Our Relentless Vision

Our Relentless Vision

Sermon for Nov. 17, 2019, Pentecost 23C, on Luke 21:5-19. Audio will be available here for several weeks.

Luke 21:5-19

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.

“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

The revolt started in the building where the tax records were kept.  Like the people on the streets 30 years ago at the wall in Berlin, or today, in Bolivia, Hong Kong, Chile, Lebanon, and Bagdad, they had had enough!  

People tend to be long-suffering, but there are limits beyond bearing.  It is one thing to tax people for roads, schools, or social security, but quite another to tax people just to make the oligarchs richer, and their lifestyles more lavish.  

Eventually, people are willing to risk whatever may happen, and they take action in the streets.  

So, they broke into the tax record office where the log books of their debts to the corrupt ruling class were kept, and burned them.  It started as a civil war; the majority poor, saying, “Enough!” to the people with soft hands and full bellies.  

The revolt is called the “First Jewish War.”  It started around 30 years after Jesus walked the earth, in the year 66 CE during the twelfth year of the reign of Nero.  When the revolt started, the Jewish king, a Roman puppet, fled Jerusalem.  

To make a long story short, it ended in 70 when the Roman legions came down from Syria, put down the rebels, sacked and burned the temple in Jerusalem.  The temple, by the way, was the building where those tax records were stored.  

Jesus Followers and the Revolution

What were the Jesus-followers doing while all this was going on?  We do not know too much, but a few things seem clear.  When the movement began, followers of Jesus in Israel thought of themselves good Jews who simply considered Jesus Messiah. “Messiah” is what the Greek name “Christos” or in English, “Christ” means.  So they continued to worship as Jews, on the Sabbath at Jewish synagogues.  

Nevertheless, scholars see evidence as early as Matthew’s gospel, that the separation had begun quite early.  When it became clear that followers of Jesus were doing things like accepting uncircumcised gentiles into their fellowships, not keeping kosher, and allowing worship on Sunday, the first day of the week, tensions grew.  

In those days, “tensions” did not just mean insults.  Early Jesus-followers (they were not called Christians yet) were actually persecuted.  The book of Acts describes Paul as one of those early persecutors.  

It is difficult to talk about Jewish persecution of the Jesus movement nowadays, after all the centuries of brutal Christian anti-semitism, and especially after the Holocaust.  But history is not made for our convenience; we have to report it as it was.  There is no excuse for modern anti-semitism, at all.  

So, the early Jesus-followers most likely kept their heads down during the Jewish War, and tried to stay out of it, even though most of them were poor and probably supported the rebel cause, at least emotionally. 

They had multiple reasons to keep out of it.  Jesus had, after all, warned, “those who live by the sword would die by it as well.”   Admittedly, some of this is speculation based on the little we know for sure. 

Luke’s gospel, from which we read today, written after the First Jewish War, records the warnings of Jesus about a coming calamity.  Most scholars think Luke wrote this section with the benefit of hindsight.  It is about that Jewish war and the persecution of Jesus-followers.  

The Conundrum

I wonder if you noticed a conundrum in that text?  On the surface, if you read it quickly, it seems to say, no matter what happens, you will be okay.  You will survive.  Luke reports Jesus as saying,  

When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified… not a hair of your head will perish,”  

But whatever that meant, it also included the possibility that the people in charge,  would, as it says,

persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons… You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name.”  

It is certainly a conundrum that you could both face prison, betrayal, and even death, and at the same time, that  “not a hair of your head would perish.”  

Separating the metaphor from the literal is a challenge.  The metaphors abound.  The language of

great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; …dreadful portents and great signs from heaven,

is certainly metaphorical for large scale chaos, which is what the First Jewish War brought.  

The Doomed Temple

This warning from Jesus about the coming calamity was sparked by a comment about how beautiful the temple in Jerusalem was.  Jesus’ reply, was “Yes, but….”  Beauty  alone will not save it.   

The temple, under the control of the aristocrats, the Sadducees, had become the center of an oppressive system, in collaboration with the Roman empire, that caused enormous suffering.  Like Jewish prophets before him, Jesus predicted calamity.

Nevertheless, Jesus was saying to his followers, in effect, hang on to the vision.  Do not let the coming calamity make you loose heart.  Be relentless in your resolve.  We have something more precious and more lasting than these beautiful historic stones.  Even if they persecute you, imprison  you, betray you, even kill you, hang on.  Jesus concludes,

“By your endurance you will gain your souls.” 

The Message version translates that line this way:

Stay with it to the end. You won’t be sorry; you’ll be saved.”

Saved” yes; maybe imprisoned, maybe killed, but saved.  What kind of salvation is that?  This is not about going to heaven when  you die.  And I do not believe it means saved from hell, because I do not believe in hell.

The word “saved” is the same word for “rescued” and “healed.”  What kind of condition could we be rescued from, while still being imprisoned?  What kind of illness could we be healed of, even at the cost of life itself?  

A Meaningful Life

I think the answer is found in the question, “What makes life meaningful?”  or, put another way, “What makes life worth living?”  

Certainly, it cannot be a life lived for the self alone.  I have never been to a funeral at which I heard praise for someone for being self-centered, self-interested, or self-aggrandizing.  In fact, just the opposite.  The people who are remembered for living well are the ones who gave their lives in service to others.  The ones we praise are the ones who were relentless in their quest to make the world a better place.  

The people who live a meaningful life are those who, like the early followers of Jesus, opened the door to everyone: to uncircumcised Gentiles, to people who had been marginalized, the indebted poor, the diseased, the people with bad reputations, the people who had gotten off track along the way and ended up feeling lost.  These are the ones the early Jesus-followers welcomed to their tables.   

An Early Christian Creed

One of the earliest creeds of the church, according to New Testament scholars, is embedded in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  It appears to have its origins in a baptismal liturgy that Paul became aware of, and approved of.  It says, 

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.”

This is the vision Jesus passed on to his followers.  No “Jew or Greek” — means ethnic distinctions do not matter to this community.  

No longer slave or free” means class divisions do not matter to us.  

No longer male and female” means that gender identities do not matter in this community of Jesus-followers.  We are here for each other, period, without distinction.  

We call this love.  It involves constant ego work, since we are human, and humility is not our default position.  It requires that we become experts in forgiving each other, since no one is perfect, so that our communities remain healthy and do not become toxic.  

It requires that we share with each other around common tables, breaking bread, sharing wine, and affirming each other’s value, as we give thanks to God for this amazing, healing vision.  

In other words, it requires relentless commitment to being true followers of Jesus.   This is salvation.  This is the path to the meaningful life.  This is worth risking it all for.  

The Cross and the Kingdom

So, our symbol is the cross, because that is what it meant for Jesus, who risked it all for us.   He got arrested, mistreated and killed for shutting down the temple that day.  

