What the World Needs Now

Sermon for World Communion Sunday, October 4, 2015, on Ephesians 3:14-21

Ephesians 3:14-21

I bow my knees before the Father,  from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.  I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit,  and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.  I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth,  19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine,  to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

On this World Communion Sunday, I feel blessed in many ways, none the least of which is that I have had the opportunity to DSC04923worship with Christians in so many places around the world.  One year before we had children we spent the summer in Kenya where we worshiped with African congregations in a wide variety of denominations from Anglican and Presbyterian to Wesleyan and Baptist.  I have worshiped with Romanian and Croatian Pentecostals, Baptists and Catholics and with Serbian Orthodox Christians, and often with Hungarian Reformed believers.

Once I even got to worship with Palestinian Lutherans in Bethlehem, hearing hymns that I knew in English, being  sung in Arabic. I have worshiped in Latin America too, and maybe someday I will get to go to Asia and experience worship there.   Anticipating this World Communion Sunday has reminded me of these experiences of the global church.  It is wonderful that within our walls each Sunday a group of Christians come to worship in Portuguese.

The Basis of Our Unity

What is it that we Christians around the world share in common?  Often, on World Communion Sunday, churches will say the Nicene Creed.  This is the one creed still affirmed by all the major Christian traditions: Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant.

But is that creed and what it proclaims the basis of our unity?  This needs to be heard very clearly: the answer is No.  Our unity as Christians does not come from shared belief in a creed about Christ, it comes from Christ alone.   Let me say this more Jesus' feetclearly; Jesus is at the heart of our faith.

And this is why I have hope for the future.  I believe we are living in an extraordinary time now in which Christians are re-discovering Jesus.  There are so many books being published now about Jesus; I have never seen such an outpouring.  There are seminars, conferences, festivals, and blogs by the hundreds – probably thousands (who knows?) focused on Jesus.

I am so thankful for this.  It has often been pointed out that the creeds completely leave out the life and teachings of Jesus.  All that we get between the statement that he was born of the virgin Mary and suffered under Pontius Pilate is a comma.  If a comma can be tragic, that is a tragic comma.

It is tragic because it is not belief in the the virgin birth or the ascension to the father that give us a reason to get out of bed in the morning.  It is certainly not the cryptic line about Jesus descending to hell (which, by the way, was added centuries later) that gives us the courage to face the coming week with joy and hope.

And none of the lines of the creeds tell us how to live.  None of them mentions what the life of a Christian is supposed to look like and be like.

The First 324 Years

If we stopped for a moment on World Communion Sunday to ask what it was that gave the Church its character, its grounding, its sense of purpose in the 324 years before the conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine and the council he called at Nicea, in other words, before the Nicene Creed became the officially orthodox statement that defined Christianity from then on, there is only one answer: Jesus.

The book of Acts says that Christians were first called Christianos or “Christians” in Antioch.  Christianos literally just means “belonging to Christ” as for example a slave would belong to a master; the ending indicates possession, like an apostrophe +s in English.

But before being called Christians, they were called people of “The Way” which means the path – the Jesus path (see Acts 24:14).  To be a Christian was simply to be on the Jesus path; the way of life that Jesus opened up for us and on which he leads us.

Teaching the Jesus PathScreen Shot 2015-10-03 at 12.45.29 PM

In our Wednesday night youth program, this is our focus.  On the wall, from floor to ceiling is an artist’s rendering of a path.  It’s the Jesus path poster.  Each week we add a new footstep on the path.  We are teaching our young people to be people of the Way; the Jesus way.

Being a COG

And it is this Way that will give them reasons to get out of bed in the morning and courage to face the day ahead.  The first footprint we made was the one that says who we are, our identity.  Jesus taught us to approach God as our Father, so the first step is knowing that we are COG’s, children of God, and that nothing in the world can ever change that.

That is what the letter to the Ephesians says:

“I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.”  

On World Communion Sunday we celebrate our common identity as humans: we are all children of God; every family on earth.  If Genesis 1 and 2 means anything, it means we are all one family, for we share one common origin.

Prayers to PapaScreen Shot 2015-10-03 at 12.48.22 PM

Step two on the Jesus path is called “Prayers to Papa”.  Jesus taught us to pray to our father in heaven, calling him “Abba” or papa.  Papa knows we need daily bread, and he invites us to trust him to provide it.

This is part of the revolutionary nature of the Jesus path.  It is perhaps subtle, but understand what this simple prayer is an alternative to:  to an orientation to God based on fear.  The picture of God as Papa is an alternative to a picture of a God who is so full of wrath and so interested in punishing that an animal must be sacrificed at a temple by a priest in order to remove guilt and shame.  That all goes away when we can know that God is for us, not against us, and that our Papa wants to be in communion with us, even over the mundane aspects of our lives like daily bread.

This is what gives us all the courage to get out of bed and face a new day.  We trust that God will be there for us and with us, in all of the events of the day.  God will not magically make everything go to our liking, but God will be there in the difficulty, in the struggle, even in the tragic.  We can trust God, as Jesus demonstrated, all the way to the end, even at our deaths.

Jesus did not live the life of a secluded hermit.  The God whom he called Abba, he knew, was not his own private deity.  Rather, God is the father of all humanity, and wills the good for all of humanity as well.  So Jesus lived a life for others; on behalf of others.  This too is an essential part of the Jesus path.

Compassion: love in actionScreen Shot 2015-10-03 at 12.52.32 PM

So, the third footprint we put on the Jesus path poster proclaims the kind of life Jesus taught us to live: Compassion.   Compassion, caring, mercy, or simply love in action is the  Jesus Way of life.  There is no better way to summarize it.  Jesus lived a life of compassion and caring and calls us to live lives of compassionate caring.  This is fundamental.

That is why I chose the Ephesians text for World Communion Sunday.  Not only does it assert the Fatherhood of God, it also proclaims the basis of the Christian way of life.  The author says:

“I pray that, … [God] may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.”

What is the soil that grounds us, that our living roots go down into for nourishment?  It is love.  It is not dogma.  It is not a creed.  It is love that we see exemplified in Jesus, who gave himself for us; love in action; compassion.

The song got it right: what the world needs now is love; not another creed, but rather a movement of people whose agenda is to put compassion into action and to   love as Christ loved.

So, we are participating in a project to provide for the refugees fleeing violence and hopelessness in Syria and other places.  Compassion; love in action.  That is the Jesus path.

Compassionate Action for the Common Good

Sometimes compassion calls us in to action on behalf of others.  Compassion for people leads us to stand up for justice for people who are being treated unfairly.  Compassion means that we hold people who are in positions of power responsible to use their power ethically and compassionately.

Compassion leads us to work and strive for the common good so that we all may share the benefits of a just and equal society.  Compassion means we stand solidly against the use of violence as a means.  We respect all human life and work to protect the safety of every person.

We grieve that we are a society that is so violent.  We grieve for the ways violence has become an acceptable norm.  We longScreen Shot 2015-10-03 at 11.59.16 AM for the days when families will reject violent entertainment, violent video games, films filled with violence, and super-heroes whose powers enable their cosmic-scale violence.

