Oddly enough, The answer is “Yes”

Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Easter, B, May 3, 2015

Genesis 4:8-9
Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.   Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 9.33.03 AM

John 15:1-8
Jesus said:] “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”

I do not know which scenes of the riots in Baltimore that we watched on TV stick with you, but two will not leave my mind.  The one is a helicopter view of a swarm of people, mostly males, it appeared to me, desperate to get into the local liquor store.

The other was the scene of that short, stocky, mother chasing and catching her man-sized adolescent son, whom she recognized, despite his ski-mask.  She repeatedly delivered bare-handed blows to his head, so angry was she that he was a participant in the rioting.  Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 8.02.57 PM

Then I thought of a random article I read years ago in Time magazine, about a problem in Kenya that they were having in the villages on the edges of the great game preserves.  Apparently gangs of adolescent male elephants were marauding and trampling the villagers’ farms and primitive mud-and-thatch homes.  This was unusual behavior for young male elephants; something new was happening.

Upon investigation they discovered that these young males had one thing in common: their mothers had been killed for their ivory, so they were not raised in families.  I never forgot that story.

As I watched the events in Baltimore unfold, and those two scenes of the swarm and the mom  were being re-shown on the media, another story came to mind.  It was from when we were in a seminar for missionaries preparing to be sent overseas.  We were taken to a variety of places around the Chicago-land area to be exposed to different cultures, religions, and ministries.

After visiting a Buddhist temple, an Islamic Center and a Catholic charity, we ended up at a small Lutheran church, literally in Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 8.48.16 PMthe shadows of the surrounding Cabrini Green public housing project.  Pastor Enfield had served that congregation for several decades.  He had performed funerals for more young men who died of gang violence than he ever dreamed possible.

He said that when he was new to the community, as a young white man from the suburbs of Wisconsin, he saw all the young men getting sucked up into gang activity and assumed that he knew already the root cause.  Clearly they were not receiving the kind of proper strict discipline at home that he had received.

But as he was invited up into the high rise projects he began to see for himself how the children were raised.  Often a single mom, who was probably raised without appropriate kinds of discipline herself, scared to death that her son would be unruly and end up another gang-banger, would discipline him by striking and even beating the child for any and every infraction.

By the time these boys were 6 years old, they had no spinal fortitude.  They caved under commanding authority from mom or from whomever.  So, outside, on their asphalt playgrounds, by age 10 the gangs were ordering them to stand watch, and they dutifully obeyed.

Remembering that insight, the scene of the righteous mother in Baltimore, striking her rioting teenager on the head gave me a lot to consider.

How to RespondScreen Shot 2015-05-02 at 10.49.48 AM

What do we do?  How do we respond?  How do people of Christian faith react when we see such scenes?  Should we join the people full of moral outrage?  I have observed plenty of moral outrage on both sides; outrage at the violence and destruction of the rioters;  outrage at the death of another black man at the hands of police.

Or, we could ask, is moral outrage a proper foundation for response?  Brain scientists tell us that outrage comes from our lizard brains; it is an emotional, even visceral response.  A person feeling outrage is not reasoning; certainly is not seeking understanding.

The outraged people on both sides, I have noticed, immediately look for targets to blame.  It is the undisciplined youth who are to blame, or it is the police with authority-issues at fault.  It is race, it is poverty, it is the thugs, it is the system.

Is moral outrage followed by blaming the path of response for people of Christian faith?   Does not our faith inform us and, in fact, call us to a higher standard?  Despite the people with all the outrage who pretend to speak for us as Christians, oddly enough the answer is yes, we are indeed called to a higher standard than simplistic outrage and blame.

Cain’s Question as Starting Point

We start with one of the most basic commitments our faith calls us to live by: the answer to the question of Cain is also “yes.”

“Am I my brothers keeper?

Yes!  Yes I am.   I am my brother’s keeper.  We who shared a common womb have a common bond that cannot be broken.   We who were given birth by Eve, whose name means the “mother of all the living,” are brothers and sisters.  Everyone who shares the breath of life with me has a common mother; we are human, made in the image of God.  “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  Yes, we are.

But are those people swarming the liquor store my brothers?

This is a huge problem for us.  If we pause, take a deep breath, and let go of the moral outrage, we can begin to start asking questions that may lead to insight, maybe even to positive hope.

One of the places we turn is to the people who have studied how we got into this condition as a nation; in Baltimore, in Ferguson, in  New York and LA and in every urban center in our country, including Mobile Alabama.

It turns out that the elephants are growing up without mothers; or without mothers who know how to mother.  Fathers are missing from families.  Jobs, especially well paying manufacturing jobs started disappearing in the 1970’s.  Kids who were not guided by parents to do their homework, who were not encouraged to take the prep classes and aim for college or trade school, wound up without viable opportunities.   And the ones with proper parental guidance, discipline and opportunities, moved a way, never to return.  A huge social fissure was developing.ourKids-singleParent

Long ago we stopped thinking of us as “us”.  Our sense of solidarity and community has been on a steep decline now for years.  We “bowl alone” as social scientist Robert Putnam has shown us.  He has graph after graph – he calls them scissor graphs – illustrating the growing gap between the haves and have-nots in our country.  Like the two sides of the scissors which get further apart the longer they are, our shared space is diminishing.

Am I my brother’s keeper?  I do not ever see him, except on television, when he riots in the street.  I never meet him.  I never drive in his neighborhood.  I do not interact with his parents.  I have no idea what his school looks like, let alone how he interacts with the local police.

But as a person of Christian faith, that is not, that cannot be the last word.  I have been called; we have been called to answer the question “yes!  We are “our brother’s keepers.”  This is foundational for us, not optional.  Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 11.08.27 AM

We may not have instant answers, but we will not settle for simplistic moral outrage and blame targets.  We will not make the instant assumptions that we already know what is going on and why.

If we begin from a moral emotion, let it be mourning and grief for our brothers and sisters who live in the conditions that we see when the riots turn the spotlight on their communities.  “Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus taught us, for they shall be comforted.  The comfort of a solution only comes after grief over the damage done by the problems.  Instead of outrage, we begin with broken hearts.

The Source

But mourning is not an answer, only a feeling.  Where do we go for answers as people of Christian faith?  Where is our source?  What hope do we have that good fruit can grow out of the soil of such toxicity?

In the mystical version of the life of Jesus we read in the gospel of John, we hear  Jesus soliloquize about fruitfulness.

I am the vine, you are the branches,

he tells us.

Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.

This is not soft-headed pious, escapist advice.  This is a call to an alternative set of commitments that changes everything.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower”.

This is where we start.  We are committed to the view that this is the Father’s project; this is God’s world.  We are committed to the perspective that God has certain goals and designs for this world.  God’s will for this world is for fruitfulness, for human flourishing, just as it was in the story of the beginning for Adam and Eve.  The original creation blessing “be fruitful” is God’s will for all breathing life.

So, people of Christian faith are called to continually “abide” in the source of our faith, Jesus, the vine, continually absorbing life-giving nutrients.   The ancient practices of the Christian, daily silent meditation, prayer, reflection, study, worship stewardship and service keep us connected to the source.

The Fruit of CompassionScreen Shot 2015-05-02 at 11.18.21 AM

It is from that place of constant connection we develop the fruit of compassion.  Not partisan compassion, but comprehensive compassion.  Yes, compassion for the immediate victims like Freddie Gray, but also compassion for all of the decent police who put themselves on the line for our safety.

The fruit of compassion extends to all of the people of inner-city Baltimore, and Ferguson, and all the other blighted, hopeless, inner cities in our country where poverty, crime, drugs, violence, unemployment and addiction are now the expected and nearly inevitable outcome.

The fruit of compassion that comes from an abiding attachment to the Jesus-vine produces people who look around and ask, where can I make a difference?

