The Poisonous Question

The Poisonous Question

Sermon on Luke 10:25-37 for July 14, 2019, Pentecost 6C. Audio can be found here for several weeks.

Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

New Testament Scholars all agree that one of the most certain things we can know about the historical Jesus is that he told parables.  Many of them contain surprises.  Sometimes they completely reverse our expectations.  

Jesus’ parables are set in normal life — they are about farmers in their fields or families with rebellious sons, or sheep that get lost.  

The parable we call The Good Samaritan is probably Jesus’ most well known and loved, even if it is also so well ignored.  But we cannot ignore it.  This parable has never been more relevant, so let us try to take a fresh look at it again.

The Biblical Scholar and his Questions

It begins with a confrontation.  Luke calls the man who confronted Jesus a “lawyer” but the “law” that he was a trained expert in was not civil law, it was the Law of Moses, the Torah.  So, we would call him a Biblical scholar.

Anyway, he asks a question that we think we understand, but most of us probably do not.  He asks, 

“what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

It sounds like he is asking how to get to heaven.  That’s not what he was asking.  Most Jewish people had no concept of heaven yet.  But they did have the idea that there were two ages you could live in: this one and the coming one. This age is full of evil, oppression, and suffering; the coming age would be an age of justice and vindication of the righteous.  

How does the new age arrive?  Opinions differed.  Maybe God would just miraculously intervene, maybe God would empower humans to successfully overthrow the Romas, just as God had done in the stories of Joshua’s armies defeating the Canaanites, many years before.  Messiah would be the leader, of course. 

But anyway, the righteous would live in the age to come, and that’s what this Bible scholar wants for himself.  

The First Answer

So Jesus asks him to answer his own question.  At least this is how Luke tells it.  In Mark, which was the first version, the scholar asks Jesus, and Jesus answers; but today, we are reading Luke’s version.  So Jesus asks the question:

“He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”

The Bible scholar answers.  He goes to the very law that is at the heart of Judaism. 

“He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind;”

That law became the basis of the creed, the Shema, that faithful Jewish people recited twice daily, so it is at the heart of Jewish identity and spirituality.

But, interestingly, the bible scholar adds a second law, in the same breath, even the same sentence, saying,

“and your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18)

Neighboring in Torah

Now, the word “neighbor” is going to become a big deal in this story, so let us just take a moment before we continue to ask, “What was so important about the neighbor?”  

Every Jewish person would know that “neighbor” was a huge concept in the Law of Moses.  In English, “neighbor” translates a couple of Hebrew words, which together occur over 200 times.  It is a huge concept.  Let me give you just a couple of examples:

“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.”

Deut. 15:7   

Here are a couple from the Ten Commandments:

“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 

Ex. 20:16

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

Ex. 20:17 

And the last example I will give actually supplies the reason for the law based on the very character of God.  It is a law about making a personal loan and taking something for collateral:

“If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down;  27 for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.”

Ex. 22:26 

So God’s compassion requires that the cloak, even though it is collateral for the loan, be returned so the poor person has something to cover herself in the cool Palestinian night.  

You can see how important this concept of neighbor is.  You have huge ethical obligations to your neighbor.  Care of neighbor is right up there with the foundational obligation to love the Lord your God.  Some scholars have called this  the ethics of “neighboring.”

So Jesus says,

“You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”  

The Poisonous Question

And now comes what I am calling the poisonous question.  Luke tells us the bible scholar’s motivation for asking it: he wants to justify himself.  

Think about that.  That means he is aware of his own track record.  Maybe he has been ethically responsible to some people, people he considers legitimate “neighbors,” but not to everyone.  Is he off the hook?  Here is the poisonous question:

“he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In other words, what are the limits around my ethical obligations?  

Whose cloak do I need to return at night, after a loan, and whose can I just keep, and it is okay with God?  

Who must I not bear false witness against, and who is okay with God to lie to?  

Whose wife am I allowed to covet?  What are the rules; where are the boundaries?

The Parable Answer

So, in response, Jesus tells this famous story.  It has all kinds of clever details.  The victim in the story is stripped — so he is wearing no ethnically-identifiable clothing.  

He is half-dead, so he is not talking — you cannot know what language he speaks, or what regional accent he may have.  

So how do you know if he is a Jewish man, a neighbor, in need of your compassion?  Maybe he is even a Samaritan half-breed?  We hate those guys.  They are heretics.  And they are not people we call “neighbor.”   

So, in the story, two people come down the road; they see him, but pass by without helping him.  No reason is given — but every Jewish person would understand.  Both of these men work at the temple.  One is a priest, the other a Levite.  If they become religiously impure they cannot do their jobs until the period of impurity expires.  Touching a corpse — if he is dead already, or touching blood — we assume this victim is pretty bloody — make you impure, according to the Law of Moses.  So, of course, they have “good,” religious reasons to pass by.  

A third man comes down the road, and this is, indeed the despised Samaritan.  And, as Jesus liked to do in his parables, expectations of what would happen are reversed: the miserable Samaritan stops to help.  In fact, his help is outrageously profuse and generous.  

He went above and beyond the call.  Not only did he give him emergency first aid, but he also put the victim on his own donkey, and put him up in an inn.  Not only that, he promised the inn-keeper a blank check for his expenses!  

Who does that?  Well, someone who is “moved with pity” meaning, compassion, as Luke tells us the Samaritan was.  Just as God’s motive of compassion was given in the law about obligations to a neighbor, so this Samaritan too, was motivated by the same reason: compassion.  

So Jesus wraps up with another question to the Bible scholar — and this too is a complete reversal of expectations.  We are waiting for an answer to the scholar’s  poisonous question, “Who is my neighbor?”  But instead, we get this, from Jesus:

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

The answer is obvious:

He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” 

Mercy is another synonym for compassion.

“Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Identity

It is so interesting to me that Jesus told this parable in this way, to make it impossible to know the victim’s identity.  He is just a human being.  The only relevant question is, are you willing to see him as a neighbor and treat him as a neighbor?  

It’s no small question.  Remember, neighboring is right up there with the command to love the Lord your God as the basic requirement for life in the age to come.  

So why is this almost universally disregarded?  History is filled with racism, bigotry, ethnic animosity and identity-based discrimination, violence, and exclusion.  I have seen it up close in Croatia.  I have seen it up close in America.  We have all seen the news.  It is the oldest story humans tell.  

We like “us,” we hate “them.”  We are compassionate to “us,”, we are enemies with“them.”  We know who our neighbors are, and to the devil with the rest of them.  

I had a conversation with a Christian leader several years ago when the subject of waterboarding suspected terrorists was in the news.  He actually said to me, “But these people are not Americans. They are not protected by the constitution.”  Right.  They are not citizens.  So, God is okay with torturing them?  They must not be neighbors?  I wonder if the Good Samaritan was worried about constitutional rights?  Something tells me it was not a concern.  