We grieve with the people of Umpqua and for the tragic fact that they are not alone.  We grieve that there have been 294 mass shootings – in which four or more people were killed or injured by a gun – so far in 2015.  It is not anywhere within reason to accept that 9,956 people have been killed by firearms so far this year in our country – three times the number of people killed on 9/11.

We do not believe that simply making laws alone will change this – Oregon’s gun laws are quite strong – though certainly a lot more could be done to bring normal caution to the kind of unfettered access we have in so many places.

But the change we seek must be deeper.  As people on the Jesus path, we must be people who believe in the power of love and compassion, and who therefore reject violence as a solution.  We have become a culture of violence.  Let us be people of an alternative way to live; the Jesus alternative.

Call to our Roots

On this World Communion Sunday, let us hear a call to return to our roots.  Just as it was for the first three centuries of Christianity before the creeds were written, so today, what unites us as Christians is Jesus.  We are followers of Jesus.  Knowing ourselves as children of of God, we seek to be followers of Jesus, rooted and grounded in love.

This is what we celebrate as we come to the Lord’s Table.  The bread that we break is a symbol of our unity: one bread, the body of Christ, given for the world.  One cup, poured out so that all may know that God is still giving God’s self to each of us, as Ephesians says, so that we all may be

“strengthened in our inner beings with power through his Spirit”


Life in the Shockingly Important Community

Sermon on Mark 9:38-50 for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, September 27, 2015

Mark 9:38-50
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

“If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Our quest is to follow the path of life that Jesus laid out for us.  So, to follow the Jesus-path, we study Jesus.  We study his teaching, we study his lifestyle, and we study the people who wrote about Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 9.23.23 AMJesus.

So, understanding Jesus is important to us.  But Jesus does not live in Gulf Shores or even in the United States, and certainly did not live in our time.  So his teaching and his life is contextually situated in quite a different time and place.  He spoke a different language.  So, we get at Jesus by translation and interpretation – there just is no alternative.

Apparently, Jesus was an effective communicator.  He attracted large crowds who gathered, yes for his healing ministry, but also specifically to hear him teach.

What do we know about his teaching style?  He loved stories, which we call parables, he loved nature illustrations, like “lilies of the field, birds of the air, and fish of the sea.” And he used hyperbole, or exaggeration.

Jesus also used humor.  The idea of a camel going through the eye of a needle, for example, probably got a chuckle or two.  Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 9.25.49 AM

Jesus: Exaggeration and Humor

Jesus uses both exaggeration and humor in our text, but it may be a bit lost in translation, so we will look at it closely.  Again, this is important to us, because we are on the Jesus-path.

There is always a risk when you use humor, that it will not be understood as humor.  There is also a risk with exaggeration, that someone will take you literally.

We just had the washing-machine repair man over.  He told me how dangerous it was to work on these machines. He had a deep gash on a finger, and explained to me that you have to open up the machine, to get to its parts, and when you do, all of their razor sharp edges are exposed.  He said, “all of these machines are made by one company: Gillette.”  I laughed.  Imagine, a razor-blade brand making washing machines!   It was both exaggeration and humor.   But, he was saying something true.  He had the deep gash on his finger and the stitches to prove it.

But, anyway, Jesus used humor and exaggeration as teaching tools, and people have been misunderstanding him ever since.  We will look at how he uses these rhetorical devices, but first, just so we can all be clear, let me say how I understand the conclusion:

The point of this teaching is that this community is important.  This community is crucial.  Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 9.29.51 AM

  • It is in this community that you will experience the presence of God.
  • It is in this community that you will become aware of the love of God for you.
  • It is in this community that you will experience your identity as a beloved child of God, a person of value.
  • In this community, you will come to know yourself as both fallible, but also as forgiven.
  • In this community you will find encouragement to stay on the difficult but beautiful Jesus-path; the path of peace, the path of reconciliation, the path of radical welcome and hospitality.
  • In this community you will find hope and meaning.
  • In this community you will find partners to be engaged with in service and projects of mercy and compassion.
  • This community is where your life on earth will be celebrated and remembered when it comes to an end.

This community is crucial.  So, in plain English (wink) Jesus says, in conclusion:

“be at peace with one another.”

The Problem of Being Human

The problem is that every community of people is a human community, and we all have our faults, our issues, our dark sides.  We all have our places of immaturity.  We all have wounds that we still carry around.  We all have life experiences – some have had really difficult experiences – and we bring all of that with us when we come together as a community.

So, inevitably, there will be misunderstandings from time to time.  There will be times we hurt each other.  There will be pain caused to each other.  That is why forgiveness is such a high value in this community.  We pray, every time we meet, that  God will only forgive us to the extent that we practice forgiveness – it is that important.

If this community is going to accomplish its purpose of being all of those crucially important things I just described, we have to all be very intentional about our life together.  And that is the subject of Jesus’ teaching, and the point of his humor and exaggeration here.

So he begins, calling us his “little ones.”

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”

Jesus has spoken of the importance of children in the community, but in this case, he is talking about his little flock, his Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 10.27.30 AMcommunity of Jesus-followers.  It is essential, he teaches, that we not do anything to trip up each other.  We should rather wish to drown ourselves than to be a stumbling block to each other.

Nobody misses the exaggeration here.  The word for millstone is the huge one that the donkey pushes around to grind the wheat into flour.  If you tried to hang it around your neck it would crush you like a bug before you got to the sea to drown yourself in.  So you see, humor, as well as exaggeration here.

But the humor and exaggeration is to make a point: the community of us “little ones” is crucially important: we should all rather die than mess it up.

Who is in this community?  By our very nature, as a Jesus-path following community, we are an open community.  We are willing to be open to everyone.  If you are not against us, Jesus teaches, you are for us.  Our welcome is extended.  Our door is open.   Jesus had to correct John who told him about the exorcist they wanted to shut down.  No, Jesus explained: it is not we who shut the door; we are not that kind of community.

“Cut if off…”

So then, Jesus offers some humorous, exaggerated illustrations to make the point about how important this community is.  He offers a number “if” phrases followed by “causes you to stumble”, followed by graphic, gruesome advice.

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; …And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; …And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out”

Now, we are at church, and in mixed company, and children are present.  So we will not talk about the likely double entendres here.  Suffice it to say that all of them make the same point: it is crucially important to preserve the integrity of this community by our self-disciplined lives together.  We would rather poke out one of our eyes than, by our lack of self-control, cause pain to another person in this little flock.

How do I know there is humor here?  Well, I think the phrase that followed each of these graphic images was meant to be funny.  Jesus says three times, with variation, it would be better to enter life, the life of the kingdom of God as a lame or a blinded than to miss it through inappropriate, harm-causing behavior.  Why is that funny?

Because every Jewish person hearing Jesus would know that the dominant image of people in the kingdom of God is that they are healed and whole.  The lame can walk, the blind receive their sight: there are no people on crutches in the kingdom, because they have been restored.

Now, of course this is not literal.  In fact it is precisely our love for, and care for the differently-abled or wounded among us that brings healing and restoration to them.

Hell?  NoScreen Shot 2015-09-26 at 10.42.22 AM

So now we are ready to hear the final bit of absurdly exaggerated rhetoric here.  Jesus talks about the alternative to life in the kingdom; it is being cast into hell.