He was against the oppression by those elites.  He was relentless on behalf of the regular people who were suffering.  

He acted non-violently, but intentionally, confronting systematic abuse.  It cost him his life.  Jesus, we can say, is our hero.

His vision continues to live in us.  Jesus is alive in our hearts, as we continue  to be inspired by his vision.  He called his vision the “kingdom of God” — what the world would be like if we acted as if God were running things — if God’s will for justice and inclusion were actually done “on earth as it is in heaven,” as Jesus taught us to pray.  

When we learn that our liberation is bound up with the liberation of all oppressed people, we begin to heal.  When we receive the gifts of people who were previously outsiders, we are enriched.   When we call people “family”who previously we called “enemy,” we become a living temple in which God is pleased to dwell. 

Being All-In

This is a miraculous community, inspired by Jesus’ vision.  It is worth risking everything for.  It is worth giving of our resources to support.  It is worth making commitments to, not just giving impulsive acts of charity.  It is worth doing whatever it takes  in our generation, so that the next generation can share this vision, no matter what calamity it faces.

This is why, once a year, we commit ourselves to support this community for the coming year, as we do today.  We have no idea what the future holds.  We have no idea what challenges future generations will face.  We do not know what changes the church will go through.  We do not even know if, long term, it will include these beautiful walls.  

But we do know that this is a place of healing, and we know it will continue to be.  As we welcome all people, without any exceptions, just as Jesus did, we know that many will be drawn to join us as Jesus-followers.  As we study Jesus, imitate Jesus, and reach out with acts of mercy and compassion as Jesus did, we will find our healing, our transformation.  

So, we are relentless followers of Jesus and his vision of the inclusive, compassionate kingdom.  We are not ignorant of the costs involved, both actual and potential, but we have thrown our lot in with him.   Our lives have meaning and significance because we are part of something bigger than ourselves, and longer than our lives on this planet. 

“How does it look to you now?”

“How does it look to you now?”

Sermon for Nov. 10, 2019, Pentecost 22C on Haggai 1:15, 2:1-9. Audio will be available here for several weeks.

Haggai 1:15, 2:1-9

In the second year of King Darius, in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. For thus says the Lord of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.

These are the words of scripture.  Thanks be to God.

What gives us hope? What if hope keeps being deferred? Proverbs says, “Hope, deferred makes the heart sick.” So, what can heal the heart of a person whose hope has been deferred? 

I’m wondering if you put yourself in that category? Do you have hopes that have been deferred; that keep getting deferred? Is that part of your past, or perhaps you also have something deferred that you carry with you, even today?  

If you are like me, you hate pollyanna encouragements to hope. This past Thursday at the PACE meeting, Sonna asked us all to reflect on the question of hope. Someone, as a joke, answered by singing the first phrase from a song from Annie, “The sun will come out, tomorrow…”  

We all know that that kind of simple optimism may take you through a cloudy Tuesday, but it will not get you through the next recession. Blind positivity will not get us through loss, which is permanent, or a diagnosis that we had been fearing. 

We need more than that. We need adult, complex reasons to have hope, if any such reasons exist.

The Complicated Bible

So, we are going to go to our wisdom tradition, the Bible, and see if we can find a basis for hope that is deeper than a song from a Broadway musical. 

But two caveats are necessary: first, this is way too deep a subject for this setting. What can one sermon do to deal with a question that is deeply rooted in the human condition? Probably only point towards a destination; it cannot take us all the way down the road. 

Second, our wisdom tradition is complicated. The Bible is a very strange book. Actually, it’s not a “book” in any conventional sense. As many scholars have pointed out, it is more like a library; a collection of many books. 

Each book of the Hebrew Bible started out as a separate scroll, until someone, apparently an Egyptian, around the time of Jesus, got the idea of cutting up the scroll into pages and sewing one edge of them altogether, thus inventing the book. So now, lots of small books have been sewn together, and we call this collection, the Bible.  

Today we are looking at a little book of only a couple of pages long. In medieval times, someone got the idea of dividing these books up into chapters and verses. So we are looking at a “book” of only two little chapters.  

Haggai, the Prophet

Haggai is a book written by a prophet. It is in a collection of twelve small prophetic books. We know nothing about the author. 

What was a prophet? Again, a longer question than we have time to answer. Ancient Israel, during the monarchy, had a tradition of recognizing people who knew themselves as prophets. They believed they received visions and messages from God. 

I said they believed they received these from God, which may make you wonder if I believe that they actually did or not. Well, it is complicated. 

The complication does not come from my own personal skepticism about such things. Rather, the complication comes from the Bible itself, and this book is a perfect example. 

But, I believe the complication becomes part of the basis of hope in a deeply meaningful way.  So let us look at the text together. 

Haggai may not give us any information about himself, but he gives some very precise dates. His prophecies were made in the year 520 BCE. That is the year that the construction of the second Temple in Jerusalem began. 

The first temple had been demolished by the Babylonians about 70 years earlier. But the Babylonians who had conquered the Israelites and carried them away into captivity, had themselves been conquered by the Persians. The Persians had a foreign policy of allowing captive people to return, so, many of the Jews returned to rebuild. The Hebrew Bible tells the story of Solomon building the original temple in Jerusalem, so we call this, the second temple.  

Haggai’s message is relatively simple. Like most, but not all of the Hebrew Bible’s authors, Haggai believed in the doctrine of divine retribution. Much like karma, you get what is coming to you; blessings for doing right, curses for doing wrong. 

That is one of the ideas that Jesus did not believe in, and in fact, challenged head-on numerous times, as I have talked about before. 

By the way, the fact that Jesus’ teaching, which is now part of the Bible, is at odds with other teachings in the Old Testament is part of why I said the bible is complicated.  

But anyway, Haggai told the people who were rebuilding the temple, to “get with it.” He thought they were being lax. He addresses the few old-timers who were alive and remembered seeing the first temple. 

It is hard to imagine anyone that old still being around. If they had been ten years old when the Babylonian invasion happened, they would be 80 by 520, which is an age very few attained in those days, but, it is possible some did.  

He asked those who remembered how the first temple looked, 

“How does it look to you now?”

The fact was that the second temple did not hold a candle to the first one as described in the Hebrew Bible.  We do not know if the first temple’s description included exaggeration, but whether or not it did, Haggai’s point in asking the question was that so far, the second temple was pitiful. Haggai asks the old-timers, 

“Is it not, in your sight, as nothing?”

Haggai’s Predictions

Here is another reason why the bible is complicated. Haggai predicts that this second temple will eventually outshine the first one. He says, 

“The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former”

But it was not. The second temple did not outshine the first one, if we are to believe the description of the first one in the book of Kings.  

