Jesus' Yes and No

Jesus' Yes and No

Sermon on Matthew 5:21-37 for Feb. 16, 2020 Epiphany 6A.

Audio can be found hhttps://soundcloud.com/stevendkurtz/february-16-2020-jesus-saysere for several weeks

 Matthew 5:21-37

[Jesus said:] “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

They say that “familiarity breeds contempt.” I don’t know if it always does, but I know it can. And familiarity can breed less strong emotions too, like simple apathy. 

Every famous person probably has family or close associates who see them all the time, and are simply not at all star-struck by them like the rest of us are.  

I think that can happen with us and Jesus. We talk about him all the time. We sing about him, we make our kids put on bathrobes at Christmas time to be in cute plays about him as a baby in a manger. Does that have an effect on us with respect to Jesus? 

In the film Talladega Nights, there is a scene at the dinner table in which someone offers prayers to the “Lord baby Jesus.” His wife challenges him, saying, “Hey, you know, sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him “baby.” It’s a bit odd and off-putting to pray to a baby.” But he says, “Well, I like the Christmas Jesus best and I’m saying grace. When you say grace you can say it to grown-up Jesus, or teenage Jesus, or bearded Jesus or whoever you want.”  

Familiarity breeds — what do we call that? — benign dismissal; or at least total disrespect. Are we too familiar with Jesus to hear him? I wonder.  

Well, if so, let us just try to hear him as if for the first time today. What he says should first shock us, then make us curious, and finally utterly amaze us. What was Jesus doing in this part of his famous “Sermon on the Mount?” And how does it affect us today? Let’s look at it together. 

Six times, of which we read the first four, Jesus says something like, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times… But I say to you…” In every case, the thing that people have heard it was said was not just rumor or hearsay, Jesus is quoting scripture. So, we should hear each one as Jesus saying, “I know that the bible says this…but I say that.”  

Now, we should just stop right there and take a breath. “The bible says this, but I say something different.” That should shock us. Even more shocking is that most of the time, the part of the bible Jesus is quoting is the ten commandments; the very heart and soul of the Law of Moses. Remember, according to the story, told both in Exodus and Deuteronomy, Moses got them directly from God. 

So what does that mean when Jesus starts with the ten commandments and then says, “but I say to you…?” Each time, Jesus invites us to pause and think. What’s going on in that law? Why is it there? What does God really want from us? Whatever it is, in the first place, it is not simply slavish obedience to a law, just because it’s a law. In each case, Jesus challenges us to ask questions and reflect ethically. So, after being shocked that Jesus calls us to reflect beyond the level of law-keeping, let us be curious and look at what he calls us to. 

Anger and Relationships 

The first case is about anger and relationships.

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment;” 

So Jesus is not approving of murder, but he is elaborating the commandment. There are words that destroy relationships and people. That’s a form of murder. It kills the ability of people to work together; it kills the spirit of cooperation in groups, it makes relationships toxic. We all know families, churches, clubs, bands, and all kinds of human associations that are ruined by reckless, hurtful words.  

Why is this significant?  This is not just Dear Abby’s moralistic manners-advice. This is serious because Jesus had an agenda. He was about creating communities of people who could disrupt the whole social structure, as it was accepted and practiced, and replace it with justice, equity, and inclusion. 

These Jesus-communities were supposed to model a radically alternative way of being. Men and women, slaves and free people, people of every ethnicity, from Jews to Greeks were to break bread as equals, share their resources to meet each other’s needs and work for liberation from oppression. But none of that could happen if they allowed their community to become poisoned by bitterness and resentment. 

Reckless words like “you fool” could kill it. So, you have heard that murder is wrong: well I say to you, don’t murder your community. 

It is more important to reconcile with each other than to go to the temple offering gifts to God. 

The other side of this coin is another core teaching of Jesus: the demand to forgive when we have been wronged. No one should call you names. But if they do, don’t let that kill your relationship. Forgive them. Then, get on with your mission to the world. 

Adultery and Lust

The second example is also from the ten commandments. It is about adultery.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” 

Jesus used exaggeration for effect — but what is the effect of this exaggeration? Lust is all about objectification. It is all about seeing another person as a means, and not as an end. It is about instrumentalizing another human being as a vehicle for one’s own pleasure. 

This teaching should have launched an ancient #metoo movement. For Jesus, humans, men, and women are all beloved children of God. It is, or it should be inconceivable to treat them as anything less than that. 

Hell?  No

Now, something else needs to be said here. You have heard me say that I don’t believe in hell. Well, doesn’t Jesus threaten people with hell here, saying,

it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell?

No, he didn’t. Jesus did not say “hell”, he said “Gehenna.” If you need to verify that, take out the pew bible, and look at the footnote in the NRSV for Matt. 5:29. It says that the word is not hell, but Gehenna. 

But translations have their own way of being conservative, and new translators are hesitant to break with old traditions, even where they were wrong. Jesus didn’t say you were in danger of being thrown into hell, but into Gehenna.  

So what is Gehenna? It was the name of the valley just over the Southwest wall of Jerusalem. Lots of horrible things had happened in that valley over the centuries. In Jesus’ day, it was a smoldering trash dump. 

So Jesus is saying, don’t waste your life like garbage: treat everyone as ends, not means. Treat them, as philosopher Martin Buber taught us, as “thou” not as “it.” 

Let love be genuine, let attraction be beautiful and pure; there is no room in this community for treating people as lust-objects instead of as full humans, beloved by their Creator.  

Divorce

Next, Jesus tackles divorce.

It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Historical context is everything here. In Jesus’ day, divorce was easy for men, and only for men. All they needed to do was to write a certificate of divorce for just about any reason, and the marriage was over. 

Where did that leave the women — and we may assume her children? They had two options: return to her father’s house, if she still had a father and if he had a house and if he would or could take her back in. Otherwise, all that was left to her was to take to the streets in the world’s oldest occupation. The options for her were terrible. 

This is more about the huge injustice and evil done to another person than staying married. There were reasons to break a marriage; Jesus names unchastity, which most take to mean unfaithfulness. 

Later, Paul felt the freedom to broaden the marriage-breaking causes to include those marriages in which one has become a Christian and the other hasn’t. He allows them, if they need to, to go their separate ways. In Paul’s Hellenistic world, women could be business people, like Lydia, for example, so the ethics of ending a marriage were different. But clearly, the goal is to stay together in a mutually affirming relationship if at all possible.  