I cannot solve Baltimore’s problems by myself, but, I can ask, “Are there kids who need a mature adult to mentor them right here in Gulf Shores?  Yes, there are.   In fact, Robert Putnam’s recommendation about how to begin to address these tragic social problems includes a call for churches to marshal an army of mentors for at-risk kids.

As people who bear the fruit of compassion, we ask, “Are there  single moms who are nearly desperate to give their kids a fighting chance, right here in our neighborhood?”  Yes there are!

Are there schools that need to be funded at least at current levels instead of less?  Yes there are.

The only outstanding question is, are there people who will live, so attached to the source, to the vine, that they are able to rise above the outrage and blame, and instead, be their brothers’ keepers, bearing the fruit of compassion?

By God’s grace, let the answer for us, be Yes!

We have already made a huge difference in the lives of many kids whom we have tutored over the years.  In these days we are planning a way to help kids work on basic skills like English and math over the summer.  All we need is people willing to step up to the task.

We will never fix the world.  But we can light a candle instead of cursing the darkness.  This is our high and holy calling.


Living the Question

Sermon on Job 12:7-10 & Luke 24:36-48 for the 3rd Sunday in Easter B, April 19, 2015, Earth Day Sunday

Job 12:7-10The Earth is the Lords
“But ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the LORD has done this?
In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of every human being.

Luke 24:36-48
Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

Living the QuestionScreen Shot 2015-04-17 at 6.25.05 PM

I love to listen to people talk about scientific discoveries. Recently I heard a scientist say that there are more genetic similarities between us humans and our fellow primates, the baboons than there are between African and Asian varieties of elephants. But despite the similarities there are two things you will never see a baboon do that humans take for granted. You will never see two baboons carry a log together. They simply do not know how valuable cooperation is.

Nor will they every pass anything they have learned onto the next generation. Every baboon has to start from scratch and discover the world for themselves. They learn by observation and imitation, but then cannot pass down knowledge. They do not have language. The are not capable of telling stories around the campfire. They have no mythologies, no histories, no written records.

We are living during a knowledge explosion. The BBC regularly reports on 10 things we did not know last week, like that male mice sing love songs to attract females. Who knew?

More Knowledge = More QuestionsScreen Shot 2015-04-17 at 6.27.39 PM

But the more we learn, the more questions we have. The more we know, the more we know how much we do not know. Are the principles of mathematics out there to be discovered or do we generate them ourselves? Is there a cure for cancer?

The hardest questions are the ones about the future, and the ones that start with “Why?” Will global temperatures continue to rise at the current rate? Will the polar ice caps and glaciers continue to melt, causing sea levels to rise to the point that massive migration away from current coast lands will be necessary (- not an idle question for a coastal community such as we are)? Will it happen in my generation? Future-questions are hard.

“Why?” questions are even harder. Why are we here? Why should we care? Why is it that our beliefs are so influenced by the groups we identify with instead of by evidence? Why is it so hard to change our minds once we have formed opinions? Why do people do evil, even when they know it causes suffering?

Here is one more that puzzles me: why is it that the church has been known as a place where questions were disallowed? The bible is full of questions. Jesus was full of questions.

Earth Day Questions

We started today, on this Sunday closest to Earth Day with a direct call for questions from the poetry of the book of Job.

“ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?

Ask creation, it will sing back one song:

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” (Ps. 24:1)

Jesus’ QuestionScreen Shot 2015-04-17 at 6.41.24 PM

Jesus asked a lot of questions. Among my favorites are:

“What good will it be for a person to gain the whole world, yet forfeits their soul?” (Matthew 16:26)

To the lame man at the pool, he asked:

Do you want to get well?(John 5:6)

Today we heard Jesus ask a question in our reading from Luke’s version of the Jesus-story:

“Have you anything here to eat?”

The setting is Easter evening. This is called a “resurrection appearance scene.” In the scene just before this moment, the risen Jesus has just been made known to those two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and now he is mysteriously back, appearing with the whole group of disciples in Jerusalem.

No matter how you think of the resurrected Jesus, he did not need to eat. There is a lot more going on here than a surface level trivial detail about an appetite.

People say that the answer is often in the question. This is not the first food question Jesus asks in the gospel tradition. In the story of the feeding of the 5,000 from Mark, Jesus looks at his disciples and asks,

“How many loaves have you? Go and see.” (Mark 6:38)

Jesus’ question provoked them to ask the same question. They did the research and came back with the answer:

“When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.”

Jesus immediately took the loaves, blessed, broke and gave them to the people – the very verbs that define the Eucharist in which bread is taken, blessed, broken and given to everyone.

Jesus has just come from the house near Emmaus, where Luke tells us,

“When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.”

Now, the question on the lips of the risen Jesus to the people who will form the nucleus of the church is: Have you anything to eat – at all?

They did; they had fish. Now they do what he did; they give the food to a hungry person.

So the answer to Jesus’ question “Have you anything here to eat?” was “yes.” Not much, but “yes.”

The Church Breaks Bread and SharesScreen Shot 2015-04-17 at 6.46.06 PM

Let us ask this question: How does the church, which experiences the risen Christ as we break bread together live, as witnesses to the present power of resurrection? The answer is that we share our food with the the hungry.

This is exactly what the early church did. In the book of Acts, Luke’s part B of the story we are reading, he tells us how one of the first organized actions of the church was a distribution of bread to hungry people: to widows (Acts 6)

When we hear the question, “Have you anything here to eat?” it provokes us, who have an abundance of food to eat, to ask our own questions. Who does not have anything to eat? Who is “food insecure” as they call it? The answer we all know well is that many people are, including children, even in this country.

We go from the easy questions to the harder ones: why is there still food insecurity in our country? What are the root causes? How can we be involved in solutions?

As Christians who believe in a Creator God, not a tribal God, we are unafraid of the larger questions: where, around the world are people hungry? Why are people hungry? What can we do as Global citizens that would bear witness to our faith in the risen Christ whose Spirit is still at work in us to keep doing what he did: feeding the hungry?

Peter Rollins says it so starkly. When asked, “Do I denies the resurrection?”, he says, “Yes, I deny the resurrection every time I see people in need and turn away.”

Jesus-Provoked QuestionsScreen Shot 2015-04-17 at 6.51.49 PM

There are more questions which Jesus’ question evokes. If the answer to “Have you anything here to eat?” is yes, the question is why?

Where did it come from? Where was it grown or raised? Who were the farmers who raised it? Who picked it? What were they paid?

How was it transported? What were the conditions on the farm? What chemicals were involved? How was the land treated?

How were the animals treated? What condition was the water left in?

From the fields and farms we move to even broader questions. Are the parts of our lives that are not directly connected to food having an impact on our planet’s ability to keep feeding us and others?

We are not baboons; we know very well that the answer is yes. We know all about the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. We have seen how quickly a massive oil spill in the Gulf can happen.

We are not baboons in other, important respects as well. We know how to cooperate to get things done. We know how to hand on information and learn from past mistakes. We know how to “repent” in biblical language – to have another look at how we have been living and to make changes. We have the capacity to change our lifestyles, our habits, our systems.

When I was a child, Lake Erie was so polluted everyone thought it was dead. It was dangerous to swim in it or eat the fish from it. But then the EPA was created. regulations kept pollution out of the water. We learned from past mistakes, and made an enormous difference. We are neither baboons who cannot learn nor are we unable to imagine cooperation to achieve positive results.

We can invent catalytic converters – remember what came out of our cars before? And we can create far more fuel-efficient vehicles. We can even learn to combine trips and drive less.

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We are here to celebrate God’s good earth today. To step back and to wonder at creation. To marvel at this fertile garden God has given us to live in. We are here to delight in the mystery of life, from the oysters and turtles to the next generation of baby humans to whom we will leave this planet.