Now, if you have come to bible study, you know that the word translated “hell” here is, in Greek, “Gehenna.”  And you also know that Gehenna is a real place.  It is a valley, just over the wall of the city of Jerusalem.  Most likely, in Jesus’ day it was a burning trash dump.  Certainly, that valley had a horrible reputation.  The bible tells us that unfaithful Israelite people burned their children there, sacrificing them to the Canaanite god Molech.

It was also a place dead bodies were dumped during the Babylonian siege of the 6th century after they ran out of places to bury them.  So Gehenna was a place of the dead, a place of fire, and the worst possible place you can imagine ending up.

And, by the time of Jesus, some Greek-influenced people used it as a metaphor for the Greek version of the after-life.

Jesus did not embrace that Greek view of the after life.  This too is gross exaggeration, and perhaps even humor.   But it is for a serious effect.  It would be as bad as going to the Greek version of hell to mess up the life of the community through inappropriate behavior.

And some of you have been a part of communities that were places where harm was done instead of healing; where instead of being more aware of the love of God, of forgiveness, of goodness, the community practiced shaming, condemnation, and control – even some practice thought control (at least “beliefs” control).   And the results are tragic.  It can ruin people’s lives.

The Community of the Jesus-PathScreen Shot 2015-09-26 at 10.44.10 AM

How different is the community of those on the Jesus-path.  This is the path of people who are focused on how we can bring a cup of cold water to each other.  It is the community of people who are well seasoned, who have enough salt in ourselves that we can do the  difficult work of creating and maintaining peace with one another.   And then, as a united community, we find ways of offering water to the thirsty all around us.

Jesus did not come to threaten us with hell.  That whole pagan notion comes to us from Greek and Roman mythology through Plato and Virgil.  God is good; not partially good and partially something else, but totally good.  And God shows up to us as we live in community with each other.   We experience the goodness of God together, as a community.  It is crucially important that we honor and respect each other.  It is essential that we forgive each other.  It is our joy to bless each other with our peaceful words, our mutuality, and our openness.

This is the community that is God’s way of loving and healing the world; the world’s people, and the planet itself.  We are the hands and feet of Christ, the body of Christ, through which the world knows that God loves them.  From the refugees fleeing Syria to the children who show up for tutoring, we are the way God shows justice, mercy, compassion and healing.  It is important.  It is worth risking misunderstanding by means of exaggerated figures of speech to make the point.  So, let us be the people who get the point, and live the Jesus-path.


Life in Perspective: Profit and Los

Sermon on Mark 8:27-38 for Pentecost +16, Year B, September 13, 2015

Mark 8:27-38
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 10.13.47 AM

This past week, one of the presidential candidates got in trouble for using a song at one of his rallies without the permission of the band who recorded it.  The band, REM was not at all pleased that their song, “The End of the World as We Know It” would be used by a person whose politics are about 180 degrees opposite theirs.

Is it the end of the world as we know it?  As you know, I love history – although I am not sure why, because so much of it is so depressing, but anyway, it strikes me that the world we had known has ended with great frequency.

Every war ends the world as it was known before.  We were just watching a documentary about the enormous refugee crisis that followed the First World War.  That war ended the Ottoman Empire on one side and the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the other.  It changed the maps of Europe, the Middle East and Africa.  It was the end of the world as it had been known.

Those changes set up the conflicts of the 20th and now 21st centuries.  Those conflicts continue right up to the present day in which ISIS is fighting to get the old pre-WWI caliphate back.  Refugees by the millions are again on the move.  It is truly the end of the worlds they had known before.

What are we called to be and to do in such times as these?

Wanting the End of the World as they knew itScreen Shot 2015-09-12 at 10.45.57 AM

As Christians, we take our cues from Jesus. Jesus was similarly living in the end of the world as his Israelite community had known it.  Actually, a lot of people wanted the end of the world that they knew; they wanted the Romans gone.   They wanted their old Israelite kingdom back.

There was good reason to want the Romans out.  Rome was a bitterly oppressive imperial power. Roman tribute taxes were oppressive, and their collection system amounted to legalized extortion – and none of it went for schools or health care.

The Romans were not at all reluctant to publicly torture people to death for any and every perceived opposition.  The method they used was called crucifixion: it was as slow and painful a death as had yet been invented.  Rome crucified thousands and thousands.  It was their favorite method of deterrence.

Profiting from, and supporting this Roman occupation, was the aristocracy of Israel, the land-owning class comprised of “the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes.”  They were also the people running the temple, with its additional taxes and obligations.

Jesus Preaches the Kingdom

In this context we find Jesus.  And what is his theme?  The Kingdom.  It is not at all surprising that people flocked to Jesus.  It is also not surprising that they misunderstood him.  When people heard the word “kingdom” they immediately got the idea that Jesus was starting the revolution, as they expected messiah would do.

It is true that Jesus had the mission of bringing to an end to the world that they had known, but not in the way most of them expected.  Jesus was, to be sure, in absolute and defiant opposition to the injustice of the Roman system and opposition to the unjust oppressive Israelite aristocracy who were running it locally.  But Jesus’ opposition was not violent.

As much as Jesus was opposed to the injustice of Rome and the Jewish elite, he was equally opposed to something deeper.  Jesus wanted to bring to an end the world of the violent God of sacrifice and retribution.  Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 11.36.17 AM

For Jesus, God was not known best by a temple and an animal sacrifice.  God is known best when two or three people gather together, and in Jesus’ name, break bread together in a bond of inclusive fellowship.

For Jesus, this is the kingdom of God; a new family – so perhaps we should say kin-dom of God.  A family comprised of people who had been strangers to each other, but who welcomed one another, and became each other’s support system.

Now, it is true that this kindom vision had a very practical side.  Jesus knew, as anyone could see, that violent revolution was coming.  He opposed it, but he knew it was on the way.  So, when it happened, he knew what the Romans would do to suppress it, and he knew it would be brutally violent.  People who followed his non-violent way would desperately need each other as they tried to stay alive.

But in a profound sense, our lives, our deepest experience of what it means to be human, our most profound sense of meaning and purpose still depend on our willingness to embrace Jesus’ kindom vision of a reconciled community.

We were made for each other.  We were made to love and serve each other.  We were not meant to be isolated autonomous individuals or even privately barricaded nuclear families.  The dream of the gated Hollywood mansion style of life is not paradise; unless you are a divorce lawyer.  Rather paradise is the vision of a common table around which are gathered all kinds of common folks, breaking bread and sharing wine together without distinctions.

Anyway, back to the gospel.  Jesus is curious if his disciples, who have been pretty blind to his kindom mission have opened their eyes yet.  So he asks who they think he is.  This is where it gets odd.  They bring out some traditional answers – Elijah, one of the expected prophets.  But then Peter blurts out

“You are the Messiah.”

The weird part is that we know from chapter one that that is the right answer, but Jesus treats it as a mistake, sternly telling him to keep it down.

Then, Jesus talks about himself.  But instead of using the title Messiah, he switches to another title from the Hebrew Bible, calling himself “the Son of Man.”  And every good Jewish child knows that the Son of Man is going to go up to God, the Ancient of Days, and receive from God the right to rule as king; he gets a kingdom.  That is from the book of Daniel.