Oaths 

The final example is about swearing oaths. This one is the most distant from our culture. We don’t swear to the truth by heaven or earth or Jerusalem. But the point is so clear: be a community of honesty. “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’” Say what you mean, mean what you say, so that you will be considered reliable and trustworthy. A community of deception and subterfuge cannot be a community of healing and reconciliation. Use simple speech.  

Relationships 

I hope you can see that this is all about relationships. When we relate to God as our loving Creator, we know that we are all valuable. We all have dignity as persons. So how could we not treat each other as equally valuable? How could we treat each other with anything less than respect and honor? 

This community has the capacity to make into full persons those who the Roman empire treated as non-persons, but only on the condition that we keep living up to and into our vision of a reconciled humanity. 

That was Jesus’ vision. It went way beyond keeping laws. In fact, it fulfills the intent of those laws. You will remember that Jesus said he came, not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. This is how the law is fulfilled: by looking beyond the words of the laws to the motivations. And the motivations are always about relationships. 

So, we are committed to following Jesus. We are committed to his long-term agenda. We are committed to being a community of people who control our mouths so that our speech to each other is life-giving, not murderous. 

And we are a community committed to practicing forgiveness when we are on the receiving end of harsh comments. We believe too strongly in our goal of being a healing, reconciling community to let speech subvert us. 

We are are a community that treats each other with respect and dignity, as persons, not as objects or means to an end. We are a community of bonded relationships that are not easily broken. And we are a community of honesty and reliability. In these ways, we are a community of healing and restoration in a world that desperately needs both. 

Jesus Being Ridiculous (Thank God!)

Jesus Being Ridiculous (Thank God!)

Sermon for Feb. 9, 2020, Epiphany 5A.

Audio will be available here for several weeks.

Matthew 5:13-20

[Jesus said:] “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Sometimes when I’m reflecting on Jesus and what he was all about, I get this overwhelming feeling that this man was amazing, for all kinds of reasons! One reason was what he saw in the people that followed him. 

I don’t know what you picture when you think of Jesus, standing, or sitting — which was the pose of teachers back then — outside, surrounded by the curious people who came to hear him. But think of what he saw. 

Try to picture looking through his eyes. Most of those people were what some call the “unwashed masses.” Not to fault them; they were peasants. Most were quite poor. 

They lived subsistence lives, day to day — which is why they prayed for “daily bread.” They had hard lives; they aged fast. They all probably had a mouth full of bad teeth, or missing teeth. They were uneducated — again, not their fault — literacy was a luxury peasants neither had need of nor could have afforded.  

But they were not dumb. They could think. They may not have been able to read, but they heard the scriptures, Torah, read to them by rabbis. They knew well the stories of the Hebrew Bible. I’m sure they had absorbed the hopes and dreams that those stories ignited. 

I don’t know how many of them thought things were hopeless, but I imagine most probably did. We know that there were revolutionary movements, but most people were just trying to survive.

So Jesus looks out on these powerless, hurting people and says something that must have sounded completely ridiculous. 

You are the salt of the earth; …You are the light of the world.” 

Now, how is that even remotely reasonable? Who among them would have believed it?  

And, no matter what I say this morning to you all, I wonder if anyone of us will walk out the door thinking, “I am the salt of the earth; I am the light of the world.” I seems, not just arrogant, but preposterous. 

Well, that’s kind of my job, but you are going to have to work with me, okay? Try to keep an open mind and let’s think about this together.

I believe that if Jesus could look at the rag-tag people who came out to listen to him and tell them that they were the salt of the earth and the light of the world, then he could certainly say the same to us — in fact, that’s the point of Matthew writing it down for us; that we would hear the teaching directed to us too. 

But I am guessing that we do not believe it any more than they did. How could it possibly be true?

Let’s start with the basics: why salt? why light? Salt makes things palatable that wouldn’t be otherwise. Light is required for seeing. It’s illuminating. That’s all we need to know.

So, the question then is how in the world was that little bunch of peasants around Jesus, and how are we, in any way in a position to make life palatable for people and to bring illumination to the world?

The Content

There are two things I believe we should think about: content and strategy. Both are crucial. First, the content of Jesus’ teaching. If people could get on board with the content of Jesus’ message, it had the power to transform their lives. If they could grasp that they were actually beloved by God — in spite of everything — if they could actually believe that God was for them, and not against them, it could change everything. 

If they could believe that they were not being punished by God, that their poverty and their condition of oppression under Rome was not some inescapable curse, but that God cared for them even more than God cares for the lilies of the fields and the birds of the air, that every hair of their heads was numbered, then they could go through life, facing difficulties, knowing that God was with them.  

If they could embrace, at a gut level, their own forgiveness, and become people who paid forgiveness forward, it could transform all of their relationships, from their families to their work associates, to their experience of the Roman soldiers watching them. 

If they could do enough work on their egos to actually pray and mean, “may God’s will (i.e. not mine) be done on earth as it is in heaven” they could become spiritually mature people of equanimity and they could bring to an end the games of competing and comparing that make so much of the world toxic.

And if they could internalize Jesus’ message of openness and inclusion, they could be agents of reconciliation and healing to people who had been marginalized, discriminated against and ignored. 

I have quoted before the professor who summed it up by saying that the early Christian movement had the capacity to make the people who were treated as non-persons in the Roman Empire into persons: women, slaves, the poor, the sick, children, and every kind of minority. It was amazing.

If they could become awake, as Jesus was awake, to the structures and systems that were perpetuating unjust economic practices, they might just be willing to join movements of resistance, like the one Jesus led to the temple that day, even at great personal risk.  

You see where this is going. Even a group of illiterate peasants, if they were to embrace Jesus’ vision, could live the kinds of lives that would, in fact, make life palatable for people and bring illumination to the world. That’s the content.

The Strategy

Now let us look at the strategy, because this is another thing I find amazing about Jesus. Jesus did not set up shop in one location and ask the people to come to him. He went to them. He went to their villages, their homes, and their synagogues. He met their sick people, he ate with their families, he shared their life. It was all about relationships. There were no hierarchies. He treated everyone equally. 

Then, as the ministry got going, he sent out 12 to do the same, taking only the barest of necessities, being dependent on, not superior to the people they shared the vision of the kingdom with. Later he sent out 72 to do the same thing. 

This was a non-violent, grassroots people-movement, spreading organically from peasant to peasant. It needed no money, no organization, no bylaws, no buildings, had no debts and paid no salaries. Jesus’ strategy was hyper-relational. And anyone could be involved, from carpenters and fishermen to stay-at-home moms.  

So, as counter-intuitive as it seems, the fact is that yes, even poor Palestinian peasants could be the kind of people whose lives could make the world palatable, as salt does for crackers, and it could bring illumination of a whole new way of living and looking at life, God, people, power, economics, justice, and everything else.  