We are here to respond to our Creator and Redeemer with the praise of our lips and the witness of our lives. We are here to take bread, to bless it, to break it, and to give it away, so that all may be satisfied.

In our personal lifestyles this will mean implementing the famous three R’s Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. In our public lives it will mean supporting policies that ensure sustainable agricultural, industrial practices and fair trade policies. It will mean being the advocates for those who have no voice or whose voice is unheard; the silent animals and plants, and the farm workers from whose labor we live.

After our baptisms, the one act that we do that constitutes us as a Christian community is gathering around a table at which we share bread together. Let that action symbolize our embrace of our Lord’s will, that everyone be fed with clean, healthy food from a blessed and bountiful earth.



The Forgiving Community of the Forgiven

Sermon on John 20:19-31 for the Second Sunday of Easter, Year B, April 12, 2015

John 20:19-31
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

A week ago Thursday, our Maundy Thursday service was wonderful.  We were all IMG_4900together, people from both services who do not see each other that much.  We reflected on the miraculous nature of us, the church; one community made of people who were strangers to each other, the first time we entered these doors.  But strangers have become family, and that is what we are.

This week, at our Wednesday supper and program we watched a short video then had an engaging discussion.  The theme was a new perspective on so called “Doubting Thomas.”  We talked about doubt, which we all experience.

But we also reflected on the fact that Christ found Thomas, despite his doubt, and that  Christ comes to each of us, despite all of the barriers we have put up; our locked doors, our fearful hiding from the truth, our doubts.  Christ finds us.

The Passed Over Line about Forgiveness

So, since we already processed that part of this story, I would like to focus on one line that we did not look at much yet.  It is a line that gets missed, since it goes by so quickly in this dream-like, deeply symbolic resurrection-appearance story.

It is the line Jesus says, when he first appears to the disciples in that locked room, before Thomas is present.  Jesus said,

“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Gallons of ink have been spilled on this, but I think most of it has been wasted.  I think it is one of the simplest truths you can tell.  And also one of the hardest.  It is simply the truth that sins that we forgive go away, and sins we do not forgive stay.  Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 7.23.17 PM

Sins that we forgive are like balloons with the air let out; they lie lifeless on the floor.  Sins that we do not forgive are like  poisoned wells we keep drinking from, and stay sick on account of.   As Ann Lamont says, un-forgiveness is like drinking the poison and waiting for the rats to die.

Forgiveness: the Heart of Christianity

Forgiveness is the heart of Christianity.  Or, it should be.  It is what Jesus wanted to be the heart of Christianity.  It is so weird that it has been turned upside down.  For so many, Christianity has been all about guilt and shame; fear of punishment, judgmentalism and condemnation; it’s quite bizarre, really.

No one would disagree that Jesus’ cross was the defining moment, and though people disagree about the details of how to understand it, every Christian believes the same thing: it is all about forgiveness.

Though his enemies were killing him there, Jesus said, “Father forgive them.”  Instead of retaliating with violence, Jesus absorbed it.  He stopped the cycle of violence.

The Story Context: forgiveness

The whole context of this gospel story repeats the same thing: Jesus shows up in a room full of the people who abandoned him in his darkest hour, the ones he has the most reason to resent, the ones who “threw him under the bus” as they say, and what does he do?

He says, “Shalom” – in his language.  “Peace.”  No retribution.  Not even a reprimand.  No groveling required.  No penance.   No promises to be better.  In other words, with complete forgiveness to the ones who hurt him.

This should not have surprised anyone.  He was the one who said “turn the other cheek, and go the second mile.”   You can only turn the other cheek after someone strikes you once; you only go the second mile after being forced, against your will, to go the first one.  These are the actions of forgiveness.  This is at the heart of Christianity.

Knowing is not Doing

But there is a problem here.  Just because Jesus said it, and even if we agree that forgiveness is recommended, it does not mean we can do it.

Jesus is the one who taught us to pray “forgive us our debts… as we forgive our debtors.”  So, it is crucial that we forgive, which is what we assert, every time we pray that prayer.  But who among us finds it easy?  Who even finds it possible?

And yet, forgiveness is indeed crucial, for many reasons.   Some of them are personal,  some of them are public.

Personally, forgiveness is all about pain.  If we never felt pain inflicted by others, we would have nothing to forgive.  And the rule is, as Richard Rohr says, pain not transformed is transmitted.  Un-transformed pain, in other words, unhealed, unforgiven hurts, get transmitted, both internally and externally.   Internally, the pain becomes anger, resentment, bitterness, even depression.

Externally, unless there is healing, damaged people damage other people.  Victims become victimizers.  The abused become abusers.  There is a broad range for all of these behaviors – from the people who are simply consumed with anger or depression to the short tempered who are unpleasant to be around, all the way to the violent and abusive.  Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 12.39.52 PM

How?  Self-work: Spiritual Practices

So if it is crucial that the cycle stops, if forgiveness is so important, what do we do to get from our natural resentment and revenge-reactions to Jesus-likeness? To forgiveness?

It begins with self-work.  It has to.   This is what the spiritual practices are all about.  So we spend time each day in spiritual reading, in prayer and meditation, perhaps yoga, and in honest self-evaluation.

There is just no such thing as a person who is able to forgive naturally or automatically.  We are all too prone to living out of our false-selves, our egos, our small-selves or whatever you want to call it.

That self that gets all wrapped up in its own importance, it’s needs, its status, its expectations of how the world “should” go and how it needs to be treated.  This is the part of ourselves that gets insulted, that gets our feelings hurt, that needs to have the last word.

The small self never forgives.  The small self stews.  The small self looks for chances to settle the score.  The small self is an expert in self-justification.  It demonizes the other.

And as Greg Boyle recently pointed out, demonizing the other is not only morally bankrupt it is always false, it is never the truth.  Why not?  Because people are not demons or monsters.  They are just people, imperfect, wounded people.

Believe me, I’ve been to death row where the people there are called monsters.  There are people there who did very bad things; but there are no monsters.  Some are quite mentally ill.  Some have been utterly redeemed and transformed.

So the first step in forgiveness is the self-work of spiritual practices.  In spiritual practices, we connect with the Spirit of the God who loves us, who made us, and who made us to be grace-filled participants of communities of mutuality; communities who practice the spirituality of forgiveness.

We do not deny our pain when we forgive.  We simply take the power away from our wounds to keep wounding us, or to wound others.

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I mentioned Greg Boyle.  I just heard him interviewed in “On Being with Krista Tippett.”  Greg is a Jesuit priest who, for 25 years, has worked in Los Angeles in the most gang-infested and violent place in our nation.  He has buried close to 200 people who have died violent deaths in that time.  And yet, he has found paths to redemption; perhaps we should call them resurrections.  Greg is the founder of Home Boy Industries which you may have heard of, which employees former gang members in productive work.

He told the story of a young man he called José, whose mother, at age six, told him he should just kill himself, he was such a burden.  At age nine she abandoned him at an orphanage where he stayed for several months before his grandmother finally found him.  He was often beaten severely.  He used to have to wear multiple t-shirts to school, to disguise his open wounds, of which he was ashamed.

But after his own pain was transmitted to himself, through addiction, and to others, in ways that led him to prison, José found Greg, and Christ’s love, and redemption; a new start.  And as he was telling his story, he let his hands touch his wounds – now scars – and said that he has now made friends of his wounds.  “How could I help other wounded people if I did not make friends of my wounds?” – he asked?

Pain that is not transformed is transmitted; internally and externally.  But pain transformed by forgiveness can transmit healing and hope.

“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

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That is what Jesus did as he came into that locked room: he forgave them, saying “peace.”  And he breathed his Spirit on them.  All of this symbolizes in these dreamlike images the powerful truths of our faith.  We have been forgiven.  We are a community of the forgiven.  And we can walk and live and breath in the Spirit of the risen Christ, as we live as a forgiven, forgiving community.