Humaneness

As far as I understand it, the criteria for showing compassion that Jesus used was simple humaneness.  Treating people humanely is what matters.  It is exactly how we would want to be treated.  This applies across the board.  

That’s why it is wrong to treat people of other races, ethnicities, or orientations inhumanely.  That’s why it is wrong to treat incarcerated people inhumanely.  That’s why it is wrong to treat undocumented people inhumanely, no matter how they crossed the border.  Our humanity requires that we treat them humanely.

Pushing it Further

I believe this extends to our own grandchildren too, which is why it is so urgent that we protect the climate of the planet they are going to be living on.  

I want to push the question a step further.  Why should the same thing not be true for our treatment of animals as well — at least those creatures who are capable of conscious suffering?  I believe they must be treated humanely as well, though it almost feels ridiculous to say that, here and now, when we do not even treat immigrant children humanely.   

Final Question

So, the story we read ends with another question.  Clearly, the biblical scholar got the answer right: Who was the neighbor to the victim?  It was the one who showed compassion.  Jesus confirmed his answer, saying, 

Go and do likewise.” 

So, the final question is, did he?  

Or, maybe the question is, “Will we?”

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Making Persons

Making Persons

Sermon for July 7, 2019, Pentecost 4C, and the Installation of Soniyyah (Sonna) B. Key as Community Ministries Pastor. Audio can be found here for several weeks.

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’

“Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”

The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

I read Richard Rohr’s daily emails, as some of you do.  Wednesday he quoted theologian, author, and speaker Sister Joan Chittister, and I liked it so much I posted it on Facebook.  It is about finding God everywhere, which is what contemplatives of every tradition have discovered.  She said, 

“Contemplation is immersion in the God who created this world for all of us. And the mystics of every major religion . . . remind us of that. Hinduism tells us that within the cave of the heart, God dwells, not just in the forest. And the Buddhists say, “Buddha is present in all places, in all beings, in all things, in all lands, not just in the monastery.”  “Where can I go to flee from your presence?” the Jewish Psalmist says [Psalm 139:7]. “Whithersoever you turn, there is the face of God,” Islam teaches. And Christianity reminds us always: “Ever since the creation of the world, God’s invisible nature has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” [Romans 1:20]. . . .”

The Jewish book Wisdom, in the Apocrypha says, “God’s immortal Spirit is in all things.”  (Wisdom 12:1).  

When asked by the woman at the well, according to the story in the Gospel of John, where was the right place to worship, in the temple on this mountain, or the one on that mountain, Jesus replied, 

God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” 

(John 4:24)  

That is what we affirm; God is Spirit, and God’s Spirit is present everywhere and active everywhere.  It is God’s Spirit that is the lure to goodness that we all sense.  God’s Spirit is the impulse to seek truth, and to create beauty.  To quote from the book of Wisdom again, God is the “author of beauty.” (13:3)

What Do We Have to Offer?

But this begs a question.  If God is present and active everywhere, and if that fact is knowable and discoverable by people of all faith traditions, as we have seen it is, then what is so special about our faith tradition?   The text for today compels us to ask that question.  For me, the answer is amazing and wonderful.  

Fist, I want to frame what I am going to say this way:  I believe that Christianity has some beautiful and unique gifts to give the world — in fact, crucially important gifts.  I also believe that every religion has unique gifts to give.  So, with no disrespect to any other religion, today the question is: what does our tradition have to offer the world?

The Harvest

The question must be asked, because of this text.  Jesus, according to Luke, tells the disciples that the world is like a field of ripe grain, and that they are the harvesters.  They are to do what the Hispanic migrants do in our country: bring in the harvest.  They are to gather people together for God’s purposes.  What are God’s purposes?  It is their abundance, their shalom, their wellbeing, their blessing.  

Jesus came by this agricultural metaphor honestly.  You find it often in the Hebrew Bible.  In the Psalms, for example, there is a celebration of the joy of being back home in Zion (Jerusalem), after the tragedy of exile.  They were forced out of their country, sowing seeds of tears, but they returned reaping abundance.  

       Restore our fortunes, O Lord…
  May those who sow in tears
        reap with shouts of joy. 

    Those who go out weeping,
      bearing the seed for sowing,
    shall come home with shouts of joy,
        carrying their sheaves

(Psalm 126:4-6)

So, Jesus is saying to his disciples that the time is now; strip down to the bare necessities, take only what you need.  

Go to a community and embed yourself in that community.  Become one of them, on their level.  

Receive the gifts of that community’s hospitality, and share the unique gifts you have to give that community.  The gifts you have to give will be healing for that community.  

But expect that it will not always be easy.  There may be resistance.  Fine.  Accept that, and move on.  There will be people — in fact, plenty of people — hungry for the unique gifts that you can bring.  

Making people Persons

Well, what are the gifts Christianity brings to the community that are so healing?  They are all the gifts that open up and spill out from the proclamation that

the kingdom of God has come near.

When people awaken to the beautiful vision of the kingdom of God, what happens?  I love the way Dr. John Vervaeke, a lecturer at the University of Toronto in the departments of psychology, cognitive science put it:

“Christianity can say [something] to all of the non-persons of the Roman Empire: (who are non-persons?) all the women, all the children, all the non-male citizens, all the sick, all the poor, all the widowed.  [Christianity] can take all of those non-persons and say, “We will turn you into persons; persons that belong to the kingdom of God”

How?  Just look at Jesus’ message?  Agape Love!  Vervaeke continues:

“[By] loving… you turn a non-person into a person. It’s the closest thing to a miracle, and that sounds hackneyed, I know, but stop and think about this; you depend on agape! It’s because people loved you [starting in infancy] before you [became a fully developed] person, that you have [been able to] become the person you are.” 

Episode 15 – Awakening from the Meaning Crisis – Marcus Aurelius and Jesus

This is the healing gift we bring to the communities we embed ourselves in.  We can proclaim, affirm, and celebrate the dignity, respect, and value of every person whom we believe, God has made in God’s own image. 

By loving them, we affirm them as persons.  We see them. We listen to them.  We become allies, advocates, and even full accomplices with them, in the depersonalizing struggles they face. 

Community Ministries

This is the ministry we have been engaged in as a congregation in so many ways.  Today, let us celebrate that.  And this is the ministry to which Rev. Sonna has been called.  It is a ministry outside the walls of the church, in the community, to the community, with the community and for the community of the River Valley.  

Do not expect to see her here every Sunday, nor to be in her office 24/7.  Her ministry will be in homes, cafes, the library, and in public spaces where the community lives.  