And if all that can be said for a toothbrush and soap-challenged peasant, how could that not be true for us? Are you the salt of the earth? Are you the light of the world? You could be. You have the capacity to be.

Coaching, not Cajoling

But this is not to lay a burden of expectations on you. Jesus is not commanding people to be salt and light. He is not cajoling them. Rather, he is encouraging them as a coach would. I think there may even have been some winking-humor in his encouragement, when he said, 

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.”  

Then he sums it all up saying, 

“In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Let your light shine. Shine out compassion, shine out mercy, shine out forgiveness, shine out humility. The world is desperate for people who can shine like that! And all the more so in a deeply divided world, filled with so much bitterness, anger, and arrogance.  

But, How?

Now, there is something going on here that needs to be discussed. The goal of being salt and light for the world are beautiful end states to want to get to. But how? How can you shine, especially when you are feeling overwhelmed by the tasteless darkness of the world? 

The fact is that Jesus was great about telling where to end up, but he did not say much about how. It would be great if we could simply decide to be loving, kind, forgiving and compassionate, but it doesn’t work that way. We need practices that help us get there. 

Jesus himself had a set of practices that the gospels describe him doing, even though they don’t describe him talking much about them. For example, we know he regularly gathered with his community at the synagogue for worship and instruction. When you gather with a group of likeminded people, just as we are doing right now, and together you orient yourselves toward your goal, it helps you to achieve it. 

Meditation

So that is an important reason we gather together. It is a practice, or some people call it a spiritual technology, for getting to the goal of being the kind of people we want to be: salt and light for the world.

Another important practice for Jesus was wordless prayer, or meditation. Some call it contemplation. He would go out and spend long periods of time alone in prayer, the gospels tell us. There is no other practice that is so effective at helping us get control of our egos than meditation. 

People who practice meditation become much less ego-focused. So they’re able to forgive more. They’re able to be fully present more. They’re more likely to laugh at themselves than to get offended. And they are more in touch with the world’s pain, and more likely to try to be involved in practical ministries that address that pain and help alleviate suffering. 

So meditation is a crucial practice, a crucial spiritual technology, it helps us get to the end state of being salt and light for the world.

Really?

So at this point, I’m wondering what you’re thinking. I’m wondering if you’re thinking that you were capable of being exactly what the world needs? Maybe you’re thinking it seems ridiculous. If you do, then thank God that God believes in you, maybe more than you believe in yourself. 

If you have trouble believing it, They let me encourage you to engage some spiritual technologies, some practices that can be transformative. Practiced them consistently for a while and then see what happens. Make a bet, make a wager that there might be something to it after all.

Well, all this sounds theoretical, so I want to leave you with one concrete specific example, of how little people with transformed lives can make a huge impact, can be salt and light. This was recently written about by Richard Rohr, who was reporting on a book by Stephen Schwartz about the enormous social changes the little community of Quakers has made. Rohr says, 

the Quakers. Their actions—grounded in contemplation—(or, meditation) have had a profound impact, helping to abolish slavery, promote gender equity, and reform prisons and other institutions.” Schwartz writes:  

“How could this small group of people create movements that ultimately involve millions, tens of millions? This is a tiny group whose being-ness is so powerful that enough people personally change their choices so that the desired change becomes society’s new norm. (The Quakers illustrate) how individual choice linked in consensus becomes the strategy… that creates change.”

That specific concrete example gives me hope. I hope it gives you hope. You are beloved by God and you are here for a purpose. Let us live into that purpose and watch what’s going to happen in our corner of our world!

The Wager We Make

The Wager We Make

Sermon for Feb. 2, 2020, Epiphany 4A.

Audio will be available here for several weeks.

Note: The prophet imagines a day in court, calling the charges against the unfaithful nation a “controversy”, calling witnesses, and citing evidence.  He concludes with a question about what God really wants, and then answers it.

Micah 6:1-8

Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

You know, we might be wrong.  In fact, chances are good that we are mistaken.  There is no way to disprove the existence of God, but neither is there a way to prove it.  And as for Jesus, frankly, his vision of life goes against the wisdom of sober minded, common sense realism.  But here we are, believers in God and people who are trying to follow Jesus.  

The point I want us to think about today is that there is no way to know in advance which way of looking at it is correct.  Maybe we will know after this life — but certainly not before the end.    

So we must make a wager.  We must bet on one side or the other.  There are consequences that follow either way. 

My hope is that we will see that making the wager we have made, that there is a God, and that Jesus’ vision of what God wants for us, for the world, is a bet that, although it carries risk as all bets do, nevertheless it leads to the best outcome.  

And at worse, if we are wrong, perhaps all we will have done is paid the universe a compliment it did not deserve.  Having bet that there is such a thing as love, that we are all connected, that justice is more than simply socially constructed  convenience,  that each life, every life, has dignity and value, if we turn out to have been mistaken, all we will have done is believed the world was better than it turned  out to be.  

But in the mean time, we will have made it better than it would have been otherwise.  But I’m getting ahead of the story.  

Jesus’ Vision 

Matthew chapter five begins what we now call “The Sermon on the Mount.”  Matthew has collected many of the teachings of Jesus and put them together into this format.  One of his literary strategies is to present Jesus as the new Moses, so he arranges the teachings of Jesus into five of these long sequences, one for each of the five books of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, attributed to Moses.   In this one, Jesus is on a mountain, just as Moses received the Torah from God on Mt. Sinai, as the story goes.  

We begin with the section we call the “beatitudes.”  Jesus pronounces a solemn blessing on the eight (or nine, depending on how you count the last sentence) ways of being in the world that are right and good.  

Each of these ways of being is counter-intuitive.  They are not the perspective of common sense realism.  In fact they are nearly mirror opposite common sense.  Being poor is not a blessed state, nearly everyone in the world would agree.  The meek certainly do not inherit the earth; they are not found among the one percenters.  No one enjoys being persecuted.   

I have just been reading the book Circe, about the Greek goddess Circe.  Those of you who have read the Odyssey may recall that on his way home from the Trojan war, Odysseus visits the island to which the other gods had banished Circe.  

In this telling of the story, Circe’s son travels to Ithaca to meet the father he has never known, and accidentally kills Odysseus with a magically poisoned spear.  After the accident, Circe’s son returns home.  Odysseus’s first son, Telemachus and his mother Penelope also travel to Circe’s island.  

