “I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, I will bring disaster on you; I will consume you….”

 

Matthew 6:24-33

“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?   Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?  And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin,  yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?  Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’  For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be gScreen Shot 2016-06-11 at 2.28.25 PMiven to you as well.

I told Pam this week that the story of Naboth’s vineyard was one of my favorite stories in the Hebrew Bible.  It was a bit of an exaggeration, but still has truth in it.  Anyway, she was surprised, if not somewhat appalled.  It is a brutal, ugly, violent story.  What is there to like about it?

It is a murder story: Naboth does nothing wrong but he gets killed.  You have heard the sarcastic expression, “no good deed goes unpunished” and certainly that happens here.  Naboth is such a good person that he refuses to do what is wrong, and for that, he gets murdered.

It is a story of governmental corruption on the scale of “House of Cards.”  Naboth’s killers are the Queen and, at least as an accomplice, the King.  The king wants Naboth’s vineyard, but Naboth refuses to sell his ancestral property, or even to trade it away for better property, as the king offers.

Land as Gift
Screen Shot 2016-06-11 at 2.42.51 PM
At first, Ahab feels check-mated.  He knows enough of the Law of Moses, the Torah, to know that each tribe’s land was considered a gift of God.  It could never be sold in perpetuity.  The Torah says that even if you had to sell your land due to extreme poverty, the sale was not final.

There was this provision in the law called the Year of Jubilee in which, every 50 years, any land that was sold was returned to the original owner (Lev. 25).  This means that the word “sale” is a bit misleading.  It says in Torah that when you sell your land you are actually only leasing the number of harvests between the present and the next Jubilee year.  So the price would be decreased according to how many years of harvests were left.

The Jubilee year was the culmination of another policy.  Every seven years, all financial debts were forgiven.  Imagine cutting up your credit card bill and throwing it away every seven years.  After seven sets of these seven year debt forgivenesses, on the 50th year was the Jubilee in which any property that was sold was returned.

Now of course this economic arrangement was designed in a specific time and place, and who knows how it ever functioned.  But one thing is clear: the intention is that there could never develop a permanent poor class.

If a family had to become indebted because of drought conditions, or plagues of locusts destroyed an entire year’s harvest, and they had to borrow money from relatives, or even sell their land, the next generation could begin again.

So king Ahab knows these laws, and so he takes Naboth’s refusal to sell his land as final.  He goes home and pouts.  He lays on his bed facing the wall and refuses to eat.

By the way, this story is brutal and ugly, true, but it also has some humor in it.  The sulking scene is meant to belittle Ahab, and it does.  It makes him look weak and petty.  After all, the thing he wanted was merely a vegetable garden; hardly worth getting depressed about.
But that is one of the reasons I like this story: it shows in such graphic detail how corrupting power is: a king is depressed over cucumbers.   His sense of entitlement has been thwarted, so instead of happily living like a king, which he gets to do every day, he is miserable.  The age old answer to the question, “How much is enough?” is always the same: “A little bit more.”

The Queen of Evil

Enter queen Jezebel.  Now here, it has to be said, is some ancient misogyny.  The fem-fatal, the evil woman is the bad guy in the story.   With apologies for the fact that the bible does come from patriarchal and sexist times, we proceed.

This is a story by Jewish people, originally told to Jewish people who would have some Screen Shot 2016-06-11 at 2.49.39 PMthoughts about Jezebel.  First, she is not an Israelite. She is a Phoenician.  This means that she did not grow up hearing Torah read.  She knows nothing about the idea that the land is a gift from God.  She has no concern for the idea of ancestral inheritance.

Neither does she feel particularly obligated by “Thou shalt not bear false witness” nor even “Thou shalt not kill.”  So she cooks up a plot.  Using the king’s official seal, and writing in his name — with his implicit approval?  we do not know; the story can be read either way — she gathers the people for a solemn event.

She gets two scoundrels to bear false witness against Naboth.  They are to accuse him of cursing God and the king.  They do it.  Naboth is then taken out and executed by stoning.

Upon his death, she informs Ahab in the most cold, brutal ways, saying,

“Naboth is not alive, but dead”

– so go take his vineyard and start growing you royal cucumbers.

The Goodness of Being Horrified

I like the story because everyone is horrified by it.  Everyone gets it, that a great wrong has been done.  A grave injustice has occurred.  There is no gray here.  It is stark.  A human life for a vegetable patch.