There is a second complication to mention. Haggai predicts that Zerubbabel, the governor of Judea, would have a significant role to play in the future. He says, later in the prophecy that Zerubbabel would be “God’s signet ring.” 

But Zerubbabel dropped out of sight, never to be heard from again, and the temple Haggai encouraged the people to rebuild was meager compared to the first one.  

So, this raises interesting questions. Was Haggai wrong on those two counts? It appears that he was. But if so, then why would Jewish people do all the work it took to keep his prophecy in their collection? 

It took expensive parchment and the labor of trained scribes to copy and re-copy the text when the old ones wore out. Why would they go to the trouble, when they all knew that the prophecies did not come true?  

Hope from God’s With-ness

I want to suggest an answer that goes to the question of how we can have a non-pollyanna basis for hope. Haggai kept reminding the people of something fundamental. He said, speaking for God,

“take courage…for I am with you, …My spirit abides among you; do not fear.”  

The with-ness of God’s Spirit is the reason for hope. As the ancient 23rd Psalm said, 

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for You are with me”

It has been the faith of Israel since ancient times that no matter what the condition of the people, no matter how unfaithful they had been to God, nevertheless, God was always with them.  

That was Jesus’ faith as well. The same God who provided for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, would also watch over us, Jesus taught, because God is always with us.  

And this faith in the with-ness of God was strong enough to withstand calamity and catastrophe. It could even withstand the sickness of heart that came from deferred hopes, created by prophets whose predictions raised expectations, but who got it wrong.  

It is not Pollyanna to persist in hope in times of heart-sickness in which it has been deferred. It is precisely in difficult times that we can have hope: in times of loss and grief, in times of illness and uncertainty, in times when the money is tight, or the sun simply refuses to shine in our emotions. God’s with-ness changes everything.

Haggai appeals to the people to reflect on their history. He asks them to remember the ancient past when they “came out of Egypt.” The God who was with them then, is with them still, so God says to them,

“take courage…for I am with you, …My spirit abides among you; do not fear.”

We can make the same appeal to history. Look at where we have come from to get to this moment today. We can agree with what Dr. King said, that

“the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Collaboration

There is one more layer to look at here that makes this basis for hope believable.  Even though Haggai was wrong about Zerubbabel, he had a crucial insight. God’s way of acting in the world was not going to be a magic bolt out to the sky, it was going to be accomplished collaboratively, through people. 

He thought the two people in his day were Joshua, the priest, and Zerubbabel the governor. He got the names wrong; it turned out to be people like Ezra and Nehemiah, but he got the idea of collaboration right. 

Without God, we cannot do it, but God will not do it without us, to paraphrase Desmond Tutu.  

This was Jesus’ understanding as well. God’s purposes are accomplished as God’s people lean into the faith that God is with them, as they strap on their tool belts and hard hats and get to work on behalf of justice, mercy, compassion, and relief.

At this moment, things may look bad. They looked bad to Dr. King, from the bridge in Selma. They still look bad in Syria, Iraq, and Iran. They look bad to people on both sides of the aisle in Washington. They may look bad in our journal entries from yesterday.  

But here we are. In so many ways things are not as bad as they have been. But even if they go south again, we have adult, complex reasons to have courage; we believe in the with-ness of God. Matthew ends his gospel with Jesus saying to his disciples,

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

How is God present with us? The Spirit is present, in each moment, luring us toward the next right thing. As we respond to the Spirit’s lure, we do so in hope, planting trees that we will never live to see mature, becoming good ancestors for future generations, passing on our faith in the God who is with us, always.

What “salvation” looks like, according to Jesus

Sermon for Nov. 3, 2019, Pentecost 21C, on Luke 19:1-10. Audio will be here for several weeks.

Luke 19:1-10

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycomore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

You have heard the expression, “I wish I would have known then, what I know now.”  I have told myself that too many times.  But that is not how it works, and we all come to terms with the fact that you have to go through a long learning process to gain wisdom.  As the song, Woodstock says, “life is for learning.”

Topping my list of things I wish I knew back then concerns the topic of salvation.  I came from a fundamentalist Christian tradition that talked a lot about salvation.  Getting saved was important.  

In fact, getting saved was the most important thing, and we all spoke as if we knew exactly what that meant.  It meant, we were told, in every service, repenting of your sins — which meant feeling guilty and sorry about your sins, followed by “accepting Jesus as your personal savior.”  

So, as a child, I remember hearing sermons, directed to children, in settings like VBS, in which we were told to close our eyes and ask ourselves if we had repented and accepted Jesus as our personal savior, so that if we died tonight, we would go to heaven instead of hell.  

Lots of us Presbyterians come from other traditions, so maybe that sounds familiar to you.  Maybe you had some significant spiritual experiences in the tradition that raised you.  If so, well and good. I do not want to say that anyone’s religious experience is invalid.  

But I understand it quite differently now, and I personally regret the fear and self-loathing that I experienced as a child in that tradition.  

I do not know where the language of “accepting Jesus as your personal savior” came from, but one thing I know now, that I didn’t know then, is that it does not come from Jesus or the Bible at all.  

Another thing I know now that I didn’t know then is that repentance does not mean feeling guilty and self-loathing. 

Zacchaeus the Children’s Story

All of this is clear from the text we just read, Luke’s story of Jesus’ meeting with Zacchaeus.  We, who grew up in the church, heard this story as children.  In fact, it is one of the most dearly loved children’s stories because children can relate.  Children, like Zacchaeus, are small, and often miss things.  And, children love to climb trees.  So what is not to like here?  

But the fact that we have thought of this as a children’s story may make it hard for us to hear it as adults.  We adults, however, need to hear this story, because it is about adult issues, including repentance and salvation.  So let us try to hear it as adults.

Bad” People

First, who was Zacchaeus?  Luke says, “was a chief tax-collector and was rich.”  If you were here last week, you already know that for Jesus’ culture this meant he was about as bad a guy as you could get.  They thought of tax collectors as we think of drug kingpins.  They were bad people who made enormous money by causing great suffering.  

That brings up a question: How should we think about “bad” people?  The tradition I was raised in told me to keep away from them.  We need to keep away from places where the “bad” people hung out.  Of course, bars were out of the question, but bowling allies were even suspect, for the scrupulous among us, because bowling alleys had bars in them.  

When we wore those bracelets that asked “WWJD” — “what would Jesus do?”  I don’t think we were thinking too carefully about it.  In this story, and in many others, we will see what happens.  

It starts this way:  for reasons which Luke does not bother to tell us, Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus, and so being short, but smart, he ran ahead and climbed a tree.  Then, Luke says, 

When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 

Luke leaves out more than he includes in this story: how does Jesus know Zacchaeus’ name?  How does he know he wants to see him?  Why does he want to go to his home?  We do not know.  What we do know, from the culture, is what will happen there: they will certainly share a meal together.  

