Jesus on What God Want

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

Deuteronomy 15:1, 7-11

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

Luke 16:19-31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Justice as Reversal of Fortunes

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

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

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

The Characters

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

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

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

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

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

Guilty for What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rich Man Betrays Himself

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

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

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

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

Superiority

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

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

Sowing the Wind, Reaping the Whirlwind

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

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

Finding Solutions: beginning with us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Come Home to Love

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

Exodus 19:1, 16-25

Luke 15:11-32

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Were They Thinking?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Literary Context: the 3rd of 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Climactic Third Parable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Volcano vs. the Father

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

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

The Older Brother

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being Lost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“…and you will be blessed…”

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

Luke 14:1, 7-14

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

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

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

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

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

The Magic of Meals

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

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

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

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

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

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

They encountered God in a shared meal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus: Revolutionary Dining

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

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

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

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

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

Who is at the table?

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

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

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

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

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

Thinking Theologically

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Blessed Life

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

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

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

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

“Who is not at the table?”

And then,

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

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

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

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

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

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


With and So

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

Jeremiah 1:4-10

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

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

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

Matthew 28.16-20

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

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

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

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

Meaning and Purpose

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

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

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

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

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

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

As one author as put it,

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

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

Jeremiah’s Call and Doubt

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

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

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

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

“I am only a boy”

To which he hears the reply,

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

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

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

Jesus’ Call and Promise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Hierarchies: How to Interpret the Present Time

Sermon on Isaiah 5:1-7 and Luke 12:49-56 for Pentecost +13C, August 14, 2016

Isaiah 5:1-7
Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.

And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 4.53.46 PMWhat more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?

And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.

For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!

Luke 12:49-56

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

Wikipedia says that there is no real Chinese source for it, but in popular culture, most people believe that there is a Chinese curse that goes:

May you live in interesting times.Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 4.57.32 PM

We are living in interesting times! Is it all bad news?  How do we interpret the present time?  What in the world is God doing?

We are going to start with our wisdom tradition, our sacred texts, and then use them to look at our own present time.  What we are going to see is that the subject of the legitimacy of hierarchies is now on the table in a new and powerful way.

First we are going to start with the text from the prophet Isaiah.  As we do, think about the word “desire.”   This text is about desire.  It is about God’s desire.  God has a longing, perhaps we could say a need.  Recognizing that all human language about God is metaphorical, we could say that this poem in Isaiah is about God’s desire.

Apparently, God wants some nice wine.  So he plants a vineyard on a fertile hill.  Isaiah says,

“He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines”

Our version of the text says that God “expected” good grapes.  Literally the word means God “waited for” good grapes, the way someone lingers, wanting something to happen.  In other words, God had a desire.

The vineyard poem is about God’s desire to be in relationship with his people, Israel.  Like a person looking forward to nice wine after months of preparing the land, planting the seed, tending the vines, harvesting and vinting the grapes.

Think about this: we are a community that makes some pretty bold claims.  After making the claim that there is a God, we follow it with the even bolder claim that God has a desire that includes us.  God longs to be in communion with us.  This is what some theologians call the “One Story” that drives the whole biblical narrative.  (specifically, Jay E. Johnson in “Divine Communion”)

What could possibly go wrong?  Well, as it turns out, plenty can go wrong.  What does Isaiah say went wrong?

[God] “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”

God “expected” – waited for, longed for, desired the fine wine of justice; a community without poverty, discrimination, oppression or violence.  It was not only that God had a desire for us to be in communion with Godself, but that we would be in communion with each other.

This is one of the radically new innovations that Israel gave us: a conception of a Divinity that was actually concerned with morality.  Not just personal private morality, but public, social morality.

Hierarchy and SpiritualityScreen Shot 2016-08-12 at 4.54.47 PM

In Isaiah’s day, there was a rigid hierarchy; a few were at the top, living well, but the majority were poor and oppressed.  If anyone is being oppressed, if there is injustice, if there are people crying out, suffering violence, God is not getting what God desires.  The vine God planted is producing sour grapes.

How could God be happy with that condition?  How could a father or a mother be happy if one of their children was cared for, secure, and well, while another was being discriminated against, targeted for neglect or abuse, treated violently?

Spirituality begins with the understanding that God desires you; God longs to be in communion with you.  You are the object of God’s desire.  You are God’s fine wine.

And then, genuine spirituality opens our hearts to the other, the stranger, the one who is different.  And we become aware that his neighborhood is not safe, like ours is;  that she has been the victim of abuse; that he is being discriminated against, that their children grow up suffering violence.  And just like God, I am not okay with that.

God’s desire, as the prophet-poet imagines it, in the end, that this wine is shared at a table; a banquet, where people from East and West and North and South come together.  A common meal shared among equals, with no hierarchy is the opposite of a community of injustice and violence.

Isaiah interpreted his times as dangerous times, headed for calamity.  He was persecuted for saying so, but he was right.

Jesus Interprets the times

Were things any better in Jesus’ times?  No, they were not.

Jesus’ analysis of his day was that, again, calamity was coming.

Jesus’ words are shocking.  We hear Jesus called the Prince of Peace.  What does he mean that he came not to bring peace, but a sword?  We think of Jesus teaching us to love, not to cause all these family divisions.  What could he have meant:

“they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law”?