Just to be clear; forgiveness does not mean what happened to us was OK, or excusable.  Forgiveness is not about pretending what is not true.  It is not about forgetting what happened (though it may eventually lead to some forgetting).

Rather, forgiveness is simply not wishing for revenge.  Forgiveness is wishing for the redemption and healing of those who wronged us.  Forgiveness is the refusal to wish suffering and harm on the ones who may seem, to us, to deserve to suffer for what they did, as if their suffering would relieve ours (it never does).

Forgiveness is coming to terms with the pastness of the past, and letting go of its pain, so that we can live an unburdened, open-hearted present.

Forgiveness comes from a mature place of recognizing that a lot of people carry their pain in unhelpful and un-transformed ways.  Forgiveness means we do not judge the way they carry it; we simply hope, pray for them, and  we will do what we can, when invited, to be there for them.

Greg Boyle said

“The measure of the health of the community is how much people can stand in awe of the things that the other members have to carry, instead of standing in judgment about how they carry it.”

We do not know the burdens each other are carrying.  You came into this room today with a history most of us have no idea about.  If we did know, we may stand in awe of the weight that some of us have had to bear.  But we do know what we ourselves have had to bear, and that knowing should give us ample reason to treasure each other and forgive each other.

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We are a community of spiritual practices, and therefore, a community of forgiveness.  What does it look like to be a community that practices forgiveness?  It means we practice forgiveness wherever there is hurt in our lives.

Some time ago I heard a person speak of the necessity of forgiving God.  It sounded scandalous at first.  How could God have wronged us such that we need to forgive God?  Of course, I later realized that what he meant was forgiving ourselves for having made an idol out of our own wants and desires, needs and hopes that we were holding God responsible for meeting.  Perhaps that is where forgiveness starts.

We forgive ourselves for being fallible human beings, for getting it wrong, for living out of our small selves.

We forgive the world for not being fair, not being convenient, not being as we would like it.  The older we live, the more we need to forgive the world for changing.

But most of all, we forgive each other, drawing a wide enough circle of compassion and forgiveness, that finally, no one is standing outside it.

Greg Boyle sums it up like this:

“All that we are asked to do and be in the world is what God is.”  Forgiving. 


Leaving Linens, Letting Go, and Affirming Resurrection

Sermon for Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015 on Mark 16:1-8 and John 20:1-18

Mark 16:1-8
16When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 10.28.52 AM4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
John 20:1-18
20Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.
11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

I was listening to a Freakanomics podcast recently on the theme of ideas that were generally believed to be true, but which the experts knowScreen Shot 2015-04-04 at 11.34.42 AM are not true, and need to go away.  For example, a world class oncologist said we need to stop doing cancer research on mice.  She said, after all these years, it is now clear that mice and people are different, when it comes to cancer.

Another idea that has to die, which was sad for me because it was one of my favorite factoids.  It is the idea that  there is a dramatic difference between the left and right hemispheres of the brain that correspond to left-handedness and right-handedness.

The studies on people with brain injuries that left their two brain hemispheres unable to communicate led to those old ideas that one half of the brain was more creative, the other half more analytical.  But fMRI brains scans, that scientists can do now, show that both halves of our brains are always at work.

Some old ideas need to be left behind, like the linens that wrapped up a body in an empty tomb.  We are going to be looking at some of those ideas today.  And that brings us to our gospel readings.

The Gospels and the Linens of Literalism

We just heard two of the four gospels’ versions of Easter morning.  My question is, what did the gospel writers think they were Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 11.38.48 AMdoing when they wrote their stories of Jesus?  Mark wrote first, within thirty or forty years after Jesus walked the earth.  John was at least another thirty years after that, or more, according to the overwhelming scholarly consensus.

Both of them wrote from faith communities and to faith communities.  In other words, the gospel stories were written by Christians and for Christians, or possibly for people interested in Christianity.

So, these stories were written by people and for people to whom Jesus was important.  In fact, to communities of people who would testify that Jesus was radically and profoundly important to them; even transformatively important.

Most of the Christians in these communities had never seen Jesus nor heard him in person.  And yet, Jesus was a present reality to them and for them.  Jesus was not dead to them.  They lived and proclaimed the resurrection which many of them  had come to know about first, in the words of the gospels.

Gospel Differences

But clearly Mark and John tell the Easter story differently.  There are trivial differences and substantial differences.  In Mark, Mary goes with two other women to the tomb and they see one man in white, presumably, an angel.  In John Mary goes alone and sees two beings, specifically identified as angels, sitting where Jesus’ body had been.

In Mark, the women are told to go and tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus has gone ahead of them into Galilee, where his ministry started.  But they are too fearful, so they tell no one anything, Mark tells us.  In John, however, the first thing Mary does is tell Peter and the other disciple that,  as she understands it,  someone has removed the body of Jesus.  The tomb has no body; only linen wrappings, which are oddly referred to three times.

In Mark, no one sees Jesus in risen form; Jesus never “appears” to anyone.  In John, Mary sees him but mistakes him for a gardener until he calls her name.  Then she apparently tries to do what Jesus must tell her not to do, namely cling to him.  He explains that he has not yet ascended to God the Father.  Again, Mary goes and tells the disciples she has seen the Lord.

We could go to Matthew and Luke and multiply the differences.  Suffice it to say that no two gospels share any of the appearance stories in common, as they do many of the other stories of Jesus.  Each gospel in which Jesus makes appearances after his death tells unique, separate accounts.

What to do?

I guess we have two choices here.  We can either think that the differences constitute contradictions that clearly show that some, or maybe all the gospels, are getting the facts wrong.

But the problem with that view is that scholars know that Mark came first and that Matthew and Luke both used a copy of Mark as the basis for their versions, adding to, deleting from and editing Mark’s version purposefully.  They were not making sloppy, mindless errors.  But they were telling the stories with glaring differences.

Literalism was Not the GoalScreen Shot 2015-04-04 at 11.41.42 AM

Why?  What did the gospel writers think they were doing when they wrote their stories of Jesus?  Clearly writing literal history the way we hope our news reporters are trying to do, or the way serious historians do, was not their goal.

In fact the assumption that is so prevalent today, that the gospels were, in fact, attempting to write literal history, is simply a bad idea that needs to finally go away.  It just is not true, and it does not stand up even to five minutes of serious investigation.

There are a lot of bad ideas that need to die, and this literalism is one of them.  Literalism is like that pile of linens in the tomb.  It is an empty approach; it doesn’t have any life-breath in it.

Rather, as people who had been personally transformed by Jesus, the gospel writers  wanted to tell the stories of Jesus in ways that communicated how he continued to be a living reality for them.

The Stories as Parables

So they told their stories differently, purposefully.   We should look at them like we look at the parables of Jesus.  They are stories that present us with powerful truths that we need to hear as we, like those early Christians, try to work out what it means to be people of faith.

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Mark tells a story we need to hear.  It is a resurrection story.  But it is a complicated one.  As complicated as real life is.  It is a story of Christians who show up on Easter, but who are faced with the exact opposite of certainty.  Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome see nothing that constitutes proof of anything.

The stone is rolled away.  A man is sitting in an otherwise empty tomb.  He has a message for them, but there is no Jesus there to be seen.  They apparently are not convinced at all.  They turn and run in bewildered confusion.

What could Mark have meant by writing a gospel this way to a group of Christians who gather to tell and celebrate the stories of Jesus that continue to transform them?  Simply that it is hard, not easy.  There is no proof.  We do not have certainty.  The idea that the life of faith rests on certainty, that there is no room for doubt is another idea that needs to die and leave its linens behind in the tomb.

We did not read the Matthew story, but I love it for its realism about doubt.  In Matthew’s parable of the last resurrection appearance, where Jesus is on the mountain in Galilee with the disciples, he says,

“When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” (28:17).  