Modern day equivalent: Jesus walks up to Vito Corleone’s limo as he sits in the back, and says, “I’m coming to your house for pasta today.”  

Grumbling Assumptions

So, the “good people” grumbled.  They said,

He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”  

The “good people” are making all kinds of assumptions.  They assume that a person like that is beyond redemption.  It would be pointless to go to his house; he will never change.  

They assume that they have the right to point fingers, or more accurately, to wag their fingers.  They assume they have the right to judge.  In that culture, eating with someone was not taken lightly.  You only ate with people you approved of.  They assume that Jesus shares that cultural assumption.

But Jesus assumes none of those things. For Jesus, no one is beyond redemption, even the Godfather, with a lot on his conscience, and blood on his hands.  Jesus does not define anyone by what they were on their worst day, or worst decade.  

And Jesus knows that no one has been redeemed by a wagging finger.  Judging is not the road to redemption.  Loving, however, is.  So Jesus loved people.  He loved all kinds of people.  He loved tax collectors, hookers, Pharisees, and lepers, and whoever might end up sitting next to him at one of their their tables.  

Salvation Looks Like This

Back to the story: Luke leaves out all the juiciest parts of the conversation, and simply jumps to the conclusion.  My English teacher would have graded him severely for that, but this is the Bible, so we have to go with it.  Whatever they talked about, the story concludes with the biggest act of repentance you can find in the Bible.  

Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 

This man earned his whole income from defrauding people, so it is not at all clear how he can promise this, but this is story-telling, and the details may have been exaggerated over time.  

Anyway, although the word “repent” does not show up here, we have just witnessed exactly what it means: to change your mind, and then to act on those changes.  Zacchaeus does not grovel in shame.  He does not say “woe is me.”  But he has a revolutionary change in his worldview.  

It is not just that he is relinquishing his former passion for money; notice he does not promise to give the money to the temple, he gives it specifically to the poor.  

Vito Corleone has become Bill Gates.  

This is an awakening.  Formerly he did not care about the poor; now he does.  Formerly, he was complicit in their poverty; now he is addressing their poverty.  What do you call this?  Jesus calls it “salvation.”  

Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house”

Adult Lessons Learned

What do we learn from this story?   So many things.  First, that the finger wagers got it so wrong.  No one is beyond redemption; not convicted felons, not addicts, not dealers, not Wall Street tycoons, nor even the man who invented credit default swaps.  

We also learn that real repentance, while it does not involve groveling, does involve change, and change specifically that includes our economic world view.  

We are not here for ourselves alone; we are here for each other.  We are here for our neighbors, including, in fact, specifically our poor neighbors.  Salvation, for Jesus, includes economics.  We have obligations that include the poor. 

What would Jesus do?  Love rich people into loving the poor.  The gospels do include one story of a rich person who went away from his encounter with Jesus sorrowful; apparently, love does not always work, even for Jesus.   But love is offered, in any case.  

We also learn that hanging out with “bad” people is what Jesus did, and what we should do too.  But when we do, we will not think of them as “bad” or as “sinners” as people in this story do.  Rather, we will think of them as Jesus did, as merely lost.  Luke tells us that Jesus said, 

“Today salvation has come to this house… For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”  

Lost people do not need a judgy finger wag; they need to be loved, and helped to get home.  It is significant that Jesus came to Zacchaeus’ home.  

That is what we all need to experience.  Aren’t we all, in a deep sense, lost and homeless?  All of us have a longing to be home; a place where we belong, just as we are, without any pretense or hiding?  We long for a place where that essential thirsty loneliness is finally quenched by love.   

We long for the home we find in knowing our true selves as completely beloved children of God.  We long to sit at a table and eat with a beloved community, at one with God and with each other, as Jesus did with Zacchaeus. 

That is what we try to imagine, and enact as we gather around this communion table.  Come, share the one broken bread, dip it into the common cup, and know that you are beloved; know that you are home.  Let it change you; let it bring you joy; that is what salvation looks like.  

Re-thinking Goodness

Re-thinking Goodness

Sermon on Luke 18:9-14 for Oct. 27, 2019, Pentecost 20C. Audio can be found here for several weeks.

Luke 18:9-14

[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

There is a sit-com I have been watching called “The Good Place”. The setting is in the after-life. There were two possibilities after death: you could end up in either “the good place” or “the bad place.” As the series opens, (spoiler alert) we think the people are in the “good place.” But it turns out that it is really the “bad place.” The characters (all but one) are shocked to learn that they did not make it into the “good place.”  

One is a woman who was beautiful, smart, gifted, and who spent her life raising billions of dollars for charities. How could that not make you eligible for “the good place” after death, she wonders? It turns out that she did all of that fundraising for the sake of competing with her sister who always got the attention. She lived a life of resentment. Her concern was for herself alone. And, having been successful in her fundraising efforts, she was filled with pride and arrogance. So, she ended up in the “bad place.”  

What is Good?

The show is a comedy and a farce, but, as comedies can do, it brings up real moral issues. What is goodness? What counts as a good act? Is goodness measured by the outcome alone, or should we consider the intention? And after we understand goodness, how should we think about people who are not being good?  

Jesus re-defined goodness in radical ways, fundamental ways.  He famously moved the central focus from purity to justice, which upset many people in his time. Nobody wants to hear that they are not as good as they think they are — nobody. We all want to think of ourselves as good. We all make excuses for ourselves that justify our non-good moments.  

Do you remember the film “Good Fellas”? It was about the mafia. They were drug dealers, racketeers, even murderers, but they all considered each other “good fellas.”  

One of the strategies we employ for thinking of ourselves as “good fellas” is playing the comparison game. “I may not be perfect,” we tell ourselves, “but I’m certainly not as bad as others. I’m not in the mafia; I don’t even commit petty crimes, so I’m a much better fella than others.” In other words, it feels good to be judgy. It feels good to look down your nose at other people who are less good.  

Hearing the Parable Well

But for Jesus, judgments were out of bounds. So, he told a parable to make that point. But it is really hard for us to hear today. I often point out how far we are from the culture of the bible. That distance makes this parable difficult for us to understand. For starters, we have no categories that completely fit the characters in this story.

New Testament scholar, John Dominic Crossan, who was Catholic, suggested we re-tell this in modern terms. His version began: “The Pope and pimp went to church to pray.” Why the Pope and a pimp? Because the Pope is the representative moral exemplar and a pimp is the quintessential lowlife. That is how people in Jesus’ original audience would have understood by the characters he used: the Pharisee and the tax-collector.  So, the categories of Pope and pimp are not perfect, but are about as close as we can come.