The story ends with the prophet Elijah entering the scene.  Somehow he knows all about Screen Shot 2016-06-11 at 2.52.27 PMit.  He pronounces a divine curse on Ahab and his descendants in the most graphic terms.

So this is a story about power, and the abuse of power.  Might does not make right.  Wealth and power do not justify anything.

I like this story because of how the reader is led to despise the very things that normally people hold up as enviable: wealth and power.  Nobody reading this story ends up respecting Ahab: he looks, at best pathetic if not complicit.  And no one has any positive feelings about Jezebel – what she does is despicable.  We all take the side of the poor, righteous victim, Naboth.

I like this story because of the way it leads us to affirm the goodness and rightness of Naboth’s values.  He knows that there are values beyond and above material values.  He could have gotten a better vineyard – that is what the king offered.  But he saw land as God’s gift, which meant more to him than the grapes he could grow on it.

Ahab and Jezebel see only material prosperity.  They live for what they can possess.  They even see human beings as means, not as ends in themselves, and they use them, corrupt them, deceive them and kill them, all in the quest to simply have more.  I love this story for how wrong this perspective is shown to be.

Consumerism

Ahab and Jezebel are consumers.  They think that their economic lives are their highest concern.  By contrast, Naboth believes God is his highest concern.Screen Shot 2016-06-11 at 2.57.12 PM

We get called “consumers” all the time.  This is probably the only place in your life where that perspective is ever challenged.

We are not consumers, we are human beings.  Yes, we consume, daily, but that is not the defining fact about our lives, any more than the fact that we all sleep defines us as sleepers.

Jesus taught us to live by an entirely alternative set of values.  He said,

“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

But it is that kind of thinking, that life does consist in the abundance of possessions, that  leads to ethical and moral disaster.

Abuse of People

Believing that the only, or the most important, questions are economic questions leads directly to the abuse of people.  That much is obvious.  Naboth was not the first person to suffer because someone else stood to benefit economically.

It is true that free markets operate by the principle of supply and demand, but as followers of Jesus, informed, as Jesus was, by the values of Torah, the market does not have the last word.

The market does not care if anyone goes to bed hungry tonight.  The market does not care if everyone sleeps indoors or on the streets.  The market does not care if you can afford health care or wether you have good schools to go to.  These are human concerns.

As humans, with dignity that comes from our belief that we are all made in the image of God, we have a higher calling to bring moral questions to the table, not just economic questions.

Abuse of the Earth

Believing that the most important questions are economic questions also leads directly to the abuse of our planet.  It will probably always be cheaper, in the short term, to pollute than to protect the planet.  It will probably always be cheaper, in the short term, to take risks than to be safe.  But cheaper does not make it right.

As humans who believe in a Creator God, we are responsible for our stewardship of the earth.  So we are willing to make lifestyle decisions, even if they cost us a bit more, to do no harm.  To leave behind only footprints.

A Beautiful Alternative Story

Well the story of Ahab, Jezebel and Naboth is indeed an ugly one. It shines a bright light on just how ugly it can get, when people do not get it, that we are living in God’s world. Screen Shot 2016-06-11 at 3.04.10 PM

The alternative, however is beautiful.   The alternative is Jesus’ vision of life lived in God’s world.  Instead of the ugliness of envy and intrigue, Jesus invites us into the beauty of pure trust.

“I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”

A life of trust is a beautiful life that takes time to see God in creation.  Look at the birds of the air, consider the lilies of the field.  Consider that life is a precious gift of immeasurable value, far beyond the value of the stuff that money can buy.

So do not seek economic values first, but rather, as Jesus says,

“strive first for the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Striving for the kingdom entails striving for justice, which puts us on the side of the Naboths of this world.  A life of trust in God is very personal, but not only personal.  It is also public.  We are called to come along side the oppressed Naboths of this world and, like Elijah, to speak truth to power.  Whether it is political power, or corporate power, or the power of vested interests, our calling is to stand for justice; for fairness.

We actually need the Naboths of this world.  They teach us, as he did, what is most important.  They embody the opposite of the life of Ahab; the life of envy.  The opposite of envy is contentment; answering the question, “How much is enough?” with the belief that “enough is enough.”  That is how the story of life can be a beautiful one.  That is what it means to trust.