Let us note that this is not the only time Jesus said things that sounded anti-family.  What was he getting at?  First, notice that the “axis of separation” is located “precisely between generations” – as John Crossan has written.

He goes on to observe that:

“The family is society in miniature, the place where we first and most deeply learn how to love and be loved, hate and be hated, help and be helped, abuse and be abused. It is not just a center of domestic serenity; since it involves power, it invites the abuse of power, and it is at that precise point that Jesus attacks it.”
— Crossan, John Dominic. Jesus (p. 67). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

It was the hierarchy that defined power relationships that was the problem.  In that rigid structure, into which you were born, patriarchal chauvinism was the way things worked.  The older generation had power over the younger generation.

Time and again, hierarchies exist to keep those with the power in power, at the expense of those who are on the lower rungs.  Power corrupts, as the saying goes.

The Kingdom Alternative

Jesus’ alternative vision was what he called the “kingdom of God.”  Unlike hierarchical Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 4.54.28 PMfamilies, the kingdom was open to all on an equal basis.  The kingdom, just like Isaiah had imagined, was like a wedding banquet in Jesus’ parable.  It was open to everyone who would come in and sit at table together.

Reading our Times

So how do we read the times today?  It is tragic that today we are aware that the family is the location for abuse in so many cases.  The number of abused children, and battered spouses is staggering.  Just a couple of examples selected from a huge data base:

Many LGBT youth are at high risk of homelessness, often as a result of family rejection and abuse.  LGBT youth make up no more than 10% of that population segment, yet total 40% of homeless youth.”

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, between 1998 and 2002:

“Of the almost 3.5 million violent crimes committed against family members, nearly half were crimes against spouses.”

As scholars tell us, the family is society in miniature.  It is where we learn to internalize the hierarchies that we then take for granted as simply “the way things work.”

Our Calling

But there is an alternative.  Jesus’ vision, which he called the kingdom of God, is a vision of a radically egalitarian and radically open community.  As the church, we are called to respond to Jesus’ vision in at least three ways.  Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 3.01.43 PM

First, we are called to model that egalitarian, non-hierarchical and radically open community.   Among us there is supposed to be no significance attached to any hierarchies including of race, status, or gender.

As Paul said, in this community:

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female”  (Gal. 3:28)

We are called to model that community.  As our Presbyterian Constitution says, one of the six great ends, or purposes of the church is “The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.”   We are called to be the one place where power hierarchies are deconstructed, and everyone is valued; where no one is shut out, and where there is no discrimination.

Not only are we called to model the non-hierarchical kingdom, we are called to be a place of refuge for those who have been abused.  We are to be the one place where people from dysfunctional families can find an alternative family who will love unconditionally.  We are the place where healing can begin; a safe place where instead of fear and shame, people find safe welcome and acceptance.

Third, we are to be the advocates who call our society to justice.  We are the ones who lift up our voices and our votes to advocate for policies and practices that protect the powerless.

We seek to hold accountable everyone with power to use their authority to do justice and protect the vulnerable.  We are called to be the allies of the ones who are discriminated against: for women, for children, for gay people, for black lives, for the poor, for immigrants, for all the people that are the subjects of God’s desire for humanity.

A Sword?  Division?

Sometimes the  nature of this egalitarian and open community that we are called to be is not what everybody wants.  Sometimes the hierarchies react to calls to end oppression and to do justice.  Sometimes, in other words, there is push-back from the ones benefiting from the hierarchies that put them at the top.

This is exactly what Jesus expected.  This is why there may be the division that Jesus spoke of.  We are okay with that.  If our embrace and support for those who are suffering makes us suffer, so be it.

We began today by reflecting on God’s great desire for communion with us.  We are God’s vineyard from which he desires us to be his fine wine.  And that desire in God’s heart for us, we saw, immediately entails God’s desire for our communion with each other – expressed in just and safe relationships with each other; justice and non-violence.

Both Isaiah and Jesus knew that calamity and division follow, when justice is denied and when violence is condoned.

How do we interpret the present time?  We interpret it as a time in which there is a lot of progress that has been made, but still a long way to go.  At least we can be glad that the lights are on, and we are now aware of what used to go on in the dark.  There are video cameras that reveal what happens on our city streets.  There is solid research that reveals the extent of the problems we face.

How do we interpret the present time?  We interpret it as time to be the community God calls us to be.  This means we fully embrace the fact that personally, we are the subjects of God’s desire for communion.  We nurture that communion by our daily spiritual practices.
It means that we respond to the call to be the healing refuge to people who have been hurt by unjust hierarchies of power.

It  means that we embrace our role as allies and advocates, even in the face of opposition.

It means we live into that vision of the kingdom, the open table, the banquet, the community of welcome to everyone and justice for all.


Beyond Binaries

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

Luke 10:38-42

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

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

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

The Gender Binary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary as a Disciple

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

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

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

Physical-Spiritual Binary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Inadequacy of Binaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romance: Binaries are Inadequate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Calling

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

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

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

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

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

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


The One and the Many

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

Luke 4:16-30

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

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

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

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

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

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

The American Experiment

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

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

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

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

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

Elijah and a Trans-national God

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Letter Scene: Prophets and Kings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus and the Naaman & Elijah Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Oneness Goal: God’s Endgame

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

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

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

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

Celebrate the 4th

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

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

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

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

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


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