Circe assumes they are there for revenge.  In fact, she asserts that it is the honor-bound duty of a son to avenge his murdered father.  That is the way the world works — the way it must work.   Even the gods understand and respect the justice of vengeance.  In that world there is no such thing as “blessed are the merciful.

So how did Jesus arrive at all of these opposite conclusions?  And, we may ask, are they believable?  Perhaps we should first ask, where did he get them?

Jesus got many of his ideas from his tradition, the Hebrew Bible, especially from the prophets.  Jesus was clearly a critical thinker.  

He did not blindly accept everything in the Hebrew Bible, as we will see so clearly today.  But his passion for justice, especially his perspective that justice and mercy far outweigh religious obligation come directly from the prophets.  Let us look at one example.  

Micah’s Courtroom Drama

We read a snippet of the prophet Micah.  It began with a courtroom drama.  Scholars call it a “covenant lawsuit.”  God had made a covenant with Israel to be their God and protect them, as long as they obeyed his law.  Micah says they repeatedly broke his law with all their injustice and oppression of the poor, so God was upset.  

It is a courtroom drama; God calls witnesses; the mountains themselves have been around to see it all, so he calls them.  So have “enduring foundations of the earth” so they are called as well.  

Then, instead of listing more charges, God jumps from his prosecuting attorney role to the role of a victim giving testimony.  God asks Israel,

“O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!”

Then he starts listing all the things he has done that they should have been grateful for, all the times God had protected and delivered them.  It is evidence of how unfair their unfaithfulness to God has been.  

So, God says, he has had enough.  The covenant has been broken.  No more protection is coming.  He will soon say, what is coming are enemy nations, and they will destroy you.  Judgement is coming. 

The question that is on everyone’s mind is, “Well, what can we do now?  How can we make this right with God?  What does God want from us?”  Micah gives them their lines to say to God:

“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?”

The answer, as  every good Israelite would know, comes from their bibles.  God has said that when you have sinned, you come to God with sacrifices.  You bring burnt offerings, rams.  You pour out libations of oil and pray for forgiveness.  

But this is exactly where the prophets had their own distinct perspective.  Fulfilling religious obligation does not hold a candle to acts of justice and mercy.   Even exaggerated amounts of religion – thousands of rams, rivers of oil, even human sacrifice, to take the exaggeration to the point of absurdity, are not what God wants.  What does God want then? Micah says to the humans on trial:

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

Do justice. That’s pretty clear.  Love “kindness”.  Kindness is a pathetically weak way of translating a word that means, as Walter Brueggeman has said, “to reorder life into a community of enduring relations of fidelity.”  

He goes on to explain, the final phrase: “Walk humbly with God: to abandon all self-sufficiency, to acknowledge in daily attitude and act that life is indeed derived from the reality of God” (Brueggeman et al, Texts for Preaching Year A).

Jesus’ Ideas

Where did Jesus get his ideas?  Partly from the prophets.  Certainly the part about justice, community relations of fidelity, and abandoning self-sufficiency, from prophets like Micah.  

But Jesus also departed from Micah.  How?   By removing the threat of judgment.  Jesus did not say, “…or God will let the Romans will destroy you.”  He simply said, this is the blessed way to live.  

It was if he were saying, you only have two options.  You can wager that God is there and will be with you, as God is there for the lilies of the fields and the birds of the air, or not.  And if God is there for you, as the perfect parent, the “Father in heaven” for example, or there for you as the shepherd who goes out looking for the lost sheep until he finds it, and then rejoices, you can live a blessed life.

The Two Alternative Wagers

If not, then get on with your vengeance.  See what kind of world that makes.  If you wager that we are alone in the universe on our pretty blue planet out in the middle of immense emptiness, randomly evolved to be conscious, even self-conscious, but to no point other than to return to dust, then get on with any strategy for inheriting the earth you can come up with, because there is no point to it anyway.  

If you wager that the only things to hunger and thirst for are comfort and security, without regard to the damage that may come to the planet or to others, then go ahead, but you had better hope that you are not in the way of anybody bigger and stronger than you who has the same plan.  You can wager for that common sense realism, and live in the world that it produces.

Or, you can make the other wager.  You can bet your life on an alternative to violence and self-seeking.  You can risk that despite appearances, goodness is its own reward.  You can live as if the poor in spirit who know that “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” are really onto something true;  that poverty of the soul is the worst kind of poverty imaginable, and is even fatal if untreated.  

You can make the wager that there is such a thing as being “pure in heart,” and that it is true that only the pure in heart ever glimpse God in the world.  The conniving, the deceitful, the disdainful see God nowhere.  

But the pure in heart, who expect the good, who attend to the moment, who notice beauty, who express gratitude, who are willing to forgive, see God all the time. They see God in people, they see God in every example of love and compassion, they see God even in themselves, knowing that they are the objects of God’s love.  

We may be mistaken.  We cannot prove that this way of living works.  We may be paying the universe a compliment it does not deserve.  

But if so, all we will have lost is the investment we made in the good.  If only for now, we will have increased the amount of love in the world.  

If only for now, we will have released some people from the bondage of injustice and oppression.  

If only for now we would have helped our climate sustain life for another generation.  

If only for now we would have walked the earth seeing God everywhere and in everyone.  

That is the wager we make; that there is a blessed way to live, and it is the way Jesus taught us.  

Being Called to Follow Jesus

Being Called to Follow Jesus

Sermon for Jan. 26, 2020, Epiphany 3A.

Audio will be available here for several weeks.

Matthew 4:12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake–for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

The early church struggled with a question that was hard to answer. The question was, how was Jesus related to God? Clearly, Jesus was a person of great God-consciousness. People were drawn to him because they felt the presence of God when he was present. Some experienced healing. His teaching showed that he had insight into God’s purposes. His prayer life was intimate, not pro-forma or ritualized. But how, exactly did Jesus relate to God, the early Christians wondered?  

They came up with many different explanations. Some said he was totally God, just appearing to be human, like the way Greek gods could do. Others said he was totally human, but was adopted by God as God’s son at his baptism. There were other ideas too. 

Christians eventually took sides, proclaimed their view correct, and the other views were wrong; heresies. There were fights, even street fights. The question for them was, what do you believe is the right answer? In other words, believing the right theology about Jesus and God became the central Christian question.  

Christianity spread in those early years. The Roman empire was so divided with bishops condemning each other and their flocks that by the early 300’s the situation was dire. So, Emperor Constantine convened a meeting of all the bishops, requiring them to come to the city of Nicea to hammer out one creed they could all agree on.  Eventually, they did. Most of them did. There was one bishop who, even on pain of punishment would not agree, but the others did. 