A Paradigm of Compassion

Sermon on 1 Kings 17:17-24 and Luke 7:11-17 for  Pentecost +3C, June 5, 2016

1 Kings 17:17-24

After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him.  She then said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!”  But he said to her, “Give me your son.” He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed.  He cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?”  Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.”  The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived.  Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.”  So the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”

Luke 7:11-17

Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him.   As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town.   When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.”  Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!”   The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.  Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!”  This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

We just heard two very similar stories, one from the Hebrew Bible, the other from the Screen Shot 2016-06-04 at 1.38.49 PMJesus tradition as given uniquely in Luke.

The story is universal: what grief is deeper than the grief of a parent at the loss of a child?  Especially the mother who carried the baby in her body, who gave birth, and who nurtured her or him through infancy.   Our hearts go out to parents even when their children are dangerously ill and at risk.   I do not belong to “the fraternity of parents who have lost children,” as one member of that group describes it, but the thought makes me shudder.

Elijah and the Widow’s Son

In the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Elijah is called a “man of God.”  He speaks for God.  He speaks truth to power.  He has confronted the king, Ahab, and will confront him again, at the risk of his life.

So, in this scene he has, at God’s instruction, fled the country in self-imposed exile, during a severe famine.  He has come to the home of a widow in Zarephath, in the Phoenician area of Sidon.  You may recall the story of the miraculous supply of grain and oil that never runs out until the famine ends.  This is the following story.

The widow is a type-character in the Hebrew bible.  Widows were probably plentiful.  Accidents, disease, war, and even crime left women who had lost their husbands in great danger and vulnerability.  The term “widow” became shorthand for people in need and at risk.  Jesus would call these kinds of people “the least of these brothers (and sisters) of mine.”

The God Paradigm

Before Jesus came and taught us to understand God in an entirely new and alternative way, people believed that the good things in life came as rewards for their good behavior, and the bad things in life came as punishments from God for their sins.   This is exactly what the widow in this story believes.

“What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!”

Even Elijah the prophet attributes the death of this poor child to God as its direct cause:

“O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?”

I think that this kind of belief is probably necessary as a stage of development in our understanding of God.  Remember that before this age of Monotheism, most people thought that their lives were plagued by lots of gods and demigods.  Every drop of rain, every lamb that was born, every locust swarm threatening your grain , every death in battle was the direct result of pleasing or displeasing one of these divine forces.

So, it is an advance in understanding to eliminate all those demonic causes and think instead of one God as the creator of all and the cause of everything.  But thinking that way does leave you with a God who does some pretty cruel things, none the least of which would be causing the death of children.  We can feel Elijah’s agony as he accuses God of bringing clearly undeserved “calamity” on the widow.

This God, the cause of everything, is not petty or thin-skinned.  God can take an angry accusation without the ego needs of self-justification nor of punishing reaction.   God simply answers Elijah’s prayers, and restores the child to life.

Jesus and the Widow’s SonScreen Shot 2016-06-04 at 1.50.09 PM

In a clearly parallel way, Luke tells his story of the widow who lost her son, with clear echoes of the Elijah story ringing in the background.  There are also echoes of a well-known story of Apollonius, a Pythagorean philosopher, teacher and reputed wonder-worker of the first century Roman world that Luke was likely familiar with.

Luke actually intensifies our compassion for the grieving widow as they carry the open coffin of her son by letting us know he was her only son.  Now this widow is without any protection, without a male bread-winner, truly at the mercy of any opportunist or brute.

Jesus’ response is compassion.  He looks and sees it all – not just the grief from the loss, but the whole situation, including the future that awaits “one of the least of these” – a widow with no surviving sons, in a culture and society with no safety nets.

Disregarding the prohibition against touching the dead, or even a grave, Jesus reaches out to touch the bier (Numb. 19).  He speaks words of comfort to the widow, saying,

“Do not weep.”

Then he says,

“Young man, I say to you, rise!”

Why Tell These Kinds of Stories?

I do not belong to the fraternity of parents who have lost children, but I cannot imagine how stories of miraculous resuscitations must sound to them – and I know some you are among them.  How do these stories strike you?

To draw all the rest of us into this problem, let me ask it this way: why does it help to tell the story of a miracle like this when children die?  We can count on one hand the number of children given their lives back in the bible stories, and even less in our own personal experience.  So why tell such stories?

God, and the Death of ChildrenScreen Shot 2016-06-04 at 2.11.37 PM

I believe that there are powerful truths being taught here that we all need.  First, in the Jesus story, there is no discussion at all of sin, punishment, or retribution.  Why did that boy die?  No one even hazards a guess.  His death was not a punishment, and his resuscitation is not a reward.  It just does not work like that.