So, is Jesus ready to be king and put the Romans to the sword after all?  No!  Just the opposite.  Jesus has rejected the notion of a violent God and of violence.  But he is still opposed to injustice.  So the only inevitable conclusion is that if you are going to oppose the violence of injustice non-violently, you will inevitably suffer.

So Jesus predicts the obvious.  He is going to face opposition from the ones with the vested interests in the unjust system, and they will use the means at their disposal to shut him down.  They will kill him.

“the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

Peter is not prepared for this, which leads to his confrontation with Jesus, but Jesus will not be dissuaded.  If you want to fight Rome with violence, even if you won, you would loose.  You would have sold your soul to violence for the sake of a material kingdom.  That would be the greatest loss you could bargain for.

“For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their [essence] life [“soul”]?”

Real life, a life of meaning and purpose, a life that is truly and fully human is a life lived not for self, but for others.  Not for the ego-props of status, power, money, fame, material possessions, but a life that has learned to say no to the ego, no to the false self, no to the small self.  A life lived saying yes to our true identity as children of God, one with God; at one with the God who manifests God’s life in the totality of the world God has made, and every creature in it.

Here is how Jesus put it:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Of course it is a paradox: that is how we know it is true.  It is the non-dual thinking that mystics are capable of.  Loosing life for others is actually gain, while the self-concerned life is loss.

The old paradigm of the God who is opposed to the world of humanity is simply wrong.  For Jesus and Jesus’ followers, it is the end of the world as we knew it.  It is the beginning of the world where the miraculous happens as we are open to finding God in all of the world that traces its common source back to God.

Transforming the Cross

So, in an act of ultimate trust, Jesus will continue to oppose injustice and the inhuman systems that cause such suffering, and he will loose his life in the process.  His willingness not to be dissuaded, even by brutal crucifixion, will take away the one tool that Rome depends on; the deterrence of the death penalty.  Take that away, and they loose.

Jesus’ living, life-giving spirit cannot be killed by Rome.  The cross, their greatest tool of oppression, will come to symbolize the coming of the Son of Man in power, breaking the threat of death, giving rise to new life; the kindom of God; God’s will being “done on earth as it is in heaven”.

This is the life we are called to.  The life lived in the present Spirit of the risen Christ who calls us all into the family of God.  As children of God, members of this diverse family, we come to experience the presence of God in and through each other.  As we break bread together, share life together, journey together, we come to know God at work in our lives.

As we pray and worship, we become alive to the Spirit alive in us.  And as we let go of our egos, our false selves, we open up to the world where God is present in the victims, the refugees, “the least of these.”

Our World as We Know it Now

I have recently been reading a book by Thich Nhat Hanh called “Living Buddha, Living Christ.”   I think he gets Jesus better than a lot of our politicians do.  He says that for Christians,

“The teachings [of Jesus] must be practiced as they were lived by Jesus” (p. 70).  

I think Pope Francis gets Jesus too.  He has recently called on all parishes and all Christian communities in Europe to each Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 1.26.47 PMsponsor one refugee family.  It is a tall order, but the need is huge.  There are already 4 million registered Syrian refugees.  Turkey alone has two million.

Germany is expected to receive 800,000 refugees.  Our country has just announced that the administration intends to take 10,000.  This is a pittance, especially compared with our size, our capacity, and our often-repeated public assertions of Christian values.

Even this tiny number will be opposed, I am sure, by people telling us it will be the end of the world as we know it.  Why is it that so many politicians hire the Chicken Little political consulting firm?  And why do so many smart people get seduced into thinking the sky is falling?  It is beyond me.

But I wonder: if our community here in Gulf Shore were given the opportunity, would we be willing to sponsor a refugee family from Syria?   Would we be willing to help find them a place to live, get them set up with appliances and furniture?  Would we help them get the kids enrolled in school and make sure they had adequate food and clothing?  Would we help make sure they had transportation to doctors and to the grocery store until they could get themselves settled in new jobs?

I actually believe we would be willing.  But I want to hear from you.  I want to be able to have a conversation with session and tell them what I have heard from you all.  Then I want us to pray about how we can respond.

It may be that we will not have that opportunity to personally sponsor a refugee family.  There are, nevertheless, ways we can concretely respond right now, even though, unfortunately, it is help given at a distance from the real humans who are suffering.

But help is needed.  And we are going to be part of that help.

How?  One way is this: “Gift of the Heart Kits”


Being the Community of the Baptized

Sermon on Mark 1:9-11for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, September 6, 2015

Mark 1:9-11

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John iScreen Shot 2015-09-05 at 11.49.02 AMn the Jordan.   And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, or Communion, as we will today, what are we doing?  We are enacting an enormous feast by means of one tiny bit of bread and a small amount of juice.  We reduce a banquet down to its most basic elements: something to eat and something to drink, shared together from a common table.  The feast is represented sacramentally by these small signs.

So, in baptism, a tiny amount of water is the sacramental sign of something much bigger.  We should at least imagine a pool, or even a great body of water, if not an ocean.  The little bit of water we use to sprinkle on the heads of the baptized sacramentally represents a deep pool of water.  It means not one, but two things at once. Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 11.51.08 AM

First, it is a bath; a cleansing.  Baptism is the sign that we are clean before God.  White is the color of baptism, a symbol of purity.  We are forgiven because

“God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”  

Baptism is more than the sign of a cleansing bath, it is also a sign of dying and rising.  Think of your experience of jumping into water on a sunny day.  Above the water everyone is making noise, having fun, laughing, talking, music plays.  But the instant you go under water, it is almost completely still.  Silent like the grave.  Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 11.53.16 AM

And then when your head comes up again back into the day, all the sounds of life return.  The few drops of water we receive at baptism stand for the pool, and going down, we die; coming back up is, then, a resurrection to new life.  It is like being born anew; being born again.

None of us baptized ourselves.  In fact we cannot self-baptize.  It is something we receive.  This too is important.  Just as we receive the water of baptism, so we can only receive the new life that God gives.  That is what grace means: simply receiving what we could never have laid claim to.  It is a gift.

But maybe I am going to fast.  Why would we need to be given baptism, the sign of dying and rising?  Why is death part of the picture, and what is the new life that we are born into?

Self Consciousness
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Think of it this way: we are all self-conscious; self-aware.  We evolved a capacity to see ourselves as selves.  Did this happen because we developed a brain with two chambers, a bi-cameral mind, as some have suggested, one side listening to the other side talking?  Perhaps that is how it happened; but anyway, it happened.

Developing self-consciousness or self-awareness happens to each of us individually in infancy.  When we are born, we do not first realize that we are separate from the world.  But before we can speak, we begin to understand our separateness, first from our mothers, and then from the rest of the world.

For those of you who are coming to the Wednesday evening program, the things I will say now are a preview of one of the best chapters of Marcus Borg’s book, “The Heart of Christianity.”

Separation Anxiety: Self-Concern
As Borg says, the birth of self-consciousness is the birth of the separated self.  And as soon as we become aware of our separateness, we feel anxious about getting our needs met.  What if I cry and no bottle comes?  We become self-concerned.