John’s gospel has the famous “doubting Thomas” scenes.

The point is that Christians, like us, even we who have been transformed by Jesus, struggle with doubt.  It sometimes paralyzes us.  It shuts us up and makes us turn tail and run the opposite way.

Why do we doubt?  We experience pain and suffering.  We loose people we love – some of them despite loads of sincere prayer.  We know unfairness and even abuse.  We are not blind to injustice.  And to top it off, we live in the world that witnessed the Holocaust and the Killing Fields.  We practically watched the Srebrenica and Rwanda massacres on TV.  We see what ISIS does to fellow Christians and wonder if the faith we believe makes any sense in the real world or not?

What is even more depressing, is that God does not even seem to be able to stop people who call themselves Christians from practicing open, deliberate discrimination against gay people.  They want to pass laws that make their right to discriminate legally protected, as if they were not obligated to love their neighbors!

So we need a gospel like Mark’s in which a community of faith and Christian practices admits that there is no certainty, and there are many challenges.

And yet, we also need to hear again the hope-filled message the mysterious “man” in the empty tomb told the women: Jesus is waiting to meet you back home.  Go home.  You will find him there.  He will continue to meet you, not as a flesh and blood body, but as the Spirit of God, present to you, non-judgmentally, in all your fearful doubting.

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We need the gospel of John’s resurrection parables too.  We need to read that story of Mary and Jesus meeting face to face.  We need to be reminded that this life of faith is personal.  God calls our names.  In fact it is when we come to trust that we have been called, named by God, that God relates to us personally, that, like Mary hearing her name called, we can trust that God is present.

And we need John’s gospel to see Mary wishing to cling to a flesh and blood Jesus, so that we can hear him say that is not the way he will be held onto.  To hold onto Jesus, after Easter, is to hold on to everything his life meant, not to his flesh and blood.

Now, after Easter, to hold on to Jesus, is to affirm that the first way we encounter the risen Christ is by encountering the Spirit of Christ.  John calls the Spirit the Comforter, the Counselor.  In John we read of the mystical oneness that we can experience with the risen Christ in the Spirit.  Only in John, Jesus speaks mystically of us, dwelling in God, and God dwelling in us; of Jesus dwelling in God and in us, and of how all of us, Jesus and God and each other are somehow mystically one.

To encounter Christ in this way is to know that Jesus is a figure of the present, not just the past.  That the risen Christ is not limited to one particular place or time, like the physical Jesus was in the body, but that the Christ life is available everywhere and always.

That is why, in John’s parable, Jesus meets Mary in a Garden on the first day of the week and mistakes him for the Gardner: it is like the Creation story of the garden of Eden on the first day for the newly made humans.  Encountering the risen Christ spiritually is like a new creation, bursting with hope and new life.

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We only read two gospels, but in truth we need all of the parables of the risen Christ.  We need Mathew to tell us that Christ can be found now in “the least of these.”  Christ is found in the person who is hungry whom we share food with, in the thirsty who need clean water, in the homeless whom we house, and the prisoners who rot away in conditions we would never put our pets in.

Needing Luke’s Eucharistic Moment

We need Luke’s story of the risen Jesus who meets the depressed disciples on the road to Emmaus.   Jesus is there, where only two are gathered, but unknown by them until they gather at table where he is the host.  When the bread is broken, their eyes are opened and they get it; the risen Christ is encountered in community, at the sacral meal, when the bread is broken.  And of course then he disappears, because that is the point; he is seen in the breaking of the bread, not in a body.

So we too will come together around a table, where we will break bread and affirm the resurrection.  Christ will be present to us as we gather, the way families do, around a table for a common meal.

The meal we share will strengthen us to trust: to leave behind a lot of old linens, to let go of ideas that need to die. We can leave behind that old God of wrath and judgment that needed sacrificial blood; that idea needed to die.

We can leave behind the morally suspect idea that God used Jesus as his victim so he would not need to victimize us.  We can leave behind Greek, Roman and medieval concepts of hell and torturing demons, and a God who is okay with eternal conscious suffering.

Instead, we hear the risen Christ commission us to go in to all the world and to proclaim the good news, as Paul summed it up:

“in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”

This is what it means to affirm resurrection: that in Christ, God and the world are reconciled.  So now we live as the reconciled, full of a trust that God is present with us, the risen Christ is present, by the Spirit, guiding us, walking with us, and filling us with love and compassion for every person on this planet, indeed, for every life form on this planet, up to and including the planet itself.

Affirming resurrection means that we leave those linens behind, and embrace Christ as our living Lord,

“in whom we live and move and have our being.”


Hosanna, God Save Us

Sermon for Palm Sunday, B, March 29, 2015, on Mark 11:1-11; 15-19

Mark 11:1-11; 15-19

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it.  If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’”  They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?”  They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it.  Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it.  Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.  Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves;  and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.   He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written,

‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?
But you have made it a den of robbers.”
And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.  And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.  

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I  heard a man telling a story about a dangerous underwater scuba dive he made.  He almost died. It was a tragic story; his dive partner did die.  He told about being down so deep that he became disoriented in utter blackness.  His oxygen regulator broke from the pressure.  He passed out several times; he lost his guide rope for several minutes.  There was a lot of tension in the story. But he was telling the story, so even in the moments in which he was most at risk of losing his life, we knew that he made it.  For him, it was a survival story.

Palm Sunday’s Two Sides

In many ways I think the Palm Sunday story is like that: it has two sides, a dark side and a happy outcome.  It is like men telling stories of combat in which they experienced terrible things, but survived and can speak of it afterwards, remembering the outcome.  It is like women telling stories of difficult labor delivery, but who see the new baby and the wonder of life; it transforms the memory of the pain. Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 10.30.31 AM

Was the day of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem a happy one?  Certainly there was a lot of joy and anticipation along the parade route.  People were quoting Psalm 118, as we did in our reading, singing to God:

    Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
    Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
    Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

But we know two things that radically change that picture.  One is that these happy people were nowhere to be found when Jesus was arrested, tortured and killed.

And two, Jesus’ death was not the end. In fact Jesus lives and reigns as our King!  So we can be happy and sincere as we say, today,  “Hosanna!” which is a prayer to God that simply means “Save us!”  God does save us!

We can be thankful at the outcome, even though we know that what is coming is a dark story.  It is first full of betrayal, abandonment, pain and death, before it starts to get good.  Yes, we celebrate the outcome, but that happens on Easter.  Let’s not rush the story.

The Entry and the Day After TogetherScreen Shot 2015-03-28 at 10.24.06 AM

How much of the story should we tell at once?  This time I have included in the reading the events that took place at the temple the following day.  This was all planned.  When Jesus rode that donkey into town, he knew what he was going to do.  The whole thing was choreographed, from the colt on the parade route to the coins on the floor.  Jesus was being intentionally provocative.   And, predictably, people were provoked – even to the point of being provoked to murder.

Of course what got people especially upset was money.  Money can get people upset faster than just about anything, besides infidelity.  Certainly faster than religion.

Jesus intentionally and dramatically provoked a confrontation with a whole economic system, which, in his day, was run by the religious establishment which supported and profited from it.  And, ironically, all of it was happening at Passover, the very festival which was supposed to commemorate liberation from Egyptian oppression and slavery.

So, getting back to the story, Jesus and his crew planned this dramatic entry into the city at the Passover festival, and people got excited.  Jesus was conducting a parody of the entry of a victorious king.  People got into it.  They did what people could do for victory marches, in the days before helium balloons and confetti: they used what was at hand; they used leafy branches and their own cloaks.

And they used their voices:  “Hosanna”  “God save us!

Save us?  From, For What?Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 11.40.15 AM

Save us from what?  Save us for what?  This is where the story starts getting dark.  The darkness comes from the quest to be saved from the wrong things, and saved for the wrong things.