Our job is to support her with our love and prayers.  Our job is to listen to her, as she listens to the community.  We will dream with her as she imagines what a harvest of shalom can look like in new contexts.  

The Need

Let us return to the text for one final question.  Are the fields really ripe for the harvest?  Isn’t it the case, in these days, that people have abandoned the quest to find meaning through organized religion and clergy? 

Well, the answer is “yes,” as far as that goes.   According to the book written by the PC(USA)’s 1,001 New Worshiping Communities project,

The unchurched population in the United States is so extensive that, if it were a nation, it would be the fifth most populated nation on the planet.” 

– from Lost in America, Tom Clegg and Warren Bird, in New Worshiping Communities by Vera White and Charles Wiley, p. 23

Nevertheless, it is also the case, according to a recent Gallup poll that over 90% of the US population claims to believe in God. 

Many people identify themselves as “Spiritual, but not religious.”  In other words, hungry, but unsatisfied with the food that they have been served by the institutional churches they have experienced.  

Well, there is a new table available, and on it, there is a “feast of rich food, of well-aged wines, strained clear,” as the prophet Isaiah imagined it.  (Isaiah 25:6)  

But many people today need it “to go.”  They are more likely to be found waiting for a meal at a food truck than in a traditional restaurant.   

That’s what Community Ministry is about: it’s the food truck, taking the feast out of the building to the people who are spiritually hungry, where they live.  It is about loving them into full personhood, healing the wounds of a depersonalizing world, proclaiming the beautiful vision of the kingdom of God.  

Coming Out Christian

Coming Out Christian

Sermon for June 30, 2019, Pentecost 3C. Audio will be here for several weeks.

Luke 9:51-62

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

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

I have read the bible a lot in my life, so I remember how surprised I was, when I went to seminary, to learn some of the things I had missed.  A huge theme in the gospels is what they call “discipleship failure.”  

Repeatedly the disciples don’t get it.  They don’t understand, they have faulty priorities, they lack compassion, and have to be corrected by Jesus.  It was obvious that Peter got it wrong, and also Thomas, but I missed how large a theme the failures of all the disciples were.  

I will tell you part of why I missed that, a bit later, but first, let us just notice how that theme that comes out so strongly in today’s text.  

Why would the gospels highlight the failure theme?  My professors told us that the likely reason is that the early Christians struggled to live faithfully into Jesus’ admittedly radical, and often counter-intuitive path.  

Who, after all, would claim to be good at turning the other cheek, loving enemies, welcoming strangers, or praying for those who persecute you?  It has never been easy to actually follow Jesus.  It was not easy then, and it is not easy today.  

So, the church remembered, and recorded, and handed on stories of the original disciples getting it wrong, partly to show the ways they got it wrong, and partly to encourage us, who also get it wrong, that we are not alone in the struggle — but that failure is not fatal.  Jesus corrected the disciples, but he never gave up on them.  Jesus modeled grace, which is the very character of the God Jesus taught us about. 

We are going to look at the kinds of discipleship failures Jesus had to correct in this text, and then we are going to reflect on what it means to follow Jesus today, in our context, which is different, but not easy.

A Journey of Change

So, the story, according to Luke’s gospel, takes place on a journey.  Most of Luke is set on this long journey Jesus and the disciples make from Galilee to Jerusalem.  That is part of the point: following Jesus is being on a life-journey.  We are not expected to stay put, as we are.  We have to learn, and learning involves making a lot of mistakes before you get it right.  Failure is just part of the journey. We are expected to grow and to change. 

I love the way the poet Mary Oliver wrote about change:

We do one thing or another; we stay the same, or we
change.
Congratulations if
you have changed.” 

(from “Almost a Conversation” her collection, Evidence)

Ethnic Animosity

So, on this journey, they have to pass through Samaria.  Most of us know that there was ethnic animosity between Jews and Samaritans.  The Samaritans, Luke says, “did not receive him” when Jesus went through their village.  

The cardinal virtue in the ancient world was to provide hospitality to travelers.  They broke it.  So the disciples get angry.  They ask Jesus,

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

They are asking to do what the Hebrew Bible says Elijah did; call down fire from heaven on the bad guys.  (2Kings 1:9).  But there are two things wrong with this idea.  

First, Jesus rejected the use of violence.  Even if the Hebrew Bible is full of divinely sanctioned violence, Jesus was a person who showed that he would rather die than kill.  He taught us to love our enemies, just as God does.  So no, calling down fire from heaven is wrong.

The second way this request of fire from heaven is wrong-headed is that it is a rejection of the “other” on ethnic grounds.  If you have problems with people of other races or religions, as the disciples clearly did here, then you do not yet get Jesus.  

Jesus was constantly crossing lines to reach out to non-Jewish people, specifically including Samaritans — remember the woman at the well and her village?  This is not a small point for Jesus.  

Of course it is not easy, and of course, we will fail to get it right, but to follow Jesus means being on the journey from every form of racism, overt or covert, personal or systemic.  Jesus is not okay with it, and we must never be okay with it.   We are not supposed to be causing human suffering, we are supposed to be alleviating it.   So the disciples were wrong on those two counts: violence and bigotry.

The Non-followers 

Then, since Luke is on the theme of discipleship failures, he strings together a series of similar conversations.  Jesus repeatedly called people to follow him.  Here we see some of the stated or implied reasons people gave for not following Jesus.  

One says she or he will follow Jesus wherever — but Jesus says it is going to be rough.  Sometimes there will be no place to lay your head down in comfort and safety.   The following objections lead us to assume that this first one was put off by the difficulty, and did not follow Jesus.  

So what are the next objections?  One has aging parents to care for until they die, which could take years.   

Another has apron strings that cannot be let go of, so she or he wants to go back to Galilee for a final, maybe lengthy, goodbye.  

We could spend some time unpacking each of these objections and each of Jesus’ responses, and that would be good to do sometime, but right now, let us just notice the big picture; lots of people fail to follow Jesus.  It is hard.  It is demanding.  It is counter-cultural and counter-intuitive.  Some just do not think it is doable, or worth it.  

Jesus put a lot of effort into teaching about how valuable and how amazing the kingdom of God is — think of the parables about the treasure hidden in the field, the pearl of great price, the wedding banquet — but some people just don’t see it.  They have eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear, as Jesus said.  It’s tragic.  

The same thing can be said of our day.  It is still hard to follow Jesus.  It is still counter-cultural, and it is still true that many people fail.  

On Not Reading the Gospels

Now I want to get back to why I missed the huge theme of discipleship failure in the gospels, even though I was in church every Sunday for both Sunday School and worship, all my life.  

Here it is: besides Christmas and Easter, in the church I grew up in, we hardly ever read the gospels.  Now, this may shock you, because we hear the gospels read every Sunday.  But I grew up Evangelical, and they do not.  