Self-concern becomes anxiety.  As we grow, we begin to be influenced by the world around us.  Will we succeed in life?  Will we be attractive to others?  Will we have enough to live on?  Are we enough?

The world becomes for us a place of judgment and alienation.  All of the fragile ways we learn to define ourselves by how we measure up, the groups we belong to,  the ideas we support and defend, these are components of what spiritual leaders call our “false self,” our “small self,” our ego.  And it is fragile, which is why it is always defended so defensively.  And even when intact, it is never enough to give us a deep sense of purpose or meaning.  Ask rich and famous, beautiful people.  There must be more.

This sense that we are separate selves who must vouchsafe our own standing and existence in the face of competition and danger is a state into which we have fallen.   This is what we experience as lostness.  Who has not felt like the lost lamb, on her own, outside of the protective fold, separate and alone?  This is the experience we all have of being in exile, away from home and unable to return.

In this state of separateness and lostness, the only thing that our self-awareness does for us is make us wonder who we really are?  Why are we here?  What is our purpose?  Who are we?  What is this “I” that I carry around in me, that both is “me” and somehow leaves me feeling uncomfortable in my own skin?

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This is why baptism is a death.  This old separated anxious identity needs to die so that a new identity may be born.  So the language of the New Testament is full of language of dying and being born again, death and resurrection.  It is the metaphor for personal transformation.

And this is why the cross is at the center of Christianity.  The cross is a place of death that opens the possibility of new life.  Death to the old identity of separateness and lostness, and resurrection to the new identity as beloved children of God.

Jesus went down into the water as John baptized him, and coming up, he heard the voice of God saying, “You are my beloved son.”  Paul tells us that in baptism, we are baptized into Christ and therefore we too are now beloved sons and daughters:

“in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through trust.  As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”   (Gal. 3:26-27)

We who are baptized are baptized into Christ’s death, and raised with Christ to a brand new identity: the identity of children of God. That is our true self, so much more resilient and free than our fragile false self.

OnenessScreen Shot 2015-09-05 at 12.13.20 PM
So, we are not separate selves.  We are one with God.  It turns out that the sense of separateness and lostness was an illusion.  Being baptized into Christ means that we are one with God, and one with each other.  We are now the community of the baptized, and there is no separation that makes any sense anymore.  As Paul puts it,

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  (Gal. 3)

In baptism, we die to the old self-concerned self, and rise as a part of the body of Christ.  Paul often spoke of being “in Christ” but sometimes spoke of being “in the Spirit.”  The two mean virtually the same.  We live “in Christ” by the Spirit of Christ who is living in each of us.

Paying Attention to the SpiritBaptism window

As we pay attention to the Spirit’s work in our lives, as we practice making space for the Spirit in our minds through meditation, prayer, and other mindfulness practices, we see the Spirit transforming us from self-concern to mindful-connectedness and oneness, to other-concern.

We begin to feel other people’s pain.  We notice suffering.  We become aware of the needs of others.  We become people of compassion.  We become the hands and feet, the eyes and ears of Jesus in the world, reaching out to listen, to feed, to heal, to educate, to rescue, to defend and to advocate for people in need.  This is what the community of the baptized does naturally.

The Way

So we see that baptism is a sign that we died with Christ, and now are alive in Christ.  Christianity is then, a way of life.  A path.  It is the Jesus path, the path that promotes life and enjoys life, reconnected with God and open to the Spirit, re-connected to a community of fellow travelers, and re-connected to the world.

The word “religion” comes from the word for ligament: re-ligamentation; getting re-connected; union; becoming one.  No more separation.  Waking up to the reality of our truest identity as beloved children of God.  Religion is what we do together: we re-enact our connectedness in this new family.

The Purpose of the Baptized

As the community of the baptized, we come to understand our purpose: that we are not here for ourselves, but that God made us for each other.  We are here to make a difference; to be a part of what God is doing to redeem the world; to heal and restore the world; to bring light to places that were dark, to bring joy to places of despair, to bring our presence to the lonely, our embrace to the guilty and our welcoming smile to those who have been shamed and shunned.

And the beauty of it is, as St. Francis so beautifully said, “in giving we receiving, in pardoning we are pardoned, and in dying we are born to eternal life.”  Our joy, our sense of purpose and meaning blossom in us as we reach out to others in compassion and love.  That is what it means to be the community of the baptized.


Jesus and the Heart of God: food for thought

Sermon on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 for Pentecost +14, Year B, August 30, 2015

Leviticus 11:1-12

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 5.40.23 PM
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.

“For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

I have been told by some people that history is boring and they do not like it when I talk about it.  I believe they are saying something true for them, but I must admit that I do not get it at all.  To me, not enjoying knowing what really happened is like not liking chocolate.  I just cannot imagine it.

I will say, in their defense, however, that knowing the real story can be like knowing how sausage is made; you may have been happier when you were ignorant.

But knowing the context is often crucial.  Do you remember finding out how your parents met?  Or where your ancestors came from?  You feel as though you have a deeper understanding of yourself when you know the story of your people.

Crucial History for the Church

Several times recently I have mentioned an event in history which changed everything for Christianity; it was the first church council held at Nicea in the year 325 which produced the Nicene Creed.

The Roman Emperor Constantine supposedly “converted” to Christianity, and in a political effort to unify the empire, wanted all Christians to be be organized into one centralized church.  Christianity was quite diverse for the first 300 years after Jesus walked the earth.  People had different ideas about how to understand Jesus, his relationship to God, the nature of God, the Holy Spirit, the relationship of Jesus to the God of the Hebrew Bible.

Before Nicea, these diversities were something like modern denominations.  Everyone believed in Jesus, they just believed different things about Jesus and God, the Trinity, the incarnation and so on.  But after Nicea, after they took the vote and one theological perspective won, a creed was written, and after that, all the alternative ways of understanding became known as “heresies.”

The Wikipedia article lists 32 early heresies, if my count is accurate.  Of course heretics need to be condemned and officially cursed, and excommunicated, right?  And people who are cursed as heretics can be persecuted too, right?  Why not?  And they were.  But the followers of the deposed bishops do not have to take it lying down, do they?  People actually rioted over such things.

People got killed.  For example, a man named Paul, the orthodox bishop of Constantinople, was banished by imperial decree.  A riot broke out that resulted in 3,000 deaths.

The Absurdity of that HistoryScreen Shot 2015-08-28 at 5.48.18 PM

Friends, nothing could be more absurd.  Scholars of religion agree that the single most unique innovation Jesus made was his teaching requiring the love of enemies.  Jesus taught us to  do good to those who persecute us; to turn the other cheek, to forgiving 70 x 7.  This is not a side issue, it is central.  In the one prayer that Jesus taught us to pray which we repeat in every worship service, we tie our forgiveness with our willingness to forgive, as we pray:

“forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

Jesus made it explicit, to eliminate any confusion or room for doubt saying,

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”  (Matt. 6:14-15)

The idea that in the name of Jesus, a person could think he was doing God a favor by attacking someone for not defining the mystery of the Trinity in the right neoplatonic philosophical terms is, again, absurd.   You would be forgiven for believing the conflicts between Christians was a ridiculous Monty Python plot, but sadly – tragically – it is real history.