This is where we come into the story.  We too, need God to save us.  But it is crucial that we get right what we want God to save us from and save us for.

Hell?  No.

First, let us get this out of the way: nobody at the parade that day was asking Jesus to save them from being sent to hell.  They meant “God save us” in the exact way that people in the past meant it when addressing a king: they meant “save us from our enemies.”

Clearly most of them wanted exactly what their ancestors wanted on the night of the first Passover: to be saved from oppression.  Back then, the oppressor was Pharaoh’s Egyptian empire; currently they wanted liberation from Caesar’s Roman Empire.

So, they were not asking to be saved from hell, but what did mean when they said   “Hosanna, God save us”?  How did they imagine God would do that?

That is why they added the line, not found in Psalm 118,

“Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” 

They wanted King David’s old kingdom back, with Jesus as the new king, in an Israel free from Roman occupation and oppression.  If that meant starting a violent revolt, many were thinking, so be it.

Most people shouting Hosanna wanted Jesus to literally be the next king of the Jews, and when Pilate thought that was what Jesus himself wanted to be, he did what Rome did to their perceived political threats, by the thousands: he crucified him.  Remember the sign Pilate put on the cross: King of the Jews.

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That is where the people were tragically mistaken.  They did need God to save them.   But Jesus never had the agenda of saving them from Rome.  And Jesus never wanted to save them for a renewed state of Israel.

This is where this story gets personal.  We too need salvation.  Not from hell, but real salvation starting here and now.  We need to be saved from things that are oppressing us and saved for a liberated future, and yes, it is going to include confronting our relationship with our money, along with a lot of other issues.

Let me make a modest proposal: it is simply that we allow Jesus himself to be the one who gets to say what we need saving from, and what we need saving for.  Let us allow the one we look to for salvation and deliverance to name the the problem and the solution.

If we do, what do we hear him say?

Deliver us from evil…Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth…”

The problem is deeper than Rome, it is the problem of evil itself.  That is what we need to be “delivered” or saved from.  And the solution is the kingdom of God, where God’s will is done on earth.  That is what we need to be saved for.

Jesus’ Action

And that is exactly why Jesus did what he did after the parody of the kingly triumphal entry.  He went to the heart of the place where evil was being manifested and literally turned the tables over.

Jesus was an economic threat to ones who had so completely lost any sense of the common good that they were willing to exploit people, all the way down to the widow’s last mite.  They were complicit in the oppressive Roman occupation as well.  It was “everyone for themselves.”

In those very dark days, the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer; the gap between the two was growing exponentially.  They were bad times for most people, except for the few who manipulated the system to their own benefit.

Evil is always selfish, and apathetic of the consequences.  Evil is what we need to be delivered from.

Saved for the Kingdom

The solution is the vision of the kingdom of God in which God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.  That  is what we need to be saved for.  A vision of the common good that is based on the life of faith in God as Father.  It is a vision of one common human family, loved by God, reconciled to God, and in harmony with each other.  This is the liberation we long for.

So what is God’s will that we pray will be done on earth?  There is no mystery here: God will is that we

“do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God,” (Micah 6:8)

as the prophet says.  It is to express love for God and love for our neighbor, which, according to Jesus, sums up the entire law.  Not love in sentimental or psychological ways but practical ways.  As James would later summarize it,

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1)

The world stains us with evil; the evil of cynical selfishness and moral apathy.  The evil that wants to keep every penny in our own personal pockets, regardless of the consequences.  This evil is rampant in our time, all around us.

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For example, the state of Alabama has the 49th lowest property taxes in the nation.  But the threat of an increase, amounting to less than the price of one restaurant lunch a month, makes people get all red-faced and indignant.  And that reaction,   despite the huge overcrowding of our schools. Selfishness combined with apathy about the common good.  Hosanna!   God save us.

But that is only the latest in a whole series of anti-common good sentiments we keep hearing.  It is as if the vision of the future some people want is an entirely dystopian world like the Hunger Games shows.

And this is happening in the Bible belt where there are nearly as many churches as McDonald’s.  It is amazing to me to hear people trot out the bible in debates about who can marry whom, and then completely ignore the overwhelmingly clear consistent biblical call to champion the cause of the widow, the orphan and the immigrant stranger, in other words, to work for the common good.

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No, we have a much higher calling.  We do lift up our voices saying, “Hosanna, God save us.

Save us from the evils of cynical selfishness and moral apathy.  Save us for the kingdom.

Save us for a living faith, a love of God our Heavenly Father that is real and deep and has profound effects on our entire lives.

Save us to love our neighbors as ourselves, even the poor ones, even the ones who need extra help, the disabled,  the mentally ill, the elderly, the unemployed, the underemployed, the school children.

Save us to be a community that looks like the Kingdom where God’s will is done on earth.

That is the cry we make to the king who rides into our lives on a humble donkey, the king who broke bread with sinners, the king who shared bread with the hungry, and the king who died without violent resistance on Good Friday.

This congregation is living into that kingdom vision of the common good.  We are happy to be a supporter of the Christian Service Center, the Children’s Home, and to tutor the children of our community.

We go on turtle hatch watches, and some of us are actively involved in being advocates for our environment.

We sponsor children in Africa.  We respond to disasters through Presbyterians for Disaster Assistance and bring hope to urban areas through the Self Development of People projects.

When we shout Hosanna, we mean it, and God is at work, pushing back against the darkness, the evil so rampant in our times, saving us for the kingdom of Shalom, inspiring us to seek the welfare of the city God has put us in, as Jeremiah told the exiles.

So, on Palm Sunday 2015 though we are pressed down by the zeitgeist of selfishness and apathy around us, we do not loose hope.

We expect this to be a double-sided story:  of betrayal and abandonment, of suffering and death.  But we also know that this is going to turn out to be a story of new life, of resurrection, and salvation.

To that we say, Hosanna!  God save us!  Amen.


Imagining a Better World

Sermon for the 5th Sunday in Lent, 2015, March 22, 2015, on John 12:20-24 &  Jeremiah 31:31-34

John 12:20-24
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Jeremiah 31:31-34
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt — a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 8.23.16 PM

A fiery preacher took the stand and whipped up the believers into a frenzy.  When the service was over they left, not as a congregation of worshipers but more like an angry mob.  They went to the nearby Catholic church, broke in, and started smashing “idols” as they called them, and looting the gold and silver.  They completely gutted it.  Then they made their way to several monasteries, looting and smashing statues.

I’m not taking abut what ISIS is doing in Iraq and in Syria to Christian churches, though it is eerily similar.  I am taking about John Knox and the Protestant Reformation in Scotland in 1560.

That was not an isolated event.  In the years following the start of the Reformation in the 16th century, there were religious wars between Protestants and Catholics throughout Europe for decades and decades.  Each side had real armies.  Governments were overthrown.  It was brutal.  At one battle alone, the Battle of  White Mountain which helped bring to and end the famous “Thirty Years War” the casualties numbered over 4,000.

Many of these wars were civil wars.  Some were primarily religious in motivation, but many were the result of a toxic mixture of politics, ethnic animosity, and national rivalry.  It all sounds very familiar, and modern.

Civil War in the Middle East
Right now there is a huge civil war going on, under the banner of religion, but motivated underneath by other factors too, like ethnic conflict and the quest for power, control, and of course, money.   This time I am talking about the Middle East.
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This past Friday, quadruple suicide bombers attacked mosques in Yemen killing at least 137 and wounding hundreds more.  These were Muslims killing Muslims.   Sunni Muslims attacking and killing Shiite Muslims; a civil war.

ISIS and Al Qaeda are both Sunni Muslim organizations.  Sunni’s account Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 8.27.31 PMfor three-fourths of all Muslims.   Shia Islam is the minority.