God does not cause the death of children, or any other calamity.  Rather, God is there with us when we go through our lives, with compassion, grieving with us, suffering with us; this is why we tell stories of incarnation in which God walks the earth in human sandals: this is the kind of God we trust in; the kind that knows what death smells like, and who looks with compassion on all who grieve.

Death is part of life.  This is also what this story confronts us with.  As we put ourselves in the story, in our imaginations, we know that this young man will not live forever.  There will be a second procession for him, as there will be for all of us.  Life is transient.  Life is a gift, but life in this world is not a permanent gift.  In this good world created and blessed by God, each of us takes our place for one generation at most.

This is not a morbid thought, but rather, because it is the truth, it sets us free.  Facing death, we are free to ask, how should we then live?  What will have been our legacy?  How doe we want to be remembered?

Open Eyed Compassion

I believe this is why we tell stories like this: our calling is to be followers of Jesus.  This is how we are called to live, to be people of compassion, as Jesus was.

That means we have our eyes open to seeing, without turning away, the realities of our world.  And seeing, we respond with compassion.  We go to where there is grief or sorrow, as Jesus did, with compassion.  Compassion for people who are suffering becomes part of our personal lives – we all have people around us who need us to be the hands and feet, the eyes and heart of Jesus for them.

Compassion, as Jesus calls us to practice, is part of our public lives as well.  We become people who know how to organize compassion into practical ways to touch people in need.  This is what the Christian Service Center and the Presbyterian Children’s Home and what Habitat for Humanity is all about: open-eyed, organized compassionate touching of “the least of these,” with love.

The Politics of Compassion

As followers of Jesus, we practice the politics of compassion.  We recognize that every Screen Shot 2016-06-04 at 2.15.26 PMbudget is a moral document.  Every policy has moral implications.

So what does it mean to have open eyes that look with compassion?  It means that when we look at issues like immigration, we take a long look.  On the surface level, it means that when we think about the desperate plights of unaccompanied children, children in the States without parents, to us, they are “the least of these.”

We do not refer to them as a “burden” as some of our elected officials have recently done here in Alabama.  They are children.  They are here.  As Christians who are called to have compassion on widows who have lost children, we are also called to have compassion on children who have no parents around to care for them.

Looking Deeper

But that is the surface level.  We are called to have eyes that stay open long enough to look more deeply.  Why are these children here?  What are the conditions back home that would motivate parents to risk sending their children on such a dangerous journey?   With eyes open to the horrific levels of violence in Latin America, we begin to understand that simply sending children back may not be an adequate response.

With open eyes we begin to ask questions about how things got this way.  We see and acknowledge that the seemingly unquenchable appetite for drugs in this country is the source of the fortunes that drug gangs fight and kill for.

With eyes open we see that peasant poverty that drives people to the drug trade is often the consequence of being forced off ancestral land by unscrupulous developers and international food producers.  From bananas to coffee, compassion compels us to ask question about fair trade issues.   Screen Shot 2016-06-04 at 1.51.03 PM

Compassion moves us to be on the side of bringing life, instead of deadly poverty, violence and hopelessness.    Compassion inspires us to be true followers of Jesus in both our personal and our public lives.

Yes, these are complex questions, and it is truly easy to create unintended consequences by trying to do good.  So we have eyes open to this risk as well, praying for guidance and wisdom to find realistic and lasting solutions.

But we never give up.  We never disengage.  We never simply use the language of being burdened by the suffering of “the least of these” because we have been given a higher calling.  We are called to follow the Jesus paradigm of compassion.  We trust in the God who does not cause suffering, but who calls us to be the means of God’s compassionate response.


Where in the World is God?

Sermon on 1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43 and Luke 7:1-10 for the 2nd Sunday in Pentecost Year C
May 29, 2016, Memorial Day weekend

1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43

Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven. He said, “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart,

“Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name—for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm—when a foreigner comes and prays towards this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling-place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.”

Luke 7:1-10

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

So, we have just read two amazing stories, one from our Jewish roots and one from the Jesus story as told by Luke. They are amazing by themselves, they are more amazing together, and it is an added amazement to me that they land on the Memorial Day weekend here in the States. These texts are the regular readings of the Common Lectionary, so they will be read and reflected on in many different denominations all around the world today.

Both texts, and Memorial Day itself, bring up the question, “Where in the world is God?” Screen Shot 2016-05-28 at 5.03.50 PMTo me, that question is crucial.