They produced the Nicene Creed. The point of Christianity had become: do you believe the right things about Jesus and God? If not, you were condemned as a heretic, and you were told you were not saved, and were destined for the fires of hell, forever.  

Nicea vs. Jesus

Some of us here know that story well, but I wanted to review it this morning because it is such a stark contrast with the text we read. What did Jesus want from people? Did Jesus have a creed? Did Jesus demand that people believe a set of ideas about himself? 

What is the gospel? Is it, “believe this and you will escape hell when you die?” It is my opinion that we should let Jesus answer that question. He did, in the text we just read.  

Matthew tells us, 

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom.” 

“Good news” means “gospel.” So what was the gospel that Jesus proclaimed?  Let’s hear it straight from Jesus:

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Kingdom of heaven is the same as kingdom of God. Jews avoided saying the sacred name of God, so they often said, “heaven” or “the name” instead. So for Jesus, the gospel is the message that “the kingdom of God has come near.” It is not off in the distant future. It is not after you die, up in heaven. It is not waiting for a miracle or a war; the kingdom of God has arrived.  

It is not a place, it is not a territory, it is not a physical or political kingdom, it is, as Jesus spells out so clearly in the Lord’s prayer: “Thy kingdom come” is when “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” When people live as if God is king, then that’s the kingdom. The kingdom of God is present when people live their lives the way God wants. Notice how different that is from believing the right creed.  

And that is why we need to “repent” as Jesus said. “Repent” simply means “change the way you have been thinking”, which of course, will change how you behave. Change from what to what? What does repentance look like? Again, let us let Jesus answer the question for us. Matthew says,

“As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake–for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

Repentance then means leaving behind an old way of life, and following Jesus. The old nets, the fishing business were symbols of business as usual; a way of saying that following Jesus leads to a whole new way of living.  In other words, leaving behind the default position.

 The way we describe it today is to call it the ego-driven life; the false self, or the small self. The self that is self-concerned. The self that has to compete and compare; the fragile ego that is offended so easily. That is what we repent of, instead of remaining tangled up in those old nets.  

If we turn from our old ego-driven self, what do we turn towards? A life of fishing for others. In other words, an other-centered life. A life that cares about the concerns of others, instead of merely our own. A life of concern especially for the weak, the vulnerable, the suffering and the oppressed. That is what a life of following Jesus looks like. 

In other words, following Jesus by turning from the ego-driven life and turning towards a life for others is pretty much the opposite of a life of merely believing the “right” things and condemning as heretics those who believe the “wrong” things. But after Nicea, that’s what the church taught, and she taught it for centuries.

A New Day

Thankfully, we are living in a new day. Many people have awakened to this story.  When he talks about how the church got it wrong for so many years, Brian McLaren calls it, “Adventures in missing the point.” The point should have been the quest to live in the kingdom of God by following Jesus, the man of God who was a man “for others” as theologians have called him.  

The church has a lot of egg on its face for having missed the point for so long. In the minds of many people, the church’s reputation is unredeemable. Some have walked out, never to return. 

Others, who want to stay in, feel the need to distance themselves from the name “Christian” with all its historical baggage, preferring instead to simply call themselves “followers of Jesus.” I sympathize with them, but I’m afraid that is an insider distinction that is lost on everyone else. 

Why We are Here

To me, that is why we are here; to follow Jesus. So we gather to remember Jesus, to hear his teachings, and to reflect on how to put them into practice in our lives. It means we keep doing our regular spiritual practices, which are the tools by which we manage our self-concerned egos, especially the practices of prayer and meditation. 

It means we figure out ways to be “for others” including using our resources, our buildings, and our energies, to make a real difference. That’s why we have a New Vision Home for the DHS children. That’s why we open our doors to so many community groups like Monday Morning Seekers, Enneagram groups, Police And Community Engagement, Bridges, Citizen’s Climate Lobby, Nar-Anon, and others. 

That’s why session just voted to open our doors to the seven-week “Strengthening Families” program of the Comprehensive Juvenile Services Agency of Sebastian County which will begin later this spring.  

We can only do these things as a united community, working together for the common good, with a common vision. So today, we are thankful to add 3 new members into our community.

 Becoming a member means making a commitment to join this community and its mission. All three are already involved in community groups and service through this congregation. We need their gifts, their energy, their wisdom, and their love. They need our prayers and encouragement, our love and support.  

Let this next liturgy of reception of new members be a time when we all reaffirm our commitment to this faith-community and our common mission. 

The committee that has been meeting to answer the question: should we stay here in this location or make a change, has recommended, and session has approved that we stay and minister here. We believe that God has a future for us here. We have a mission, and we have a tremendous asset here on Rogers Avenue. 

We believe that we are uniquely poised to be an inclusive alternative with a beautiful, compelling message: God loves us all, and calls us all to follow the Jesus path, connected deeply with God, and fully activated on behalf of others.  

Being Named

Being Named

Sermon for Jan. 19, 2020 Epiphany 2A.

Audio will be here for several weeks.

 John 1:29-42

The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

Sixty years or more after Jesus walked the earth, the Gospel of John was written down.  It probably went through several versions and had several contributing authors, but for simplicity’s sake this morning, let’s just call the author John.  

What is John doing with this scene, and why does it matter to us?  This is still the first chapter, as we divide up the gospel, so getting us introduced to the cast of characters is one reason for this scene.  

Another is to anticipate the themes of the whole story, like a prelude, or a movie trailer.  

John Names Jesus 

So the author, John, introduces us to Jesus.   This is his second introduction of Jesus.  This gospel starts with a theoretical introduction of Jesus as the “word made flesh” who is the “light of the world.”  But this is more of a practical introduction.  This time, Jesus is introduced to us, as he is meeting other humans.  

The first person to identify Jesus in this prelude is John the Baptist.  He calls Jesus “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”   It is an allusion to the sacrifice of lambs in the Jewish tradition.  That is a foreshadowing of  the end of the story, in which Jesus dies by execution.  

Though he is not guilty, he dies as a martyr, who, like the martyrs of the Maccabean wars of independence, sacrificed their lives for their people.  Their deaths were considered atonement for the sins of the nation.  Jesus, according to John, is the lamb whose sacrificial death atones for the sins, not just of the nation, but of the whole world.  

Naming Jesus Rabbi

But no one else besides John the Baptist knows much about Jesus yet.  As This gospel tells it, two of the people who heard Jesus called the “lamb of God” literally start following Jesus like chicks behind a momma duck.  