ISIS and Al Qaeda both base their radical version of Sunni Islam on one particular movement called Wahhabism.  Named for its eighteenth century founder, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, it started as a reform movement.  Wahhab wanted to purify Islam of non-Islamic practices like idolatry, the “cults of the saints” and tomb visitation.

We might notice that an iconoclastic reform movement that smashes idols and calls people who venerate statues “infidels” was what John Knox was leading also.  We need to be humble when we get the urge to feel moral superiority, and we do not need to reach back to the Crusades to find reasons for such humility.

Wahhab and the House of Saud
Anyway, Mr. Wahhab made an alliance with an influential family, the House of Saud.  The deal was this: as long as the Saudi’s Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 8.28.45 PMpromoted and propagated the strict teachings of Wahhabist Sunni Islam, then the Wahhabi’s would bring them “power and glory” and rule of  “lands and men.”  In other words, military support.

That was the eighteenth century.  The alliance held.  By the 1970’s the Saudi’s are becoming rich with petrol dollars.  So, keeping their end of the bargain, they use this enormous wealth to propagate this fundamentalist, rigid, extremist version of Sunni Islam called Wahhabism, all over the Middle East, and the world.

They have been spending an estimated $2 to 3 billion per year since 1975.  They sponsor schools for Islamic learning called Madrases.  Some actually teach things besides memorization of the Quran, but many do not.  Of course they produce extremists.  That is what movements of radical purity reform do.  Ask John Knox.

One of their chief targets are the Shia Muslims whom they consider idolators and infidels.  It just so happens that Iran is predominantly Shia, and ethnically Persian, making the tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran intense on several levels at once.  They are both ethnically and religiously different.

Let us consider a question here:  When is it ever a good idea to get involved in someone else’s religious and civil war?  I cannot imagine when that is a good idea

So What?  The Alternative Vision
So what does all of this have to do with us on this 5th Sunday in the Season of Lent, one week from Palm Sunday and Holy Week?  Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 8.33.20 PM

Exactly this:  we are people of an alternative vision.  It is the vision of the prophets; it is the vision of Jesus.  And even though that vision has been betrayed time and time again by the church itself, by its many capitulations to the violent, divisive ways of the world, we are called to embrace that alternative vision.

It is the vision of a world reconciled.  It is the vision of the peaceable kingdom.  It is a vision of embrace as a real, possible alternative to exclusion.

The Hour of Openness
Consider our gospel reading. At what moment, in the Gospel of John, does Jesus finally say that the hour for him had come?  At the moment that the Greeks, the non-Jewish gentiles come to Philip saying, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  Everything in John is symbolic.  This is the symbolic moment of the door swings open to the world.  God’s grace is for everyone.  No exceptions.

Though the world of humans may be expert in dividing up into mutually exclusive oppositions of “us” versus “them” we have an alternative vision.  It is the vision of the world reconciled; of Jews and Greeks, slave and free, male and female all finding a place at the table together; a feast of shalom, of peace, well-being and wholeness.

This is exactly the kind of openheartedness that Jesus demonstrated time and time again.  He reached across gender lines to heal suffering women.  He looked past religious and ethnic differences to minister to Samaritans.  He even overcame barriers constructed by by the binaries of oppressor and victim in his compassion for Roman soldiers.

Jesus taught and practiced the forgiveness of enemies.  He refused resistance, even when it was offered in the Garden.  He was faithful to God’s purposes even to the point of death, trusting that,

“unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  

The New CovenantScreen Shot 2015-03-20 at 8.36.15 PM
We are that fruit. We are the people of the New Covenant.  Jeremiah imagined a time when the old covenant of Moses, chiseled in words on tablets of stone would be replaced by concepts written  on the heart.  We are called to internalize a new vision.

It starts with a new vision of God as Loving Father instead of vengeful Monarch.  When we embrace for ourselves the truth that God is for us, not against us, we can be transformed.  When we internalize the message that “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” we can live authentically and compassionately.

When we know ourselves as entirely forgiven, we become people capable of forgiving others.   When we hear and know the words of Jeremiah that God’s desire is to be our God and have us as God’s people, it fills us with hope instead of despair.

The Call to Imagination
People who have the new covenant internalized in their hearts are called to imagine a better world.   It begins with us.  It begins with a commitment to understanding  people who are different from us instead of knee-jerk vilification of them.

We are called to understand people of different races.  We can start right here in our own country.  It is simply uninformed ignorance that writes off the behavior of young black men in our country as disobedient belligerence; the product of bad parenting.  The seeds of systemic injustice sown for years does produce bitter fruit.  But blaming the bad apple for the poisoned soil that the tree grew in is unworthy of  thinking adults, let alone Christians, no matter who their father was.

We are called to understand Muslims.  Most of them hate what ISIS is doing.  Most of them reject a Wahhabist version of their faith, even though the minority who do are  ready to be so violent.  We know that Christians, Jews, Yazidi and others lived side by side Shia and Sunni Muslims in what is now Iraq, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt for centuries with out violent conflict.

We are called to seek levels of understanding that go beneath the cable news surface and talk radio demagoguery.  This is God’s world, and everyone in it is God’s creature.  Therefore we are called to dialogue, to conversations that promote understanding.

I know this is a minority view; I accept that it is far more gratifying to the ego to simply pick up the the biggest club you can find and start swinging it at the bad guys.  But that is exactly the tactic of the bad guys.  If evil fights evil, what do you call the winner?  Evil.

But there is another way.  It is the way of the internalized New Covenant.  It is an embrace of a world of neighbors.  It is a vision of a shared humanity.  It is the vision of the way of shalom, of peace, of reconciliation.

People of the New Covenant: know that you are forgiven and loved, and go into the world with the mandate to live as loving forgivers.  The world desperately needs advocates for peace, advocates for understanding, and advocates for love.  If it is not we who can be those advocates, than who else can it be?

The Universal Message

Sermon on Psalm 19 for the Third  Sunday in Lent, Year B, March 8, 2015

Psalm 19

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
 and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
 and night to night declares knowledge
There is no speech, nor are there words;
 their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
 and their words to the end of the world.
In the heavens God has set a tent for the sun,
 which comes out like a beloved from a wedding canopy,
and like a strong athlete runs its course with joy
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
 and its circuit to the end of them;
and nothing is hid from its heat.
The law of God is perfect,Screen Shot 2015-03-07 at 12.02.05 PM
 reviving the soul;
the decrees of God are sure,
 making wise the simple;
the precepts of God are right,
 rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of God is clear,
 enlightening the eyes;
the fear of God is pure,
 enduring forever;
the ordinances of God are true
 and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
 even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
 and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover by them is your servant warned;
 in keeping them there is great reward.
But who can detect their errors?
 Clear me from hidden faults.
Keep back your servant also from the insolent;
 do not let them have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless,
 and innocent of great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth
 and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you, O God
 my rock and my redeemer.

The Universal Message

I am a softie for nature.  Besides music, I am most often moved deeply and spiritually by Creation.  Quite often the sky draws my heart upwards in wonder and awe.  Sunshine, streaming through clouds, sunrises and sunsets, amaze me.  And so do the stars on a clear night.

We now know from scientists that the light we see when we look at the stars has taken a long time to reach us.  We know the speed of light and the distance of the stars from the earth, so we can calculate how long the light we see has spent traveling to us.



They say that Polaris, the North Star, may be over 400 light years away.  Four hundred years ago would be 1615.  The light we see today started its journey back then.  I have a personal connection with the events of that year.

That was the year Hungarian Gabriel Bethlen was recognized by Holy Roman Emperor  Mathias, as Prince of Transylvania, endorsing what had happened several years earlier at the Transylvanian Diet at Kolozsvár (or, in Romanian Cluj-Napoca).  That was the city where our family lived for two years from 1991-1993.