There is a perfectly reasonable explanation for it:  Evangelicals subscribe to a version of theology (called Dispensationalism) that teaches this: The reason Jesus “came” was to offer the kingdom of God to the Jews.  So he taught a lot about the kingdom, its values, and its ethics.  But the Jews rejected the kingdom and rejected Jesus as their Messiah.  So, God had to implement plan B, which is the church.  

When Jesus returns to earth after the tribulation, the teaching goes, he will set up his 1,000-year kingdom, based in Jerusalem.  So all of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom and its values are for that future millennium, not for now, in the church age.  In the church in which I grew up, besides Christmas and Easter, I almost never heard preaching from the gospels.  

I believe this is one of the reasons we are in the state we are in now, in this country.    Huge numbers of Evangelical Christians think that Christianity is just about having faith that Jesus will save you from hell, and that is what the gospel is about; period.   All that teaching about loving your neighbor as yourself is for another time.  Friends, that is, in my understanding, about as wrong as it can get.  

Jesus called people to follow him and that is what he meant.  The way we Reformed Christians look at it, we respond to God’s gracious love for us — in spite of our frequent failures — with gratitude.  Gratitude is expressed in concrete acts of love, compassion, welcome, mercy, and service to all the people God loves — which is exactly what Jesus modeled and taught.  

Who Owns the Name?

But now, we have a problem.  The Evangelicals get a lot of media attention.  They have their schools and colleges, magazines and television shows all across this country, and in the countries where their missionaries have gone.  Most Americans think that to be a Christian is to be an Evangelical.  

So what does that mean for us who take such a different view?  We tend to be quiet about being Christians.  We do our ministries of feeding people, of responding to disasters, of working for a better climate, of all kinds of advocacy, and we do them under the radar.  

We do not want to be identified with the Christians who are okay with separating children from families at the border and keeping them in inhumane conditions.  We do not want to be identified with the crazy conspiracy theories that they keep coming up with.  So we keep our faith quiet.  We are closeted Christians.

Learning from the Gay Community

Well, this is the last day of Gay Pride month, and I think the church needs to learn a lesson from the LGBTQ community.  They have shown us what courage means.  They have shown us what it means to risk shaming and humiliation in order to be known for who they are.  They know how to come out of the closet.  We have to admire them; they are models for us.  They can teach us how to come out.

I believe it is time for us to come out as Christians.  It is time to reclaim the narrative and the name.  It is time to let the country know that there is an alternative way of being a Christian that actually takes Jesus seriously.  

It is time to come out against racism and racist policies, including racist immigration policies, specifically because we are followers of Jesus.  

It is time to be public allies with the LGBTQ community because Jesus welcomed everyone, and we are his followers.  

It is time to work hard against climate change specifically because Jesus taught us to love, not just to love flowers and birds, but to love people — like our grandchildren, that will have to live on the planet we leave to them.   

It is time to come out as Christians when we feed the hungry and work to eliminate poverty; we are not just humanists, we are Christians on a journey, following Jesus.  

Yes, we fail.  Yes, we get it wrong.  We freely admit that.  But we serve a God of Grace who does not shame us for our failures, but whose Spirit is working in us at every moment to empower us to keep on the journey with Jesus as our guide.  

We will come out as Christians; not obnoxiously, not arrogantly, but humbly and unabashedly being public followers of Jesus.  

The Message of the Silent Voice

The Message of the Silent Voice

 Sermon on 1 Kings 19:1–4, 8–15a for June 23, 2019, Pentecost 2C. Audio will be here for several weeks.

1 Kings 19:1–4, 8–15a

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

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

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

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

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

I grew up in a Christian home, so the subject of God, what God wants from us, and how God communicates with us has always been present, at some level, to me.  

As children, we take everything literally, and assume that the God-stories we are told are uncontroversial.  Later, most of us realize how problematic, if not impossible that view is.  We also become aware of the way literature works, with its metaphors and symbols.  

We come to understand that the stories we read are often trying to get at the human condition, far below the surface of the narrative.  For example, Little Red Riding Hood is not a literal story, and its purpose is not to warn children about wolves.  It is far deeper than that.

We keep returning to ancient stories for good reasons, even though we often find them troubling.  We realize that in the ancient world, not many people could read and write — most people were peasants who did not have the time, nor the luxury for education.  Writing was expensive.  Before paper, parchment or animal hides (vellum) were labor-intensive to produce.  

It took a great deal of effort to keep stories in circulation and to make them available to the next generation.  Old copies had to be re-copied before they withered away, requiring more investment and more effort.  

So, communities that maintained and transmitted stories through the generations, did not do so lightly.  They saw, in the texts that they handed down, wisdom worth the cost and effort.  

The Violent Contest of the gods

This is helpful to keep in mind as we approach this text about the prophet Elijah.  All texts are situated; this one is situated in ancient Israel.  

Violence was part of that world.  It is not that it was unquestionably good; some writers complained bitterly that they were victims of violence.  But violence was an accepted tool.  If you find that troublesome and problematic, you are in good company here.

This text opens with the threat of violence that Queen Jezebel makes against Elijah, as her vengeance for his violence against the prophets of Baal.  

In the previous story, there was a contest of the gods on Mt. Caramel which Yahweh won.  If you remember, the prophets of Baal set up sacrifices on altars, praying that Baal would send fire from heaven to consume them.  Baal never did.  

Elijah did the same, praying to Israel’s God, Yahweh, and fire fell from heaven.  Afterward, Elijah and his supporters, according to the story, slaughtered hundreds of the competing prophets of Baal.  

Stories like that make us wince at the bloodshed, which they should.  

The Flight Scene

So now, Elijah is fleeing as far away as he can get from Jezebel’s reach.  It is an odd story in many ways.  Elijah’s God has just proven stronger than Baal, but Elijah does not trust God to keep him alive.  So he flees southward.  

He seems utterly despondent, even depressed.  He wants to die.  He spends the night in a cave.  The cave is on Mount Horeb, the other name for Mount Sinai where, long before, Moses had experienced a revelation of God.  In fact, there are a number of parallels between Moses and Elijah in this story.  The contrast does not leave Elijah looking very good.  

Scholars have noticed that Moses’ concern was for his people, while Elijah comes across as completely self-concerned.  There are a number of subtle indications that Elijah is barely doing what God tells him to do, throughout this story; in fact, sometimes ignoring God altogether.  

There is both symbolism and realism in this story.  Elijah is on the mountain, like Moses, and will soon encounter God, as we read in this eerie, dream-like story.  

But there is a psychological realism at work as well.  Elijah is ambivalent about his prophetic vocation, about whether he can trust God or not, about the value of his life, and about how obedient he is willing to be.  