Jesus the Radical

I wanted to review that history because of today’s text.  Jesus was a radical, revolutionary figure who created a paradigm shift in our understanding of God, of who God is, and what God is concerned about.

It is true that love of enemy was the most significant innovation Jesus brought to humanity, but it is also true that his orientation to the Law of Moses was a massive sea-change for the Jews of his day.  Last week we spoke of how Jesus was  unafraid to take the prohibition against work on the Sabbath, found in the heart of the 10 commandments, and set it in a much broader context of Gods’ concern for human well being.  That was a huge change.

Kosher of the HeartScreen Shot 2015-08-28 at 5.57.55 PM

So too is the change of understanding Jesus made in today’s text.  Kosher food laws were serious.  In the Leviticus story, those laws come from the mouth of God.  For God, the wrong kind of animals were not just “unclean” they were “detestable.”

Those food laws formed part of a Jewish person’s identity.  They made Jewish people separate. Think of it: they could not even socialize with non-observant Jews, let alone non-Jews because of these Kosher laws: no wedding feasts, no funeral dinners, no shared meals with gentiles of any kind.  Kosher laws defined their community.

But Jesus said that it is not food, not things that go into a person that defile us, but rather what comes out of us from within that defile.  For Jesus, the issues are not splitting hoofs, chewing cud, and having fins and scales; they are real moral behaviors.  He lists, as examples:

“fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly”

These, Jesus said, come out of the heart.

I am not sure who gets off that hook.  I myself am innocent of a couple of those, and guilty of a couple of others.  That means I am included among the defiled ones.  Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 6.00.30 PM

But that too is the point Jesus makes: we are all lost sheep that need finding.  We are all prodigal sons and daughters that need to return home.   We are all broken people who need a physician.  And God is there for us as the Good Shepherd, the running Father, the great Physician who knows how to heal souls.

So, Jesus again makes a radical move, revealing to us the heart of God.  How could God possibly care about how well a person could define the Trinity if they did not love their enemies?  What would it matter if a person believed in the virgin birth if they did not know  how to forgive?  Is believing in the literal resurrection itself more important to God than compassion and showing mercy?

It is not what goes in that defiles, it is what comes out of the heart.  Jesus was a heart-person.  And Jesus taught us that God is a heart-focused God.

Hope among the heart-defiled

I hope this gives us all great encouragement and hope.  We all mess up.  We all have things that come from our hearts that show the defilement there.  We all say things we should not say.  We cause hurt and pain; we resist apologizing and asking for forgiveness.  We all have done things we regret.  We have not shown the love we should have.  We have done things that were hurtful, selfish, unjust and self-indulgent, and we have failed many times to do the good we could easily have done.  But that is not the last word.

The heart-focused God, that Jesus showed us, comes to us to offer a path toward healing, toward redemption.  Once we know that God is heart-centered and that God is for us, to transform people with defiled hearts, to bring cleansing and renewal, we can follow the Jesus path with joy.

So our focus must be, not on the literal lines of the creeds, but on our hearts.  Our concern is how to align our hearts with the heart of God.

I used to think that the path to transformation was education.  If I just knew enough, I would be a better Christian.  If I knew the bible better, if I understood theology at a deeper level, then my heart would be in the right place.

We all seem to have believed this.  We organize our Sunday Schools and our confirmation classes so that our kids will learn the facts.  We teach about the Trinity and make them learn creeds by heart, hoping that knowing will lead to genuine faith.  But our track record is not what it should be.

As long as we think that faith is about believing facts, like which food is Kosher and which to avoid, or like the lines of a creed, we are not focusing as Jesus did, on the heart.  Faith is trust.  Trust is a matter of the heart.

Heart HelpScreen Shot 2015-08-28 at 6.02.39 PM

This is why I spend so much time talking about contemplative silent prayer and meditation.  It works on our hearts.  Of all the things I have tried to help me spiritually, the one that has yielded the best fruit is meditation.

I know I have a long way to go, but I can honestly report that it has been transformative for me.  I feel more peaceful than I ever did before.  I am less likely to be angry and less judgmental.  I find it easier to forgive.  I feel more compassion for others.  I am more aware of the sacredness of everyday life.  I am more able to be present in the moment.  In other words, my heart is in a better place.

As I said, I have a long way to go, but I am on a journey of transformation.  Unless it is an unusual day, I regularly set aside twenty minutes each morning, after I have done some spiritual reading, to sit in silence.  I have a word that I use from the bible to anchor my mind as I focus attention on my breathing in and out.

Of course my mind wanders – that is what minds do – but as soon as I am aware of it, I gently resume my anchor word, saying it silently, and return attention to the breath.  In those moments, I am being centered.  I am allowing God to be present without the normal mental chatter of my own internal voice.

In this way I am putting a temporary stop to my ego, that mental narrator that is always telling me stories about my life, making judgments, explaining to me why people do and say what they do – as if that could be known.  In contemplative, silent prayer, we make a space for our hearts to soften, to become aligned with the heart of God.  I hope and pray each of us develops the daily practice of meditation.  I would love to talk to you about it if you have questions or find obstacles.

God is a God of the heart.  Let us be people of the heart, whose hearts are being transformed.  I am hungry for this.  I think you are too.  I believe our world is desperate for people with transformed hearts.


The Goodness of God in New Wineskins

Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B. August 23, 2015 on 1 Samuel 21:1-6 and Mark 2:23-28

1 Samuel 21:1-6

Mark 2:23-28

One sabbath he [Jesus] was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain.   The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?”   And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food?   He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.”   Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath;   so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

Twice a year the congregations of the Presbytery of South Alabama come together for Presbytery Meetings.
We just had our meeting  at the Government Street Presbyterian Church this past  Friday evening and Saturday morning.  Worship was great in both.  Friday night was non-traditional, just as we do here in the early service.  Saturday was more traditional style worship.  Both were moving and inspiring.

A Sad Dismissal

But there was a depressing part on Saturday as we turned to the business meeting.  On the agenda was the dismissal of two more of our congregations.

The primary reason for their departure is that the majority of our Presbyteries, 121 out of  168 voted to approve the changes to our Constitution allowing gay people to be married.  Those changes do not force anyone to marry anyone, but the door is now open.  Our constitution treats gay and straight people equally.

It saddens me that these two congregations are leaving for all kinds of reasons.  I do not believe that our unity in the body of Christ is dependent on unanimity of opinion.   I believe that baptism gives us our unity in Christ, and no one can add to it or undermine it.

Faith as Trust, vs. BeliefScreen Shot 2015-08-22 at 5.09.35 PM

I firmly believe that for Christians, faith is about trust, not about assent to or belief in a list of dogmas.

I am part of a growing number of people who think this way – what I hope will be a new consensus view, but I realize that we are in the minority at the moment, and have been so since 325 AD.  That was the year Roman Emperor Constantine forced all of the Christian bishops to come together at Nicea and make a common creed.

Christianity was quite diverse before that.  Different groups had different ways of understanding who Jesus was and how Jesus related to God.

But after Nicea, the ones whose views did not prevail were proclaimed heretics.  The church then became the imperial project of the Emperor.  Constantine financed salaries and buildings, and the church quickly became the chaplaincy to the Empire.