Crossan calls this one of Jesus’ “challenge parables.” It challenges us to interrogate our settled certainties, to question what we thought we knew to be true, to examine our assumptions.  If we are going to hear the challenge even a little bit like Jesus intended it to be heard, we need first to think about these characters the way they were thought of back in Jesus’ time.

The Two Characters 

How did people think about Pharisees? We know that Jesus had a lot of conflicts with Pharisees because he believed they had misconstrued the nature of religious duty, in other words, what goodness was, but nobody disputed the fact that they were as religious as you could get. Like the Pope, they were moral exemplars. They dedicated their lives to doing the right thing, as they understood it.  They were far more disciplined than most of us: do you know anyone who fasts twice a week, who gives 10% of their gross income to the church, as well as attending services, praying with gratitude to God?  And wouldn’t we rather have neighbors like that than having “thieves, rogues, and adulterers” around us and our children?  

By contrast, the tax-collector really does share the moral low ground with pimps. Even if his collections were fair and honest, as a tax-collector, he was a tool of the Roman Empire; a collaborator in Roman oppression. But his collections were not fair. The system was designed for abuse. Here is how it worked: the chief tax-collector of a region, paid the tax for his district in advance, then hired agents who bid for the contract of collecting the money. They could charge whatever the market could bear, making whatever profits they could. Of course, they were despised and resented.  

So, Who is Good?

So, we have the Pope and a pimp at prayer in church. But the Pope ends up not making God happy, while the pimp does. How is that even possible? That is the challenge. Jesus wanted people to re-think goodness, and how to think of people who were not being good. Of course, the Pope does a lot of good and the pimp does a lot of bad, but that is not the end of the story.  

The Pope, in this parable, is full of himself. He is playing the comparison game, and being totally judgmental. The problem for us is that he is right, isn’t he? It is literally better to be honest than dishonest. It is better to be someone who contributes to the common good than someone who profits by causing suffering. What kind of society would it be if you praised pimps and put down the pope?

Looking Past the Surface

But Jesus saw it differently. He looked past the surface. He looked at the heart. The pimp, the tax-collector in the parable, hated himself for what he had become. I want to stop right here and ask, how does anyone end up a Jewish tax-collector anyway? Why would you do a job that you knew would make everyone hate you? Greed? I don’t know if that explains it. Wouldn’t you rather be a well-respected citizen, praised by your neighbors instead of scorned by them? Would money really compensate for that kind of life in which no one considered you a “goodfella”?  

I don’t think so. Let us use our imaginations a bit. I imagine a man with a family who is not making it. He owns no land. It is hard to find work. Maybe he can’t be a day-laborer in the fields. Perhaps he has a disability, maybe just a bad back. What are his options? There is no social safety net. He could beg, but beggars barely survive. So he takes the worst job in the world; he becomes a tax-collector, and he hates himself for it.  

How do the people that “good fellas” look down on get into their conditions? Nobody starts out wanting to be a drug addict or a criminal. No one begins as a homeless person.  

We all begin as beloved children of God. Look at any newborn and say that isn’t true. We all begin, having been made in God’s image. And nothing we can do can change that. Fundamentally, at our core, our true self is beloved by God.  

Jesus’ Categories

Remember, several weeks back, when we were looking into Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin, we noticed that for Jesus, lostness was the category to use for people who had gotten off track, instead of the judgmental category of “sinners”. That tax-collector had gotten himself lost, but not unloved by God.  

That is why being judgmental is out of bounds. Judgment implies we are better than others when the truth is that we are all equally loved by God, valued by God, precious to God. 

The church has been a very judgy place for a long time, and some still are. But I am so thankful that we are trying our best to leave those days behind. We have made up our minds to be a non-judgmental, inclusive, affirming community. We are trying to look at people the way Jesus looked at them. And we are trying to look at ourselves as honestly as we can. We do not pretend to have arrived; we realize that we are on a journey.  

So we have committed ourselves to being a serving congregation. We reach out to people who have gotten themselves lost, without asking how they got into that predicament. We do not pretend that if we lived their lives, we would have made better decisions. We recognize that we didn’t get to where we are alone. We had lots of help along the way. Most of us had at least decent, if not wonderful homes, schools, teachers, coaches, employers, churches, and many people in our lives that helped us, taught us, guided us, and who have forgiven us many times along the way. So, we commit ourselves to living lives of gratitude, not for being better than anyone, but for every good gift we have been given, and or every opportunity to share those gifts, without judgment.  

Who is God, and What is Prayer Anymore?

Who is God, and What is Prayer Anymore?

Sermon for Oct. 20, 2019, Pentecost 19C. Audio will be available here for several weeks.

Jeremiah 31:31-34

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

Luke 18:1-8

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

As if we have not heard it often enough already, the Times Record, Friday, published an AP article about the decline in religious participation in America. What is most remarkable is this trend: “the portion [of the US population] that describes their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” now stands at 26%, up from17% in 2009” according to recent Pew Research polling.  The younger a person is, the less likely it is that they regularly, if ever, attend religious services.  And this holds true across denominations, Protestant and Catholic.  

But that is not the end of the story. Author Dr. Dianna Butler Bass has taken a deep dive into that Pew research and found a counter-narrative. Although participation in organized religion is in steep decline, nevertheless, Pew research found that 6 in 10 adults report feeling a deep sense of spiritual peace and wellbeing, at least once a week — not just psychological, but “spiritual peace and wellbeing.”  They are finding the Divine “in nature and in neighbor,” as Butler Bass puts it. So the acronym “SBNR” is being used for people who describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.”  

Is this, then, good news or bad news? I think it is mixed. There have been times in which people have stood up and looked around and asked, “What is going on here? How did we get here? Are we on the right track anymore? Things need to change.”

We are close to the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation which we celebrate on October 31. Martin Luther was one of those people who asked those questions and decided that things needed to change, back in 1517. Now, 502 years later, many scholars believe we are in another time of massive change in the religious landscape, as the Pew Research reveals.  

Luther, Calvin and the other major figures of the Reformation came by their call for change honestly. We are going to look at two texts today, both of which call for sea-changes in the religious landscape. Both Jeremiah and Jesus called for change. Now, perhaps, we are ready to listen.

Jeremiah Imagines a New Covenant

So, first to Jeremiah. If you have been here for the past couple of weeks you have heard that Jeremiah was the prophet who told his people that the Babylonian army was coming, unstoppably. Today, we pick up his story before the Babylonians got to the door.  

We are going to see that Jeremiah imagined a radically new way of thinking about God, and what God wanted. But he was also stuck in some old ways of thinking too. We are going to see how Jesus both picked up on Jeremiah’s innovations, and pushed them even further.