God tells him to come out of the cave and “stand on the mountain before the Lord,” but after the scary manifestations of power and the silence that followed, we read that “Elijah went out and stood at the entrance of the cave” — which means that he had not come out  before, when God told him to.

Maybe we don’t want to, but we can see ourselves in this ambivalent prophet.  Someone once said that most people want to be good, but not all the time.  That is probably true.  Most of us want to think that we are people of faith, acting in good faith, putting our trust in God.  That is probably true, to some extent.  But we have our limits.  Sometimes we get ego-centric.  God’s ways are not always our ways, if we are honest.  So, let’s not throw stones at Elijah.  

The Revelation

So the story continues: in spite of Elijah’s resistance and reluctance, God is not finished with him.  That is good news, for Elijah, and for us.  

So God wants to reveal Godself.  This is where this story gets so interesting.  When Moses was on that same mountain, many years earlier, God was revealed, the story says, in that the mountain quaked with thunder and lightning, and was covered in the thick smoke of God’s presence, and finally Moses heard God’s voice.  (Exodus 19)

Similarly, in this story, there are signs that nature has come unhinged: there was a mountain-splitting, rock-breaking wind, an earthquake, and a fire.  But unlike before, these were not the signs of the presence of God.  The text keeps repeating, “But the Lord was not in the wind…the Lord was not in the earthquake, the Lord was not in the fire.” And there was no voice.

Elijah had just recently experienced God in the fire that fell from heaven on Mt. Caramel to burn up his sacrifice; a feat which the prophets of Baal could not compete with.  But is that how we should expect God to be present; in miracles and displays of divine intervention?  Is that how it has worked for you?

I don’t know what your life experience is, but in mine, people who claim to produce God-miracles have mostly turned out to be phonies.  Anyway, the miracle on Mt. Caramel did not produce confident trust for Elijah.  

The Sound of Sheer Silence

The story reaches its climax with a conundrum.  God manifests Godself, it says, “in a sound of sheer silence.”  Silence makes no sound.  This is similar to a Zen koan, like “the sound of one hand clapping” — it is a cul-de-sac for the mind, with no way out.  The sound of God, is silence.  

I believe that this insight is one of the reasons this story was written and treasured and handed down through the generations.  It is in silence, not in flashy miracles, that we encounter God.  

Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine and the creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School wrote a book entitled, “Wherever You Go, There You Are.”  And that is the problem.  Wherever we are, our egos are there.  

All we need do to understand that is to try to be silent for a few minutes.  All kinds of thoughts immediately flood our minds.  There are things we need to do, there are memories we start ruminating about; we re-play past conversations and imagine future ones.  We become aware of our hunger or pain.  We imagine what others are thinking about us and whether we are adequately appreciated; we justify everything we have done.  Just try to be silent, and you find the ego there, chattering away.

Elijah was an ego-centric prophet.  He did some good, but even that was not enough to keep him from despair.  In the end, he got the message, but did he hear it?  The text is ambiguous.  God gives him three tasks, of which he will accomplish only one.  But those are stories for another time.

Learning from Silence

Anyone who has tried to be silent, for example, in meditation, knows how strong the ego-voice is.  But in meditation, we learn to say no to that ego voice.  We learn to die to the demands of our self-interested self.  Strangely, as we do, we become more attuned to the presence of God.  We find God “in the sound of sheer silence.

And then, after some time of learning silence, we notice that our egos have less power over us.  We become less ego-focused, less self-conscious, less selfish.  We become more other-focused, more compassionate, more forgiving, in fact, more loving.  That is the treasure of this text.  

I believe that when we have learned the secret of the practice of silence, we see things differently.  We see ourselves with more generosity and self-compassion.  

We see other people differently; things that used to irritate us about people we live with can become endearing characteristics; we are willing to let go of the irritation.  Insults are far less painful because we recognize that our true self, who we are as children of God, cannot be insulted; only our false self can be.  

I believe that those who have learned the secret of the practice of silence, and who have experienced letting go of the ego, see the world differently.  We are less ready to need scapegoats and blame targets.  We care about suffering.  We care about injustice, but we are not motivated by resentment.  

We care about the things that are happening that cause pain now, and the things that are going to cause more suffering in the future.  

So we care about the broken systems that produce results that cause suffering: immigration systems that treat people like animals, criminal justice systems that produce mass incarceration of people of color,  economic systems that create  massive wealth disparity, and all the systems that impact our planet’s ability to sustain human life.   

We care about every manifestation of discrimination, because we care about the real people who suffer it.  And as people who care, we turn our caring into action on behalf of others.  

Jesus and Silence

I believe that Jesus learned the lessons of this text. He spent time in silence; that was his habit.  And from the silence, he learned to see God everywhere — from the lilies of the field to the “least of these” in need of compassion.  

Jesus truly was a person-for-others; a person who was not ego-driven.  That was why he was so giving, going out of his way to bring God’s healing grace to people, even to the people who had gotten themselves lost, modeling for them the inclusive love and restorative justice of God.  

Jesus, then, is the lens through which we look at the stories of the Hebrew Bible.  Jesus rejected violence, so we read these stories of violence, knowing that there is a better way.  We read stories of ego-driven people, understanding that there is a more faithful way to live.  

But while we see things in these text that need to be left behind, we take the lessons of these ancient texts to heart.  We, like Jesus, find God in silence.  And finding God there, we then find the people that he loves, and we let God love them through our lives of humble compassion, and fearless justice.  

What is the Spirit Doing?

What is the Spirit Doing?

Sermon for June 9, 2019, Pentecost Sunday, year C. Audio can be found here for a few weeks.

John 14:8-17, 25-27

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

“Very truly, I tell you, the one who trusts in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Sermon   What is the Spirit Doing

We just lost a bright young woman in her 30’s, a mother of two, a New York Times bestselling author, blogger, speaker, and bright beacon: Rachel Held Evans.  She died of a severe allergic reaction to antibiotics.  

Her work helped many people of her generation as they struggled with faith and science, faith and diversity, faith and gender and sexuality, faith and the institutional church itself.  She was always gracious and generous with people she disagreed with.  Many of us will miss her.  

I know that she is probably not well known to most of us here — the issues of her generation are not most of our issues — most of us of an older generation.  But I wanted to begin this Pentecost sermon with Rachel because I want to briefly discuss what I believe the Spirit is doing in the world today, and she was a great example.

Millennial Values

Rachel was a millennial.  They look at many things differently.  These are strange days.  We are living in the middle of a sea change in our culture.  We can see it happening, but no one can predict where it will end.  

The one example that is so relevant to us is the huge rise in people who are called “the nones and dones.”  When asked by opinion pollsters what their religion is, they say “none”.  And as for participation in an institutional church, they are “done” with it.  