It is as big as the universe – we could have asked, “Where in the Universe is God?” And it is as small as my own and our own personal spiritual journeys.

Who has not asked the question, perhaps often, and at various points in life, especially when we are desperate for God to show up in our lives, “Where in the world is God?”

It is also a global question: Where in the world of nations is God? Does God take sides? Where, in world wars, is God? Where in geo-politics is God?

Where in vast multitude of people, of races and languages and religions and competing hopes and dreams is God?

I only have about twelve or thirteen minutes here – it is almost a bit crazy to raise such big questions, as if there was a hope of answering them so easily.

But as your pastor, on Memorial Day weekend, I feel a strong sense of responsibility to provide some help as we ask those questions. Where do we go for guidance? We go to our wisdom tradition.

For us, as a self-consciously Christian community, we go to the scriptures of the Hebrew Bible and the Story of Jesus to find direction.

So, let us look at these stories that I have already called amazing and ask the question, “Where in the world is God?”

King Solomon’s PrayerScreen Shot 2016-05-28 at 5.07.40 PM

First, the story of Israel’s king Solomon. It is not obvious from the snippet we read, but the scene is the great dedication service for the brand new, lavish, opulent, gold-plated, wonder-of-the-world temple that he built.

I do not have time to explain the details, but know this: this story was told with bitter irony. By the time this story was written down, during the Babylonian captivity (which is the last scene in this long story, ending in 2 Kings) the temple Solomon built and dedicated has a pile of rubble; completely destroyed.

How did a small nation like Israel afford so lavish a temple? The book of Kings tells us that Solomon made Israel a slave state, conscripting forced labor from “all Israel” (1Kings 5:13).

Was it worth it? Did God need such an edifice to be present to God’s people? Well, no, actually. Seven times in his dedication prayer Solomon says, something like,

“Hear the plea… of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place”

– acknowledging that God’s dwelling place is not in a temple. Why not? Solomon already knows why not! He says this in the same dedication prayer:

“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!

Where in the world is God? Not in any one temple, not even the one built for Israel’s God! Where is God?

“Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain” God.

But, humans are human. We need places of worship. From painted caves to Greek and Roman temples, people need places in which to gather to acknowledge the Holy, to contact Ultimate Reality.

We need visual cues like sacred art and architecture, and auditory cues like music and the spoken word. We need ritual and symbol, sacred actions and communal participation – all human communities have always done this in one way or another, and we always will; ask any archeologist or any anthropologist. It is in our DNA.

But let us never ever mistake the sign and the symbol for the reality they point towards. Our church cannot contain God. Nor are we so arrogant as to think that our theology can comprehend the Holy.

The Foreigner and GodScreen Shot 2016-05-28 at 5.09.08 PM

This understanding has immediate and practical implications as we ask the question “Where in the world is God?” If God is not known comprehensively by, nor contained in our tradition alone, how should we relate to people of other traditions?

Solomon voices the answer:

“…when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land… and prays towards this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling-place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you…”

What? Listen to the prayers of a foreigner? An uncircumcised Gentile? Yes. Where in the world is God? God is everywhere in the world, and so can be worshipped by people who we think of as “other” than us; as foreigners, as strangers, as aliens.

Who is an alien to God? Who is a foreigner to the Creator? What human being is not made in God’s image?

Let us be guided by this text from our wisdom tradition as we seek answers to the question, “Where in the world is God?”

The Jesus StoryScreen Shot 2016-05-28 at 5.13.54 PM

Our tradition includes the Jesus-story, as I said, it is amazing how poignant todays’ reading is. This story is told by Matthew and Luke, but not Mark, so it is from the source we call Q. Matthew and Luke tell the same story, but differently.

The story is about a Roman army officer, a Centurion, who has a slave who is gravely ill. In Matthew’s story he comes personally to Jesus. In Luke’s story, which we read today, he actually never appears personally, but rather sends a delegation to represent his needs to Jesus – which wold be an act of deference, in that culture.

Hearing that Jesus has healing powers, he sends for help by means of the Jewish leadership. They are all-too-eager to comply because this Gentile Centurion has most likely become what is called a “God-fearer.” He acknowledges Israel’s God as God, or at least as one of the gods, and seeks to live a righteous life – although not submitting to circumcision, and therefore, remaining outside the Abrahamic covenant. Anyway, so fond he is of Judaism that he has put up his own funds to sponsor the building of their local synagogue, according to Luke.