Jeremiah analyzed his country’s situation; how did they get to that point with the Babylonian invasion looming on the near horizon. What did Jeremiah think? That God was bringing the Babylonians as punishment for the unfaithfulness and injustice his people had been perpetrating. This is called the doctrine of divine retribution: like karma, you get what you deserve. The Hebrew Bible is full of this idea, so Jeremiah was not alone in his belief. But Jesus dismantled this on numerous occasions. Famously he said that God; 

“makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous,” which is the opposite of getting what you deserve. (Matt. 5:45)

But anyway, this is the important contribution Jeremiah made: even though he believed in retribution, he believed that punishment was not the last word. He believed that there could be a new chapter for his people with God.  

Long ago, God had made a covenant with Israel, according to the story in the Hebrew Bible. Moses had received the covenant in tablets of stone, written by the “finger of God” on Mount Sinai, according to the story (Ex. 31:18).  That covenant included the Ten Commandments, the Law of Moses, and all the other commandments. People back then, as well as today, find keeping all ten challenging, to say the least.

But Jeremiah did what prophets do: he imagined a new day when things could be different. He imagined a time when there could be a new covenant. Now, that is a radical thing to imagine. How do you erase laws that have been written in stone? And what would God be like, who would, at one time, write divine commands on stone, and then want to erase them?

But Jeremiah imagined a new covenant without any laws chiseled into stone. He wrote:  

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant …It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors… But this is the covenant that I will make…I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

So the new covenant would be written on the heart, not on stone.  The new covenant would include forgiveness. Jeremiah, imagined God saying:

“I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

The point is that Jeremiah could imagine a total re-thinking of what was important to God. The people had gotten off track. It was time to re-think who God was and what God wanted. It went way beyond the 10 Commandments. What would it look like to have the law written on the heart under that new covenant? He got political, addressing the king saying:

“Hear the word of the LORD, O King of Judah sitting on the throne of David…Thus says the LORD: Act with justice and righteousness,… do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow.…”

(Jer. 22)

Jesus’ Re-Imagining God

Now let us turn to Jesus. We can see that Jesus was standing in that same Jewish tradition of re-imagining God. That is exactly what he was doing, notably in the parables he told. Jesus’ parables were often both subtle and provocative. Provocation is what is happening in the parable of the widow and the “judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.”

In this parable, we are supposed to identify with the widow. She has a problem, so she goes to the judge. Her appeal is similar to what we do when we pray. So who does that awful judge represent? God. I can just hear the people in the crowd as they listened to this story saying to each other, “Hey, you can’t compare God to a horrible judge who is both irreligious and unjust! God is not like that!  

And that is just the point; to provoke people to ask, “Well if not like that, then what is God like?” Most people would scoff at the absurdity of God being un-religious. But they would probably also say God is not apathetic to our concerns like that judge was to the widow. Furthermore, God does not respond to us just to get us off his (male) back, as that judge did. God does not get worn out by anything, especially by our prayers. “How can you even imagine God that way,” some might ask?

Jesus is being subtle, as well as provocative. Haven’t we all had prayers that seem to have been ignored? Have you ever prayed for healing for someone who died? I have. Have you prayed for a relationship that did not heal? I have. 

Judges are like Superman. They have the power to make things happen. They can grant justice to a widow or deny her claim. So if God is like that, wouldn’t that make God like Superman? He can “leap tall buildings in a single bound,” if he (male language again) wanted to, right? So why does God stand their like Superman with his hands in his pockets, instead of flying to the rescue, “faster than a speeding bullet?” Why do even children get cancer? Why let the Holocaust happen? Why allow evil of any kind if you could stop it?

Jesus’ parable of the widow and the judge provokes us to re-imagine how we are thinking of God. The existence of evil and suffering in the world makes it necessary to re-imagine God.  

Finite Imaginations of the Infinite

But what can limited, finite creatures like us imagine? Some have said that anything we could imagine would be wrong, so perhaps we should not try. But we must try. “God is love,” the scriptures tell us. In John’s gospel, Jesus tells the woman at the well that “God is spirit.” In Acts, Paul affirms the Greek philosopher who said that it is in God that “we live and move and have our being.” Theologians like Paul Tillich call God, not a being, like a Superman, but the “ground of being” — the basis for the existence of everything, its source, and sustainer.  

Here is the best that I can do: I believe that God is always and everywhere present to us; as Jesus said, “God is spirit.” Because I believe also, that “God is love,” I do not believe God is coercive. I believe God’s power is not the power of coercion, but of persuasion. God is at work in every moment, offering the possibility of the next right thing. God is active by luring us towards the good; coaxing us to what is right and true.  

A Conversation

So, perhaps a better analogy for prayer than a widow and a judge would be a child and a loving parent in conversation. I have sat beside my little son’s bed as he lay sick. I have watched him feeling horrible, with a fever. I have fed him the liquid baby Tylenol with the dropper. I talked to him; told him I loved him, told him I was with him. I suffered when he was suffering. When Jesus taught us to pray he said, say, “Our Father,” — prayer is a conversation with a loving parent.  

So, God is not Superman. God is not an apathetic Judge. God is not a concierge service. And prayer is not begging for things we want. God is the Spirit, with us, much like a loving parent, loving us, forgiving us, providing for us opportunities for the next good thing in each moment. Prayer is not begging a reluctant Superman; prayer is a conversation with the God of love, about our deepest longings.

We began by talking about the decline in religious participation in America, especially among the young. I think that at least part of what is going on is an awakening. People are waking up to the inadequate and even intolerable ways of imagining God that they have been raised with. The image of the big, old judge in the sky, handing out punishments, ham-handedly, as in storms, floods, and wildfires on the wicked, and sending sinners to hell is both wrong and misleading.

That image was false, and people aren’t buying it anymore. But they are spiritual; they have an awareness of the goodness and love that surrounds them, even if they are not religious in the traditional sense. Many of them have a longing that they know is spiritual in nature. They respond to the impulse to pray, even if they don’t pretend to understand who or what they are praying to.  All they know is that the God they grew up with hast to be re-imagined.

We can say that they are on a trail that Jesus himself blazed as he re-imagined the Divine and provoked his followers to do so also. We, in church, are religious. We have embraced this religious tradition which has evolved, over the centuries, into the form we have today. We do not claim any ultimacy or superiority to this form. It works for us, but it is not the only way. In the future, it may need to evolve into a different form. But the form is not and never has been the important point. The point is that we have a connection with a God beyond our understanding, who is present for the conversation about our deepest longings. 

The Courage To Be Strange

The Courage To Be Strange

Sermon on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 and Luke 17:11-19 for Oct. 13, 2019, Pentecost 18 C. Audio will be available here for several weeks.