Rachel started life as an Evangelical, but as she confronted gender issues like equality of gender roles in marriage, the role of women in ministry, she grew more uncomfortable there.  

Then there were the issues of science and faith; she was learning about evolution, but she was in a church that thought the creation story in the bible should be read literally.  She became aware that some of her gay friends were not welcome in her church, which she found increasingly problematic.  

As I said, these are not our issues.  The Presbyterian Church (USA) dealt with all of these already — many of them decades ago, if not longer.  Rachel would have been a very comfortable Presbyterian, in my opinion.  In fact, her journey away from evangelicalism eventually led her to become Episcopalian — a church quite similar to Presbyterians on these topics.  I took that same journey myself, and, happily, ended up here.  

Anyway, on her journey, as she wrote about her issues and struggles with faith and the church, she helped thousands of people in her generation who were having the same struggles.  This is a movement.  Surveys report that although so many millennials are “done” with the institutional church, a great many consider themselves SBNRs — Spiritual, but not religious.  They have a deep longing for transcendence and spirituality, they just do not believe they will find it in their parents’ churches.  

The Spirit of truth — unmasking falseness

This is not bad news for me.  I believe this is, in fact, a movement of the Spirit.   Why?  Because as John’s community intuited so long ago, the Spirit is moving in a particular direction.  In their version of the Jesus-story, Jesus calls the Spirit, the “Spirit of truth” whom, he goes on to say, “will teach you everything….”  

I believe we Presbyterians have been listening hard to the Spirit and, consequently, we have been led to the truth by the Spirit’s teaching in many ways.  Many, many years ago, we heard the Spirit of truth teaching us about science, and we opened our hearts and minds to serious biblical scholarship.  Together these tools led us away from a rigid literalism to a more spacious appreciation of our ancient wisdom tradition. 

We were able to learn the truth about structural racism in the civil rights movement and we got on the right side of that issue.  We heard the truth from the Spirit of truth about women, and so we changed our constitution to require balance on our sessions and we started ordaining women for ministry.  Women will account for five of the twelve new session members after today’s installation service.  

We have heard the Spirit teaching us that although the majority of people are attracted to people of the opposite gender, and thus for so long, we have lived in a culture of, what they call, heteronormativity, nevertheless, other people are born to be attracted to the same gender.  We have learned to affirm and celebrate their love and bless their unions.  

Authenticity

Rachel Held Evans was as genuine and authentic as they come.  Authenticity is a major issue for millennials.  Characteristically, they despise pretension and hypocrisy.  They unmask power-plays and discrimination of all kinds.  This is one reason they have fled from so many institutional churches.  

But again, I think this is a positive movement of the Spirit.  And, I believe, we can be and are a church that is committed to authenticity. Our spirituality is not merely formal and institutional.  

We do not claim perfection, but when we come together in public worship we always have moments of honest confession of our shortcomings.  To be honest, I think our church is perfect for millennials, although it might take them a while to get used to our music and liturgy.  I’m encouraged by the fact that Rachel discovered the Episcopal church and fell in love with the sacraments and the liturgy.  

From Christian to Jesus Follower

There are so many good, positive and hopeful things that I believe I see the Spirit doing in these turbulent days, but I want to mention just one more.   There is a new movement of people who are uncomfortable with the label “Christian” because of all the baggage it has acquired from Constantine to the Crusades, and from the rich televangelists, to the clergy sex-abuse scandals.  

But these people want to be followers of Jesus.   Today there is an outpouring of books, seminars, conferences, festivals, music, blogs and videos by people who are calling us back to the true fountain of our faith, back to Jesus.  This, I believe, is a movement of the Spirit.  

This is exactly what should have always happened, according to our Pentecost text from the Gospel of John.  We see it clearly in the story of the dialogue between Philip and Jesus.  

“Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

God is invisible and infinite; beyond our human capacity to correctly conceive.  But we can see Jesus, at least we see versions of him, through the stories recorded in our gospel texts.  Whatever God is like, God must be at least as compassionate as Jesus; at least as inclusive as Jesus, at least as forgiving like Jesus.  So to understand God, in our tradition, we go to Jesus, as John’s gospel tells us to do.  

So, in these days, we are waking up to the fact that Jesus never made his people swear allegiance to a creed.  Our liturgy of ordination and installation requires it — should it?  Jesus never built a church or told us we had to sit in rows.  Jesus never laid out a liturgy for us to follow beyond the Lord’s Supper and Baptism.  So, while we love our traditions and find all of this meaningful, we know that it is all here because of historical development over time.  

We could do things differently, and that would be okay.  We do not turn our noses up at people who worship in different styles.  When we set our sights on following Jesus, rather than the layers and layers of traction that have built up around him, we will be getting back to the true fountain of our faith.  This is happening; this is what the Spirit is doing. 

So, on this Pentecost Sunday, let us rejoice in the Spirit, our advocate, the Spirit of truth, the one who prays for us, binds us together, and leads us into an uncertain but hopeful future. 

Oneness

Oneness

Sermon on John 17:20-26 for June 2, 2019, Easter 7C. Audio can be found here for several weeks.

 John 17:20-26

[Jesus said:] “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

“Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

I just finished reading Austin Channing Brown’s book I’m Still Here.”  It is a wonderful and beautifully written book, but painful to read, as a white person, because she describes what it feels like to live as a black person, specifically a black woman who has to negotiate white spaces.  

My subject today is not racism, but as I was reflecting on our text for today, a passage from her book seemed poignant.  In the book, she includes a letter she wrote to her son, as he was developing in her womb.  She wants him to know that he is loved by her and her husband.  They will raise him, she writes, to know that he has respect and dignity, that he is valuable, and that he has gifts to give to the world.  

But she also knows that it will not be easy for him to grow up as a black man in America.  How old will he be, she wonders, before he is made to feel inferior?  She will not be able to protect him from that.  But she will try to instill in him a sense of his own worthwhileness at a deep level before it happens.  

Imagine growing up without those positive affirmations.  Imagine growing up being told you were bad, or unworthy (maybe some of you did grow up that way?).  

Imagine growing up thinking of yourself as a deeply flawed person, who deserves to be treated badly.  We all know that if a child was raised that way, she would need a lot of time and work to heal from the damage it would cause.  

Original What?

But here is the tragedy that we are all living with: we were all told of our unworthiness and flawed nature, right here in the church.  We were told that our original condition is sinful.  

We were told by our pastors and teachers, and even by our creeds that we are entirely tainted by original sin, so that we are separated from God.  

We were told that God, our judge, would punish us, and that we deserved it — even with hell, forever — unless we were saved by grace.  

But how you can feel a baby kicking in your womb and imagine her already sinful?  How you can look into the eyes of a newborn and see original sin? It is — or should be — unimaginable.  