John’s gospel does this kind of thing all the time: he tells a story that sounds simple and literal, but is really a metaphor.  In the other gospels, Jesus calls the fishermen to follow him as disciples follow a teacher.  That is what John’s metaphor means.  

What Are You Looking For?

But John wants us to know that although they have begun to follow Jesus, they actually have no idea what they are getting themselves into.   Jesus turns to ask them “What are you looking for?”  They respond by calling Jesus “Rabbi” which means teacher.  

Jesus is far more than just another Rabbi, so this is another way of saying that they do not understand his significance yet.  The question John wants us readers to ask ourselves is, “What are you looking for?”  

This is an important question for us as well.  This is what I ask at the start of each service: what is your intention?  Why are you here?  What are you looking for?  That question is also a foreshadowing of what is coming.  We will soon read that lots of people began to follow Jesus for the free food, but dropped out when the conversation turned to sacrifice.  

But at this point in the story, the early followers of Jesus are full of curiosity.  They want to know where Jesus is staying.  His answer is the most open-ended invitation, and we are meant to hear it as inviting us too: “come and see.”  

This gospel is meant to help us “come and see.”  We are invited to watch Jesus, see who he interacts with, who he takes time for, what he does, what he says.  And if we do come and see, and if what he is about is what we are looking for, then maybe we will come to experience a transformed life.  

Being Named and Changed

If we stay with him long enough, it will change us.  We get a foreshadowing of that too.  Andrew has figured out that Jesus is the Messiah, so he finds his brother, Simon, and brings him to meet Jesus.  

The foreshadowing event is that Jesus changes Peter’s name.  Being with Jesus changes you.  It changes you to your core.  It changes your identity.   It may even change your answer to the question “what are you looking for?”  

The longer you stay with Jesus, the more you start wanting what he wants, which makes the things you were seeking previously seem small,  narrow, and insufficient.  Jesus is going to give you a new name. 

What was the significance of that name change for Simon?  I want to suggest this possibility.  Simon was a famous name for the people of Jesus’ generation.   After the Maccabean revolts against their Greek overlords, in 141 BCE, their first king was named Simon.  He was the George Washington of their newly independent kingdom.  

So, in the time of Jesus, that means that a Jewish mother, longing for a new kingdom and a new king that would lead them to national independence from Rome, named her boy “Simon.”  

And one day, that Simon met Jesus.  The first thing Jesus did, was to change his name.  Instead of Simon, the nationalist king, he would be called “Cephas”, meaning Peter, the Rock.  Meeting Jesus changes you, down to your identity.  

It is almost as if Jesus is saying to Simon, “What are you looking for?”  When your brother called me “messiah, what did you imagine?  Did you think I was going to start the next revolt, the new Maccabean revolution for independence?  Because that quest is far too small, narrow, and insufficient.  No, rather “messiah” means I am anointed to a much larger mission.”  

We will see, as John’s story of Jesus develops, that what Jesus wants is to accomplish God’s agenda.  It is not local or parochial.  It is not national or political.   What God wants is the transformation of the world.  

Why?  The answer we are given is simply love.  Probably the most famous verse in John’s gospel, John 3:6 can be understood this way: “For God loved the world so much, that he gave us Jesus, that every one who trusts him, who follows his way, who responds to the invitation to “come and see” will not continue down the path they were on, the path of perishing, but will have a transformed life.”  

There are lots of small, narrow, insufficient paths that lead to perishing.  Paths of violence, paths of nationalism, paths of exclusion and arrogance.  But there is an alternative path, the way that is true, and leads to life.

King Simon the Maccabean hero of old came to power by overthrowing the Greeks, but in John’s gospel, the moment in which Jesus knows that “the hour has come” for him is when the Greeks come up to the disciples at the festival and say, “we wish to see Jesus” (John 12).   

What does God want?  A reconciled world in which there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female in opposition to each other.   Is that what we are looking for?  Some of us are, yes.

MLK

On January 15, 1929, a woman in America had a baby boy.  She had high hopes for her son.  She wanted a reformer.   She wanted a leader.  She wanted a child who would grow up wanting what God wanted for the world: reconciliation; transformation.  So, like Simon’s mother did,  she named him for a hero of the past.  She named him after the great leader of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century, Martin Luther.  

Martin Luther King jr.  grew up to embrace God’s vision of a reconciled, transformed world.  He had a vision of a beloved community in which people would be valued, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.  

He knew that the way toward that vision would be difficult, but like Jesus before him, he eschewed violence.  He trusted that the moral arc of the universe was long, maybe longer than his own lifespan, but that it bent toward justice.  

What do we want?  We want that same vision of a reconciled,  transformed world. We have responded to the call to “come and see” and being with Jesus has changed us.  We have been named by God as God’s beloved children, and we have been given a new identity.  We no longer wish for a small, narrow world of “us against them.” 

We long for a world of equality and justice.  The task is still incomplete.  Much has been accomplished, but much remains to be done.  Mass incarceration still exists.  Voter suppression still exists.  Discrimination in employment and housing still exists.  White supremecists still exist, and seem to be growing.  

But we are here to march in solidarity with our sisters and brothers of color.   We are here to be allies; even accomplices.  We are here to believe with them that a better day is coming; that a better world is possible.  We are here to re-assert that “God so loved the world” — that is the whole world, without exception.  Will we be successful? Come and see. 

Emerging From Those Waters

Emerging From Those Waters

Sermon on Matthew 3:13-17 for the Baptism of Jesus Sunday, A. Audio can be found here for several weeks.

Matthew 3:13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

We are going to look at one of the weirdest stories in the Bible today. But it is also, I believe, one of the most important stories. Its message is crucial for our spiritual health and growth.  

Why is it weird? For several reasons. For one thing, the story is about a profoundly meaningful mystical experience that Jesus had. Mystical experiences are weird by nature. 

Photo by Erda Estremera on Unsplash

When Jesus emerged from those waters, he saw something, he heard something. He must have felt something, though the gospel writers do not tell us about how he felt. And it changed him. That was the moment that launched Jesus’ public ministry. So it was crucial for Jesus, and I believe the message is crucial for us too.  

But it is also weird because of how the four gospels retell this story. They all tell it a bit differently. In Matthew, which we just read, the voice Jesus hears is speaking to everyone, announcing to the world, 

This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” 

But the prior version in Mark says that the voice spoke only to Jesus, as often happens in mystical experiences, saying, 

You are my Son, the Beloved; with you, I am well pleased.” 

To me, it is weird that Matthew felt free to edit what the voice of God said, but he did. He made Jesus’ private experience into a public announcement — which is fair enough. He wanted us, and everyone to get this message that Jesus is God’s beloved son. 