The Centurion gives the Jewish elders the script he wants them to say to Jesus. It is deferential to the highest degree. He does not presume to be worthy of a personal audience with Jesus, but he gets it, that a man of authority, like himself, has power even in his spoken words of command, so he says,

“I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.”

Most healings in the ancient world included some kind of medium of conveyance: a touch or, an incantation, or a potion applied to the body, but in this case, the Centurion believes that healing can be accomplished without any of that, even from a distance, simply at Jesus’ command. This is an amazing amount of faith, and it completely impresses Jesus who says, famously,

“I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

Jesus thus reserves his highest words of praise, not to his disciples, not to his family, not even to another Israelite, but to a foreigner; an uncircumcised Gentile.

Where is God in the world? God is everywhere. And if we have the willingness to open our hearts, we can see God’s Spirit at work among people who are different from ourselves, even people whom we would naturally call enemies.

Remember, the Roman army was an oppressive force of occupation, even despite the personal feelings of this one Centurion. If the Jews rebelled in revolution, he would be leading his soldiers’ swords and spears against them, and there would be blood, as happened not long after those days.

But even in the context of oppression and the threat of violence, Jesus can find God at work in a person. Even a Roman.

God in the World?

Where in the world is God? Let us be guided by our wisdom traditions. They are repeatedly drawing our attention to the fact that this world cannot contain God. Where in the world is God? God is not in the world. The world is in God. God is the very ground of our being; the source of all being.

And so, it is right to say that God is everywhere in the world, as well as beyond this world. And God has not left himself without a witness in diverse cultures, and customs, in languages and religions.

On Memorial Day weekend we reflect with gratitude on the world that is so different now Screen Shot 2016-05-28 at 5.15.56 PMthan it was just a generation ago. The president can go to Hiroshima where 140,000 souls perished in an instant, because now, the Japanese are our friends and allies. He can go to Germany and Italy and not find reasons for war, but partners for peace. This was unimaginable 70 years ago.

We are so thankful that fascism has been shown to be a false, horrific, small-minded and brutal ideology. The world of “us against them,” the ideology of “our people and our language and our religion and our culture against all others” only creates holocausts, and mass graves, from Auschwitz to Bosnia, from Japan, then, to the Sudan, today.

A Return to Fascism Today?

Could fascism return? Yes it could. The nationalist party was only narrowly defeated this Spring in elections in Serbia, just as their former leader, Radovan Karadzic was convicted of genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

Nationalist parties all across Europe are growing in number and influence. In Poland, the very country of the death camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau, the nationalists have been elected.

In Denmark the anti-immigration party has huge support. The extreme right wing party that started as a white supremacist group in Sweden is rising in the polls, as is Greece’s Golden Dawn and Austria’s Freedom party.

Their message is always the same: keep the foreigners out. They are a danger to us. They are not like us.

How does our Judeo-Christian tradition inform our conversations about immigration? How does the Jesus-story guide us to think about foreigners, and even about enemies?

This is as personal as the ballot that, one by one, we fill out on election day.

Being People of Christian Practice

But it is more than simply personal, in a political sense. This gets to the heart of each of our lives.

What is it in us that makes it hard to embrace the other? What is that part of our egos that feels threatened by people speaking languages we do not understand?

Why do we fear that the world of tomorrow will not look like the world of yesterday – has it ever? Look back; has it ever stayed the same in the past 100 years?

Can we not be people who practice the one thing Jesus called us to do:

“to do to others as we would have others do to ourselves?”Screen Shot 2016-05-28 at 5.17.45 PM

Yes, I believe we can! But not without the help of the Spirit in our own hearts. Not without the steady, daily practices of a Christian: practices like reflecting on our wisdom traditions, the scriptures, as we have done today, and practices like prayer and meditation; the very practices that help us to tame the ego and its non-rational, fearful, exclusivist lizard brain.

So, on this Memorial Day weekend, with great gratitude to God for all that has been accomplished to bring us to this day, in this democracy, in this blessed country, let us resolve to be what we are: we are Christians. We are followers of Jesus.

Our primary foundational story is that God crossed the biggest barrier of all and came to us. This is called true love. This is what we are called to. Nothing less!

Where in the world is God? God is everywhere. God is here. God is at work right now, spiritually, luring us to goodness, to the beauty of open-heartedness, to the truth of our essential oneness with God and with all the world.


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