That is what fourth-century theologian Pelagius taught.  He was a Celtic Welshman.  He taught that our original condition was beloved by God.  He taught that our nature is sacred.  We are wounded, of course, and in need of healing, by God’s grace.  But Christ, he said, restores us to our true depths.  

All of this is described beautifully in John Phillip Newell’s book “Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation.”

Two Competing Visions 

Pelagius’ ideas were condemned by the Roman church.  He was banned from Rome, his writings forbidden, and eventually, he was excommunicated as a heretic.  

Augustine, the winner in that theological debate, was a champion of the doctrine of original sin.  We got it from Adam’s first sin, he said, and it has literally been passed down through the father’s side during reproduction, so that all of us carry that contaminated condition.  

(Some of us may take issue with the historical and scientific assumptions required by his view, even beyond the theological issues it raises.)  

But Augustine’s theology of original sin, as it turned out, was a much more convenient doctrine for the Roman Empire to hold, as it conquered its enemies.  It is easier to kill someone whom God condemns and who deserves to go to hell, than to kill someone whom God loves and cherishes.  

Pelagius, however, continued to write and teach, and that more generous and positive Celtic Christianity grew and thrived for several centuries until the Roman mission finally arrived in their area.  

Celtic Christian communities, like the one on Iona, in present-day Scotland, had produced beautiful liturgies and prayer books that celebrated God’s good creation, including God’s good creation of humans in God’s own image.  

In the seventh century, the Roman church banned that prayer book and called the Celtic Christians heretics.  There have been waves of suppression ever since.  But Celtic Christianity has never been eliminated, and today flourishes again on Iona and in many communities around the world.  

Mystical Comments from the Upper Room

So that is how we got here today.  The original sin side won.  But that did not have to happen.  The gospel text for today, and so many other texts of scripture, tell a far different story from Augustines’s story of original sin.   Let us look at this text.

The setting is the upper room, on the night before Jesus’ arrest.  Scholars call John chapters 13—17 the Upper Room Discourse.  Unique to John’s gospel are these lengthy speeches by Jesus.  Much of this speech comes in the form of a prayer.  The writer, (we will call him John, though it may have been a team effort) pictures Jesus praying to God.  By this literary device, we come to hear John’s version of Christianity.  

John is clearly a mystic.  He believes that in prayer we have direct access to the Divine, whom he understands in mystical, but also personal ways.  In other words, we have a relationship with God.  In fact, the relationship is familial: God is pictured — in that admittedly patriarchal world — as “father.”

So John pictures Jesus in prayer, describing this relationship to his father as perfect unity: oneness.  Jesus prays:

“As you, Father, are in me and I am in you…”  

They call this “mutual indwelling”.  Jesus dwells in God, just as God dwells in Jesus.  But this mutual indwelling is not unique to Jesus and God.  Jesus’ prayer tells us that this mutual indwelling extends to Jesus’ followers as well:

“…may they also be in us… so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one….”

Jesus goes even further.  The best shorthand way to describe God, or the Divine, is the word “glory.”  It means something like pure radiance.  Glory is what God has.  But Jesus says that because of mutual indwelling, it is what we all have.  He says,

“The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one…” 

Participants in the Divine Nature

In other words, we all participate in the divine nature.  If you think that sounds dangerously close to heresy, it means that you have been raised in the Augustinian tradition which ignores and even denies this.  But listen to how explicit is in 2 Peter 1:

“[God’s] divine power has given us everything needed…so that you…may become participants of the divine nature.”

Richard Rohr famously said that if your religion is not helping you to know, understand, and live in union with God, then you need to get a new religion.  

Now, so far, this all may sound simply mystical and impractical to us, but let’s let the other shoe fall.  This affects everything!

So let us go back to Austins’ baby boy who is going to grow up hearing “I love you” from his mother and father.  He is going to grow up hearing, “You are beautiful, you are valuable, you have gifts to give the world, you were made in God’s image, just the way you are, from your skin color to your genetic code.”  

That will go with him his whole life long, and give him the fortitude and resilience he will need, to handle whatever the world throws at him.  

And that is exactly the message we all need to keep hearing from God.  If you could see yourself as God sees you, you would see something glorious — something radiant and beautiful.  And you would know that you are dwelling in God, just as God is dwelling in you.  How could that not affect every moment of every day of your life?  

Essential Relatedness

And there is more.  That mutual indwelling, that oneness also connects us with each other.  We are fundamentally one with each other, just as we hear Jesus pray,

“I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one….”

So, every single relationship is a relationship of oneness, not separateness. This is not just mystically irrelevant.   If we knew that, if we lived like that, how could that not affect every aspect of our lives?  

How could we ever hold grudges or become bitter and resentful if we understood our essential unity?  How could we ever allow people to live in poverty, or without adequate housing, or without sufficient food, clean water, and health care if we understood our essential unity?  

How could we ever execute them or go to war with them, or turn them away when they come to our borders in desperation?  How could we throw away most of their lives in prisons for non-violent offenses?  

In short, how could we not be people of compassion and champions of restorative justice, if we knew that we were beloved, glorious, and one with God, and with each other?  

Richard Rohr’s ministry in Arizona is called the Center for Contemplation and Action.  He named it according to his understanding that Contemplation leads to Action.  

He explains that in contemplation, in silent meditation, we lose the ego-control that otherwise dominates our thinking, and we become awake to our belovedness and oneness with God.  When that happens, we become more compassionate and we take action to help others.  

The Two Mountains

Rohr likes to describe the two halves of life, that characterize the journey from our sense of ego-driven separateness to that non-dual sense of oneness.  Recently David Brooks has written a book called “The Second Mountain: the Quest for a Moral Life.”  He describes nearly the same sequence with the metaphor of climbing two mountains in life.  He describes nearly the same sequence with the metaphor of climbing two mountains in life.  

The first mountain is all about establishing your identity, your career, your place in the world.  The second mountain is about the meaning of your life and what you will leave behind of lasting value.  

The first mountain is a very individualistic mountain.  The second mountain is all about your sense of connection with others.  On the first mountain, you may manage people.  On the second mountain, you want to mentor people.  Happiness may be found, in moments, on the first mountain, but lasting joy comes from climbing the second.  

Our gospel text challenges us to climb the second mountain, in which we understand the profound inter-connectedness we share with all things; people, God, the entire biosphere, and even the cosmos.  

It is God “in whom we live and move and have our being” as scripture says.  We are beloved.  And we are here to make sure everyone else can live the life of the glorious beloved community as well.  It is not a fantasy of the mystics; it is what we believe is most true: we are one.

The Right Peace

The Right Peace

Sermon for May 26, 2019, Easter 6C. An audio version will be here for several weeks.