Why tell it as a public announcement? We will see in just a minute. 

Jesus in John’s Group

The story is also weird because if Jesus was baptized by John, it appears that John was the group leader and Jesus was just a group member. That situation seems to have bothered the gospel writers. Mark just says John baptized Jesus, but when Matthew tells the story, he says John protested about the inappropriateness of Jesus being baptized by him. 

John was a big deal back then, and had a lot of followers — even the ancient historian Josephus mentions him and his large crowds. He says that the size of the crowds was so large it made the local king, Herod Antipas nervous. Herod had John arrested and killed as a precautionary measure, according to Josephus.  

It is weird that Jesus would have been a member of John’s group, for an important reason. John was what we call an apocalyptic prophet. He preached that the world was messed up, and that God wanted to clean it up, and that God was going to start cleaning it up soon. 

How? His message is cryptic, but at the same time, plain in one sense: God was going to come swinging swords and taking prisoners. He used violent metaphors: the ax was ready to fell the trees that bore no fruit; the fire was ready to consume the chaff. 

It is evident that John thought God’s clean up of the world would look something like it looked in the stories of the Hebrew Bible when God used the violence of Plagues against Pharaoh or empowered the violent armies led by Joshua to conquer the Promised Land of Canaan.  

Jesus’ Difference from John

The weirdness is that Jesus was part of John’s group, but when he left and started his own public ministry, his message was entirely different. For Jesus, God’s method of cleaning up the world was not something God was going to do on his own, like sending plagues, nor was it violent. Rather God’s method was peaceful and collaborative. 

God’s desire to “repair the world” or, if you were here last week, you know the Hebrew term, “Tikkun Olam,” was not going to be done without our collaboration. We are God’s method. If the world is going to be “Tikkun”, or repaired, if it is going to get cleaned up, it is going to be through us.  

So, let us look at Jesus’ message. It was not, “Strap on your sword.” 

It was “turn the other cheek.” 

It was love God and love your neighbor. It was even “love your enemies and do good to those who persecute you.” 

It was “blessed are the meek.” 

It was, “as much as you do to the least of these, brothers of mine, you do to me.” 

It was, “go and do likewise” as the Good Samaritan had done.  

That is called collaboration: God at work, in and through humans, to clean up and repair the broken messy, broken world. 

Dirty Hands

But who are we, to collaborate with God? Who do we think we are that we could repair the world?  Not only are we small, limited mortals, without superpowers, we know ourselves.  

We know that we are also broken. We all have a dark side. We are also part of the world that needs to get cleaned up. We know we have caused hurt and pain to others. We know how much of our headspace is taken up with concern for ourselves, our reputations, what other people think about us, the excuses we make up to let ourselves off the hook, when we do things that we would never call good, if someone else did them. 

We all have egos, pride that gets hurt, offended, humiliated. And when that happens, we know how ready to forgive we are, right? We have lists of people who we resent because of what they did to us — sometimes we carry those lists for years.  

So, if we need to be cleaned up,  if our hands are dirty, how can we be God’s collaborators in cleaning up the world?  

The Solution

That is exactly the problem that this story is here for, and why it is so important to all of us. Like Jesus, the vast majority of us have been baptized. For most of us, it was done when we were babies, too young to remember. But we were symbolically plunged under the waters.  What happened then? The same thing that happened to Jesus: we were named by God, and claimed by God as God’s beloved.  

Those waters are like a grave that you go down into, and come up as a new person, risen from death to life. 

Or, to change the image, those waters are like a cleansing bath that washes off all the dirt and grime so that we come out clean. 

The message of this story of Jesus’ baptism is that in baptism, we are named by God and claimed by God, just as Jesus was, as God’s beloved children.  

I think our biggest problem is that we don’t believe it. We have internalized too many messages we have received over the years of judgment and condemnation.  

One of the most important reasons we gather together as we are now, is so that we can keep hearing again and again until we believe it:  you are beloved by God. That is your true self. That is who you are; your baptismal identity is that you are beloved.

What about that dark side? What about our brokenness? The good news of the gospel is that God is merciful and forgiving. 

That is also what we come together every week to hear. God knows our darkness even better than we do, but loves us and wants us to be healed; healed of our self-loathing, our guilt, our shame, our ego-defenses, and our self-concern.  

And when we can embrace our belovedness, when we can know our true identity as God’s children, then we are able to have the courage to join with God in the collaborative clean up of the world.  

The Confession Balance

You know, I struggle every week with how to write the prayer of confession that we say in our worship service. My struggle is that I believe two things at once: first, that there is no spiritual progress possible unless we examine ourselves and admit where we fall short and miss the mark. That is what we mean by “repentance.”  

But the other thing I believe is that we come to this prayer from different places spiritually. Some of us come knowing that we are forgiven and beloved, so we pray the prayer of confession with confidence in God’s mercy. 

But others of us have so internalized negative messages about ourselves, that we come with guilt and shame, maybe even believing that God could never forgive us. So I try to have a balanced prayer that avoids adding to someone’s guilt, while at the same time helping us to grow spiritually by honest self-examination. 

I don’t know if I ever succeed in achieving that balance, but the most important message to get through is this: you are beloved by God. With you, God is well-pleased. 

I don’t have any tattoos, (yet). But if I did, I think I might get my sons’ names tattooed, one on each arm.  I know that there is nothing that they could do to make me not love them. I would grieve if they did things that hurt themselves or others, but I could not stop loving them; I’m their father. That is a tiny glimpse, I believe, of how God feels about us. If God has ink, our names are there.  

That is the announcement that Matthew wanted us all to hear, and why he told the story of Jesus’ baptism that way. We rise up from the waters of baptism named by God as beloved, just as Jesus was. 

And once out of the water, we take on the mission that Jesus took on; being a collaborator in God’s great clean up of the world. 

As spiritually centered people, not unaware of our dark side, but convinced of our true identity as beloved children, we set out to follow Jesus’ mission. 

We work for a better world; a world of forgiveness and reconciliation. A world healed of hunger, of discrimination, of ego and of blood-lust. 

We seek the world that Jesus sought: a peaceable kingdom of abundance for all the beloved children of the world.  

Living With the Lights On

Living With the Lights On

Sermon for Dec. 5, 2020, Christmas 2A.

Audio will be available here for several weeks.

John 1:1–18

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

(John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

I want to begin with honesty, on this, the first Sunday of the new year, and (as some people count it) the new decade. The honest truth is that this new year and new decade have begun for me, with a sense of dread, for all kinds of reasons, starting with the climate crisis.  