To many of us, that was a disastrous move.  Faith evolved from “trust in”, to “belief that.…”

So now, when Christians end up believing different things, instead of tolerating diversity, as we did for the first 300 years, we think we need to pull away from each other.

Needing Diversity of ViewpointScreen Shot 2015-08-22 at 5.35.24 PM

And personally, I am sad to see them go.  Not just theoretically.  I believe that we need each other.  I need people who disagree with me.  I need them to challenge me. I need to hear other perspectives.  I feel just like the professor who told his class that he knew that at least 10% of what he was teaching was wrong, he just did not know which 10%.

I need people like one of the pastors of the departing churches with whom I disagree.  Here is my story about this:  as you probably know, we Presbyterians have been debating our differences of opinion about LGBTQ issues for years.  Well, after one Presbytery meeting, someone suggested that those pastors and elders who were interested should come together for a series of conversations about the issue.

So we did.  I was a member of that group.  Over the course of the next two years we meet multiple times for dialogue and a shared meals together.  We got to know each other; we had some good laughs, and some great conversations.

I was supporting the view that LGBTQ people should be given equality in every respect in our church, and others argued that the bible did not allow this.  At one point, after I had said something I do not recall, one of the pastors looked at me and asked me a question which I replied immediately to.

I want you to know that hearing myself answer his questions was a huge “A ha!” moment in my life.   A light went on.  I realized something that I had never put in to words before.  His question sparked that moment of self-revelation for me.

“I want God to be good”
He simply asked,

“What is your issue with this question of gay rights?”

My immediate response was,

“I want God to be good.”

I shocked myself as I heard those words leave my lips.  I had never put it so succinctly.   But as I said those words, I realized what I had been thinking as I studied the issue.

For me, by then, it was clear that nobody chooses their sexual orientation.  I never chose to be strait.  I just woke up one day and realized girls were cute.  And no gay person chose to be gay.  Who would ever choose to have all the complications and challenges, even all the outright persecution that gay people have to endure?

None of us, neither you nor I, chose our sexual orientation.  It is simply how we are made.   We do  not choose the gender of the people we fall in love with; and that is what this whole debate is about: who we fall in love with.

So, for me it is simply wrong to exclude or marginalize people for loving differently that I do.  And I cannot believe that a God who is good would ever want us to marginalize or exclude people just because they are different from ourselves.

In fact, as I study Jesus’ life and teachings, I find just the opposite.  I find that Jesus was constantly crossing over boundaries and walls, prejudices and traditions to welcome the marginalized and the excluded.  He ate with sinners, touched lepers, crossed the sea to break bread with gentiles; he made time for women and children, even Romans themselves.

So anyway, back to that dialogue group.  I need people like the pastor who asked me that question that helped me clarify my own thinking.  I am sorry to see them go.

Jesus and the Mercy TrajectoryScreen Shot 2015-08-22 at 5.12.08 PM

I am also sorry to see them go because I think it is so unnecessary.  The teachings of Jesus themselves should, I believe, help us to look at questions like this one.  The texts we read today are  perfect examples.

Jesus teaches us to follow a trajectory, an arc of understanding that was started in the Hebrew bible.  This trajectory moves in the direction of justice and liberation of the oppressed, and away from a rigid, exclusionary focus.  It moves from legalism to compassion.  From retribution to mercy.

Let is consider for a moment, the text we read.   Jesus is in trouble with the purity, rule enforcers, the Pharisees.  He is in trouble because he is the leader; the buck stops with him.  His people, his disciples, have been breaking the law of Moses.  They have been reaping grain on the Sabbath.  Reaping is working.  Work is explicitly forbidden on the Sabbath.  This is not an obscure law, it comes right out of the Ten Commandments itself.

But Jesus excuses them.  On what basis?  On the basis that he knew how to read the trajectory of understanding of what is important to God.  It turns out that God is good.  And being good means caring about human suffering.  In fact it means placing the concern for human well-being above ritual concerns.

Jesus backs up his teaching with a story from the Hebrew bible.  It is about a time when David was running for his life from king Saul with his small band of supporters.  They were hungry.  The only bread available was consecrated bread from the house of God that only priests were allowed to eat.  To make a long story short, the priest made an exception to the rule and allowed them to take the holy bread.

The Sabbath was made for humansScreen Shot 2015-08-22 at 5.13.17 PM

Then Jesus gives a clear summary of his perspective.  To those who accused his group of breaking the Law by a bit of personal harvesting on the sabbath he said:

“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath”

When was the sabbath law made?  Right after the people of Israel had escaped from being 24/7, bricks-without-straw slaves of Pharaoh.  They gathered as newly freed people at Mt. Sinai and heard Moses read the law that gave them all, for the fist time in their lives, a day of rest!  The sabbath law was made for humans; for their benefit; not as a burden but as a blessing.

The sabbath rest law was for the benefit of humans.  That was what was important to God: human flourishing.  So for Jesus, allowing people to eat is of even greater importance than keeping a rule, especially a rule made for the purpose of benefiting people.

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I believe that there is something deeper going on here.  Mark is using this occasion to back up what he just said in the line preceding the text we read: you do not put new wine in old wineskins or it will burst them.  You put new wine in new wineskins.  Jesus was bringing new wine.  The old wineskins were not going to work.  The old way of looking at things was going to have to be replaced by a new way.

So, unlike the folks who think that they have to leave when things change, Jesus taught us to expect change.  It is ironic that the motto of the Reformed Church of which the Presbyterian church is a part is, “the church reformed, always reforming….”

We have changed, not in arbitrary ways, not willy-nilly, not changed with the wind, but we have intentionally sought the voice of the Spirit who is still at work, leading the church in to new truth, as Jesus told us the Spirit of truth would do.

We have come to the conclusion at several moments of our past that we need to follow the Jesus trajectory further than our ancestors.  We changed from accepting slavery as necessary to rejecting it as immoral and dehumanizing.  We changed from excluding women from ministry, which the New Testament does, to openness to the gifts of women as elders and ministers.

We are served by women elders in this church: if they all went away, we would have to close up.  Their ministry is vital here.  And at the Presbytery meeting, our current moderator is a woman.  But it was not long ago that all those doors were shut to women.

So now we have changed again, and have finally given fully equal treatment to gay people.  We are already benefiting from their participation and ministry among us.  This is a cause for celebration.  I am so sorry that those who disagree cannot see their way clear to stay together.  We will be weaker without them.

God is Good

But this is our rock-solid core commitment: God is good.  God wills the good.  This is what we all take to bed every night.  This is what we wake up to every morning.  This is what sustains us in the really hard times.

We believe that faith is trust.  It is trusting that God is good; God is with us.  God is for us.  God loves us.  God calls us by name and wants what is best for us.  And when we suffer, God also suffers with us.    God is good.  That is what Jesus taught us.  That is our faith.  Truly it is in God we trust.


Like Children

Sermon on Mark 10:13-16 for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, August 16, 2015

Mark 10:13-16

 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them.  But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Every year when school starts I get nostalgic.  I remember walking to school on rainy days in second grade, with my yellow slicker on, the smell of new textbook pages, the sounds of the cafeteria; it all comes back every fall.   Screen Shot 2015-08-15 at 12.58.50 PM

Today is the day we do the blessing of the backpacks; we send the children of this congregation off to a new year with God’s blessing and with great hopes.  We are so blessed in our area, to have high quality schools, excellent teachers and administrators, extra-curricular music and sports, and blessed that our  adults, over the years, have seen fit to fund all of this (at least until recently); none of it is free, but it is so important!