John 14:23-29

Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

“You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.”

More than once this past week I have been among people who have commented on how crazy things seem to be right now.  Some people have told me they try not to hear any news at all because it is all so upsetting.  But it is on in the doctor’s office waiting room, it is playing in the hair salon; it is not easy to escape.  Besides, escape cannot be the best option, in my opinion.  Not to know, means not to be able to do anything about it.  But being aware of what is going on in the world and domestically, including locally, can be upsetting — and maybe should be upsetting, to people who care about peace and justice, who take freedom and fairness, and the climate crisis seriously.

Peace is Complicated

The subject today in John’s gospel is peace.  This is good timing for people like us in times like these.  But peace is complicated. I believe there is right-peace and wrong-peace.  So it is important to see what wisdom we can find in John’s gospel to help us understand and seek, and find, the right peace.

In John’s gospel, we hear Jesus speaking, but if you have been here for the last few weeks you have heard me say something about the way most Biblical scholars understand this gospel.  Written at least six decades after Jesus walked the earth, we do not have the literal words of Jesus, but the memory of Jesus, processed through a community of faith that has been formed by the quest to follow Jesus in their context.  

This is a community that has experienced Jesus’ presence spiritually, just as we do.  They have come to find great peace by paying attention to Jesus’ teaching.  They have experienced the presence of the Spirit with them.  They call the Spirit, in this translation, the Advocate — someone who is there for you at the right time, providing exactly the help you need at that moment.  

I think many of us have experienced those same things.  Some of you have told me about moments you have had of sensing the presence of the Spirit in a time of need, and the peace that the Spirit brings.  That is the right kind of peace.  It is the sense we have, even when things are not at all what we expected or wanted, that we will get through it; it will be okay.   God is with us, by the Spirit, and all will be well.  You could call this kind of peace equanimity. 

The Peace of Avoidance

So if that is the right kind of peace, what is the wrong kind?  I think there are many wrong kinds of peace.  I already mentioned the peace you might try to get by putting your head in the sand and trying not to be engaged.  I think all of us agree that part of being a person of faith is that we sense that we have been addressed.  We sense that at a deep level, we have been called.  Our lives then are our response to that address, that call.  Following the teaching of Jesus means that we feel the call to compassion, the call to forgiveness, the call to seek justice, the call to be in relationship with a beloved community that makes a difference in the world. So, the peace of ignorance and avoidance, if it were possible, is the wrong kind of peace.

The Peace of Privilege

There is another kind of peace that is the wrong kind to seek; that is the peace of the privileged.   We, white people, are privileged.  The only people who do not understand that are white people.  Let me give you a trivial example.  In the interest of not using plastic bags, have you ever turned one down at the cash register because you were just buying one or two things and you could easily carry them without a bag?  I heard a black comedian who did a routine on how taking things out of a store without a bag was a white option, not a black option.   It was funny, as he described it — even asking the cashier not only for a bag but also to staple it, and to staple the receipt to the outside, just to be safe. But it’s really not funny at all.  They say that humor is based in pain: that routine clearly is. 

Individual Reconciliation 

It turns out that we progressively-minded, privileged people all agree that we want racial reconciliation.  That’s a good thing, right?  We want to get along and be nice.  We want peace.  But what people of color want more than reconciliation, is justice.  Making nice is not usually the top priority of people in the power-down position.  

In fact, the kind of reconciliation that we privileged white people usually seek is personal and individual.  We are proud that we have some friends who are people of color.  We are happy that we work with, and shop with, and share restaurants and entertainment with them.  We wish them no ill-will.  And we think that because individually, we are actually living the kind of reconciliation we seek, that everything should be okay.

In the meantime, to give just one example, the criminal justice system is producing mass incarceration with all of the implications for the entire black community.  And this illustrates why privileged, individual peace, is the wrong kind of peace: racism is structural and systemic, not just personal.  Only privileged white people don’t know that.  So seeking individual reconciliation, without doing the hard, long work of seeking justice on a systemic and structural level, is seeking the wrong kind of peace.  

Peace for the Fragile

When the subject of racism comes up, it is easy to ruffle the feathers of white people.  We progressively-minded people want to think of ourselves as noble, and it hurts our feelings when someone points out that we have just done something racially offensive, or that we have been willingly complicit in racist systems.  This is called white fragility.   Black people who have to interact with white people attest to how much energy they spend trying not to upset fragile white people.  

I have been reading Austin Channing Brown’s book, “I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness” which is eye-opening and disturbing.  I wish all of us would read it.  In a chapter on white fragility, she recounted an experience she had after teaching a class on race and faith.  Austin, by the way, is a black woman.  A white man, who had come in late and missed most of the content, saw a post-it note on the wall — part of an activity the class had done before he got there.  It had Travon Martin’s name on it.  He got all red-faced and started shouting at Austin all kinds of incorrect and mistaken ideas, as if he knew about black men and black neighborhoods better than she did.  So, clearly, he was a pretty fragile white person.  

But Austin said that as her white colleagues discussed the incident with her afterward, they started by being sympathetic to what she had gone through — clearly the man was out of line — but then the conversation shifted to all the things she could have said that would have helped him calm down.  White fragility puts the responsibility on the black people in the room to make sure that the fragile white people in the room do not feel uncomfortable.  The white people want peace in the room, on an individual basis, and the black people are responsible for it.  That is called seeking a privileged peace.  That is the wrong kind of peace.

Racism comes from fear.  Fear of the loss of privilege; fear of loss of control; fear of things being different than they had been for us, fear of losing our majority and all the benefits that have come from it for so long.  

But fear can be resisted, and we have been called to resistance.  In this text, we hear Jesus described as saying,

“Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Do not let fear control you.  Do not let fear win.  There is way too much at stake here.  Resist fear.

How?  Jesus said, 

“the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”

So, our task is to listen.  Our task is to regularly practice the kinds of spiritual practices that tune our ears to hear the voice of the Spirit teaching us and reminding us of Jesus’ words and Jesus’ way.  Practices, like mindfulness meditation, silence, prayer, and what we are doing right now: meeting together to orient ourselves toward gratitude to God, which is what we call worship, these are practices that tune us in to the voice of the Spirit.  

The fruit of these practices is the right kind of peace.  Jesus said, 

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”

That kind of peace is the kind that conquers fear.  It is the sense that though what is happening may be difficult, or worse, we will be able to handle it.  It is the peace that produces that counter-narrative in our heads, that tell us, it will be okay.  We have not been abandoned.  God is present.  The Spirit of God is in us and around us.  It will be alright.  All will be well.

So we can face structural racism, with courage, and peacefully work to dismantle it.  We can face our own fragility with courage and know that the Spirit can help us to become better versions of ourselves, as we keep listening, and learning.