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

If you travel to a foreign country as a tourist, you notice all the differences between our country and theirs, and many are delightful. Different can be interesting, even fun, sometimes delicious. I remember a conference I attended in Northern Italy, the part of that country where they specialize in amazing cream-based sauces that no diet could survive.  

I went to Italy from Croatia where I was living. In Croatia, I was a stranger in so many ways. I dressed like an American, spoke American English, and looked people in the eye with a smile, which they found strange.  

One of the things I found strange — and when my Croatian friends read this, they are going to roll their eyes at my naïveté — was the way Croats saw themselves as so different from Serbs, and vice versa.  

Now, I am not actually naive. I know the significant parts of their histories; I know some of what each side has done to the other, over the centuries; I am aware of their primary grievances.  

Nevertheless, to my stranger’s eyes, they seemed so similar. Their language is the same, with only dialectical differences, their cuisine is substantially the same, their music sounds the same to my ears, and they both think that Americans are being phony when they meet you with a smile, as if you are long-time friends. They even share the same Christian religion, although one side is Orthodox and the other is Catholic, as if that were a big deal.  

But that is how it often is: your biggest disputes are with those most similar to you. Irish Protestants and Catholics, Rwandan Hutus and Tootsies, Pakistanis and Indians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Maybe we should even include middle class suburban American Republicans and Democrats? Ask a Kenyan if they can see the differences.  

Evolved to Survive

But that is what we humans have always done: we evolved and survived because of our propensity to be tribal. That is, however, only half of the story. We also survived because we learned to cooperate. Our tribes were able to grow into huge city-states, and states could grow into empires because unrelated people learned how to work together for common goals. 

But wars were a constant feature along with cooperation. City-states fought other city-states: it was Athens vs. Sparta before they were both simply Greek. Then it was Ottomans vs. Hapsburgs, and later, Greece vs. Turkey. We humans are constantly prone to an “us vs. them” way of looking at the world.  What does our faith have to say about that?

Healing the World

The Jews have an expression in Hebrew: Tikkun Olam. It means “healing the world.” That sums up the goal of Jewish ethics. I believe that is what Jesus was about.  I believe that if his message were heeded today, there would be substantial healing of the world. I believe Jesus came by this perspective honestly; he received it from his Jewish heritage.  

We are going to look at two texts, one from the Hebrew Bible and the other from the Jesus tradition, both of which share in common the theme of strangers. Heeding this teaching, I believe, is one of the keys to healing our world. But a warning is appropriate at the start: this teaching is not the majority view. Heeding this teaching will make anyone who does, a stranger to popular culture. So, heed it at your own risk. This will call for courage.

Jeremiah’s Radical Letter

First, let us look at the text from the prophet Jeremiah. Remember last week: Jeremiah survived the Babylonian Holocaust. He saw the aftermath.  I have walked through bombed-out villages in Croatia where no house had a roof, and most of them had less than four walls still standing. I imagine that the feelings I had then are similar to how Jeremiah felt, seeing and smelling the devastation.  

Many of his compatriots were exiled and were now living in Babylon as strangers. He felt inspired to write a letter to the community leaders. As a prophet, he felt that he was speaking the word of the Lord to them. What would you have advised? 

The natural response would be to advise them to close ranks. Build a ghetto. Stay close; have each other’s backs. Keep the language alive at home; don’t adopt the ways of the pagan Babylonians; keep Kosher. Your wellbeing will be found in keeping distinct and separate, until the day you can get out of that horrible place and go back home to Israel.

But that was not Jeremiah’s prophetic word. That was not the way to “Tikkun Olam” to heal the world. Rather, amazingly he said:

“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

The word translated “welfare” is, in Hebrew, “shalom.” It is a big word. It includes well-being; very much like the Greek eudaemonia, human flourishing, the highest human good, the aim of ethical philosophy. That is what it means to seek the shalom, the welfare of Babylon.  

The reason Jeremiah gives for seeking Babylon’s shalom, is that, he says, in Babylon’s shalom, you will find your shalom. When the world is healed, everyone in it benefits. So pray for Babylon, your enemy’s shalom, for its healing, its highest good, because in its welfare, you will find your welfare.

But humans do not learn this lesson easily. We would rather pray curses down on our enemies than blessings. We may not go as far as the Westboro Baptists, but we can easily imagine whom God ought to hate, on our behalf. Just listen to our politicians describing their political opponents.  

Jesus’ Radical Inclusion

So, Jesus had to teach this lesson all over again. He tried to teach it in word and deed. He was constantly crossing the social boundaries between his in-group and the out-groups of his culture.  

In the scene we read today, Jesus is actually in a kind of border area between solidly Jewish territory and the despised Samaritan’s area. Luke described as “the region between Samaria and Galilee,” setting the story in geographical ambiguity, perhaps even liminality, where weird things happen.  

So something weird happens. Ten lepers get within shouting distance of Jesus and company. Jesus has a reputation; he is a known healer. The lepers need Tikkun, healing. Can you picture it? If you saw the old film Ben Hur, you can imagine it looking like that. They have rags for clothing, they wrap up the skin that leprosy has made ghastly to see. They keep their distance, Luke says, but they cry out for healing. 

So, leaving out lots of details, Luke cuts to the chase and says that Jesus sent them off to the temple. Luke is playing with our expectations here. Jesus was on the way to the temple in Jerusalem, and we all expect that that is the direction the ten trotted off to, when they noticed that their leprosy had indeed, been cured. The Hebrew bible said when you recovered from a skin disease, you needed the priest to sign off on your purity so that you could re-join your community.  

Growing up in church, I have heard countless lessons, on this story, saying that gratitude is what Jesus is teaching. I have probably even taught that myself. One leper returned to give thanks to Jesus for his healing, and he is the good-guy, the  example, and we should all likewise, keep our thank you notes flowing.

That would be the point, if Luke had left out five words. How is the one returning grateful leper described?

And he was a Samaritan.” 

Maybe the equivalent, in our setting, would be something like, “And he was an Iranian.”  

Ah, so now we have to revise our mental picture of the healing story. When Jesus said “go show yourself to the priests”, at least one of them headed off in the direction towards the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim, not towards Jerusalem.  

So, not only did Jesus tell a story in which the “good guy” was a foreigner, just like the parable of the Good Samaritan, he goes even further. Now we realize that Jesus did not specify which temple to go to, when he told them to show themselves to the priests. Did he care? Did he even know that one (or maybe several?) of the lepers were not Jewish? 

We are left to puzzle it out.  The most that we can say, is that Jesus did not raise it as a concern. What he did do, again, is cross the social border; the stranger is the hero.

 Are They Us?

How are we to think of people who are not like us? I just heard, on the news, that several prominent Evangelical leaders are upset about the administration’s decision to pull back troops from Syria. Why? Because many of the Kurds who are now under attack by Turkey, are Christians. Should we only care about other Christians in harm’s way? Is that what Jesus taught?  