We had a wonderful summer around here for kids.  The Summer Fine Arts Camp called Kaleidoscope was a great success, and so was our VBS.  Children are important to us.  They are fully part of the family of God.  Very soon we will have a baptism of a child, which will be a great joy for all of us.

Jesus’ Solemn Pronouncement

We read the text from the gospel of Mark about Jesus and the children.  It seems a bit bizarre in our day to imagine adults trying to keep children from him, but in those ancient times, children were expected to be silent non-participants at adult functions.  Fully in keeping with Jesus’ outreach to all people who were marginalized, the poor, the sick, women, and foreigners, he also made a welcoming space for children.

One of the most beautiful images we have of Jesus is this one:

“he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”

He not only blessed them, he had something to say about them:

“it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

This is one of those solemn pronouncements that gets a “Truly I tell you” preface.  I like the old King James version: “verily verily I say unto you”.  It sounds even more serious.

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I want us to think about this important, solemn pronouncement today.  In what way do we receive the kingdom like children?  In what way, as Jesus so categorically puts it, will we never enter the kingdom if we do not receive it accordingly?

I am sure there are many ways to reflect on this; today I want to reflect on one.

Children expect to grow and develop.  Children know they are in process towards a goal that they have not yet reached.  How many times have you asked a child their age and instead of a simple answer like “Four” you get “Four and a half.”  Children know that the next level is coming; they are not there yet, but they will be, soon.

To receive the kingdom as a child is to always remain open to growing and developing spiritually.   We know that all of us pass through developmental stages as we grow.

Erik Erikson has mapped out eight Stages of Psychosocial Development from the oral-sensory stage of infancy all they way to adulthood.

Piaget has outlined for us the  stages of Cognitive Development, that describes how we move from thinking of everything in concrete, literal terms to being able to think abstractly.

Lawrence Kolberg has described six stages of moral development.  All of us used to think of right and wrong only in terms of fear and punishment.  Later we grew to understand that there were rules we had the duty to obey to maintain social order.

Eventually, for those who keep developing morally, we come to understand that there are moral principles that transcend human laws.  It is right to resist the Nazi’s.  Laws themselves can be immoral.  It is right to stay seated on the bus and not move to the back.  It is right to sit at the lunch counter and expect to be served, no matter what sign has been posted.  It is the only moral thing to do, to make a wedding cake for whomever is being married.  No human law can make discrimination morally good.

We consider justice to be a higher demand on us.  We consider Love of neighbor as compelling to us, on a level right up there next to loving God, as Jesus taught.

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Children know they are developing.  They know they have not reached maturity.   Next year they will be taller.  Next year they will learn the next level of math that they could never comprehend this year.  Some adults, however, get stuck at spiritual and moral levels far from maturity.

They get stuck in the literal phase, especially when they read the bible.  If it says “seven days” in the creation story, then each day had to have twenty-four literal hours, even though there is no sun to mark time until day four.

It would be funny, if it were not also tragic.  People who get stuck here end up believing in a god of wrath and judgment, more interested in condemning people than redeeming them, if the numbers involved indicate God’s interests.   Getting stuck in the literal stage ends up being tragic.

Growth and development, that children naturally expect, are necessary for us to enter the kingdom that Jesus was announcing had arrived.  We leave behind  childish concepts of God as the great Santa in the sky, or as the old man with the long white  beard, or the scolding parent with the threatening paddle.

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We leave these childish concepts behind. We become open to paradox and conundrums as part of life.  An adult, maturing faith must keep developing until it can accommodate both aspects of our experience:
– wonder and awe as well as suffering and tragedy;
– sunsets, and tsunamis;
– thin-place experiences of palpable presence, and the dark-night-of-the-soul times of agonizing absence;
– the feeling of overwhelming gratitude for the gifts we enjoy of security, technology, medicine, education, nutrition, healthy safe food, on the one hand, and the depressing knowledge that there are still many people who are food insecure, safety insecure, and who cannot even dream of living the lives we take for granted.
A maturing, developing faith also grows to understand that certainty is not ever going to be available.  As the theologian Karl Rahner as said:

“If you are talking about God and you’re talking about anything that has to do with God, whether it’s ritual or sacraments or scriptures or morality or anything and you are sure you know what you are talking about, you are a heretic.

The desire to be sure, to be certain, while all of us have it, is an immature quest that needs to be left behind in favor of embracing mystery and paradox.

Developing believers are able to chart a course from naiveté to deconstruction, to a second naiveté that can maintain faith in the allurement of Love, even in the context of suffering and evil; there is no certainty here; but there is hope, courage, and compassion.

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A maturing, developing faith is also open to looking in the mirror, seeing how far we have to go in the basic spiritual practices like forgiveness and humility.   Since we know we are still in process, still growing, like children are, we welcome self-discovery that comes from looking at the things that make us angry and offend us.  We realize that most of them are probably evidence of our false selves, our egos that are still fragile and wounded, and in need of transformation.

When we do not get it to go our way, when someone else gets to make the decision or gets the honor, and we feel that “who do they think they are?” question, we realize that we still have growing up to do.  When we hear ourselves saying, “you can’t make me; you are not the boss of me” we realize that this is our inner moral child reacting, and we smile, and laugh at ourselves; we expect to keep growing up spiritually.

A childlike approach that assumes development understands that it is never to late to begin new practices of spiritual formation that we become aware of.  We embrace practices of silence, meditation, and wordless contemplative prayer because we know that spiritual development is not automatic; it is not produced by the clock nor the calendar, but by regular habits, practiced over time.

A developing, growing person takes more and more personal responsibility.  We become mindfully aware that every choice we Screen Shot 2015-08-15 at 1.01.32 PMmake is, in fact, a choice we make.  Every forkful of food we bring to our lips is a choice with consequences – both personal and global.  Every purchase we make, every investment we make, every use of our money, is a personal choice that we take moral responsibility for.  Every vote we cast, every use of our time, every entertainment decision we make we are mindfully aware that we are responsible for.  Even the words that come out of our mouths are choices we make, which can be words of healing, of welcome, of reconciliation and love, or not; and we take mindful responsibility for them.

Jesus says,

“Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

Like children, we expect to grow, to change and to develop.

You have heard the expression, “You cannot teach and old dog new tricks.”  I have good news: we are not dogs.  That expression may indeed be true for quadrupeded   canines, but we are different.  Brain scientists have told us about neuroplasticity.  Our brains change with each new experience we have.  And this process, scientists tell us, continues throughout our whole lives.  It never stops until we breath our last.

The truth is that we are continually developing and changing.

The challenge and the call is to make it intentional.

So we are here to commit ourselves to entering the kingdom that is here, now, by means of a childlike acceptance that we are here to grow.
We are here to develop.  We are here to put on our backpacks, load up the school supplies, and open the door to the future that is evolving, that is in process,  welcoming the future, just like children do.



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