Prince Bethlen was a Hungarian Protestant, or Calvinist, which was what they called Reformed Christians in those days.   Hapsburg Europe was predominantly Catholic and persecuted Protestants.  Bethlen had the freedom to practice his faith because Holy Roman Emperor Mathias had signed the Peace of Vienna in 1609 providing religious tolerance at least in his area.

So we had the privilege of living among Reformed Christians whose faith survived because of tolerance which was signed into law 400 years ago.  The light I see from the North star tonight left when that was happening.

The Declaration of the HeavensScreen Shot 2015-03-07 at 10.52.03 AM

Today we read a Psalm of praise that begins looking upwards at the heavens with awe and wonder.

“The heavens are telling the glory of God”

For me, nothing truer could be said.  No matter how much science I learn to explain the universe, it still fills me with awe and wonder.

Without a voice confined to mere spoken words, the heavens, the sun, the moon and all the stars, the Psalm says:

   “…proclaims God’s handiwork. 

Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. 

…their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.”

The message is universal.  Everyone can see it, and hear it. Everyone feels the heat of the sun and sees its light.  One sun illumines all the diverse places on earth.  One source of light shines on all people of all languages, races, customs and religions.

Revolutionary MonotheismScreen Shot 2015-03-07 at 12.06.16 PM

But the idea that this one sun is the work of one God was not known for a long time.  This simple Psalm represents a revolutionary idea that changed the whole world.  In this Psalm, one God, not many gods, exist.  The One God is the Creator God.  The sun that travels across the sky by day silently sings praise to this One God.

Previously, before the Jews brought Monotheism to the world, people were poly-theists.  They believed in many gods.  The sun, in fact, was one of them.  His name, in Mesopotamian cultures, was Shamash.  Shamash was just one among many gods.

Besides the big gods of nature like the sun god, the moon god and star gods, there were also local gods, tribal deities for each people-group.  The concept that there is only one God leads immediately to the concept of universality: if there is only one God then this one is the God of all people.  There are no tribal deities any more.

No FavoritesScreen Shot 2015-03-07 at 11.39.52 AM

That means that there are no favorites with God.  There are no people who can claim exceptionalism.  All people, every race and tongue is equally made in God’s image and treasured by the Creator.

That is why the scandal of racism is so deeply and profoundly scandalous. Racial discrimination is a direct attack on the very roots of our theology.  No one can despise any other human without despising the God who made them.

This weekend, today, we celebrate the gains that have been made in the civil rights movement in our country, as we commemorate the tragedy of “Bloody Sunday” fifty years ago in Selma, Alabama.  But we also hear the scathing report of the Justice Department about the racism in the Ferguson system and know that there is a tremendous amount of work left to do.   We believe in One God, and therefore we are committed to a world of equal justice for all.

What is the Creator Like?

But there are still some questions left open.  What is this one Creator God like?  This is not an easy question.  If you simply observe nature, you get a mixed answer.  The same sun that can thrill you with wonder as it rises and sets can scorch the earth with drought, leading to the deaths of thousands.

Nature alone may fill you with dread as much as wonder, in the face of hurricanes, tsunamis, and bitter winter storms.  The heavens that declare the glory of God without words leave us without explanations for the inglorious insults of nature.   Maybe God is malevolent, or simply apathetic to our suffering.  Who knows?  The sun doesn’t say.

The Joy of TorahScreen Shot 2015-03-07 at 12.11.23 PM

So we do need speech that goes beyond the silent declarations of the heavens.  Which is exactly why the Psalm that begins with the wordless speech of the heavens immediately turns to praise God-the-Creator for being God-the-Revealer: the God who has given Torah, Guidance, or Instruction.  The Psalmist sings:

“ The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure
making wise the simple;”

The Law, or, literally, the “Torah” of the Creator God is perfect, reviving the “soul” or, inner being, making us wise.

Revolutionary Moral Monotheism

What enlightenment does Torah give us?  The second great revolutionary concept: that God is morally good.  That the Creator God is for us.  That God in fact loves us and wants what is best for us, our flourishing.

If there is only one God, and God is the creator, then God must be Great in every sense – greater than the sun or moon; creator that all the stars together.  And, amazingly it is exactly in those places in Torah where God’s greatness is proclaimed and celebrated, we see something else:  we see that the greatness of God is directed towards the humans that God made.  In fact, specifically towards the weakest of humans.

One example, among many, will have to do for now.

“For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe,  who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.”  – Deut. 10:17-18

In Torah we learn that the God we celebrate when we look at the ancient stars is the God who created us in God’s image, and whose greatness is on display precisely in his moral goodness, and especially in his compassion and mercy for those who suffer.  This is why the Psalmist says that the torah of God “revives the soul;” it is life-giving!

Embracing GraceScreen Shot 2015-03-07 at 12.16.20 PM

Recently columnist Ana Marie Cox found faith and came out publicly as a Christian in an article in the Daily Beast.  She was interviewed about it on Morning Joe.   Joe’s cohost, Mika Brzezinski who had known her in the past, told Ana that she had seen a big change in her, as if she had gone from being “tied up in knots” to being “at peace.”

In both the article and interview Ana explained that what had changed for her came from her discovery of grace.  She said that she had been aware of herself as a “bad person” and even an “unforgivably bad person” but what “the gospel of grace has taught me is that I may be fallen…but that I am saved despite that.”

You cannot get that from looking at the sun and stars alone.   But in Torah, in scripture we learn that the creator God is also the Redeemer God who sets us free.  That God loves us and does forgive us.  This is what Jesus came to announce; this is the good news of the gospel: that God is best defined as God defines Godself in Torah:

“The LORD, the LORD,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” (Exod. 34:6)

This knowledge is, as the Psalmist describes it,

“More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.”

For us, as Christians, who believe that God is best and most fully revealed in the Living Word of God, in Jesus, the “Word made flesh” we have even more grounds for rejoicing.  God is in fact our Heavenly Father who “forgives us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

Closing the CircleScreen Shot 2015-03-07 at 12.09.14 PM

So, let us close this circle.  We began with the Great God who is on display in the heavens, the God who is One, as universal as the sun he created to shine on every  place on earth.  The One God who can never be harnessed to any one tribe or people, but the God of all people.

We noticed that the light of the stars that displays the glory of our Creator God is ancient light; that the North star’s light we see is already 400 years old.  That back in those days people of good courage were willing to sign declarations of religious tolerance and peace.

Sometimes I think we have not progressed much as a species in the past 400 years.  Racism still exists, and religious intolerance seems to be at an all-time high all around the world.  It is as if people have reverted back to the days when they thought that God was their own  tribal mascot.

People are willing to do terrible things and say horrible things in the name of upholding the fragile honor of their gods – and I do not just mean ISIS and Boko Haram.  People in this country attack Islam, as if the murderous extremists that pretend to represent it had any legitimacy.  We need to be clear:  ISIS no more represents Islam than the Irish Republican Army represented Christianity.

Our Calling 

But let us be the people who finally take to heart the wordless message of the heavens.  God is One; the sun that declares God’s glory shines on all the people of the earth, whatever their perception of God, whatever their religious practice.  As Jesus said, God

“makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matt. 5:45).

We have been enlightened by the words of Torah and by Jesus, the Word made flesh.  We understand the One Creator God as the Great God whose greatness is made manifest in moral goodness, in compassion in mercy and forgiveness.  No one is excluded.  No one is exceptional.

Let us also be the people who know what a blessing and privilege it is to live on this planet in a world that reflects the glory of God.  We have been given the mandate of stewardship of the planet on our watch in this generation.

Let us commit ourselves to live in such a way that there will be a glorious, clean planet around for the people who will be here 400 years from now; the people alive to see the light leaving the North star today.

May they be people who have learned to live in peace and in respectful coexistence with each other.  May we set the example and lead the way.



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