What would it look like, for us, if our goal was “Tikkun Olam”, the healing of the world? Who are the people in our context who need healing, instead of other-izing?  Who are the people whose welfare, our welfare is dependent upon?

There are so many. Our American culture is 73

% white, 96% straight, 90% sheltered, meaning we have homes of some kind, over 70% Christian, and 80% of us speak English at home. The people on the minority side of those statistics are therefore strangers to us in those ways. Jeremiah would say that our wellbeing is bound up with their wellbeing; our shalom with their shalom. Jesus would provide healing without asking questions.  

I was just in a meeting of the “Neighbors on the Block” this past week. The downtown social service providers, religious leaders, and police meet each month to share information and learn from each other.  We heard about the homeless people here in Fort Smith. 

We learned that there is only one public toilet in our city. The Next Step Day Room rented a portable toilet for them, but one complaint to the city got it removed. So we live with the unhygienic consequences. Disease does not discriminate. Is my well being bound up with the well being of the homeless? My doctor says it is.  

Many of the homeless, we learned, are mentally impaired. When they get off of their medications, which often happens to unsheltered people, some get violent. Is my wellbeing bound up with the wellbeing of the mentally ill? The Fort Smith police say that it is.  

Courage Required

Are these social issues, or political issues? The New Testament says that we cannot love God whom we have not seen if we do not love our brothers whom we have seen. God takes this seriously. To me, this means that they are spiritual issues.

But if you start flying the flag for the homeless, if you stand up against discrimination of LGBTQ+ people, if you advocate for the mentally ill, expect to be considered strange. There are business interests downtown that want all the human problems to disappear to the other side of the railroad tracks behind the grain silos.  

One of the reasons I love this congregation is that I believe we are a band of courageous people, who are willing to be considered strange, as we reach out to the people on the minority of those statistics. We prepare and pass out sack lunches to people with food insecurity. We prepare and serve healthy, balanced meals for them and breath the air they breath. 

We believe that when we serve “the least of these” as Jesus said, in Matthew 25, we are serving Jesus. He had the courage to be thought strange. We stand with him.  

Faith, In Spite

Faith, In Spite

Sermon for Oct. 6, 2019, Pentecost 17C, World Communion Sunday, on Lamentations 3:19-26 and Ephesians 2:14-18. Audio will be available here for several weeks.

After the destruction of his nation by the Babylonians, Jeremiah pours out his lament to God.

Lamentations 3:19-26.  

The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
   is wormwood and gall!
My soul continually thinks of it
   and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind,
   and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
   his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
   great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,  
   “therefore I will hope in him.”

The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
   to the soul that seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
   for the salvation of the Lord.

Ephesians 2:14-18

For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 

We do not believe in unicorns or fairy tales.  But we do believe in things you cannot see.  We believe in compassion, we believe in courage, and we believe in love.  

We believe in things that we strive for, but know we will never perfectly achieve.  We believe in justice, we believe in fairness, and we believe in equality.

We believe in things that we hold true, in spite of all the evidence against them.  We believe in the presence of the kingdom of God.  We believe in the unity of all people as humans.  We believe in the special unity of all Christians in the Body of Christ.  

There is, we acknowledge, a lot of evidence against those beliefs.  How can the kingdom of God be present, when God’s will is not being done on earth, as it is in heaven?  How can we be essentially one, when there are  so many obvious divisions between us?  How can the church be one body, when we have so many denominations and differences?

The Importance of Lament

This disjunction between what we affirm and what we observe is why it is right to come together with lament, as well as with praise.  Just like Jeremiah, who wept over his destroyed nation, we too mourn for the current conditions we are living in.  We long for better days.  We long for the unity we proclaim on World Communion Sunday.  

I can picture Jeremiah.  He is sitting among the blackened ruins of his beloved city of Jerusalem.  The once-proud temple is a pile of rubble now.  The streets that used to be filled with buyers and sellers, pilgrims and peasants, are now deserted.  Dogs are scavenging for anything edible.  The stench of death is everywhere.   God did not intervene.  

The Babylonian army came in by the thousands.  The Israelites never had a chance.  The siege was long and brutal.  Thousands died.  They ran out of places to bury the dead in the city.  Bodies were cast over the wall into the valley below, lest disease break out.  

In the end, the walls of the city were breached.  In came the Babylonians.  Then the rest of it: the killing, the surrender, the looting and pillaging, the exile of survivors.  It was all that Jeremiah had said would happen, but no one had listened.  

Now he is sitting in the silent ruins, remembering, weeping, and pouring out a lamentation for what has been lost. 

Faith and Hope, In Spite

But Jeremiah believed in things unseen.  He believed in God.  He believed that the last word had not been spoken, the last chapter had not yet been written.  There was going to be, he believed, a “future with hope,” shalom, because God was there with him, weeping with him, suffering with him, experiencing the pain he was experiencing.

So, in the middle of the smoking rubble, in the middle of his lamentation, he was able to say, 

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
   his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
   great is your faithfulness.”

He was right.  The exile came to an end.  The children of the survivors made the long journey back.  They rebuilt the temple and the nation.  Jeremiah’s hope was. not a fantasy, but a confident trust in the God of steadfast love, mercy, and faithfulness.  

How does this help us?  It helps on two levels, I believe: the personal and the public.  

The Personal Level

On the personal level, we have all gone through tragedy.  We have all experienced loss.  We have all had the future we thought we would be living in foreclosed. What are we to do when our fantasy of being in control is exposed as false?  

We heed the ancient wisdom from Jeremiah who said, 

“The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
   to the soul that seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
   for the salvation of the Lord.”

We wait quietly in meditation, allowing the busy, fearful, anxious mind to become quietly centered in the present moment, where God is found.   “Be still, and know” the Psalms tell us.  

The Public Level

On the public level, where there is so much division between people, what wisdom can we learn?  That the last word has not been spoken, the last chapter has not been written; God has a future with hope that we are being lured towards. 

Jesus came proclaiming the presence of the kingdom of God, available to all who had eyes willing to see it and ears open to the message.  From that proclamation emerged communities, house churches.  Mixed groups of Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free people, men and women together, experiencing reconciliation.  

We heard the letter written to these churches, which proclaimed:

“For he is our peace; … he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. …that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”

Our Living Sign

That is the vision we uphold.  That is the unity we seek. That is the future we work for, even if it remains unseen at present.  This is our faith, in spite of everything.  So we welcome everyone into our community without discrimination of any kind.  And by being an inclusive alternative, we are a living sign to the world that reconciliation is possible.  Everyone is welcome at our table, for it is the table of the Lord, in whom we all “live and move and have our being.