They say that 10 million acres have burned already in Australia, temperatures have reached 120 degrees, and it’s only the start of the summer fire season there. So, I dread what is coming for them, and I dread the climate crisis that puts us all in harm’s way.  

That’s just the start. How can we not dread what is coming in the Middle East? What will Iran’s next move be? And what will we do about it then? Where is this going? And how will it ever end?

Closer to home, you just say the word “Washington DC” these days and it fills most people with dread, on both sides of the aisle.  

What about the future of the church? I was just at the Chamber of Commerce breakfast Friday and spoke with a young man who told me he grew up in a conservative church but does not worship anywhere now. His story is the new normal, as we all know. Unless something new happens that reverses that trend, it should make all of us who love the church dread the future.  

An Alternative to Dread

So, honesty is a good place to start. But honestly, for me, and for people of faith, cannot ever end in the darkness of dread, even if it begins there. In our tradition, we make a point to begin the year with an alternative narrative. 

We begin with Christmas stories of blazingly bright angels appearing to shepherds in the middle of the night. If that story is about anything, it is certainly about light appearing in the darkness. That is what God does; bring light, and therefore hope, into situations that previously only had room for the darkness of dread.

Our reading from the Hebrew Bible, from the prophet Jeremiah, is part of that tradition of asserting an alternative narrative. It recalls one of the darkest times in the story of the people of Israel; the time of their exile in Babylon. And yet, from that time of despair, the prophet imagined a new day; a light at the end of the tunnel of exile. He could imagine God saying, 

I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.”

The poetic language is, admittedly exaggerated, promising that “they shall never languish again.” It makes the point, poetically, that God’s will is to repair the broken world. 

There is a Hebrew phrase that sums up God’s desire: “Tikkun Olam” the repair of the world. It acknowledges that there is darkness; something is broken. But repair is possible. Return from exile is possible. Darkness does not have the last word. 

I want to pause to make a note about the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. I just heard someone say again recently that the God of the Old Testament was brutal, judgmental, and not at all as the God Jesus taught us to know. That is only partly correct, which means it is partly incorrect. There is not only one view of God in the Old Testament, there are several, and they imagine the Divine in different ways. Yes, there is a lot of judgment and wrath, but here, in Jeremiah, the prophet imagines God saying, with tender parental compassion, 

“I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel.”

It is clear that Jesus was aware of both views of God, and that he accepted one and rejected the other. To Jesus, God was like a father, which is how he taught us to approach God in prayer, “Our father…” More about this in a minute.  

They did return and rebuild, but the story did not stop there.  There were more difficult times to come; there always are. By the time of Jesus, they were languishing in a new kind of darkness. They had been swallowed up by the Roman Empire. Now they lived with a Roman boot on their necks.  

What to Want?

What should you want, under those circumstances? What should your hope be? What do you imagine the “Tikkun Olam” the repaired world would look like? In Jesus’ day, there were competing versions of what a repaired world should look like, just as there are competing versions of what a repair of our world should look like today. Not everyone wants the same future. Some wanted revolution. Jesus rejected that version, but his was the minority view. 

Everyone has their own vested interests. The future they hope for is normally one that protects their interests. That is the way it has always been, everywhere. Can anything change that? Could anything change what you and I hope for? Or would our personal self-interests always tilt our hopes in self-serving directions?  

I believe that there is such a thing as enlightenment. There is such a thing as what addicts call, a “moment of clarity.” There is the experience of “illumination,” as mystics call it. Everyone has had moments in which the lights have come on, when you, as we say, “see things in a new light.” And once the lights have come on, and you see what is really there, you cannot unsee it.  

That is, I believe, what Jesus did for the people of his generation. That is why, several decades after his earthly life, the early Christians talked about Jesus as the light that “was coming into the world.” John described Jesus as,

The true light, which enlightens everyone.”

He turned the lights on for them. He got them to see the world in a new way. He showed them what was there all along, but had been hidden in plain sight by self-interest. 

And for many of them, this changed what they wanted for the future. It transformed what they imagined as “Tikkun Olam” — what the repaired world would look like. For some, they were able to imagine a repaired world that was made whole, not just for them and their own people, but for all people.  

When the light comes on, you can imagine God differently. If you had been imagining God as only punitive and judgmental, now you could imagine God as Jesus did, as the perfect parent, “full of grace and truth,” “From whose fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” Grace is the opposite of judgment.

When the lights come on, you see what God’s kingdom looks like — and it looks like a banquet table to which everyone is welcome, and no one is excluded — and the miracle of that enlightenment is that you can even see beyond parochial self-interests. It is not just the kingdom of God for “good” Israelites, free of the “bad guys” or even the kingdom of only Israelites, free of gentiles. It is the kingdom for everyone.  

Even with the lights on, however, John reminds us that, “No one has ever seen God,” but Jesus shows us what God’s kingdom looks like. He was, John says, “close to the Father’s heart” meaning he wanted what God wants — and that looks like inclusion that transcends self-interest. 

That looks like the quest for peace and a rejection of violent resistance.

 It looks like a quest for justice, instead of upholding an iron-age purity code. 

It looks like people experiencing the religious illumination, coming to understand that, as Jesus told the Samaritan woman, it is not about which mountain or which temple you think God lives in exclusively, but that

the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”  

How?

Let’s make this practical. How do the lights get turned on so that we can see beyond self-interest? For me, it means constantly asking myself if what I want to see lines up with Jesus’ vision of a repaired world. So, in the coming year, and in the coming decade, I want to keep paying attention to Jesus.

 It also means that now that the lights have been turned on and I see that my self-interest, my ego is my biggest barrier to wanting what Jesus wants, I will engage the practices that help me with my ego. For me, that includes group study of the Enneagram and it includes regular meditation. It means showing up to be of service to others.  

It means getting outside of my comfort zone, as Jesus was continually coaxing his followers to do. It means turning the lights on my failures, admitting them, knowing that those are probably going to turn out to be the ways I learn and grow. We are all broken people, but as Leonard Cohen reminds us, 

There is a crack a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.” (from the son, “Anthem”)

It means refusing to let the darkness of dread give way to despair, even when the things we dread start happening. We will be people of faith. We will keep doing what we do, and what we always have done, welcoming everyone around our table, participating in interfaith events, addressing the climate crisis, advocating for marginalized communities, ministering to shut-ins, making lunches and dinners for food-challenged people, collecting canned goods, and gathering in gratitude as we are doing now, thankful that the lights have been turned on for us, and we can have the courage to live with the lights on, no matter what is coming this year and this decade.